Taking Wing: Landing the Job, Part 1

Q400 Flying

It was a bright, bitter morning in the high desert, and a late-winter gale scoured the Inyokern, California, airport as I taxied the Piper Lance to a cavernous heap of a 1940s-vintage hangar and shut down the engine. I paused to listen to the mournful wind as it jostled the little freighter, and then gathered my coat tightly about me and alighted to the deserted ramp. I was early, and the couriers wouldn't arrive for another 20 minutes. I trudged toward the threadbare pilot lounge, savoring the pungent aroma of sagebrush and wondering if any of the usual lot of ancient birdmen were haunting the airport this chilly morning.

I had just stepped into the dark lounge when my cellphone rang, startling me. I assumed it was ­Dottie, the hard-bitten lead courier, and answered with a curt hello. The voice on the other end was most definitely not Dottie. "Good morning, Mr. Weigel. This is Jennifer at Horizon Air. We would like to invite you to interview for a pilot position." My heart leapt into my throat. I'd been trying to score an interview with Horizon, by hook or crook, for nearly a year.

Back then, in the years after 9/11, there was a huge surplus of qualified pilots and strong competition for even entry-level jobs. Most operators have always put a lot of thought into the pilots they hire, and are generally every bit as picky as they can afford to be. Today, however, the surplus has evaporated in the face of a major pilot shortage, and many employers are finding it harder to be choosy. Because of this, the newest generation of professional pilots has not had to develop and rely on the job-seeking skills that were so necessary a decade ago.

It's easy to rest on one's laurels, assuming that landing a job is as simple as submitting an application and waiting for the call. This is certainly true of some companies — but frankly, they're places at which you shouldn't want to work. Good job-search skills allow you to target the employers that afford the best compensation, working conditions, quality of life and career advancement. Entire books have been written about these skills, but I think the important points can be distilled into about two columns' worth of succinct advice. This month I'll cover getting yourself noticed and invited to an interview, and next month I'll write about the interview itself.

Network, Network, Network

I cannot overstate the importance of networking to the pilot hiring process. Looking back on my own early career, I wish I had put as much effort into it as I did into flight training. I didn't realize then that developing and maintaining a network of contacts is just as critical to a professional pilot's career as the ability to fly a smooth, precise ILS approach. This is because most aviation employers place a huge emphasis on recommendations from current employees.

Faced with a sea of identical credentials and qualifications, it's their best way to find reliable, thoughtful candidates. Any jackass can act half-normal for a two-hour interview. It's much easier to get an accurate measure of a person from those who have known them for years and are willing to put their own reputation at stake by vouching for them. Many smaller operators, especially in corporate aviation, hire almost exclusively on personal recommendations.

Even the major airlines put a lot of stock in employee referrals. The best networker I know, Mitch Nastri, was hired at United Airlines near the beginning of the current hiring cycle with zero turbine PIC time. As long as I've known him, Mitch has called me once a month, just like clockwork. His calls are so regular that I asked Mitch if he has a schedule. He says he doesn't — he simply goes down his contact list whenever he has downtime and calls whomever he hasn't talked to lately. We swap industry gossip and rumors, and catch up on each other's lives. A few years ago Mitch revealed that he was considering leaving his then-present job, so I helped him get hired at our last regional airline. When Mitch got hired at United, he had eight internal letters of recommendation, including one from a chief pilot.

It's worth pointing out that Mitch started networking long, long before he was remotely qualified for United, or even the regional airlines. The time to begin conscious networking is the moment you start flight training. You're going to meet plenty of people. Take the time to learn their names and develop personal connections, and then stay in touch. Make contacts among fellow students, flight instructors, line boys, airport bums and co-workers. Fly with as many as possible. It doesn't matter what position someone is in at present — you never know where they'll end up down the road. Whenever you're able to help one of your contacts, go above and beyond in doing so. Conversely, avoid burning bridges at all costs. This is a small industry, and karma is real.

Knowledge Is Power

Having contacts scattered around the aviation industry serves as a valuable source of information on potential employers. Every company has a slightly different hiring process, and any insight you can gain into it will give you a leg up on other applicants. Many companies have back channels by which applications get moved to the top of the pile for consideration. Most also place differing levels of emphasis on various facets of an applicant's qualifications: Some prefer particular types of flight time, others prize previous positions of responsibility such as chief flight instructor or check airman, and some weigh education or even volunteerism most heavily. Develop a personalized hiring strategy for each company you target, making full use of each internal contact that is willing to help you.

If you don't have any contacts at a particular company, there is a lot of information online regarding airlines and other large operators, but the quality varies because it is sometimes outdated and can be tainted by personal bias and individual experiences. Two sources I've used in the past are willflyforfood.com and airlinepilotforums.com.

Pay Attention to Detail

Of all the applications that aviation employers receive, relatively few are invited to interview. In the absence of a strong recommendation from a trusted employee and all other things being equal, companies have little to go off of in deciding who gets the call. Snap judgments are common, and a negative first impression will get your package sent to the bottom of the pile to languish indefinitely. Everything you submit needs to be flawless. Your resume should be clean, uncluttered and well-organized. There are several nontraditional resume styles currently in vogue in creative fields; however, most aviation employers are fairly conservative, so you should use a traditional format. This might start with a personalized objective followed by a short summary of certificates and flight hours, schooling and flight training, and applicable work experience. It should occupy no more than a single page, and any hard copies should be printed on high-quality stationery.

Cover letters are seldom required, but I always include one whenever possible. A well-written cover letter provides an opportunity to introduce yourself, fill in any blanks in your ­resume, and demonstrate your knowledge of the target company and commitment to being hired there. Not everyone is an English major; if your writing skills are lacking, I'd suggest asking a more literary-minded friend to edit or even ghostwrite your cover letter.

Many larger companies skip the resume and cover letter altogether and simply ask applicants to fill out an online application. These are often quite long, and you might have a tendency to rush at the end. It's important to take your time and read and answer the questions carefully. Flight time grids in particular can be maddeningly complicated. Make sure everything adds up! Any lack of attention to detail on your part will be abundantly clear — which is the whole point of the exercise.

Whether you are submitting an application, a resume, a cover letter or some combination of the three, be sure to get multiple sets of eyeballs on them before submission. Much as in writing, it is exceedingly easy to miss your own typos even after multiple read-throughs. Your proofreaders should include at least one person of a nonaviation background.

Be Persistent

Applying for a flying job is seldom a "one and done" proposition. Months can elapse without hearing anything, and the process is pretty opaque, leaving you in the blind. It's important to stay actively engaged. Update frequently as your flight times change — at least once a month. It's often helpful to show progression in your current job, adding new ratings or responsibilities as you accrue them.

If your contacts were able to put you directly in touch with someone in your target company's hiring department, you'll want to call periodically enough that this person will ­remember your name, but not so often that he or she feels harassed. Once a month, immediately after updating your application, is a good interval. This isn't always a panacea. I called Horizon's head of pilot recruitment for nine months straight without success. Having your internal contacts making occasional inquiries on your behalf might be more effective.

Go the Extra Mile

It should go without saying, but companies try to hire pilots who really want to fly for them. Simply putting in an application and calling occasionally may not sufficiently express your interest, but making an extra effort to meet face to face just might do the trick. Many employers attend job fairs held by recruitment firms like Future Airline Pilots of America (FAPA) or Aero Crew Solutions. Even better are job fairs sponsored by professional organizations like Women in Aviation International (WAI) or the Organization of Black Airline Pilots (OBAP). You should be a member of these organizations anyway as part of your networking strategy; they welcome members of every demographic so long as one shares their goal of increasing participation in aviation among traditionally underrepresented groups.

In the end, it was making the extra effort that netted me an interview at Horizon Air. I flew up to Portland to visit my friend Brad Phillips, and he took me on a tour of Horizon's operations center. While there, we ran into one of the assistant chief pilots. Brad introduced me and mentioned that I was trying to get on at Horizon, and the assistant chief noted that they love hiring freight dogs. I got the call to interview less than a week later. Of course, interviewing is another unique skill set, and I'll cover that subject next month.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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