Thursday, December 29, 2005

Menzies Strikes Again!

Those of you who've read this blog know that I'm not a big fan of contracting ramp service out to Menzies. Besides the incident that I wrote about, many of my airline's crews have experienced problems with Menzies in LA, and there have been a number of incidents on the Seattle ramp since our sister company fired all their SEA rampers to replace them with Menzies.

Thus far, Menzies' damage in Seattle has been confined to screwing up the operation, making the company lose important seafood cargo contracts, "tagging" the baggage holds with graffiti, getting into a gang fight on the ramp, and a few dented airplanes. But now they've finally managed to screw up bad enough to put passengers at risk.

You can read the whole story at this link, but here's what basically happened. A Menzies ramper backed a bag loader into an MD80 but didn't tell anyone. The MD80 took off for Burbank and lost pressurization while climbing through FL260, forcing a return to SEA. After landing, a 12" x 6" gash was found in the lower fuselage. Upon questioning, the ramper fessed up and claimed that he didn't even see a dent after he hit the airplane. The company got a damaged airplane, negative publicity, and unwanted attention from the FAA - but hey, Menzies is saving them money!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Merry Christmas to All...

...And to all a good flight!

Back from MN and back to the grindstone tomorrow. As I finish up the Flying Careers series, I'll get around to some updates on my flying over the past few months. Erm, what I remember anyways. I've been flying a lot so it all kinda blends together!

Flying Careers Part 8: Job Stability (heh)

If job stability is very high on your list of priorities, aviation is not the field for you. It's a cliché, but the one constant in this industry is change, and that goes for employment as a pilot too. It's pretty rare for a pilot to go through a whole career without at least one furlough, liquidated employer, firing, medical hangup, or FAA problem. The key is to realize it will happen to you, and be ready for it by being flexible in your plans.

Getting Furloughed

When airlines have too many pilots for the scheduled flying, they furlough the excess pilots. While many union contracts contain a "no-furlough" clause, most also contain an exception for "extraordinary circumstances" that essentially gives the company carte blanche. Currently, the following major carriers have thousands of pilots on furlough: American, ATA, Delta, Northwest, United, USAirways. Several regionals have also recently started furloughing in response to reduced flying from bankrupt parents; Mesaba and Comair are two of them.

At unionized companies, furloughing is done by seniority, starting at the bottom of the list and working its way up. Recall is done in the reverse order, with the most senior furloughees being recalled first. Companies may offer voluntary furloughs or leaves of absence so the furloughs don't go so deep. Unions sometimes ask their pilots to not pick up extra flying so that recalls come sooner, but it's a sad fact of life that many senior pilots will happily screw over their furloughed "brothers" for an extra couple bucks.

Furloughed pilots may retain some benefits, such as partial health care coverage or non-rev travel benefits.

Finding another flying job while on furlough can be tough. Nobody wants to invest money in your training if they know you'll likely return to your former carrier. Many companies require furloughed newhires to give up recall rights at their former employer. Of course, you'll start at the bottom of the seniority list at your new carrier. Many pilots leave flying altogether while on furlough, taking up jobs from real estate to bartending. A few find themselves making better money in the "real world" and pass up recall opportunities when they arise. For most, though, furlough is a major financial challenge that causes them and their families a lot of stress. Given the odds of a furlough at some point in your career, it behooves one to start planning for that eventuality early on.

Losing Your Job

Furloughs are mostly unique to airlines, particularly unionized operations. For other jobs, if your employer decides they don't need you, they'll simply let you go. Corporate flying for small companies is infamously unstable in this regard: when financial troubles hit, the company plane (and pilot!) is the first thing to go. Most instructing and freight flying is also "at-will employment." In some ways, though, losing your job is preferable to being furloughed, since you can collect unemployment and you don't carry the furloughee stigma when looking for a new job.

Of course, even unionized employees with furlough mechanisms in place will lose their jobs if their employer goes completely belly-up. It's happened a number of times in the past 20 years, with Braniff, PanAm, and Eastern. The release of thousands of experienced pilots into the job market made it very hard to get hired in the early 1990's. With numerous airlines floundering through the bankruptcy courts, there is a good chance that at least one will liquidate in the next five years with similar results.

Getting Fired

Losing your job due to a financially troubled employer carries no stigma when looking for another job. Getting fired, however, can be a major blow to one's career. You'll have to explain it in future interviews, and convince potential employers that they should take the risk of hiring someone that another company found unfit to work for them.

As an instructor, the following may get you fired: anti-social behavior towards students or coworkers; poor student pass rate; wrecking an airplane; your student wrecking an airplane; refusing to sign off a poor student for their checkride; refusing to fly unairworthy aircraft. Obviously, these firings are not created equal, and I'd wear the latter two as a badge of honor. The unairworthy aircraft issue has actually got quite a few pilots fired from entry-level jobs. Drop zone aircraft in particular are notoriously ratty. But even given an unjustified firing, finding the next job might be tough, and you'll need to explain what happened in all future interviews.

Once you move up in the aviation world, getting fired becomes increasingly serious. At the freight dog level, there are still operators that push their pilots on airworthiness or weather, so an unjustified firing is possible. But in general, at FAR 135 and 121 operators you have to do something pretty stupid to get yourself fired. The exception is during your probationary year at an airline. During that first year, the airline can fire you for any reason and the union won't make a peep.

Most probationary firings are due to unsatisfactory progress during initial training or IOE. If this happens, it's not the end of the world, especially if it's at your first regional. Get some more experience before applying to another airline and then during interviews be candid about why you weren't ready the first time and what you've done to make sure you're ready this time.

After probation, you have to mess up badly to get fired, particularly at unionized carriers. Gross incompetence resulting in a dinged airplane will do the trick; a long string of unsat training events will too. Occasionally some doorknob gets fired for sexual harrassment or brawling with coworkers. Any of these kinds of firings will guarantee an early retirement from the aviation field, other than perhaps Nigerian B707 freight dog jobs.

Losing Your Medical

As I mentioned in Part 7, a flying career can really take a toll on one's health. Even if you manage to get proper nutrition and exercise, flying on the backside of the clock can take years off a pilot's life. Few international pilots seem to consistently get the rest their bodies need.

Of course, perfectly fit and rested people get sick all the time. It's pretty common to have a cold or flu ground you for a few days. That's what sick time is for. More serious is chronic illness or disease that results in you losing your FAA medical.

A few things will ground you more or less permanently. Chronic heart disease, stroke, epilepsy, or diabetes are a few. If your vision deteriorates to the point that it cannot be corrected to 20/20, that's also disqualifying. Many problems, however, are temporary. A pilot will be grounded while undergoing treatment for cancer, for example, but will likely be able to obtain a medical once given a clean bill of health.

Other than doing your best to stay healthy, there are a few things you can do to prepare for potential medical problems. Pay attention to your company's short term and long term disability benefits, and ensure that your coverage is adequate. Use a FAA medical examiner that you trust to help you handle any problems that come up. AOPA offers an excellent medical consultation service to it's members. If you're an ALPA member, you'll find your dues to be money well spent if you ever have a medical problem, as they have been instrumental in working with the FAA to return grounded airmen to the skies as quickly as possible. They also offer loss-of-medical insurance.

Getting Busted

If you fly Part 91 out of uncontrolled airports, your visits to the medical examiner's office will probably be your sole contact with the FAA. Good for you. Unfortunately, most of us are in the fishbowl day in and day out, with a pleothera of potential screwups to bring the wrath of Big Brother down upon us. For starters, there's air traffic control. Although a pretty decent lot, they are employed by the FAA, and under obligation to report anything that appears to be a violation of regulations. Altitude busts and runway incursions will definately get you dinged. Every once in a while you'll find a fed riding your jumpseat or conducting a ramp check. Even though you can't see them, you can be sure the FAA is occasionally auditing your flight paperwork. Improperly done weight & balance forms have come back to haunt pilots months after the fact.

Sanctions can range from a letter of counsel placed in your FAA file for a few years to a temporary certificate suspension to a certificate revocation. Using a NASA ASRS form may spare you from having the punishment being carried out, but it will still be on your record. Getting a future job will be problematic if you have a revokation or serious suspension on record. Any incident that gets you fired and brings down the wrath of the FAA (wrecked airplane?) is career ending.

One solution is to fly every flight as though the FAA is watching over your shoulder. When they actually are, it'll be no problem. That said, even the most conscientious pilots mess up, occasionally while someone is looking. This is one time that working for a unionized carrier (particularly ALPA) can be a huge help. They have lengthy experience in representing airmen during brushups with the FAA. A fairly recent development is the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP). This program, implemented at individual operators, offers pilots significant protection from FAA action in return for voluntarily submitted aviation safety reports. I've talked to pilots at airlines that have ASAP, and the reaction is uniformly positive.

It's possible to obtain loss of license insurance (through ALPA, among others) although I personally don't feel it's neccessary.


In closing, aviation is a dynamic industry that doesn't lend itself towards job stability. As you weigh an aviation career, keep that in mind. If you do choose to go into aviation, have a backup plan and remain flexible in your career goals. And when it does happen to you, take heart in knowing that it's happened to many before you, and they made it through - so can you.

Next Up: Getting Started, from First Flight to First Job

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Dusty Cardboard Box

Dawn and I are back in Minnesota at my folks' place for Christmas. This morning, my mom asked me to sort through several boxes of stuff that she'd saved from my childhood, and had been languishing in the basement for years. She'd saved a lot of stuff (chalk it up to being the firstborn...) so it made for a long, dusty job. Most of it I ended up throwing away, but there were some pretty neat discoveries.

I came across a booklet that I made for a second-grade assignment. It was supposed to be about yourself, your family, etc. One of the questions was, what would you like to be when you grow up? My answer, in 7-year old's scrawl, was "I want to be an airplane pilot."

Until seeing that book, I didn't realize that my dream extended back that far. Early in life I was obsessed with trains, and there was a good half-box of crude train drawings to prove it. I'm not sure why my interest switched to planes, since in second grade I had never flown. I actually didn't fly until I was 11 years old, at which point interest became addiction. I've never lost my love of flight since, and I hope I never do.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

An Exercise in Futility

PDX to PDX with 30 mins holding over BOI
Departed 20DEC 0051 PST
Arrived 20DEC 0320 PST

Boise was below minimums as early as 10pm, but the powers that be didn't feel like taking our advice. So much for the fuel conservation program - we burned lots of fuel for nothing last night!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Gone Skiing

We've had excellent early season snow conditions here in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Hood Meadows, for example, already has a 115" base at mid-mountain. Mt. Hood Skibowl, with a much lower base elevation (3500') is already open - in fact, I went night-skiing there last weekend and they had about 3 feet of powder. Today I have a 2-for-1 voucher at Skibowl but couldn't find anyone to go with me, so I'll just head up there & scalp the extra ticket off. Such is the life of a cheapskate skibum...

In other news, I'm sure everyone has heard about the Southwest crash at MDW. Apparently the plane was landing on 31C while it was snowing fairly hard (1/2 mile vis) and ran off the end, through a fence, and onto Central Avenue. One young boy (not a passenger) was killed, making this the first fatal crash at a US major airline in over 4 years. I think my buddy Glenn would tell you that 6500' is a fairly tight runway for a 737 under normal conditions; with a contaminated runway, everything needs to be done just right. I'm not saying this to absolve the pilots of blame, just to preempt the inevitible comparisons to Southwest's Burbank accident.

Incidently, I once watched a 727 come within inches of taking out that fence on takeoff at MDW. Must've been pretty heavy!

Update: It was a gorgeous day here in the Pacific Northwest, and the snow was perfect. An excellent day to go skiing!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Flying Careers Part 7: Lifestyle

Lifestyle is a pretty all-encompasing subject. I'm just going to hit some high points and write what you can expect in some of the more common jobs. Note that some of the less common jobs may offer more of what you're looking for; as an example, if you'd rather fly like crazy for 6 months and then have 6 months off, aerial firefighting is perfect for you. Other examples about; it's just to avoid the more typical aviation lifestyles I'm about to write about, you may have to think outside the box.

Work Schedule

As a new CFI, your work schedule is pretty dependent on your students' needs. If they can only fly on weekends, don't plan on having weekends off. If it's July and your student needs some night cross-country instruction, you'll be out flying until the wee hours of the morning. As a general rule, the more "institutional" the school is, the better chance you have at a semblance of a M-F/9-5 schedule. Full time students are less likely to need to fly on the weekends or after work. At a smaller FBO, you may well work six days a week and simply have a lot of downtime on weekdays.

Some of the alternative starter jobs provide a more consistent schedule. Traffic watch tends to be a M-F job with set hours (during rush hour!). Dropzones are busiest on weekends, and many shut down completely during the week. The same goes for banner towing operations.

Should you choose to fly Part 135 once you have enough time, the schedule really depends on the kind of operation you fly for. At smaller charter outfits, you'll be tied to a pager 24/7; at bigger operations you may bid a schedule based on seniority, airline-style. If you fly for a scheduled freight op that hauls cancelled checks, your schedule matches the banks': Monday through Friday with banking holidays off. For small package feeder service, schedules tend to me Mon-Fri or Tues-Sat.

Corporate pilots, like charter pilots, are infamous for being married to their pagers. You fly when the big-wigs are ready to fly. On the other hand, larger corporate flight departments as well as fractional carriers tend to have set schedules, often with airline-style bidding systems.

At regional, national, and major airlines, you bid every month for your schedule based on seniority. Some airlines have preferential bid systems, where you specify which days you would like to work and which you want off, and these are awarded in order of seniority. Others have "hard lines" build by crew planning and subsequently bid for by seniority. There will be both regular lines and reserve lines, and a variety of schedules (weekends off vs weekdays off). Of course, weekends off go senior, and reserve lines go junior. The weekends-off reserve lines can go either way; sometimes crappy regular lines will regularly go junior to better reserve lines.

Many airlines have multiple aircraft types, with larger types meriting higher pay; this adds to the schedule vs pay choices available. Bidding up to a larger aircraft while still junior may increase your pay, but you'll be stuck on reserve and working weekends when you could have a weekends-off regular line in a smaller aircraft. The same choice goes for captain upgrades. At regional airlines, it's usually a no-brainer: upgrade ASAP for the turbine PIC time. If you're at the airline you want to retire at, though, it's not such a rush. You may choose to sit in the right seat until you'd be able to hold a decent line as a Captain.

The lines do tend to vary in the number of days they have off. Because they're usually built to the same number of block hours, the more efficient lines have more days off. At Horizon, regular lines have between 13 and 17 days off per 35 day bid period (reserves have 12 off). Some regionals allow for as little as 8 days off per month. Most major and national airlines build their lines as efficiently as possible, and their schedules are built to less block hours than the regionals', so they get more days off - 14 to 18 days per month is typical.

Time Away from Home

"Airline flying would be a great job if it weren't for all the travel," goes the old joke. And flying, airline flying in particular, does involve a lot of time away from home. Just how much can vary quite a bit, though.

Lines can be built with daytrips, overnight trips, or three or four day trips. Many international trips are even longer, although lines containing these tend to have a lot of days off. How long the company tends to build it's trips largely depends on how much extra they have to pay the crew to do so. This is where trip rigs are very important, as I mentioned in my pilot pay posting. A 4:1 trip rig allows the company to keep you away from home for 24 hours for only 6 hours' pay; they'll probably get that much flying out of you anyways. A 3:1 trip rig, however, would pay 8 hours of credit for the same 24 hours, making it more likely that the company will minimize overnights. Lots of overnights also cost the company money for per diem and hotel expenses, so any pay rig under 4:1 will usually result in shorter trips, and more nights at home. For any airline you're considering flying for, check the pay rigs and ask line pilots what kind of time they spend away from base. I'd say that under 250 hours per month is good, 300 is average, and 350+ is bad. At Horizon, most of our lines are in the 350-430 hrs/month range.

Of course, if you are commuting to your base, you'll tend to favor longer trips since you'll get a free hotel room rather than paying for a crashpad or hotel bed in your own base. If you are a commuter, 4-day trips are your friend. Add in the time spent commuting, and you're probably looking at 500+ hours away from home per month. As I'll discuss later, commuting is a really bad idea if you value time at home.

Most non-airline jobs are quite a bit better. It's rare that a flight instructor spends a night away from home, and many freight dogs are home every night (or every day, for the nocturnal fliers). Fractional pilots fly similar trips to airline pilots; the corporate side varies a lot. On the other side of the coin, international contract pilots and aerial firefighters may spend several months away from home at a time.

Life on the Road

Like many other things in this career, road life is what you make of it. Lots of people really hate it, but others have a lot of fun with it. There are many crewmembers that, upon arriving at the hotel, go straight to their rooms and aren't seen until the next morning for the van ride to the airport. We call these "Slam-Click" crews, and they seem, to me at least, to be the ones that whine the most about being away from home. The truth is that if you make an effort, you can often find something fun or interesting to do on layovers - particularly if you have a good crew. Sometimes you'll make plans to go out to eat or for drinks, or just meet in the hotel bar for happy hour. Often there will be a mall or movie theater near the hotel, or public transportation to go explore the surrounding area. With a little planning, some layovers can be really memorable. Recently a friend of mine rented a sailboat in Eureka, CA, and took his crew sailing at sunset on the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, not every layover is fun and games. Often they are short overnights or they come at the end of long, exhausting days, and nobody is in the mood to do anything. The hotels do all start to look like each other. If you have a spouse and/or kids at home, that makes things tougher. Sometimes you can barely work up the motivation to go eat a stale sandwich at the hotel restaurant, much less do something fun or productive. I find that the best antidote is simply forcing myself to get out of the hotel, even if it's just a walk around the neighborhood. Many crewmembers cope by working out in the hotel's fitness room, which helps compensate for some of the health effects of this job.

One note about partying on layovers: there was once a day when this was the norm, and everyone would show up for work the next day hung over. Today random testing, increased FAA vigilence, and stricter company policies have put a damper on not only the excesses but more moderate drinking as well. A lot of people have been stung, even when they were abiding by FAA and company policies. So if you do drink on a layover, you'd be well advised to keep it in moderation and observe the following rules: do not pay by credit card, particularly in the hotel you're staying at; do not tell anyone you are an airline employee; do not leave alcohol containers in your room; if you're in a crewmember's room, keep the volume LOW! In other words, be discrete and use common sense.

Family Life

Airline life is notoriously hard on marriages and family life. Not only will you be gone for a lot of time, you'll be gone on important holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. There are some things you can do to help such as not upgrading or transitioning to larger aircraft until you can hold a good line, but this isn't a perfect solution - it may well put money stress on the family.

One solution is to forgo airline life altogether. There are many aviation jobs that are much better for keeping a pilot home. Or, if you must go the airline route, but family is important to you, choose carefully.


One of the supposed benefits to flying for an airline is the ability to live somewhere other than where you are based. One would suppose that a Newark-based pilot would want to live anywhere but Newark. The thing is, commuting causes as many problems as it solves. Let's consider an easy commute, from Denver to Chicago. There are four airlines that fly between these city pairs (UA, AA, F9, ATA), with flights leaving nearly every hour. The flight itself takes only 2 hours. Give yourself an hour for check-in and security at Denver, and we're talking a 3-hour commute, right?

Well, both Denver and Chicago are pretty prone to weather delays in all seasons, so you'll want a flight that arrives a good two hours before your check-in time in Chicago. Plus, most airlines' commuter policies require a backup flight, so now we're looking at getting to Denver a good 6 hours before your checkin time in Chicago. Of course, if you have an early show time, you'll need to fly in the night before and get a hotel room or use a crashpad. If you get done with work late at night, you'll have to wait for the first flight out of the morning. If the weather is particularly bad or the loads are heavy, you may find your easy commute taking a whole 24 hours on each end. If you have two days off between trips, it might hardly be worth coming home for.

Long-time commuters are typically eager to give the newhire a word of advice: Don't commute. I won't go so far as to say don't, but the truth is that every aspect of airline life that sucks, commuting makes worse. Consider the cost before you take the job.

The best solution is to find a job that will base you somewhere that you'd like to live, or at least wouldn't mind. Of course, for someone working their way up to the majors, this will entail a number of major moves over the years.


For as much research that's been done into pilot fatigue, and all the accidents that happened because the pilots did sometime dumb while they were tired, the world of aviation has yet to take fatigue seriously. The FAA regulations for airline pilots are pretty lenient. You can be given as few as 8 hours of rest, including time spent in transportation to and from the hotel, and follow that up with 16 hours of duty and 8 hours of flying. That's about 5 hours of sleep to do 16 hours of work on. Some union contracts contain better rest rules or fatigue provisions, but few airlines have done anything on their own to reduce the problem. The general response tends to be that it is the crewmember's duty to ensure they are properly rested.

Outside of the airlines, rest rules are even more relaxed, but most jobs have working conditions that are more conducive to better rest. If you are someone who needs a lot of sleep to function properly, it behooves you to do some thorough research before accepting any flying job.


There are a lot of overweight pilots flying around. It's not exactly an active job - you're basically doing nothing but sitting for hours on end. The most exercise you'll get while working is the aircraft walkaround between flights. Heck, sometimes I offer to do the walkaround for the captain just so I can stretch my legs. Back when I was a freight dog it wasn't so bad, because I'd be loading and unloading the airplane between legs.

Another problem is the poor eating habits of many pilots. As a CFI, I tended to grab lunch and/or dinner out of vending machines and scarf it down between students. Many airline pilots eat the same sort of stuff, either in the form of crew meals or onboard snacks. At Horizon, we don't have crew meals cooked on board the planes - we have dispensers in the crew rooms, along with microwaves. Typical is the Sausage Breakfast Burrito, which contains over 1000 calories and over 400% the daily recommended saturated fat! Marginally better food can often be purchased in the terminal, but there's usually not enough time on 30 minute turns.

Many crewmembers pack their own lunches, at least for the first several days of a trip. Several captains I fly with make their own healthy trail mix to snack on during flights. I try to keep the inflight snacks to a minimum unless it's something relatively healthy like dried plums.

On the exercise end of things, there's not much you can do about being inactive at work, but you can attempt to be active at the layover. Most crew hotels have fitness centers with treadmills, stationary bikes, and weight machines. Many have pools that one can attempt to swim laps in while avoiding cannonballing children. A good run or long walk is a good alternative depending on the weather. This summer when I spend a lot of time in Helena, I did quite a bit of hiking and exploring the mountains outside of town.

Besides poor nutrition and lack of exercise, the above-mentioned lack of rest has a way of catching up to you, with it's own detrimental health effects. Also, for pilots flying at high altitude, UV ray exposure is a legitimate health concern. Studies are somewhat inconclusive, but tend to point towards a higher rate of skin cancer in airline pilots than other professions.


Next post: Job Stability, or lack thereof.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

My Week

Weds: Portland-Sacramento
Thurs: Sacramento - Portland - Boise - Los Angeles - Boise
Fri: Boise - Los Angeles - Reno - Los Angeles - Reno
Sat: Reno - Los Angeles - Boise - Portland
Sun: Portland-Spokane-Boise-Sacramento-Portland
Mon: Portland-Seattle-Billings-Portland

Yeah, I'm spent. Sorry I didn't get around to the Flying Careers - Lifestyle post yet. But I guess this is a good prelude to it, no?

Off today then two more days of reserve.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Flying Careers Part 6: Benefits & Retirement

Of course, take home pay forms only part of the compensation package. In this post, I'll explore some of the benefits associated with various flying jobs, as well as retirement considerations.

Medical Insurance

With the skyrocketing cost of health care these days, insurance coverage is an increasingly important consideration. As a pilot, there is the added motivation that keeping yourself healthy is a requirement of the job.

Unfortunately, coverage is pretty spotty for most entry-level flying jobs. Very few FBOs or small flight schools offer insurance to their instructors at any cost; the same goes for smaller freight or charter outfits. Some large schools and universities do offer medical insurance to their instructors, though, and bigger FAR 135 operators like Ameriflight and Airnet. With these programs the employee often pays part of the premiums via paycheck withholding.

In the corporate and airline world, comprehensive medical coverage is the norm, with medical, dental, vision, and sometimes long-term disability plans. Usually the employer pays the premiums on the employee's policy, with low-cost coverage available for spouse and children. The plans do vary, though; with some employers, particularly regional airlines, deductibles can be a little steep and coverage spotty. Note that the concessionary contracts in place at many major carriers included erosion of their insurance benefits.

Sick Pay

For most entry-level positions, getting sick means you don't get paid. At the freight dog level and up, though, sick pay is pretty standard. You'll typically accrue X number of sick hours for X hours worked, with a limit on the number of hours that roll over each year. Sick time can often be used towards short-term or even long-term disability benefits, as well as maternal leave for both sexes. As a side note, excessive use of sick time is a great way to get the unwanted attention of the chief pilot, particularly at smaller carriers. Calling in sick on Thanksgiving or Christmas is particularly frowned upon and won't make you any friends among your fellow pilots.

Vacation Pay & Time Off

Getting time off is probably the easiest when you're just starting out, which is ironic because it's when you can afford it the least. As a new instructor, I once went six weeks straight without a day off. Paid vacation is almost unheard of for instructors and other entry-level flying jobs.

If you do the freight or charter thing, scoring time off can be trickier, especially with smaller operations. They often have set schedules for their pilots, with few reserves to cover sickness, to say nothing of vacation. Even those who have paid vacation programs will be pretty restrictive about when you can use it. At Ameriflight, first year captains got one week of paid vacation per year plus two days off without pay per month. Both of these were subject to company approval, and were impossible to use during Peak (Thanksgiving to Christmas) or when the base was understaffed.

Most airlines do offer paid vacation benefits, with between two and four weeks of vacation accrued per year. Vacation weeks are usually bid on for the entire year; obviously, holiday weeks go fairly senior, as does much of the summer. Note that 7 days of vacation pay usually gets you more than a week of vacation, since it is used only for days on which you were originally scheduled to work. A week of vacation that drops only a 4-day trip will result in 4 days being deducted from your vacation pay account. Besides the weeks you bid for, vacation time can often be used for individual days off, staffing levels permitting. You could also elect to save your vacation by taking days off without pay, which may result in a reduction in your monthly minimum guarantee. This also requires approval from crew scheduling and/or the chief pilot's office, and is entirely dependent on how reserve coverage is looking.

One alternative for lengthy periods off is a leave of absence. These are typically awarded for military service, long-term sickness, maternity, or family care, but personal LOA's from one month to a year may be awarded on a case-by-case basis. At most airlines, seniority continues to accrue during a LOA, although longevity (for pay purposes) may not. When airlines are overstaffed and about to furlough pilots, they will offer personal LOA's first. It's a good way to keep your seniority and have fun trying your hand at something else.

Travel Benefits

One of the big draws that airlines have over other flying jobs is the ability to offer free or nearly free air travel to employees and their families (spouse, kids, parents). Most airlines have "interline agreements," so not only can you fly on your airline, you can get cheap transportation on over a hundred carriers around the world.

The catch? You only ride if there is room. These days the planes are absolutely packed with folks flying on $99 coast-to-coast fares, with little room left over for the non-revs. Many airline employees just buy cheap tickets off the internet rather than risk being bumped. Of course, as a pilot you may be able to jumpseat on an otherwise full flight, but this doesn't help if anyone is traveling with you. It's also unavailable on international flights.

In a non-airline job, you probably won't have travel benefits. You may get a discounted aircraft rental rate as a flight instructor. A few airlines do allow FAR 135 pilots to jumpseat.

Profit Sharing

Yes, there are profitable aviation companies out there. Some of them have profit sharing benefits so employees can share in the bounty. Usually something like 10% of the net income goes to the employees, divided up according to longevity and hours worked. At consistently profitable companies like Southwest, profit sharing can form a sizeable part of the compensation package.


This is another area that has taken a severe beating at the major airlines the past few years. United and USAirways terminated their pilot pensions while in bankruptcy court, and Northwest and Delta are looking to do the same. Their pension plans are underfunded by $6 billion and $10 billion, respectively. It seems unlikely that retirement pensions will be standard for professional pilots anytime soon. In any case, it would be prudent to plan for retirement as though you will not have a pension, by starting in early with a 401(k) or IRA.

Most airlines and many fractionals, charter, and freight companies offer their employees a 401(k) plan with company matching. The generousness of the match varies quite a bit, and it may or may not include company issued stock.My company's 401(k) is one of the best I've seen. The company will match 100% of employee contributions up to 10% of pretax income; 50% of the company match is in our parent company's stock, but this can be sold after the employee is fully vested (5 years' service).

Many companies allow their employees to buy company stock at a significant discount, or issue them stock options as part of the retirement package. I generally shy away from airline stock, and would try to keep it under 10% of my portfolio, but that's just my opinion. SWA stock has certainly worked out well for many Southwest pilots.

If you do end up retiring with a pension system in place, consider yourself lucky. Most pensions will take the highest-grossing year of your last 3-5 years and pay you a certain percentage (say, 60%) of that. Some plans allow for a lump-sum payout; others have the option of a survivor (spouse) benefit for after your death.

Most flight schools and many smaller freight and charter operators do not provide retirement benefits. The same goes for most jobs in bush flying, traffic watch, aerial firefighting, etc. If you find yourself in one of these jobs for the long term, it goes without saying that you'll be on your own for retirement planning and saving.


My next post will be regarding lifestyle expectations for various flying jobs.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Flying Careers Part 5: Making Bank (or not)

Nothing gets a good debate going like a discussion on pilot pay. In the red corner: Your average Joe working his butt off for $40k/year, thinks pilots are grossly overpaid for the work they do. In the blue corner: Your average airline pilot - worked hard for years at low pay, furloughed twice, just took a 30% paycut - is livid that anybody would begrudge him his $120k/year. Let the brawl begin.

Although I personally think pilots are worth every penny they can negotiate, that's an argument for another post. Today, the focus is on how much pilots actually make, not what the public thinks they make. Really, a detailed post could go on for many pages, so I'll try to keep this simple. I'll start off with an explanation of how pilots are paid, and then move on to typical pay rates for various jobs.

In a broad sense, pilots are either salaried employees or they are paid based on work performed, usually by the hour. As we'll see, minimum guarantees and complicated pay rigs make "hourly" wages anything but.

Rather few pilots are paid an annual salary; the majority are corporate or fractional pilots. A few flight schools and aviation universities salary their employees; so do some Part 135 freight and charter operators. Although a few airlines used to salary their pilots (including Horizon), there aren't any left in the US that I'm aware of. A salary is good in that it provides for stable income when the flying drops off. Of course, the exact opposite is true: you may end up doing a lot of extra flying essentially for free. Some operators like Ameriflight salary their employees, but pay more for extra flying.

Most flying jobs are technically paid by the hour, but at only some of these does one hour's work equal one hour's pay, and even here the definition of "hour" varies. At most flight instructing jobs, you will be paid the number of hours of ground and flight instruction you bill to students. Some freight and charter operators pay you based solely on block or flight time. A few jobs are paid based on hours on duty. These distinctions are important and must be considered when looking at pay rates.

As a general rule, airline pilots are paid by the block hour (ie departure to destination, including taxi time). That's a rule with many exceptions, which pilots have negotiated for over the years:
  • Minimum guarantee is an important pay rule that provides the chief advantage of a salary, income stablity. It is usually expressed in a number of hours per month. If an airline has a 80 hour min guarantee, every pilot will receive a minimum of 80 hours' pay for that month, no matter how much flying they actually do. If they fly more than the minimum guarantee, they are paid for what they actually do. Min guarantee tends to be around 75 hrs/mo at regional airlines and 60-70 hrs/mo at the majors.
  • Pay Rigs ensure that pilots still get paid when schedule inefficiencies result in an inordinate amount of time on duty or on a trip while not flying. An example pay rig (mine) awards a pilot the greater of block time flown, or 1/2 the time on duty, or 1/4 the time away from base, on a trip-by-trip basis. Today I spent 8 hours on airport reserve but did not fly, so I was paid 4 credit hours (1/2 of 8 hours' duty). In airline pilot lingo, our contract has a 2:1 duty rig and a 4:1 trip rig.
  • Override Pay can dramatically increase your payrate under certain conditions. You may be paid 150% or 200% your normal payrate for flying on a day off; a few contracts also include override pay for working a holiday like Christmas. At jetBlue, every hour over the 70-hr guarantee is paid at 150%.
  • Per diem is an extra stipend to help cover expenses while away from home, such as the additional cost of eating at restaurants. It is paid on time away from base, and is usually $1.50-$2/hr.
Pay rules merit close examination not only for pay but also for lifestyle. As an example, my comany's 4:1 trip rig means that it's fairly cheap for the company to build long trips with lots of time sitting in hotels; many of our pilots are away from home for 350+ hours each month. A better trip rig (3.5:1, perhaps) would force the company to build more efficient trips that'd provide our pilots with more days off per month.

Sick time, vacation time, etc, will also affect pay but they belong more in my next post on benefits.

So how much do pilots actually make? Probably less than you think. Regionals and most stepping-stone jobs have always been fairly low-paid. Major airline payrates have taken a major beating over the past 4 years, with no sign of relief. That said, captain's pay at the majors still puts them in the top 5% of earners in the US, so it's not quite poverty wages yet. Really, what it comes down to for a potential career pilot is whether your "dream job" pays enough to make the training costs and years of lower pay worth it. I've posted a number of typical payrates below, starting with traditional time building jobs, to help you crunch the numbers.

Flight Instructor - major aviation college - $9/hr*
Flight Instructor - large flight school - $10/hr*
Flight Instructor - freelance/self employed - $30/hr*
Banner Towing - Southern CA - $400/week
Ameriflight (cargo)- Piston Twin captain - $24k/yr salary
Ameriflight (cargo) - Metroliner captain - $55k/yr salary

*Per instruction hour billed.

Note: To get income range for airline jobs posted below, multiply rate by minimum guarantee for lower end; use 95 hrs/mo as top end for regionals and 85 hrs/mo for LCC/Legacy airlines.

Regional First Officer:**

Great Lakes - Be1900 (19 seat turboprop):
1 year FO: $15/hr
Mesaba - SF-340 (34 seat turboprop):
3 year FO: $31/hr
ExpressJet ERJ-145 (50 seat jet):
3 year FO: $34/hr

Regional Captain:**

Mesaba SF-340:
5 year CA: $50/hr
Horizon Q400 (74 seat turboprop):
8 year CA: $81/hr
Skywest CRJ-700 (70 seat jet):
6 year CA: $65/hr
Mesa CRJ-900 (90 seat jet):
6 year CA: $69/hr

**75-76 hr/mo minimum guarantee - per diem not included.

Low Cost Carriers:+
Airtran B737
2 year FO: $56/hr
5 year CA: $120/hr

jetBlue A320
2 year FO: $56/hr
5 year CA: $121/hr

+ 70 hr/mo min guarantee - per diem not included.

Legacy Carriers: ++

American MD80
8 year FO: $97/hr
16 year CA: $154/hr

American B777
12 year FO: $133/hr
12 year CA: $196/hr

Northwest A320
8 year FO: $86/hr
12 year CA: $137/hr

United B737
6 year FO: $79/hr
10 year CA: $126/hr

++ 64-65 hr/mo min guarantee. Payscales top out at 12 years. NWA rates reflect Nov 14 interim agreement including new 24% cut.

Freight Carriers:

FedEx B727 - 74 hr/mo min guarantee.
5 year FO: $104/hr
8 year CA: $168/hr

Kitty Hawk B727 - 43 hr/mo min guarantee
5 year FO: $89/hr
8 year CA: $133/hr

UPS - All aircraft types - 81 hr/mo min guarantee
5 year FO: $97/hr
10 year CA: $184/hr

Corporate/Fractional Operations:

FlightOptions Midsize Jet
3 year FO: $4333/mo salaried
7 year CA: $6126/mo salaried

NetJets - All Types
3 year FO: $2470/mo salaried
7 year CA: $5630/mo salaried

Intel Corporation Flight Department
4 yr FO: $51,000/yr salaried


I would suggest going back & looking at the career progression post, reviewing how long you could expect to stay in each type of job, and how long you'd be at FO payscales vs. CA payscales. As a beginning instructor, you could be making $15k/yr or less. You will probably be a regional captain or fairly senior at a FAR 135 operation before breaking $50k/yr. And you may well upgrade at a major/national airline before exceeding the $100k/yr mark, which could easily be 10-15 years after you start out. When counting the cost, keep in mind that you will incur $20k-80k in training costs before your first instructing job (more on this in another post). If you are a potential career changer, subtract this amount from the money you could expect to earn over the next 15 years and compare it to your earnings expectations for that time period in your current job.

Of course, pay isn't everything. There are a lot of other factors in play, some of which we'll explore in the next few posts. Next post: benefits and retirement expectations.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Flying Careers Update

Egh, it's been a while since I've posted. I've just been pretty busy out here. I got sick during a trip, then my little brother drove out from MN for the weekend (!), I got flown into my day off on Monday, and now my friend Lori is here from Texas (she's the twin sister to our roommate, Kelly the airplane mechanic). We're heading to Cannon Beach today. Brr.

I'm not finished with the Flying Careers series. With the first posts, I pretty much covered the different jobs out there and the time & effort involved in working your way to the top. Any decision to start on that road should consider what awaits at the end, so my next few posts will be about pay, benefits, retirement, and lifestyle for various jobs in the field. I'll also discuss the pay and lifestyle one can expect in the various beginning and intermediate jobs, since one can expect to spend significant time in those positions, especially these days. After that, I'll discuss the training process and attendant costs, and conclude the series with a few words of advise (I mean, other than the many words of advise written so far!).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Winter Wonderland

While I've been concentrating on the Flying Careers series, a few things have happened out here. First, I got a new digital camera, an Olympus D595. I'll try not to lose this one. Secondly, I'm back on reserve this bid. The only reason I got a regular line the past two bids is because a few senior guys bid reserve. So I'm once again crew scheduling's whipping boy for the next month.

And, most importantly, winter has come to the Pacific Northwest! The past two weeks have seen a number of storms from the Gulf of Alaska dump quite a bit of snow on the Cascades & northern Rockies. A good early ski season is very good news for all the ski areas that got hammered by last year's mild winter. Timberline, Mt. Baker, and Crystal Mountain are already open; Mt. Hood Meadows, Snoqualmie, and Steven's Pass are all opening this weekend.

Above: Rocky Mountains northwest of Missoula, MT.
Below: Snow-covered peaks surrounding Lake Chelan in the northern Washington Cascades.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Flying Careers Part 4: Details

In the last post, I wrote about building the flight time required to compete for major airline job, or any other flying job that requires turbine PIC time. Getting hired by the majors, though, is about more than just flight time. The ideal candidate would have these additional qualifications:
  • Clean Criminal Record, Good Driving Record
  • No aviation accidents or FAA violations
  • 4-year College Degree
  • Letters of Recommendation from line pilots
Criminal & Driving Record
As a convicted felon, you may get a job flying freight in an old Beech 45 in, say, Nigeria. You will not be hired by any Part 121 or 135 operator in the U.S. Misdemeanors may not be disqualifying, but could present problems depending on the offense (alcohol & drug convictions are particularly problematic, this includes a Minor in Possession); you'll need to be upfront with any such issues during all job interviews. Basically, if you have a checkered past, flying is one career in which it will follow you.

Your driving record is somewhat less crucial. The only thing that's really problematic is a DWI or DUI. It is possible to get hired for some jobs with one on your record, but it rarely happens at the major airline level. Two convictions would be disqualifying for a FAA medical, much less a flying job. Other than alcohol-related driving offenses, a ticket or two probably won't harm you, but a long string of them will. You usually only have to answer for the most recent 5 years or so. Therefore, if you have a history of speeding tickets, change your driving habits now, before you even begin flight training.

Aviation Accidents
I won't say that it's impossible to get hired by a major after wrecking an airplane, but it's definately more difficult. The pilots you'll be competing against for the job don't have accidents on their records, so why should the airline pick you? Note that many companies' definition of "accident" goes beyond that of the NTSB. One of my former employers required an applicant to report "any accident or incident resulting in more than $500 damage to the aircraft."

Of course it's simplistic for me to say "don't have an accident." Nobody plans on having one. But, the knowledge that an accident could end your career should serve as motivation to exercise good judgement. When you're looking at a howling crosswind at a narrow runway and it's looking pretty marginal, it's something to keep in mind as you decide whether to go for it or not.

FAA Violations
Again, nobody plans on running afoul of the FAA, but it happens. And it can be very damaging to your career aspirations. You'll probably not be hired by any reputable operator with a revocation on your record. A suspension is also serious business, although a thirty-day "hand slapping" isn't neccessarily career-ending if you're honest about it on applications and in interviews. A letter of counsel in your file shouldn't be a problem, but again, it could come up in an interview.

For many years now, NASA has administered a program called Aviation Safety Reporting System, or ASRS. Under this program, pilots who realize they've violated a regulation can submit a report to NASA detailing what went wrong. They'll keep it confidential. If the FAA should subsequently take action against you for the violation, your receipt of the ASRS form serves as a "get out of jail" card, and in many cases the revocation or suspension cannot be carried out. Here's the problem: while you keep your certificates, the FAA action still goes on your record, for all prospective employers to see. So while ASRS is a good thing, it will not protect your career if the FAA catches you breaking regs. Again, this should provide additional motivation for you to do the right thing and follow the rules. Somebody's always watching.

College Degree
There are always those who will disagree with me that a 4-year degree is a neccessity. Yes, United hired guys without degrees in the 60's. No, jetBlue doesn't require one now. But the reality is that most airlines still require a 4-year degree, and you can be assured that you'll be competing for jobs against people who have them. So why give them a leg up on you? Besides, it won't kill you to get some education.

An aviation degree is not neccessary; in fact, I don't think it'll really help you. The airlines like to hire well-rounded individuals, and a degree in something outside aviation helps paint that picture. This is one area in which mid-life career changers have a leg up on the young pups: they'll typically already have a BS/BA degree, if not a master's or doctorate to boot.

Those without a degree, though, will have to make a choice: aviation, or something else? Aviation degrees do have advantages. You'll be hitting two birds with one stone, so to speak, and the quality of flight training is usually excellent. On the other hand, it would be nice to be qualified for another career if aviation doesn't work out, and many people go through flight training at the same time they're studying another subject in school.

A friend of mine did two years at a community college and got his A.S. degree. After getting hired at my company, he enrolled with Embry-Riddle's distance learning program for the additional coursework towards his four year degree. He did most of the studying while on airport reserve - getting paid to get his BS degree!

Whether an airline requires letters of recommendation or not, knowing somebody "inside" is crucial. Besides the letter, they can walk in your resumé to the right people, put a bug in someone's ear, and give you "gouge" for the interview. In my own case, I send my company resumés for nine fruitless months before my buddy Brad gave me a tour of the Ops Center and introduced me to one of the assistant chief pilots. I had an interview within the week.

The good news is that this is something you can start on right now, even before you begin flight training. If you have family friends or aquaintances that are professional pilots, seek them out and ask their advice. They'll be happy to offer it - pilots like to act like we have the answers! - and will potentially help you out in other ways down the road. The Internet offers other networking opportunities, through chatrooms & forums as well as blogs like this one.

Networking should begin long before you're ready to send out resumés. Past flight instructors are excellent contacts; keep in contact with them after you're done flying with them. The same goes for fellow students, particularly those you fly with while time building. Try to leave employers on good terms and keep in contact with old bosses. They will be excellent references down the road. Don't burn bridges if you can help it. Aviation is a small world, and you may be very surprised to see who's conducting your interview someday. Do everything you can to help others in their careers - they may well eventually be in a position to help you.


Hopefully by now you have a pretty good idea of the process of moving up in an aviation career, and a rough picture of the timeline involved. So what kind of pay and lifestyle can you expect while you're working towards your career goals? How about once you get there? Anybody considering an aviation career needs to be asking these questions. I'll provide some answers in my next post.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Flying Careers Part 3: Climbing the Ladder

So if, after reading my last posts, you decided that you want to become a career flight instructor, kudos, and I have some good news: You will begin your dream job shortly after completing flight training. No other experience is required, so you don't have to time-build. Enjoy your career!

Now for the rest of you, I suspect my posts did nothing to stop you from lusting after the left seat of a 747. Okay, there's nothing wrong with that, but you have a long, hard road ahead of you. This post is about the various paths you can take to get there. Although I'll be writing about becoming qualified for the major airlines, most of the process is the same for the best charter, corporate, fractional, and heavy freight jobs.

The Ideal Candidate
The major airlines have always been picky about who they hire; these days, with little hiring and many qualified candidates, they can afford to be as finicky as they want. To even be considered for an interview, much less hired, you must meet the airline's published minimums. For example, here are the minimum qualifications for Southwest Airlines:
  • Air Transport Pilot certificate
  • Class I medical
  • 2500 hours total time
  • 1000 hours turbine Pilot-in-Command
  • B-737 Type Rating
Most airlines do not require a type rating (although many corporate jobs do); in other respects, these are typical minimums for a major or national airline. Most interviewees will far exceed these minimums. The "ideal candidate" profile is something like this:
  • 5000+ hours total time
  • Several thousand hours as pilot in command of turbine aircraft, particularly under FAR 121, 135, or military
  • Four year college degree
  • Clean criminal record, good driving record
  • Several pilot recommendations
That's a pretty daunting resumé from the perspective of someone who has yet to begin flight training. I'll discuss the college degree, criminal/driving record, and recommendations in the next post; right now I want to examine the various ways of getting the required flight time. Unless you're close friends with, say, John Travolta, you'll be getting a flying job while the ink is still wet on your commercial certificate. I've looked at most of them in the last few posts, and you'll probably do several, including at least one to get that critical turbine PIC time. Let's look at a few possibilities.

The Regional Route
One rather popular option is to flight instruct only until you're able to get hired with a regional airline. You'll start in turbine equipment, but as a first officer (SIC). The turbine PIC time won't start until you upgrade to captain, which could take anywhere from a year to 5+ years. So, you should go where the upgrade time is shortest, right? Heh, not so quick. Upgrade time can change very quickly. I'd recommend you go somewhere that you'll be happy if things do slow down and the upgrade takes longer than planned. Case in point: Not long ago, Pinnacle Airlines' upgrade time was well under two years. Recently they parked 15 airplanes and a lot of FO's are facing a long stay in the right seat flying for substandard wages and work rules.

I'm going to mount my soap box for just this paragraph. As I'll discuss in future posts, the piloting profession has really taken a beating the past few years. Pay, retirement, and lifestyle have all suffered - first at the majors, and now at the regionals. Pilots willing to whore themselves for turbine PIC time are part of the problem. Ridiculously low labor costs encourages the major airlines to shift flying to bottomfeeder regionals, both from mainline and other regionals. The result: less flying at better-paid carriers, resulting in job losses as well as downward pressure on pay and work rules. These pilots are destroying the very major airline jobs that they are pursuing. If you concerned with building turbine PIC quickly, there are ways to do it that do not make airline pilots compete with you for their job (read on!). Look, if you decide to go the regional route, consider it as sacrificing quick turbine PIC for better pay and lifestyle. And choose an airline accordingly. Sermon over.

Freight Doggy Dogg - Turbine Style
As a FAR135 freight dog, your problem at the beginning is the opposite of the regionals: you'll usually start as PIC, but most likely in piston equipment. That's okay, because PIC piston twin time is more valuable than SIC turbine time. Get hired by someone who operates a lot of turbine aircraft, and you'll be logging turbine PIC much quicker than if you went to a regional. Most large Pt. 135 freight outfits fly turbine airplanes like Beech 99s and 1900s, Cessna Caravans, SA227 Metroliners, or even Learjets or Falcons.

As I've mentioned previously, you'll need 1200 hours total time to get hired, which may be more than regional airlines are requiring. No matter; the extra time flight instructing (or banner towing, traffic watch, etc) is well worth it if you get hired someplace that'll transition you to turbine equipment fairly quickly. Note that the pay and lifestyle may leave something to be desired, but no worse than a "bottomfeeder regional," and without destroying your future job at a major airline (my own opinion.) Also, the transition time to turbines tends to be much more stable than upgrade time at a regional. Actually, there are some operators that fly only turbine aircraft, but you'll need more experience, and possibly turbine time, to work for them. It's a possibility, though, if you have previous turbine time from, say, jump flying (see below).

A few potential problems with this approach: you'll be flying smaller aircraft than you would be at a regional, and a few major and national airlines (like jetBlue) require some flight time in aircraft over a certain gross weight. Also, the most popular turbine box-hauler is the Cessna Caravan, a single-engine airplane. Most airlines still credit this time towards their turbine PIC requirement, but make sure you have enough multi-engine time to be competitive.

One variation of this route is to haul boxes until you have your 1000 hours PIC time, and then go to a regional. That way, it will still be possible to apply to major airlines if upgrade takes longer than hoped for.

Although I write about freight dogging, Air Taxi may offer you a good opportunity to build turbine PIC as well. Note that most air taxi aircraft have two crew, so you'll start as a FO. Upgrade time will be most likely based on turnover, not growth, so I'd imagine it stays a little steadier than the regionals.

Closely related to Air Taxi operators, but actually flying under Part 121, would be scenic flight operators such as Scenic Airlines out of Las Vegas. The Twin Otter may not be the flashiest airplane in the world, but left seat time is turbine PIC!

Corporate Flying
As I've previously noted, corporate flying is really a separate career from airline flying. That said, it does offer a way to log turbine PIC while potentially enjoying better pay and lifestyle than a regional airline. Also, you can sometimes get hired with less flight time than you could at a regional or Part 135 operation. The key to that, though, is knowing someone. If you pursue this route, all I can say is network, network, network.

Note that most corporate flight departments are considerably smaller than any airline operation. Time to the left seat can swing wildly either way because it is based on individuals leaving, or buying/selling individual airplanes. A more surefire way to ensure turbine PIC time would be to get hired by a small flight department that flies single-pilot airplanes like the Pilatus PC-12, King Air C90, or Cessna CJ1. These, however, will require more flight experience to get hired.

Jump Flying
Recall that one of the advantages of flying skydivers vs flight instructing is the possibility of flying turbine, perhaps even twin turbine aircraft. Caravans, King Airs, and Twin Otters are all commonly used at larger jump zones. The good news: you can get hired with very little experience. The bad news: You'll likely be flying piston singles for a while before you get your hands on the Twotter. The other bad news: To my knowledge, no major airline has hired any pilot that did nothing but jump flying. Your instrument skills just go to seed, and it's really a world away from airline flying in terms of procedures. But, if you hire on with a large dropzone that operates a few turboprops, you could well get the 1000 hours turbine PIC fairly quickly and then go to an all-turbine freight operation or a regional airline.

Jet Vs. Turboprop
Given that major airlines fly jets, you'd think that they'd want pilots with jet experience, but it really doesn't matter. A turbine airplane is a turbine airplane, whether it's swinging propellers or high-bypass turbofans. In terms of career expectations, neither really gives you a leg up.

That said, there are a few generalizations that can be made. Jet flying is typically easier, given that you're cruising at an altitude above most of the turbulence, icing, and storms. You'll be flying longer stage lengths, so you can relax more than a turboprop pilot. As a turboprop pilot, you can expect to slog through lots of turbulence & ice, pick your way around big thunderstorms at uncomfortable altitudes, perform lots of takeoffs and landings, and fly lots of approaches, many of them non-precision approaches to podunk airports. Oh, and if you're flying a smaller turboprop you may not have an autopilot. So I'd say turboprop flying is harder than jet flying, but much better experience for you - and that's experience that you can point out at any interview, when they ask why they should hire you instead of the jet captain.

So, how long is all this gonna take, you ask? Good question; nobody has a good answer. The aviation industry has always been cyclical, but this really is the worst downturn yet. It remains to be seen how long it'll take the industry to recover, and what it'll look like when it does. I can give you some rough numbers based on current conditions, and hopefully things will pick up and your career progresses faster. My own philosophy is to plan for the worst & hope for the best.

If you go the regional route, I'd plan on instructing at least until 1000 hours total time. If you get hired sooner, great, but don't plan on it. From go from a freshly minted CFI with 300 hours to breaking 1000 hours will take from 6 months (116 hrs/mo) to 18 months (38 hrs/mo). It just depends on how busy of a school you're at. I personally took about 15 months, only 5 months of which was full-time instructing (was finishing my college degree). If you want to get on with a freight operation, plan on another 200 hours. During this time you'll need to get at least 100 hours of multi-engine time, either by instructing or buying a block of time.

Although some regionals have ridiculously low upgrade time (I believe I've already made my views clear on them...), that really only applies to experienced newhires since most also require 2500 hours total time to upgrade. Therefore, if you're hired on with 1000 hours, you'd need to spend 1500 hours in the right seat. That'll usually take at least 18 months, so you should consider that the absolute shortest upgrade time. It could range up to 6 years (Horizon, American Eagle) but a good average would be 3 years.

You'd have 1000 hours turbine PIC after 12 months - 2 years as captain. Depending on how long you spent as a FO, you'd have 3500-6500 hours total time by then, so you'd be well qualified to apply for major airline jobs. Total time since beginning flight instructing: between 48 months and 9.5 years. I'd put the average at 6 years - 1 as CFI, 3 as regional FO, 2 as regional CA.

Let's say you go the freight dog route. You can generally get hired at 1200 hours, which is to say between 8 months and two years of flight instructing. At Ameriflight, a 1200 hour newhire pilot could expect to be flying turbine equipment in about a year, and I believe it's similar at other operations with mixed piston/turbine fleets. In that time you'd likely be up to 1800-2000 hours total time. Twelve to 20 months of flying turbine equipment would put you at 1000 hours turbine PIC, with 3800-4000 hours total time - meeting the majors' requirements. Time expenditure is 32 months to 4.5 years since beginning flight instructing.

Let's look at a possible timeline for somebody who thinks outside the box. A plausible scenario would be to instruct for a few months, then get hired on at a busy drop zone at around 500 hours TT. After flying divers in piston singles for 500 hours (4 months to 1 year), fly the Caravan or Twotter for a similar length of time to get 500 hours turbine time (1500 total). With this experience, you could likely hire on with a turbine-only FAR 135 freight operation, flying Be99 or similar turbine twins. Another two years would put you at 3000-3500 hours total time with up to 2500 of that as PIC turbine - in good position to apply to major and national airlines. In this scenario, time expenditure is 3-4 years.

A Word About Age
Aviation seems to attract a lot of mid-life career changers. It is unfortunate, then, that the FAA will only allow airline pilots to fly until age 60. So how late is too late, and what's the best route for a "late bloomer?"

The average age of hire at major airlines is 35, or at least was during the hiring boom of the late 90's. Hiring pilots up to age 45 is fairly commonplace; older than 50 is pretty rare with the exception of furloughees from other major airlines. So I'd say you'd want to be eligible by age 45. If going the regional route, that means you'd need to be timebuilding as soon as age 35-39. If any older than that, I'd suggest looking at FAR135 freight or alternative jobs to get PIC turbine sooner and bypass the regionals.

Another alternative for career changers is to forget the majors altogether. If you start instructing at age 45, you could be hired at a regional by age 47 and still have 13 years of flying left. Or, you could go the corporate or FAR 135 routes. They have no mandatory retirement age, so long as you stay healthy. I would suggest that if you've made your millions and pay isn't much of an issue, consider being a career flight instructor. The flight training industry does need more mature instructors with some life experience behind them.


So hopefully you have a better idea of how long you could expect to stay in timebuilding jobs before being qualified for a major airline slot or other job requiring significant experience. Next I'll post briefly on some of the other requirements that major airlines have. After that, I'll go into more detail on career expectations regarding pay, lifestyle, etc, and also post on the training process up to getting your commercial/CFI certificates.

For comments: From your first flying job, how long did it take before you got your "dream job?" Was it longer or shorter than you expected when you started flying? Is there anything you would've done differently?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Flying Careers Part 2C: Doin' Time (or not)

Most of the jobs I've descibed so far require at least moderate previous experience. Most new commercial pilots, however, have less than 300 hours total time with perhaps a few hours of multi-engine time. A few continue to buy flight time to increase their experience; most, however, will get an entry-level flying job, sometimes called a "time building job." Often, a pilot's first job will be the hardest of their career and pay the least they'll make. Still, many experienced pilots look back at them fondly. Indeed, many of these jobs can be fun and rewarding for pilots with the right attitude. If you really enjoy the work, it's not neccessary to follow the herd to the airlines: some of these jobs can actually pay well for those who are committed to them.

Flight Instructing
I'm really sick and tired of the poor attitude many newer pilots have towards flight instructing. For whatever reason, many seem to think that the job is below them, a last resort in the quest to build flight hours. These prima donnas put in minimum effort and mistreat students whenever it results in more flight time, and they talk non-stop about how they can't wait to move on to bigger and better things. How horrible it must be to have a job that requires intelligence, patience, honesty, work ethic, and communication skills, when they merely want to fly! When I'm king, I'll require every pilot to instruct for 1000 hours before applying to the airlines, and all airline hiring will be done by interviewing the instructor's former students and employers.

There's no question that flight instructing is hard and sometimes frusterating work. With the right attitude, though, it can also be rewarding and fun. You'll learn a ton, not just about flying technique, but also about conflict and communication in the cockpit. If you're a good instructor, you'll get a reputation in the local flying community. That can pay off later on.

New instructors are typically paid pretty poorly. The good news is that you should be able to find an instructing job near where you currently live. There are small flight schools at just about every general aviation airport; you'll typically find bigger flight schools, "rating mills," and flying clubs in bigger cities. When finding a place to instruct, consider not only the pay rate, but how much you can expect to work. I made $10/hr as a new instructor, but took home more than a friend who earned $30/hr at a much less busy flying club. Does the flight school assign students to each instructor, or is the instructor expected to recruit their own students? Are there any multi-engine airplanes, and how many multi-engine students does the school attract? Are there opportunities to earn money during your downtime, such as office work or assisting mechanics?

As an instructor, your life will revolve around when students are able to fly, and what kind of flight time they need. At flight schools that cater to casual students, you'll do more flying on the weekends and after normal working hours. With full-time students, your weekdays should be much busier. At times, lunch will consist of a Snickers grabbed in the five minutes between students. Other times, you'll have a long enough break to go home and take a nap. If you have a lot of Private students, you'll be pretty idle during periods of poor weather. With Instrument students, you're guaranteed that the appearance of IFR weather will trigger every student wanting to go flying. In the summer, you can expect to stay up quite late for night cross-countries.

You can get hired almost anywhere with nothing more than freshly minted commercial and CFI certificates. If you want to do anything other than practice bounce-and-goes all day with student pilots, though, you'll need the CFII and MEI ratings on your CFI. My recommendation is to get them before you start instructing; once you're in the thick of it, finding the time and money to add on the ratings can be hard.

Everything I've said so far applies to low-time instructors, the guys and gals just building experience for the next gig. If you like the work, though, there's no reason to fly the coop right away. Experienced CFI's are a rare thing these days, and much in demand. Once you have enough experience that you could leave, you'll find that you'll command a much better wage, and have more control over your schedule. If you've build a good local client base, you could even move out into freelance instructing and become your own boss. Many freelance CFI's have a specialty, such as GPS training, instrument workshops, or type-specific training. There are even "celebrity CFI's," such as Rich Stowell, who commands top dollar for a world reknown aircraft upset recovery course. The point is, if you find that you really enjoy instructing, it is possible to make it a decent career if you get creative.

Banner Towing
Okay, despite my admittedly strong opinions expressed above, not everyone is cut out to be an instructor. There are other options for low-timers to build flight time. For those who live near a large city, particularly along the coast, banner towing can be a seasonal alternative. Other than actually picking up the banners, the work is fairly monotonous, but you'll build flight time quickly. Note that you will not be building any multi-engine time, nor will you be staying instrument current.

The one requirement for banner-towing is having a commercial certificate. A few operators require a certain number of hours; many want to see experience in tailwheel aircraft. Shy away from operations that require money upfront for your training.

Pipeline Flying, Fish Spotting, Fire Spotting
These are all jobs that may be available depending on whether you live in a oily, fishy, or treeish area. They all are typically done in smaller single-engine airplanes, but involve lengthy flight times that'll build your experience quickly. These jobs are often contracted out to small FBO's, so you may need to ask around to find where the jobs are. Of course, if you have your own airplane you can always bid for these contracts and make better money. I'd recommend having a highly placed friend in the Forest Service (or oil company, or fishing outfit). Note that fish spotters, particularly those flying from the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, may get a "cut" from the catch. During a good season, it can be quite lucrative.

Again, a commercial certificate is required; I'd imagine that strong swimming skills are a big plus for fish spotters.

Jump Pilot

There are lots of people all over that get a kick out of jumping from perfectly good aircraft, creating a need for pilots of said aircraft. As a "diver driver," your work will entail taking off, climbing to 10,000+ feet, dropping your skydivers, descending back down, and landing - as quickly as possible, so you can haul up the next batch of skydivers. On the weekends, you can rack up a lot of hours at a busy drop zone. At the same time, you get to hang out with a pretty cool bunch of people and possibly even take up skydiving yourself.

With so many takeoffs and landings, you'll get good at stick-and-rudder skills, but your instrument skills will suffer if you don't do anything other than jump piloting. The really good news is, pilots at bigger drop zones will have opportunities to get experience with turbine, multi-engine, or even multi turbine aircraft, as Caravans, Beech 45s, Twin Otters, and King Airs are all common jump planes. Those who like to fly pretty airplanes need not apply; some drop zone birds can be pretty ratty. There will be pressure to fly airplanes when they are not airworthy; pressure, also, to climb through clouds VFR and drop jumpers back through clouds. Find a quality drop zone, and these issues will crop up less.

Traffic Watch
Traffic watch is unique among low-timer jobs in that you will have a pretty set schedule: whenever it is rush hour. Most traffic watch pilots twice a day on M-F, from 6-9 in the morning and 3-6 in the evening. Some experienced traffic watch pilots both fly and broadcast on-air, but most operations that employ low-time pilots will have you carry along a broadcaster, or you'll simply relay road conditions to personnel at the radio/TV station. If you have a good voice, however, there could be later opportunities to do your thing on-air, with higher pay.

You'll build significant total time flying traffic, but very little instrument or multi-engine time. Excellent knowledge of airspace is required, as you'll be going around and through all of it. Fortunately, as you get to know the controllers along your route, you'll find ATC to be very accommodating.

Part 135 Freight Flying
Despite its inclusion here, part 135 freight flying is not really a low-timer job (neither is air taxi, for that matter). Under FAR 135 regulations, pilots operating IFR must have 1200 hours total time, 500 hours cross-country, 100 hours night time, and 75 hours instrument experience (hood or actual). VFR only requires 500 hours TT and 100 hrs X/C, but the only part 135 operations under VFR are typically in Alaska.

So why would anybody do it, then, if there are regional airlines hiring pilots with less time? For starters, some people don't want to go to the regionals. It is possible to bypass them altogether by getting turbine PIC at a freight operation; you'll typically start as pilot in command rather than wait for an upgrade. In some instances, the pay is better than starting pay at a regional, particularly if you're flying turbine aircraft. Another situation is the pilot who wants to work for a particular regional that has high minimums or competitive hiring. Airlines look very favorably on Part 135 experience.

As a "freight dog," you'll most often be carrying cancelled checks for banks (becoming less common) or small packages as a feeder to Fedex, UPS, DHL, etc (becoming more common). Most carriers are classified as "on demand," but only a few do primarily late-notice charters. At these carriers, pilots have rather unpredictable schedules. However, most larger carriers like Ameriflight or Airnet have pretty set schedules, and pilots usually know their routes some time in advance. Those flying cancelled checks can expect to fly M-F, with banking holidays off. Those hauling small packages may work some weekends. Although freight dogs are infamous for flying on the backside of the clock, most operators have at least some daytime routes. At Ameriflight, I worked M-F and was home every night. It can be a good gig for family life.

As a freight dog, you're pretty often on your own. You'll be your own dispatcher. You'll be responsible for keeping your plane safe at outstations, and flying it out of danger if neccessary. You'll be on the flight line at 4am in freezing weather, chiseling ice off the wings. Until you get into larger turbine equipment, you'll usually load and unload your own airplane. You'll work your own performance and W&B. Depending on where you're based, you'll find yourself shooting a whole lot of approaches in awful weather. You'll become one sharp instrument pilot.

Part 135 operations have a bit of a reputation for pushing their pilots to fly in unsafe or illegal weather, and for poor maintenance. These issues can largely be avoided by going to a larger, reputable carrier (Ameriflight or Airnet, for example). At these places, you'll typically start in piston powered aircraft but have opportunities for turbine equipment fairly early on. At 1200 hours TT, you're just as qualified for Ameriflight as you are for Joe Bob's Fly-By-Nite Express.

Most pilots seem to enjoy freight dogging; rather few do it for more than a couple years. Those who do stick around for extended periods can expect to make decent money flying larger turbine equipment or even small jets (Metroliner, Be1900, and Learjet 35 are all common freight haulers).

Part 135 Air Taxi
Not all Part 135 operators haul freight; there are small passenger-carrying operations around, too. Most regional airlines used to be Part 135 operators until about a decade ago, when a new rule forced them to become FAR 121 certified. Nowadays, the only airplanes that carry passengers under FAR 135 have a maximum of 9 passenger seats and 7500 lbs payload or less.

Air Taxi operations may provide scheduled service (Cape Air, for example), or they may be on-demand charter outfits. Charter flying was described in Part 2A of this series, but mostly in the context of corporate-type aircraft. There are, however, operators that use light twin aircraft for passenger charters. Lifestyle is similar to larger operators (unpredictable schedule) but pay is typically worse.

Flying for scheduled carriers like Cape Air is actually a pretty decent life, according to a friend who did it for a while. You're more likely to fly weekends, but are usually flying during the day and home at night. The pay can be decent for flying a light twin.

Again, the minimum qualifications are those prescribed by FAR 135, and it's realistic to apply as soon as you meet those qualifications. I should point out that the 500 hours cross-country required is point-to-point cross-country, ie the airports do not need to be 50 nm apart. Something to keep in mind when you apply.


Next post, I'll tie these jobs together to give you an idea of the various career progressions that are possible. For comments: What was your first flying job, and how long did you do it? What was good about it, and what was bad?

Friday, October 21, 2005

Flying Careers Part 2B: The Path Less Taken

My last post described some of the more common flying jobs from the regional airlines on up. I'm guessing that a good 90% of pilots end up at one of these jobs for the majority of their career. However, I think it'd be a mistake to restrict one's career to these . There are less traditional jobs out there that provide more variety and lots of interesting flying, and can be quite profitable as well. In addition, jobs often thought of as "time-building jobs" can be rewarding over the long run, as well. I'll write about those jobs in the next post; this post is about some of the interesting non-traditional jobs that require significant experience.

Contract Flying
There is a contingent of pilots out there that are the aviation world's version of migrant workers. They take contract jobs around the world that typically last between six months and a few years. Many of these are former corporate captains or airline furloughees/early retirees with significant experience in several types of jet aircraft. Some of the contracts, particularly in more specialized aircraft, can be very lucrative - monthly salaries of over $10,000 tax-free plus housing stipend are not uncommon for captains. Many of these take place in some of the more wild corners of the globe, naturally and/or politically speaking. That may or may not appeal to you.

These are not time building jobs. They often require thousands of hours of experience in specific types of aircraft. Keep them in mind for whenever in your career you get the dreaded pink slip. A class I medical and ATP are musts - the FAA ATP is accepted in many cases, but the JAA's ATPL (ie European ATP) seems to be preferred. Four year degree not required, fluency in foreign languages a huge plus (Spanish, Arabic, & Mandarin would be the most helpful right now).

Long-distance Ferrying
Back in general aviation's last heyday, the 1970s, a low-time pilot could rack up a lot of time very quickly by delivering light aircraft for the various manufacturers. These days, there aren't nearly as many new airplanes to deliver. However, every year there are lots of new and old airplanes that are sold across great distances and need a brave soul to bring them across the stormy ocean/frozen tundra/gator infested swamp. Or maybe from Peoria to El Paso.

Most ferry pilots work on a freelance basis, although many are registered with ferry companies that contract them for each job. There are some experienced ferry pilots out there that do nothing else, but for many it seems to be a part-time gig.

Back in the day, you could get hired to ferry a King Air if you had a multiengine rating. These days it's not quite so laissez faire, but you very well could end up flying a type with no more experience than a quick readthrough of the POH. I suspect that a little time in a lot of aircraft types would be beneficial. Of course, if you want to drum up the transatlantic PZL M18A business, then 5000 hours of M18A time will always help.

A small but infinitely interesting subset of ferry pilot is the Repo pilot. When aviation operators go broke - and they always do! - the bank's first move will be to retrieve the operator's most expensive asset that's not bolted down, ie the airplanes. It's like car repossession: In many cases the erstwhile owner will cooperate, but when they don't you get creative. I've heard a few stories of repo pilots sneaking onto foreign airports under cover of dark, breaking into secured airplanes of dubious airworthiness, and taking off with nary a word to air traffic control.

Job requirements include three years' service in paramilitary units (French Legionnaire preferred), excellent knowledge of martial arts, fluency in at least five languages, proven record of ability in aircraft theft, minimum weight 250 lbs, and a Nigerian passport. Opportunities do exist for female pilots who can field strip an M16 blindfolded and look good in a black catsuit (weight requirement waived). To apply, visit the Chukker Bar at 2121 Sixth Street, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Ask for Bruno.

Aerial Firefighting
If flying an aging transport category aircraft down valleys at low altitude in low visibility and heavy turbulence sounds dangerous, it is. Air tanker operations have suffered several highly publicized accidents the past few years, including several in-flight breakups. The heavy tankers were even grounded for a while last year, but they were back for this year's fire season. The search for increased safety goes on, but in the meantime the tankers play a key role in protecting lives and property throughout the western U.S. and Canada.

Airtanker pilots typically work during the six months of fire season only. During the season, you work a lot (one day off per week) but the amount of flying depends on fire activity, of course. While on standby, you could be dispatched to a fire with 15 minutes' notice and not return to your home base for many weeks. Airtanker pilots start as first officers or flight engineers, with typical pay around $35k-45k per season.

In the US, Forest Service regulations require a minimum of 800 hours PIC and 100 hours multi-engine for newhire first officers; the typical new hire has more. Experience in C-130 or P-3 aircraft is helpful, as is time in any radial-engined aircraft (DC-6's are common).

Bush Flying
Aviation is often the only means of transportation throughout Alaska and northern Canada, as well as many other remote corners of the globe. In any populated area, you'll find pilots operating from lakes or unimproved strips, often flying small single-engine aircraft in marginal weather over remote terrain. In Alaska, the accident rate has long been several times that of the Lower 48, although it's getting better.

Several Horizon pilots used to fly in Alaska. One captain describes it as being very tough work, but extremely rewarding at times. The scenery is often stunning; the challenging flying will turn you into a much better pilot. The weather in Alaska and northern Canada is some of the worst in the world; it accounts for a large percentage of the accidents. Pay for backcountry pilots is typically excellent for the type of aircraft they're flying, but cost of living tends to be very high as well.

Getting into the bush flying business is tough if you've never done any flying in that location. In Alaska, it's common to hire pilots with as few as 500 hours (for VFR-only operations), but they'd want several hundred hours of Alaska flight time. It's more common to hire flight instructors without Alaska time; after some time instructing in Alaska, it's easier to get on with a bush operator. Tailwheel experience is crucial, and a float rating is a near-must.


Next post: common timebuilding jobs, and why it's worthwhile to consider them for more than just timebuilding.

For comments: What is the most interesting flying job you've had?