If you love airplanes but are unsure if being a pilot is for you, like Heinz soup, there are 57 varieties of great aviation careers that are every bit as important and interesting.
Did I say 57 varieties? There are probably over 57 different kinds of aviation technicians alone! How d’ya choose one? And what if ‘ya find ‘ya hate it? Let’s start by illustrating the short-sighted public perception of aviation: To most people aviation consists of pilots and air traffic controllers. The End.
Boy are people that think that in W0X0F1 conditions!
OK. let’s get the pilot thing out of the way first so we can move on to the bajillion other aviation careers available. We all know there are pilots but what you may not realize is that there are very different kinds of pilots. There are business pilots, airline pilots, charter pilots, medical transport pilots, bush pilots, instructor pilots, military pilots, agricultural pilots, aerial photography/cartography pilots and the list would continue to the bottom of this page if we let it. But ask a flier who has been a pilot in two or more of these categories if being a pilot in one category is the same as flying in another, the answer would be a resounding “NO!” Flying for the airlines is vastly different than flying for a private corporation which is vastly different than flying as a charter pilot. It’s almost as different when jumping from being one kind of pilot to another as it is changing your job as a pilot to a job as a non-pilot. What makes each category different is way beyond the space available in this article but suffice it to say, there are airline pilots who hated it and quit and became corporate pilots and loved it (and vice versa).
Right now there are 58,100,000 employed in the aviation industry worldwide. With 7,391,000,000 people on planet Earth, we can infer that 1 out of every 127 people you see on the street work in aviation.2
You are well aware that some of the aviation job categories such as pilots and air traffic controllers require holding a medical certificate. But what if you love aviation and cannot pass the medical exam or are working in one of the areas requiring one then, unfortunately, lose it due to poor health? Fear not. There are bucket loads of other support jobs that would enable you to remain in aviation. Dispatchers, mechanics, avionics technicians, operations management, and instructors are all areas that someone who cannot pass the physical exam can enter and the bonus is that these jobs usually pay very well.
One of the features of working for an airline is the travel benefits. For this reason, many are quite willing to work in support areas such as clerical, publications, cleaning, ramp operations and customer service so they can enjoy worldwide airline travel. A word of caution here, however: Look at all the benefits offered by one company versus another and not just its travel benefits. Some airlines’ travel benefits are essentially in “name only” and are offered with lots of strings attached.
Maybe you just like being around airplanes and managing an airport would fit your lifestyle. These jobs are stable and decently compensated because they are tied to city or county bureaucracies. Not all airport manager jobs will blind you with benefits, however. There do exist some smaller airports where the airport manager is only a part-time gig. In some cases that manager is provided a trailer on the airport property to live in as part of the “compensation package.” Obviously is takes a very special set of circumstances for such an arrangement to be attractive to someone seeking a professional aviation career.
Federal jobs abound in aviation. Working for the FAA as an inspector or the NTSB as an investigator is a most interesting job. The pay is good and the benefits are…well… why do you think taxes are so high? Every state has its own department of transportation and state civil service jobs are plum ways to earn a living. Ordinarily when state aviation jobs are advertised applicants are judged on a merit system and ranked by points awarded for their credentials and experience. The highest ranked person gets the job.
One of the fastest growing aviation fields today is medical air transportation. In addition to bountiful fixed-wing and helicopter pilot opportunities, there are deep shortages for fliers as well as flight nurses, paramedics, and dispatch people. On the up-side there are bajillions of medical transportation companies sprouting up everywhere so if you’d like to live in a more remote or smaller community, the odds are great that a job will sprout up there. Do a search on the Internet and you will find little one-horse towns everywhere looking for people to run their medical flights. In addition to transporting people who are sick or injured to regional medical centers, there are many medical support companies that are in the business of providing transplant organs, blood and tissue to hospitals. When an organ becomes available and someone somewhere needs it, somebody has to fly that organ to wherever it is needed so the pressure is on and the stress high. It is no surprise that the turnover is high too but the pay is very, very good.
Who hasn’t dreamed of flying a super-cool military fighter jet? If you can qualify, you can. But the military also has many of the same airborne needs as any airline: dispatchers, aviation meteorologists, mechanics, and avionics to name a few. A military pilot may never set foot in a fighter jet. In fact, the military flies passenger transports aircraft such as the Boeing 737 (called a C-40A when in military use) as well as many specialty aircraft that remains hush-hush. One fighter pilot remarked to this writer that he loved getting out of the fighter squadron to fly transport in the Air Force’s C-9A (also known as a McDonnell Douglas DC-9). He said it was “shirt sleeve flying” and a nice change from flying in bulky pressure suits and helmets. Other than all the brass regalia worn by his passengers it sounded pretty much like a corporate flying job.
So how do you decide which direction to go? First realize that it’s not always about the money you’ll make. Countless people are work at jobs paying obscenely high amounts of money, but they hate every morning they wake up. So figure out what you’d LOVE doing. Think about the jobs you’ve considered in the past and the ones advertised in the newspaper that you passed over because you couldn’t see yourself doing such-and-such day in and day out. It may take some time…weeks or months or even years to finally realize what you truly enjoy doing. As the saying goes, “do what you love, love what you do.”
Next, take an honest look at yourself and decide what you want and don’t want from a job. If you hate the idea of being away from your family on weekends, overnights and holidays corporate aviation might not be your thing. But if you like lots of time off and a very good paycheck, you might decide that you can “suck it up” and celebrate Christmas with your family on a different day than December 25th. Sometimes tradeoffs counter-balance the liabilities of an occupation.
If your interests or situation changes don’t be afraid to try something different. There are many aircraft mechanics who grew tired to turning a wrench and segued into the training department of an airline. Who better can explain the systems of an aircraft than a mechanic who used to work on them? Or perhaps you tire of the cubical-centric sedentary lifestyle of a dispatcher and decide you’d prefer to be out in the sunshine on the ramp, guiding in aircraft and seeing just how much abuse passenger luggage can take.
It is said that the average person changes careers at least 3 times during their lifetime. So consider what you think you may enjoy doing and try it. People who love their work often say they learned to like even the parts they once hated. They might not like something but they love their job and know that that “something” is part of what they love. If you find you really like it you will advance nicely. If you discover you hate everything about it, you eventually will probably notice everyone but you is being promoted. Disdain is hard to hide from your employer. Give yourself a break, admit you don’t like it and try something else. After all, guys like Howard Cosell, Tony LaRussa, and Jerry Springer decided after becoming lawyers that they liked other things better. And so can you.
Footnotes and Sources:
1 This is an aviation weather term, translated it means an indefinite ceiling at ground level but they can’t be sure because the ceiling is obscured and the visibility is zero in fog.