The Right Way To The Left Seat

How to realize your dream of becoming a professional pilot

the right way
Local flight schools, training academies and aviation colleges are a few of the paths to becoming a professional pilot. Photo by Phil Derner Jr.

Flying is in the blood of certain individuals. Some of us plan a career in the cockpit from an early age, and we pursue it to the exclusion of everything else. Others keep their aviation goals quietly smoldering, always on a back burner ready to emerge at the right time. For various reasons, they may alight in a different direction, attain career goals outside of aviation and pursue vocational paths that seem far detached from flying. But many of them come back.

However, many who are considering an aviation career have outdated models in their minds as to how to go about making it to the cockpit. Some think that the only path to a pilot career is through the military. Most are also unaware of the many new opportunities that exist in aviation today.

the right way
The position of first officer in the right seat is a stepping stone to the position of captain in the left seat.

The Golden Cockpit
The "golden age" of airline flying is a term that has come to define the period from the postwar 1940s through the late 1970s, when airline flying was an unusually lucrative profession. Those fortunate pilots who "flew the line" back then were regarded on almost the same level as astronauts. Salaries were in the same stratosphere as the jets being flown. Airline pilots flew light schedules that gave them much free time, and end-of-career pensions were like lifetime insurance policies.

The path to those coveted jobs was, almost universally, through the military. Airline pilots were mostly ex-military aviators who had combat experience from WWII, Korea or Vietnam. At that time, the military was training and graduating pilots at an extraordinary rate, and airlines swept them up as fast as they could. Airline travel was growing rapidly; it was a period of unprecedented expansion in all areas of aviation.


the right way
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Things are different today. At this writing, the economy is in an uncertain and difficult state. Fewer airlines exist. Americans travel differently, so regional carriers have become a mutation of the old long-haul airlines. Salaries and pensions have changed with the times, and the military is no longer an appreciable source of airline pilots.

It's important to acknowledge these changes. It would be irresponsible for any article on piloting careers to suggest that the same environment exists today as that experienced by airline pilots decades ago. But although it has changed, a professional pilot career path is still a viable option, whether for a second career or for those who are looking at it for the first time. With perseverance and research, anybody can fulfill his or her dreams of becoming a professional pilot.

A Second Chance
There are many reasons why people choose aviation as a second career path. Topping the list is because flying has always been a dream of theirs. Maybe they put it off to have kids or start a business. Now they're considering it again. All of them started with the simple desire to learn to fly.

Kit Darby, an expert in airline hiring and placement says, "Even with all the changes in pensions and benefits, airline flying is still a worthwhile pursuit." Darby goes on to explain that salaries and benefits remain attractive in the long-term. "Those who stay and become senior are still making a great deal of money," he says. Salaries for entry-level airline pilots reflect the biggest change since the golden years of airline flight.

the right way
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Many More Choices
Anybody looking at aviation as a second career should know that the diversity of professional pilot jobs available today rivals that of decades past, and one of the keys to success in aviation is to open yourself to all the different kinds of flying available.

Regional carriers represent the "typical" pilot career option. It's here that most airline pilots begin their careers since major carriers (JetBlue, Southwest, United, etc.) hire only pilots with considerable experience. Regional airlines are like farm teams for the majors.

Areas that have shown growth in pilot hiring are charter and air taxi operations. These are smaller companies that operate everything from the newest four-seat Cirrus aircraft with glass cockpits to larger turboprops and small jets. These types of operations are "on demand" and carry passengers to locations ranging from vacation resorts to airport hubs for continued travel.

Many corporations boast in-house flight departments charged with transporting their executives to business meetings in a more efficient way than the airlines. These flying opportunities are always changing as businesses experience ups and downs, but corporate flying remains a lucrative piloting choice.

Lesser-known flying opportunities are available in areas such as crop dusting, air ambulance, aircraft delivery and sales for aircraft manufacturers, sightseeing, banner and glider towing, skydiving support, firefighting, traffic watch, aerial photography and film, border patrol, aircraft ferrying, air show support and wildlife observation.


the right way
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Training Paths
Several paths exist for pilot training. Certificates and ratings are the same whether you choose to fly for a regional carrier, an air taxi service or any other commercial operation. While the quality of training is a key element, prospective pilots can choose from several flight-training choices:

• Military.The military has drastically cut the number of pilot slots available each year. Between fewer pilot graduates and longer enlistment commitments required in today's military, the armed forces are simply no longer a major source of pilots. It's a long-term option available to those few who can meet the increasingly tough standards and medical requirements. Military flight training requires a four-year degree.

• Local Flight Schools. These are at almost every general aviation airport across the country. The training received is usually geared toward the casual flier. Small training fleets and few instructors mean possible scheduling conflicts. The quality of instructors varies widely, as does cost. Environments vary from sleepy little airfields with grass runways to large towered airports serving multiple runways (with scheduled airliners mixing with flight school traffic).

• Training Academies. Students are immersed in the flight-training environment at training academies. They're geared only toward professional pilot careers. Academies have large training fleets and standardized courses. These facilities consistently provide top-notch training, and some have been around for decades. Many offer ab initio training from zero time to regional airline qualification in a year or less. The cost is usually high as compared to local flight schools, and the pace is fast and demanding.

• Aviation Colleges. Some universities combine an aviation-related major with flight training. Several of these exist across the country and are excellent training and education options. Although most regional airlines don't currently require a college education, any candidate with a degree---especially in an area related to aviation---will be considered long before one without the degree. See our exhaustive guide to training academies and degree programs in Learn To Fly from P&P March 2009.


Realistic Prospects
It's never too late. Most of the flight academies we talked to told us of students well into their 40s and 50s who are switching careers and pursuing a life in the cockpit. Because many academies can take a zero-time student and get him or her all necessary certificates and ratings relatively quickly, the time required isn't out of the question. Aviation as a second career is a great choice for many people because their experience is directly applicable to a flying job. Airlines and other professional pilot hiring departments want to see that candidates are team players, capable of working effectively with others. Because a pilot career is largely one of customer service, people with experience serving others are a valuable asset to an aviation department. Career switchers should highlight this experience and use it to their advantage.

While domestic airline hiring is down, opportunities exist in the international market. The growth of travel throughout Asian countries is unprecedented, and Asian airlines are training pilots in the United States in record numbers. According to Kit Darby, many international carriers have recently offered all kinds of hiring deals for pilots willing to live outside the United States. "Each deal is different," says Darby, "but it seems worldwide demand remains robust."

The bottom line is that if you've ever dreamed about flying as a career, or if flying runs through your veins and invades your thoughts, now is as good a time as any to pursue a career in aviation. Even in economic turmoil, goods need to be delivered and passengers need to get to their destinations. With flight academies competing for every student, you might even be able to get unheard of deals on your training. It might just be a great time to pursue your dream.

Career Switching 101

There are certain things you can do if you're considering switching to an aviation career. Maybe you already have some flight training or are just starting out. In either case, there are certain basics that will apply to any professional pilot career path.

Research The Profession
Look into salaries, hours, training costs, lifestyle issues and other factors of becoming a pilot. Because the aviation career world has changed so much in recent years, it's important to get the latest, most current information. Separate the myths about pilot careers from the facts.

Get A Medical
The FAA requires that commercial pilots pass a specific type of medical exam performed by an FAA-designated doctor called an aviation medical examiner (AME). It would be wise to take the exam or talk to an AME to root out any potential health issues long before you incur the cost of flight training. It's also a good way to dispel the many medical myths that exist around aviation (like that you must have perfect vision---you don't).

Take Some Flight Training
Most local flight schools offer an "introductory flight" for less than a $100. It's a great way to try aviation and see what it feels like before jumping in with both feet.

Choose The Right Flight School
Choosing the right type of school and the right instructor is the key to success in aviation. Plane & Pilot has many articles available online with lists, tips and instructions for choosing the right flight-training environment.

Review Your Past
Before you even start to pursue a professional pilot job, you need to look at your past. The airlines and FAA certainly will. Issues like past DUIs or controlled-substance offenses need to be identified and dealt with before you pursue a flying job. Airlines want pilots who meet high levels of responsibility, integrity and character. If you have past issues, then you need to address them
before you start training.

Get Transcripts
Start collecting transcripts from high schools, colleges and other educational institutions. Gather academic records, scholarships, awards, career milestones and other important documents. For example, were you an Eagle Scout or did you receive some other recognition? You'll need these records when you start applying for piloting jobs.

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