Before I launch into a discussion of the vagarities of various flying jobs, I'm going to give a brief description of my own career thus far. The world of aviation is incredibly diverse, so my knowledge is bound to fall short in certain areas, and I'll probably overemphasize other items based on my own experience. Knowing where I'm coming from will go a long ways in explaining any oversights.
You should understand that none of this is written from the perspective of somebody claiming to have "made it." I'm currently a junior first officer at a regional airline - I have a ways to go before reaching my career goals. That said, I've worked pretty hard to get here, and I've got some good experience under my belt.
I've been flying for 11 years; I started at the young age of 13. At the time, I knew I wanted to fly, but mainly for fun. It was later that I decided that I wanted to do it for a career. I soloed on my 16th birthday and took my Private Pilot checkride on my 17th birthday, when I was in eleventh grade.
After high school, I enrolled in the aviation program at the University of North Dakota. Between August 1999 and December 2000 I juggled school, flying, and work, and managed to completely burn myself out. I took some time off school by doing an internship with Trans World Airlines during spring semester 2001, which was when they declared bankruptcy and were purchased by American Airlines. When the internship was over, I went to Southern California for the summer to flight instruct at a busy flight school. By the time I returned to UND in August 2001, I'd flown 400 hours in 3 months.
I instructed part-time at UND while finishing my degree over the 2001-2002 school year. When the 9/11 attacks happened, most airlines stopped hiring at least momentarily, and many furloughed pilots. I felt very fortunate, then, when Piedmont Airlines (owned by USAirways) hired me in April 2002. It was a conditional offer - I'd need to get up to 1000 hours total time before they gave me a class date. UND had a ton of instructors thanks to the 9/11 fallout, with nobody logging much time, so I went back to SoCal as soon as I finished school.
By the time I was beyond 1000 hours, USAirways had declared bankruptcy and Piedmont had suspended hiring indefinately. In the meantime I began flying freight for a local Part 135 cargo operation. I flew PA32R Lance's, PA34 Seneca II's, and PA31 Navajos, mostly hauling checks on the San Diego/Long Beach and Las Vegas/Burbank routes. By late 2003, however, the company was in serious financial trouble and had lost several routes. Flying only a few hours a day, I was making under $1000/month. I had to quit.
With my FAR 135 experience, it was fairly easy getting an interview with Part 135 super-carrier Ameriflight. I started with them in September 2003, flying the Lance and Navajo/Chieftain. A few months later, Piedmont called with a class date. It was a tough choice after waiting so long, but I turned them down; the pay and workrules had declined significantly in bankruptcy, and there was no security whatsoever. It wasn't worth moving to the east coast for.
This whole time I'd been trying to get an interview with my current company, with no luck whatsoever. As a last-ditch effort, I flew to their headquarter city to have my friend Brad take me on a tour of the operations center. Sure enough, we ran into one of the assistant chief pilots. A week later, they called me to set up an interview. The interview went well, and I was offered the airplane I asked for. I started in April 2004, and as they say, the rest is history. Well, except for the part about upgrading and then getting on with a major airline. That's still future, I think.
I'll be writing more about career progression in another post. My own path is a pretty typical one these days, but there are a lot of different ways you could go about it. The one thing you should take from this post is that before you land your "dream job," you'll most likely be spending decent time doing other jobs. Before making any decision to pursue a flying career, I'd suggest taking a long look at the kind of pay and lifestyle you can expect in these other jobs. All this will be covered in another post coming soon.
For comments: What has your career progression been like to date?