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.