The Life Of A Pilot

We’re very excited to kick off our very first Life Of A series with Brad, a pilot. I think at one point or another just about every boy has dreamed of flying, but few of us actually achieve that goal. Moreover, so few of us really understand what the life of a pilot is like. It’s such a non traditional career path. Personally, I found these answers to be quite eye – opening, and I hope you do too!

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

When two pilots sit down in the cockpit together for the first time, there’s a standard narrative that takes place.  Where are you from? Married? Kids?  What’s your background (military, civilian, etc.)?  It’s the “where are you from” part of that narrative that often trips me up. I’m an army brat.

My dad was an OV-1 Mohawk pilot in the U.S. Army and flew reconnaissance missions over Vietnam in the late 1960′s. We moved around a lot during my early years and I didn’t have time to grow deep roots.  While most of my family is from a small town in western Oklahoma, I’ve lived in Dallas, Texas for most of my life and feel at home here. I’m married with two teenage daughters and my life outside of work is devoted to my family.  I am proud to be a family guy and won’t apologize for the fact that I don’t have much of a life outside of my role as father and husband.

I’m a Boeing 737-800 First Officer for a major US airline.  It’s laughable that I put it that way. I almost never share the name of my employer, but for those who follow me online or read my blog (currently on hiatus), it is abundantly clear who signs my paycheck. I’ve been with that airline for 15 years now, and as my twitter name suggests (@AAFO4Ever), I feel as if I will be forever stuck in the right seat.  I fly domestically, but we define “domestic” as the continental US, Canada and Mexico, so frequent trips trough customs are part of my weekly routine.

2. Why did you want to become a commercial airline pilot? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I grew up in a family of pilots, but was never pushed in that direction. From the sidelines, I watched my dad walk out the door in his uniform, headed to far off destinations as if he was taking a weekly vacation.  Seattle, Los Angeles, New York – it all seemed so glamorous. I think my family sees my work in a similar light today – like I’m off to spend three days on the beach instead of actually working for a living.

I began to make firm career decisions during high school.  I was a student at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas when I signed up for an Aviation Science class that basically turned out to be a Private Pilot ground school.

The class was taught by the school’s golf coach and visited regularly by a former Braniff pilot who loved aviation and teaching others to fly.  Igniting a love of aviation in young men and women was and still is his passion.  Three at a time, he offered to take each and every one of us up in his own airplane, a beautiful 1966 Cessna 172.  The flight was his personal gift to our class and cost us nothing.

We each got about fifteen minutes at the controls.  Some loved it, some hated it, some got sick and a few showed some natural ability and a desire to take the next step.  After flying with everyone who wanted to go, one person out of the class was chosen and taught to fly for free.

Really it was more of a trade – one hour of his time for one hour of the student’s.  He chose me and I spent the summer mowing my instructor’s lawn, washing his car and learning to fly.  It was a good trade.


3. What is the process like of becoming a pilot? What training is necessary, as well as certifications and examinations?

Basically speaking, there are two ways to become an airline pilot – civilian or military. In either case, there are dues to pay. I took the civilian route, a path that can be time consuming and terribly expensive.  Typically, a pilot starts out by getting a Private Pilot License, a course of study  that requires at least 40 hours of flight time plus ground school, a written exam and a flight with an FAA examiner to test your knowledge and skills. Instrument, Multi-Engine, Commercial and Airline Transport Pilot ratings follow, each with ground school, written exams, flight time requirements and FAA flight reviews.

Current FAA regulations require an applicant to obtain at least 1,500 hours of flight time before qualifying for a job as an airline pilot.  An applicant could easily spend over $100K on pilot training before landing an entry level job paying less than $30K per year.

 4. How do you consider the treatment of pilots by the various airlines?

My personal experience has actually been quite good, but that’s not to say it’s been a smooth ride. I chose my airlines carefully and only applied where I really wanted to work. I chose stable, growing airlines with good reputations and have been generally pleased the results.

That said, the years since 9/11 have not been kind to the airline industry and while management always seems to walk away intact, the employees have taken it on the chin. We have struggled mightily and are just now starting to come out the other side. During times of financial stress, employers can get pretty nasty and tend to treat their employees as line items on the wrong side of the balance sheet.

I do however, like to share the words of Don Carty, then Chairman and CEO of American Airlines… “The greatest sin of airline management of the last 22 years is to say, “It’s all labor’s fault.”  That’s a hard lesson that most airlines haven’t been able to grasp. Some airlines treat pilots better than others, but the truth is that they only treat us as well as the current contract dictates.

 5. What really goes on in the cockpit after take off?

It’s a little cliche and at least partially true, but the life of an airline pilot is filled with long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Ok, “sheer terror” may be a bit of an over statement, but you get the idea.  Pilots are quite busy during the early phases of flight. Most of us truly enjoy flying the airplane, and in spite of popular belief, actually hand fly the airplane during the climb.

I typically hand fly until at least the mid teens and frequently leave the autopilot off until level at the cruise altitude – usually in the upper 30′s. The typical cruise altitude for a Boeing 737 is between 35,000 and 41,000 feet.

During the first ten minutes or so, we are busy raising the landing gear, retracting flaps, running checklists and navigating what can often be complicated departure procedures.  There’s also a lot of communication inside the cockpit and between the pilots and controllers during the initial phases of flight. Naturally, the pace slows the farther we get from the airport and doesn’t get exciting again until we start to prepare for descent and landing.

6. What’s a typical day like in the life of a pilot?

One of the nice things about the job is that two days rarely look the same. I fly at all times of the day and night and often wake up on opposite coasts on the same trip.  A snow storm today, a sunny layover on the beach tomorrow.  Mountains, desert, short runways and long – it’s something different every day. I typically fly three day trips.

On the first day, I leave my house about two hours before departure and arrive at “Pilot Operations” about an hour and a half before the flight is scheduled to depart.  We’re required to sign in electronically one hour prior departure and the company has designed a handy little APP that allows me to do this on my phone. In case you’re wondering, it uses GPS to verify that I’m not only at the airport, but inside security when I attempt to sign in.

The hour prior to departure is pretty busy. I check the weather, Notices To Airman (NOTAMS), departure and en-route plans and examine the maintenance history on the plane I’m scheduled to fly before walking to the gate where I will meet the crew. Once on the plane, I typically “build my nest,” the process of putting all my stuff where I like it, load the flight plan into the Flight Management System, pre-flight the cockpit and perform an exterior inspection of the aircraft.

I usually fly between one and four legs per day and spend as little as 10 or as many as 30 hours on layovers.  While I’m on the subject, layovers are one of the best parts of the job.

I typically bid trips that sign in mid morning and get home by mid morning on the third day, so even though I’m gone three calendar days, I’m often away from home for little more than 48 hours.

7. How has the industry changed over the years?

I’m not an old man, but at age 45, my early memories of airline travel recall coats, ties and dress shoes.  There were hot meals in coach, family and friends met you at the gate when you landed and most everyone treated the pilot with respect.  Today, passengers show up in flip flops and pajama bottoms, the cabin reeks of McDonald’s Happy Meals and the average passenger won’t even make eye contact with the pilot, must less say “thank you” as he exits the plane.

I work longer hours for less pay. My retirement was decimated by bankruptcy. My portion of medical costs have tripled. When I was hired, I was told that I’d be a captain in 5 years…I’m going on 15 now with no upgrade in sight.  It currently takes around 20 years to make captain.  But I still love the job.  (the following is from another blog post) Every line of work has its ups and downs, but as the old saying goes…choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

I have come to realize that my general happiness is largely dependent on expectations…were they or were they not met. When I take my children out to dinner, I am very clear about my expectations regarding their behavior. I want them to sit quietly, eat their food politely and engage in meaningful conversation…the parents out there know that is often a tall order.

If I make my expectations known, then at least everyone is on the same page. If my expectations are not met, then I may not be happy with the evening, but I am still happy and in love with my children.

Our careers are much the same. I had expectations for my career that were not met, at least not on the time line I anticipated.  While I am not happy with this, I still love my job and have difficulty imagining myself doing anything else.

I am sad to say that it is not uncommon to come in contact with other pilots who have forgotten that they have a job they once longed for and worked very hard to get. Maybe their expectations were not met, but it is far too easy to lose sight of all the great things in life, clouded by what could have been better.

8. What is the work/life balance like?

It’s not as bad as you might think. I typically fly three days on, three days off, which puts me on the road for about half the month.  I spend around eight nights a month in hotels and miss many of the dates my wife puts on her monthly wish list.  But I’m also off half the month – and when I’m off, I’m really off.  With the exception of recurrent training, which takes place every nine months, I take little or no work home.

It takes about 30 minutes to get home from the airport, time I need to decompress, and by the time I get home I’ve left it all behind and focus my attention on family. I’m home in the morning when the kids get up. I’m home all day while many of my buddies are at work. I’m home when the kids get home from school and I’m home to put them in bed at night.

The down side is that when I’m gone, I’m really gone.  I don’t get to crawl into my own bed at night and I’m not there to handle the little emergencies that always seem to crop up when I’m gone. My wife has learned to take care of things on her own. There was a steep learning curve at first, but we’ve learned to love the schedule.

9. What’s the best part of your job?

That’s an easy one, the view.  My twitter description states that I’m an “Airline pilot sharing random thoughts and lots of pictures from at or below FL410.”  The view really is the best part of the job and is the thing I would miss most if I had to find another line of work. (I’ve attached a sunset/winglet pic you might like to use. It was taken with my iphone and my not be good enough quality)

10. What’s the worst part of your job?

Missing the important stuff at home. I mentioned earlier that everything is based on seniority, so you might think that 15 years at the company would buy me the days off I want – important ones like Christmas and Thanksgiving – but that isn’t necessarily the case. I started out in the right seat of our smallest jet.

As I gain seniority, I have the option of bidding a larger aircraft and eventually bidding the left seat. But when I move to a larger aircraft, the pilots who are already there will be senior to me.  That puts me at the bottom of the seniority list again – the most junior pilot getting the most junior schedule.

Then when I make captain, I’ll do the same thing all over again. It’s a vicious cycle. Bottom line, I miss a lot of the important stuff.

11. What’s the biggest misconception people have about what it’s like to be a pilot?

That we’re all rich. My starting salary at a large US based regional airline was just over $14,000 per year. After taxes, I brought home less than $1,000 per month. Most of our first officers qualified for food stamps. I worked for that airline for four years before I broke $20K per year and only made $40K per year as a captain. When I moved on to a major airline, I started over at the bottom. Starting salary was about $25K per year.

From there, pay took off quickly. My pay doubled in year two and I was making six figures by year five.  That’s where I hit the wall. After 9/11 and all the pay cuts that have come since, I make slightly more in year 15 than I made in year 5 – and if you adjust for inflation, I make a little less every year.

12. Any other advice, tips, commentary, or anecdotes you’d like to add?

Supposedly, there is a looming pilot shortage on the horizon that will be felt around the world.  It is my humble opinion that there is no shortage of qualified pilots, just a shortage of people willing to pay upwards of $100,000 in training costs to get a job that pays $25,000 per year.

The shortage is already evident in other countries and is beginning to affect the US regional airlines as well. It’s a great job for those willing to put up with the ups and downs, but the business model will have to change.

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