Choosing a career as a pilot requires dedication and patience but provides immense self-satisfaction, pride in accomplishment and professional respect.
Before I finally became a career pilot by landing a job at an airline I had nearly worn my fingers into bloody nubs filling out job applications. With naiveté, I believed I was one of only a handful of people wanting to be an airline pilot. When I finally got The Call, the whole airline interview process took five days spread over a 2 month time period; written exams, physicals, psychological interviews, panel interviews, a simulator check-ride and some things that I have probably blotted-out. Somehow, some way I fooled ’em and actually got hired! Since the process spanned many days I had time to meet other pilots who worked there. While talking to one of them, I expressed my frustration about how long it took for the airline to call me in (I’d been sending applications out for nine years!). He smiled and said, “We need to take a walk up to the pilot recruitment office on the second floor” and off we went. Entering the office he said to the secretary, “Linda, will you show him the resume room?” She ushered me into a room in which resumes and pilot applications were stacked in a pile that probably measured 10 feet long by 4 feet wide by 4 feet high. Yowza!
Well that was then and this is now. We’re hearing a lot about a pilot “shortage” these days. For every job advertised a human resources department typically receives 100 to 500 applications. So let’s talk reality: There are still plenty of applicants for the really good flying jobs. The bottom- feeder jobs are the ones that they’re having a hard time filling.
Always bear in mind that the competition is there and something for which you’ll have to figure out strategic counter-measures. It’s all part of the “dance” of becoming a career pilot.
Recipe for a Becoming a Career Pilot
There are no silver bullets assuring you of a career as a pilot but there are things that will enhance your chances of it.
Although it’s a given, you must have the credentials. A commercial license and instrument rating is pretty much the bare-bones minimum that you need to be taken seriously as an applicant. There are rare instances in which you can get a flying job with less. In fact, there are programs throughout the world called, “ab initio” programs whereby you’re accepted without any license nor experience and they mold you into the pilot they want. You are essentially going to school full-time, possibly receiving a small stipend and the company trains you. Obviously such companies want something in return for their investment requiring signing a training contract in which you agree to work for them for x-number of years until the contract is paid off.
Not all companies require captain’s credentials to be hired. Even if a private company owns an airplane requiring a type rating, you may still be hired to fly as a first officer/co-pilot. You will gain experience and when the time comes for you to upgrade and move over to the left seat as the captain, you’ll be well-seasoned and familiar with the aircraft which makes the transition easier.
When trying to become a career pilot, you may experience something a little frustrating along the way. When you get your commercial license and appear as a job applicant, they may tell you, “Gee, we need a pilot but you don’t have an instrument rating.” So you bonsai to a flight school, get your instrument rating, return and then are told, “Gee, we’d like to hire you but you need an ATP.” So you accumulate 1,500 hours and back to the flight school you go to get your ATP. Now their answer is, “Gee, we wish you had a little more time…we need 3,000 hours for our insurance requirements.” Or “Gee, we wish you were typed in our aircraft.” Or “Gee, we wish you were the owner’s son-in-law who he hired to be our new co-pilot.” Don’t let such flexing hiring minimums discourage you.
Get your commercial / instrument and keep knocking on doors. You will eventually find someone for which you are perfectly suited. Aerial photography / cartography companies often do not require an instrument rating but the commercial license is a regulatory “have to.”
It usually helps to acquire as many licenses and ratings as you can, even if they are superfluous to the kind of career as a pilot you seek. Even though you may want to find a corporate flying job, the hiring manager will be favorably impressed if you also hold a flight instructor’s certificate because it indicates a more serious commitment to your career as a pilot than meeting only minimum qualifications. (A CFI certificate also opens up many doors to be an instructor or check airman at an airline, simulator training center or work for the FAA as an inspector/examiner).
Another of the qualities that will help you become a career pilot is good judgment. When you get your FAA medical certificate you’ll answer a question about traffic violations. The connection between traffic violations and pilot judgment is pretty easy to figure out. Though judgment is something that cannot be taught, it is something you formulate from learning and experience. As a job applicant continually take stock of the things you say and do that might indicate poor judgment, then eliminate them! Don’t bring a parent to a job interview. Don’t drop off a resume wearing something offensive. You get the idea. Think about how the total “you” is being perceived by the person who will make the decision to allow you responsibility for lives, aircraft (valued perhaps in the MILLIONS of dollars) and the reputation of a company that can dissolve in an instant when a pilot makes a boneheaded judgment.
Flying skills are important and this doesn’t mean only how many hours you have in your logbook. If you are given an opportunity to demonstrate your piloting abilities in an airplane or a simulator it is more important to demonstrate care, accepted procedures, unwillingness to take short-cuts, planning, and preparation. Give yourself plenty of time to get setup for whatever you’re going to do. For instance, don’t start an approach before you’ve had a chance to study the chart. Your ILS approach may be shaky but when you saw that it had become unstable, you declared a missed approach, followed the missed approach procedure then requested to do it again. THAT’S what they want to see. They’re not looking for you to demonstrate what a hot dog pilot you are. Applicants with thousands of flight hours are rejected all the time over those with far less time because of simple judgment calls that they blew.
Maturity and attitude go hand-in-hand and are very important ingredients in our recipe for becoming a career pilot. Controlling a large mass traveling at high speed, often in bad weather conditions, is not the time to act flippant. The National Transportation Safety Board investigates aircraft accidents and sadly their files contain instances of pilots acting immaturely and negligently. When you arrive for an interview you are being watched perhaps even by the secretary. You do not want a good interview performance to be sabotaged by the secretary’s report to the boss that you waited outside his office playing with a yo-yo.
The interviewer will be listening to your word choices although it might seem it’s just an innocuous dialogue. So don’t talk like you would with a buddy over a beer. This is serious business with high stakes and your conduct is an indicator of your maturity.
No matter how horrible your present job is, you do not want to leave the interviewer with the impression that you are an ungrateful crybaby who hates everything and everybody. Be positive, period. Remember too that if you’re hired you’ll be spending many hours sitting alongside the other pilot and if you’re cranky and obnoxious it will make for some very, very long flights. Hiring managers like to hire pilots who will get along with other pilots because they know about the intimate nature of long hours in the cramped space of a cockpit.
Making friends and staying in touch with colleagues is good networking. Most corporate flying jobs are never advertised and the only way to learn of them is word-of-mouth. Similarly, keep your ear to the ground. If you hear that XYZ Corporation will be buying a second airplane in the next year, make your presence known. Put on a nice suit, drop off a resume then do it again 2 or 3 months later ostensibly because you’ve “updated” your resume.
Career pilot jobs occur due to timing, opportunity, and need. Sometimes you have to make your own opportunities; maybe even sell yourself. Fatefully being in the “right place at the right time” never hurts but this is pure chance and hard to predict. I once had an opportunity to fly because a well-known rock group’s pilot became ill after arriving in my town. I was standing at a vending machine at an FBO and heard the other pilot ask the counter person if she knew of any pilots with a multi-engine rating that could fill in for a couple days? I approached him and even though it was a temporary job, I was able to earn some money and add experience in an aircraft I had never flown.
It’s not always easy to build a career as a pilot. But with tenacity, initiative, desire and attitude you will get there. The reason pilots and doctors are respected is because it’s not easy to become one. In both cases, the respect is earned and if you stick with it, you will be well-compensated and feel an enormous sense of pride in what you do.