The hustle and bustle of large airports and the appeal of travel got Jim Corbo hooked on the idea of a career as an airline pilot.
It's been a long time since the uniform included a white silk scarf. But few job titles get more immediate respect, and let’s face it — awe — than pilot. To take to the sky is a common childhood dream, but we have all heard the stories, both good and bad. Flying careers are hard to get, the stories say. The profession is defined by lousy hours and, at least to start, lousy pay. Building time and seniority is difficult at best. In the sky, the job is fantastic. On the ground, it can be hell. Then again, the stories say there will soon be a mass-retirement and the industry will be sorely in need of new employees.
It could be the very best time to imagine a career as a pilot.
In the Beginning
Blake Beitelsbacher is 23 years old, started flying when he was 18 and has been employed as a CFI for four months.
“I always wanted to do some flying,” he says. “I thought it beat working in an office, so that’s what got me into it.” In college he majored in business economics as well as aviation management and rolled through his ratings one after the other. Fresh into his career, he is upbeat about being a CFI. “It’s good. It’s a lot of fun. You get to be pilot and teacher and psychologist,” he says. “When you’re in the airplane with someone you’re not familiar with and their true colors show, you have to be there to motivate them and communicate effectively, and make sure they are progressing the way they want to be. That’s very rewarding.”
I ask him about the hours, the pay and the number of new students coming through the door.
“It can be a challenge,” he says, “and sometimes you’re pretty tired at the end of the day, but I go to bed pretty happy. It’s rewarding to watch people reach their goals. My parents were really good at planning for college, so I don’t have a lot of debt that way. And I have a backup with my business degree. But there are new students every day. I get lots of cold calls and I do tons of discovery flights. It’s tough to plan on how many of those will translate into a full set of lessons because some might start tomorrow and some might not start for a year or more. I flew with a guy who is 84 this week, and I have a student who is 15. But right now it’s going OK.”
When I ask him about long-term career plans, Blake is hesitant to commit to a path beyond instructing. “I’ll always be involved with aviation, but you can’t just chase what’s hot today. You have to follow your own passions.”
If there is a ladder in commercial aviation, the rung after instructing is usually flying for a charter service. Mark Malmberg is 37 but has only been flying since he was 26. He used to deliver batteries to the local FBO and saw a “Learn to Fly” sign in the parking lot. One day he decided to take a discovery flight and got hooked.
“I loved the view,” he says. “I liked the command of the airplane. I learned the aerodynamics and how things operated. As I worked through the ratings, especially the commercial bit, I learned about the systems — electrical, hydraulic, etc. — and I liked the engineering aspects of it all.”
Like many people, once he started he worked through all his ratings nonstop, nights and weekends, because he held a full-time job as well. His first paycheck from aviation came when he started giving sightseeing rides as well as instructing.
As soon as he could, he moved from instructing to charter work. “That was a big change,” he says, “mostly in dealing with the weather. It’s a lot easier to get weathered-out when you’re taking students up than it is in a charter.”
I ask if the hours are different and if the pay is better.
“It started out as the same amount of hours, but it was a different type of hours. Now I was logging all this multiengine time, which you need on your resume if you want to advance. I was flying bigger airplanes, faster airplanes, in all types of weather conditions, icing and such, and that was a step up.”