Thursday, March 26, 2009

Loving It

A lot of pilots I fly with come from flying families; many of them have parents working at or retired from RedCo. I know a few pilots that come from veritable flying dynasties, with three or even four generations of airline pilots. These people grew up around the airlines; nothing in this industry surprises them. I, on the other hand, am the only pilot of any sort in my extended family, and didn't even know a single airline pilot until I was in college. It's been a learning process for me since day one.

When I was in my teens, scraping together enough cash to take a flight lesson at the end of each month, I was absolutely and unalterably infatuated with all things aviation. I wasn't simply nerdy, I was obsessed. If I couldn't afford to fly every day, I could certainly read every aviation magazine and textbook I could get my hands on, write essays on aviation, build model planes, fly Microsoft Flight Simulator, code flight planning software, pore over the pages of Trade-A-Plane, and absentmindedly doodle new designs for homebuilt aircraft whenever obstensibly engaged in some activity not involving flying. All these things made me almost as happy as flying itself. The few times that I did have contact with airline pilots through these years, their blasé attitude towards flying startled, puzzled, and finally infuriated me. Here I was, wishing every minute that I was flying, and these guys who got to do it every day didn't even particularly like it! "I will never be like that!" I proclaimed with adolescent fervor.

I remember the first time I actually didn't want to go fly. I was in college, finishing up my instrument rating. I'd been flying a lot the previous several semesters, and this was my third or fourth lesson of this particular week. I remember walking out of my last class of the day, realizing I still had to fly that night, and groaning. My first inclination was to cancel the lesson. Suddenly I realized that this must be what it's like to fly for a living: doing it day in and day out, whether you feel like it or not, whether the conditions are ideal or not. Doubts swept over me. Am I pursing the wrong career? I gained some empathy for the airline pilots I had damned so harshly in years past.

During my internship at TWA in Spring 2001, I did a lot of jumpseating and was able to talk to a great many pilots. I'd often ask whether they still enjoyed flying. The question usually surprised them, as if it was an irrelevancy they hadn't bothered to think about before. The answers ran the gamut from a profound appreciation for the beauty and mystery of flight to a sincere wish for retirement to come quickly and to never touch another airplane thereafter. I found that the answers were much more negative if I asked whether they enjoyed their job, and even moreso if I asked whether they liked the airlines. I would also get rather positive responses to the question, "what part of your job do you like best?" Even the crabbiest old Captains would reply to that question by sweeping their hand across the panorama of a moonlit landscape unfolding outside the cockpit windows and saying "this is great." It was a revelation that most pilots consider flying to be the one good part of their job, and the other, less pleasant aspects of the job completely overshadow it for many.

This spring I'll have been flying for fifteen years, and for the airlines five years. The industry and the profession have taken some very serious blows in that time, and ever more pilots are finding reasons to hate their jobs and get out of aviation as soon as possible. I've flown with pilots who've been in the airlines for less time than I have who are so disgusted they can't wait to quit. I don't blame them; many have taken much worse hits than I have, with multiple furloughs in the last year or two. Although my career has been fairly trouble-free, I do wonder how long that will last, and furthermore whether my profession will ever gain back even a portion of what it has lost. It can start to intrude upon my outlook on the job as a whole. On trips when I'm dealing with crummy weather and broken airplanes and overworked dispatchers and surly coworkers, I put on my uniform in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and sigh as I think about how much I really don't want to go to work today.

But I go anyways, and an hour later I'm hurtling down the runway at 130 knots with both engines roaring at full power. My FO calls "Vee One," then "Vee R" and I ease back on the yoke and the nosewheel below me stops rumbling as it lifts off the pavement. The plane rears up and sits like that for just a moment, as if in hesitation, then the wings load up and everything goes silky smooth and silent as the earth rapidly falls away. This is one of the best feelings in the world. There are a lot of other things I like about flying, but the moment of liftoff is the instant that whatever else has gone wrong that day melts away, and the frustrations and difficulties of my job are insignificant.

My career is still young. In the thirty seven years I have before retirement, I may yet turn into the crabby old Captain who can't wait for the day he remains forever earthbound. If that ever happens, I would hope that I could quit and do something else that I really enjoy. Right now, though, I still enjoy flying enough that it overshadows all the things that make some people really hate this job.


John said...

Nice post. I think I fall in the same boat as you. I always wonder if I will become one of those "crabby old Captians" too. I sure hope not! Hopefully someday I will get to find out. :-)

leadZERO said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
leadZERO said...

This is the very reason I've vowed to not fly as a career. I had one passion in life sizzled by choosing it as a profession, I don't want to see my passion for flight end up the same way.

The closest I could see myself getting to an aviation job would be CFI. And even then, I would only instruct on the side, never have it be my primary source of income.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam -- I'm a fan of your blog, and I really appreciate you sharing your journeys as an aviator with us. I'm an electrical engineer in my mid forties. If you were to take everything flight related from your last post, and replace it with 'computers' that would remarkably sum up my early career experience, too. In other words, I think part of what you are pointing out is what happens over time as we gain experience and insight, and lose the newness and wonder of the work we do. The same dynamic can be true in relationships too... Keeping that spark of delight and excitement can be hard after years of routine, but I want to encourage you (and all of us) toward that. Decades ago, I was on board a cross-country flight when the silver-haired captain came on the PA and mentioned that we were ahead of schedule, and that he was going to make a wide circle over the Grand Canyon because the view in the sunset was so spectacularly good that day. It was incredible... And I think that's the next step, really, after you learn to keep 'loving it': finding ways to infect others with the sense of excitement and wonder in the world, lifting us above the routine...

Ron said...

No matter how much you love your avocation, at some point any job is going to wear on ya. You could be Kobe Bryant, making $50 million a year to play basketball on primetime TV, and it'd still get to be a chore. I'm sure there are days he doesn't want to go to Staples Center and run up and down the court.

Personally, it helps a lot to remember the folks down on the ground sitting at a desk in some window-less office under florescent lights pushing paper. They're probably at risk of losing their jobs. Or think of those who don't have a job at all and would kill just to have that lousy desk job.

Pretty soon, I don't feel so bad about flying for a living. :)

Ron said...

Oops. "Avocation" should be "vocation". Sorry about that.

Eugene said...

Great post, Sam. I was quite fascinated to read this and learn someone had been through such a similar progression as me. Although for me it happened when I was a CFI and precluded me from pursuing an airline job. I can really relate! One thing is for sure: they don't pay you guys NEARLY enough.

LeftPilot said...

Sam as a kiwi working overseas I am kind of living my flying dream. I really love what I do and I get kind of annoyed when I am doing less than 60 hours a month.

Your blog is fantastic and I enjoy reading every post, keep it up. You have a very good handle on the industry which so many seem to lack. I hope you don't turn into the crabby old Captain just as I hope the same fate does not befall me.

Mark said...

Great post, definately struck a chord.

I don't fly for a living, I do however fly (that's where the paycheque goes!) and at 34, I'm trying to decide whether to drop the comfortable, well paid druggery, and try to fly for a living. Whilst I am quite possibly mad, I'm blown away by how negative so many pilots are. I guess it's gone downhill as an occupation in the last 20 years; loosing stuff is worse than never having had it.

Like anonymous, I'm 'in' computing. Unlike anonymous I (and many others, in many other fields) find the only redeeming feature of the job is the paycheque; all the corporate crap that goes (presumably) with an airline job, plus a box with a screen, and a tedious job...

Then I wonder if I'm missing something. But it can't be that bad can it? At least you get to fly :)

I guess it's got a lot to do with mindset.

Sastre Air said...

I can relate. I remember the first time I didn't enjoy flying. It was when training as well, and I think that didn't help. During my instrument rating my instructor was grilling me on every little mistake and we were flying approach after approach. I took solace in knowing this type of flying would never really exist (flying 5 different approaches in a row), but still I didn't enjoy it.

Now that I'm an instructor, I get days where I don't feel like going up and teaching a student a particular maneuver, but when we begin our climb-out, and I look outside as we gain altitude, I think, "I'm getting paid for this miraculous perspective and achievement," and it usually fades away.

Any passion that becomes a job will do this, because a job is a job and it can become mundane. But if there's that sliver of passion or joy in it, it'll make all the difference.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Great post Sam! As someone close to your age who is working a second career in aviation (who would think a move INTO aviation would be smart) I'm loving every minute of dispatching.

Not wanting to get up to go to work in the morning is natural, it's when it happens every single day it is time to look for something else. I personally hope you never lose that fire, or that job, and thank you for conveying it to others.

C said...

i can relate to Mark's comment, at 22 i want to drop the corporate nine to five gig and fly for a living. i'm probably nuts but a flying job seems like a more challenging and honest job than the one i'm doing now.

great blog Sam, thanks for taking the time to share with us.

Anonymous said...

Every dream can continue to be a dream, or turn into a nightmare quicker than you could possibly imagine.

I'm furloughed from a regional, and fully plan on attending law school in the fall. I have been flying for ten years, but only three of that professionally. I am, to be frank, done. The time away from my then fiance, and now wife, the low pay, the long hours, the furlough?

It's not worth it to me.

It's a job now, and I hate that. I hate that I've destroyed what I loved, and I intend to not do it again. Doing a job I love? It's poetic, but I love my wife, not my job. I need a job I can tolerate.

In my situation, the nights I listened to my wife crying herself to sleep while on the phone with me trumped it all. It didn't matter. The beauty, the grander? It was all in my head. It wasn't real, and if I want to bring that world back I can get back into a GA airplane.

An airplane where flying was still fun, when flying was something I did when I wanted to, not when somebody told me to. When flying was worth something, and wasn't just a way to make a living.

You've got a great post, but after a few short years that nearly mirrors your journey (same freight company, different regional. Bob, I'm sure, says "WHAT ARE YA DOIN'!?") I've ended up with nothing but regret for the moves I didn't make, regret for the moves I did make, and thankfulness that my wife didn't leave me.

Good luck out there, I hope you never get to the place I'm in. I don't view my experiences as negative, as most people read it, but instead as eye opening. This experience has shown me what's important in my life, which is incredibly liberating.

Mark said...

Anonymous@9.14: I feel for you, particularly on the furlough and family side. I also understand that the in the US the pay is bad (worrying as the rest of the world tends to follow..)

However, I've heard similar stories before, and struggle to understand some of the perspective.

The questions I'd ask (in general, I don't wish to pick on you):

1) What did you honestly expect?
2) Why do pilots think these things are unique to pilots?

The lifestyle's fairly well publicised, and at the end of the day, it IS a job, you get paid (if not so well).

In the past 10 years working conditions in most 'professional' jobs have taken a dive.

I know a few lawyers. They work crazy hours - more than anyone can legally fly, never home, relationship issues etc. If long hours are an issue, you may want to consider carefully before you go to law school.

Then to IT - in the last 6 years, all based in london I spent:
3 years 'commuting' into europe - leave 4pm sunday to get a late flight, into my hotel late, work 40-60hrs/wk, finish friday eve, fly out, get home late. Try to scrape something from the weekend, rinse and repeat. Some life!
3 years 'seconded' to... Australia (could I get further from home?). Not such a bad place to be if you uproot life, and make here home.. but how often do you think I get back? and I can't really settle here 'cos at any point I might get recalled. Poor me :)

I'm sure there are a lot of bad things about being a pilot. I'm too old and cynical to have stars in my eyes; but the grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side.. and remember, if it was all fun, you'd have to pay them :)

And whatever happens, good luck.

Anonymous said...

It's easy to say "what did you expect" when you're not living it.

I expect to be treated like a professional. I wasn't, so I'll leave. It seems simple to me, and has a lot to do with not selling yourself short eh?

I mean an office with a view is nice, but is it worth giving up the rest of your life for it? It is for some people, for others? It isn't.

Ray said...

thanks for the lovely post

siouxpilot said...

Sam, I've been silently reading your posts for a while now and I wanted to let you know that you were one of the blogs that inspired me to start writing my own. I mentioned this post in one of my posts today. Just wanted to say thanks and feel free to check out mine!

Aluwings said...

I don't know if I avoided becoming a Crabby Old Captain... but there are certainly some parts of the job that never become tedious.

My reply was getting overly-long so I decided to use it as a blog entry and just say here: Thanks for making me rethink all the the enjoyable parts of the job!

Great post!

Adam said...

Hey Sam, I've been reading your blog for a while and I really enjoy it. I'm a college junior at Northwestern in Chicago and a pilot. Next year I'll be writing a senior thesis about labor relations and I think the most interesting way to do it would be to write about airline pilots' unions. You've written a few times that you are involved in your airline's union and I think you would be a very interesting and informative person to about labor talk for my paper. If you're interested, please email me at alr1087(at) Thanks a lot, keep up the blogging and fly safe.

James said...

I've been reading this blog for awhile and have really enjoyed this behind the scenes look at what it's like being a regional pilot.

This post in particular resonated with me because I'm that enthusiastic guy that saves and budgets just to get a flight lesson in at the end of the month. Only I'm not a kid. I didn't get bitten by the aviation bug until a few years ago. I'm now in my early 30s wondering if it's too late to make a go at it as a career, and is it even wise to do so given all the doom and gloom I read about this industry (even though there's nothing else I can think of that I frankly want to do).

I just fear becoming regretful like the law student in the above comment.

Sam said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, sorry for the delay in responding as I was in Greece when most of you responded and I've been fairly busy since my return. The comment from anonymous 9:14 was particularly interesting, as was the response from Mark and second post from anon. Mark, so far as "what did you expect," most pilots early in their career don't have a very realistic idea of what it's like at the regional airlines unless they have friends or family there. The flight schools certainly aren't going to tell the truth, students would quit in droves! I do think that those who know what they're getting into can better plan accordingly and tend to be less bitter when they get there; that's a big part of what this blog has been about.

James, I don't know what to tell you. I can't in good conscience recommend that anyone get into aviation right now. I feel a little guilty for ever suggesting it on this blog. If you really think that you couldn't be happy doing anything other than flying for a living, well, I can't say don't do it. Just be forewarned - you will never love flying as much as you do right now. Even as I do generally enjoy my job, my enthusiasm for flying is nowhere near it was when I was young and scrimping for every penny needed to get me in the air. That which is common loses its preciousness.

If your priority is for flying to remain a lifelong passion, stay out of aviation as a career. Focus on doing something you don't mind that's lucrative enough to afford your own plane and see the world from it.

Mark said...

Sam et al: I didn't mean to offend with 'what did you expect' - I guess being a bit older, I'm more well informed. The information is out there - blogs such as this, websites like pprune, and through gliding and private aviation I have come to know quite a few airline pilots. My concern is that you only ever hear from those who have a complaint, hence my dillemma. That said, since coglan, it's become clear to me just how bad the US reigonal scene is; I don't envy anyone there.

I wrote a lot more, but just realised I was repeating my previous comments. Unfortunately the god of profit affects all walks of life. It seems in the current age, it is not enough to work to live, one must live to work. Bit depressing really!

For my part, I don't know what to do - I detest the day job, but I'm fortunate enough to fly for pleasure. That situation will change soon, and I'll struggle to afford to fly. Do I take a chance on flying professionally, or is it out of the frying pan into the fire - who knows! Problem is I can't think of anything else..

Damn da-vinci! he knew what he was talking about when he said "once you have tasted flight.."

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam. Interested in renting 2 rooms in my spacious home located some 15-20 minutes from SeaTac (Bellevue to be exact) to pilots or flight attendants. Is there somewhere in the airport (can I ask a pilot to post in the employee lounge?) I can post to get the most eyeballs looking at my ad? Thanks (you can also reply directly to