Friday, January 13, 2006

Flying Careers Part 9: Getting the Ratings


We've established that a flying career is neither fast, flexible, or for sure (to borrow from a particularly fisk-worthy Flying ad). The pay is decreasing, pensions are disappearing, the job market is increasingly unstable, and there's no end in sight to the worst industry slump in history. Anybody starting a flying career right now has to turn a bit of a blind eye to the carnage in the field and simply hope that things get better.

I've seen a lot of pilots simply quit flying and move on to more lucrative fields over the past few years. It seems to me that there's been a "winnowing" taking place: those who fly for material reasons are getting out, and those who love to fly are staying despite all the setbacks. Mind you, that's not to say that pay and retirement don't matter - they do, and a love of flight doesn't stop professional pilots from fighting for the betterment of their profession. But at this point, the only thing that an aviation career really has going for it is the flying. If you have the talent and interest to do something other than flying, I'd suggest you do it, and once you're raking in the dough as a tax attorney or chemical engineer or whatever, you'll have fun flying your Mooney around. If the flying bug has bit you hard, however, and you can't imagine doing anything else for a living, resign yourself to a life of hardship and read on.

I've already written about the various jobs that pilots take to build time after they have their commercial certificate; this post is about getting to that point. Basically, before you get that first job, you need to have your commercial pilot certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings. This will usually include around 250 hours of flight time, with 10-20 hours in multiengine aircraft. There are several ways you can get to this point from zero experience.

Professional Training Programs

There are a number of flight training outfits across the US that do little but train professional pilots. Examples include ATP, Delta Academy, PanAm, or RAA. They typically have integrated programs designed to take the applicant from zero time to commercial pilot in a fairly short time. Most of this training is done under Part 141, meaning that their courses have been approved by the FAA and often involve less flight time than would otherwise be required. The quality of training is usually pretty good, if somewhat rushed. Many of these schools have connections with regional airlines that may get you hired at one sooner, for whatever that's worth.

There are a few downsides to doing your training this way. Many of these schools are hellaciously expensive; expect to pay $40-60k for a program that takes you from zero time to multi-engine instructor. These schools brag that they can churn out "professional" pilots in 9 months, but that pace carries disadvantages with it. The training can be little more than an assembly line designed to simply pump in the skills and knowledge required to pass a quick succession of checkrides, with little in-depth knowledge or aviation background. Many trainees graduate having never taken a flight that wasn't on the syllabus. Finally - and this is only my opinion - studying nothing but flying for months on end, surrounded by other flight students, could get pretty dang mind-numbing.

Small FBO/Flight School

Another option is to do your training at a smaller FBO or flight school, local or otherwise. FBO stands for "Fixed Base Operator" - the guys at the local airport that sell gas, do aircraft maintenance, rent out airplanes, and offer flight instruction. Some FBO's offer Part 141 instruction, although the majority still train under FAR 61, which is less structured and more flexible. Training at an FBO is usually more relaxed and informal than a large flight school, which can be good and bad. Quality of training can vary pretty widely; you may have to search a bit to find a good CFI that you work well with. The payoff is much lower cost than a large professional program, and the freedom to discover flying at your own pace.

Although a few FBOs have put together integrated programs for aspiring professional pilots, you'll generally do your training piecemeal. The order will usually be Private Pilot, timebuild a little, Instrument Rating, timebuild some more, Commercial Pilot, Multi-Engine Rating, CFI (and II/MEI if desired). If you're a quick study and fly cheaper aircraft, you could do it for under $30k at many FBOs.

The Collegiate Option

If you're planning on flying for a major airline, there's no getting around it: you really need a college degree, preferably a bachelor's or better. If you already have the degree, going to college to learn to fly doesn't make much sense. It will take longer than using an FBO, and cost as much or more than a professional training program. An aviation degree won't give you much advantage, if any, over the degree you have right now. However, if you need both flight training and a degree, an aviation college is a good way to kill two birds with one stone, and get an excellent aviation background besides.

There are a few schools that are entirely aviation centered, Embry-Riddle being the best known of these. More common are aviation programs that reside within larger universities. There are some good programs at both public schools (University of North Dakota, Southern Illinois University) and private (SLU, Purdue).

The cost of flying at aviation colleges is usually comparable to or less than a non-collegiate program, but there's the additional cost of tuition and fees. Some of the state schools are pretty reasonable, but at a place like Purdue or ERAU it can really add up. You could spend anywhere from $30k to over $100k getting an aviation degree.

Mixing It Up

Mind you, nobody said you have to do all your training in one of these three ways. I've done all three, although the bulk of my training was in a collegiate program (UND's). Although large flight schools try to sell the zero-time through commercial packages, they'll generally give credit for prior flying, so it's feasible to start at a small FBO and transfer to a professional program later on. The same goes for aviation colleges, although college credit becomes an issue - you may have to do the classwork over or even some of the flying, depending on the school. I personally earned my private pilot at a small FBO while still in high school, but got credit for it through the local community college so that UND accepted it when I transfered there.

Getting Your Toes Wet

There are a few good reasons I'd encourage you to start at the local FBO. It's worthwhile to get your Private Pilot's license before committing to an aviation career, to make sure that flying's something you really want to do. Flying at a local FBO lets you discover aviation at your own pace, and gaining the new perspective on an area you know well makes it doubly interesting. You'll get to know the world of general aviation better and appreciate it more. Finally, flying in the "real world" will add some perspective when you enter "the bubble" of a professional or collegiate flying program. It's all a good reason to visit your local airport and take an introductory flight lesson sometime soon. If it leads to a Private Pilot certificate, awesome. At that point you'll be well equipped to make a decision about a flying career.

Getting Started

So, Private Pilot or not, you're sure that you want a flying career and you don't want to wait another minute, eh? Well, I've presented a pretty balanced look at the career, I think, and if you're still up for it I won't do anything further to disuade you. Hopefully this series has given you some good information; you should be able to find lots of additional resources on the internet. AvWeb has some good articles on flying careers. There's some good info at JetCareers. Aviation mega-portal Landings has directories of FBOs and Flight Schools, and other training resources. Your best bet, however, may be talking to a professional pilot. We're generally more than happy to help newcomer pilots. Strike up a conversation at the local airport and visit the flight deck after your next commercial flight. Register for the forums at FlightInfo or CAAM, many of the members are professional pilots. In all these cases, you'll not only get good info, you'll also be making contacts that may prove useful later in your career.

My next post will be the conclusion of this series & will include some final words of advice. Is there anything else I should be including as a topic for this series? If so, leave a comment and I'll do my best to address it in the final post.


Ron said...

Speaking of professional training programs, I went through one of those to get my instructor ratings. ATP was not a bad place -- indeed, the price was competitive and the intensive pace of training fit my personality. But it's not for everyone. I kept a journal of my time in the ATP "Total CFI" program, if anyone is considering it:

Even if you're considering starting from scratch, this'll give you an idea of the pros and cons of such programs. From my perspective, at least. :)

jbailey said...

hey thanks for the post. John from Freight Dog Tales sent me to your blogg. I am hooked and look forward to your conclusion. I am currently working in IT. I have always had a love for flight. Back when i started my undergrade, i should have gone the flight route then. But anyway, I have been struggling with the idea of starting a professional career in avation so late in my life. But my passion for flight always wins that battle. When i started this goal, i wasn't sure if i should go to one of the academies or a FBO. A friend recommended a FBO. I have my first interview with a local FBO next week. STOKED!!! sorry to babble, but my passion for flight takes over. I was wondering if you might be able to offer suggestions, books that might help along the way. Thanks for Keeping it real!!!!

Sam said...


Throughout this series I may have come down as somewhat negative & trying to discourage new pilots from going into aviation. I mainly just want to give people a realistic look, and if their love of flying still pushes them to do that case I'm tickled, it's always fun flying with someone who's in love with flight. I don't have many suggestions beyond what I've said in this series...but good idea on the books, I'll probably do a book recommendation post soon.

Keep us posted how your training goes! Thanks for reading.


Timmay said...

As an instructor at Embry-Riddle's campus in Prescott, AZ, I just wanted to take a second to concur with what you said about the collegiate approach. Riddle certainly carries a hefty price tag, with the majority of the cost being directed towards tuition. I am told nowadays, students pay in the neighborhood of $24,000/year, plus fees, before you even take into account flight costs (billed separately from tuition). I definitely have a biased opinion because I went through the program, but even in today's turbulent industry, most people that go through Riddle's flight training end up going to a regional carrier within a year or two of graduating. One thing I would suggest to anybody coming into the school would be to go through as much training as they can before they get to the school, get your private or even instrument rating if you can. It'll save big-time on time and moolah, and you'll still have enough time at the school to get top-notch training.


Anonymous said...

Great Blog and I really appreciate your insight as I recently decided to leave a comfy, albeit boring career and risk it all on doing what I've always wanted to do; fly. In reference to this particular post though, I thought I would share my experience in earning my private at a part 61 FBO. I looked at all the accelerated programs and even entertained the 4 year institutions. What I ultimately came up with was this: The accelerated programs looked great but for someone who was 31 with some domestic obligations it just wouldn't work. The price tag of 54K scared me off a bit as well but my frineds that have gone through them say they work but be prepared for the "factory" approach. The four years looked great as well and my Riddle friends have all done well but I have a degree and the price tag was even higher. Thus my initial decision was clear to go to an FBO, but more importatnly I suggest them for one primary reason, real world experience. Once I had my solo signed off and then my privte ticket I have been allowed to really test my muster. I have earned the trust of the owners and basically I am handed the keys with a "see you tomorrow" as I leave the office. This is not to suggest that I just fly off into the yonder without a care, but I am allowed to really discover and challenge my abilities especially now that I am working on my instrument rating. This is not the quickest route, and is definetly not for everybody but getting to fly into 40X1900 strips with 12kt cross winds in a 150 definetly builds flyers, not just pilots.