Taking Wing: In Search of Greener Grass

Just on the other side of the fence?

In Search of Greener Grass

In Search of Greener Grass

Vanessa Weigel

I've been lucky in life in many regards, but perhaps most of all in that I knew what I wanted to do from a very early age. My mother recently unearthed a first-grade project in which I declared my intention to become an airline pilot, and the subsequent trajectory of my life stayed more or less true to that goal. I developed some vague notions of pursuing law or architecture if the flying thing didn't work out, but never took it further. It's probably for the best; knowing how I crave variety and change, I doubt I would have done well in either staid profession. In any case, I've never known any career other than aviation. Throughout my teens, I earned flying money with jobs at a landscape nursery, a chicken farm and a lumberyard, which had the salutary effect of convincing me that manual labor was not my bailiwick and I'd best take my postsecondary education seriously.

Since going to work for the airlines, I've come to realize that such a clear and early calling is the exception rather than the rule among professional pilots. I do occasionally meet those whose careers followed a similarly straight-and-narrow road from flying-obsessed youth to aviationcentric adulthood; more typically, however, I find that my fellow aviators stumbled into flying in a wide and interesting variety of seemingly happenstantial ways. I've flown with several pilots who admit to leafing through the course catalog of a college that happened to offer an aviation program and thinking that flying sounded fun. One former classmate made a wrong turn into an airport, stopped at the FBO to ask for directions, and scheduled her first flight lesson right there. More seriously, quite a few aviators of the older generation got their start by visiting an Air Force recruiting office rather than risk getting drafted into a precarious ground-bound existence in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Then there are those who came to flying later in life after a long and twisted path. I've always been surprised at the number of pilots for whom aviation is a second or third career. The significant investment in flight training, the lengthy time-building process, and the pay and instability in the early stages are hard enough to take on as a young person just starting out; to accept these conditions while leaving an established nonflying career must require rather powerful motivation indeed. Over the years I've flown with former engineers, computer techs, nurses, teachers, farmers and accountants, and I've found some common themes. One is strong dissatisfaction with their former profession; boredom seems to be the most frequent culprit. "I reached a point where even thinking about going into the office made me physically ill," a former software developer told me. Another is smoldering childhood dreams of flight laid aside for financial, practical or familial considerations. Frequently, the former job financed a flying hobby, but this only inflamed the desire to fly professionally. "I realized that the flights in my Mooney were the happiest moments of my life," confided a former mechanical engineer. It was natural for him to ditch a humdrum vocation for a cherished avocation.

I've always enjoyed flying with career changers, not only for their fresh perspective and positive attitudes, but also because so many of the pilots I met at the regional airlines talked about getting out of flying. Some of it was idle chatter, but over the years I've seen a number of friends and co-workers actually quit. To be fair, the industry has dealt out a lot of hard knocks in the last 15 years, and my last employer was an aviation refugee camp of sorts. (I once looked through our seniority list and identified alumni of 28 airlines!) Most of these pilots had far more turbulent careers than I did, and some were simply over it. I will say, however, that many of those who left the industry sounded as though they'd entered it with rather unrealistic expectations to begin with. Frequently they had never held another job outside of aviation.

At the major airline I fly for now, nobody talks about quitting. After some very dark years, the legacy airlines have finally turned a corner, and their pilots are once again experiencing hiring, upgrades and improved contracts. At this level, most pilots are pretty satisfied. But in talking to the captains I fly with, I've discovered that many of them spent years on furlough, often with young families to feed, typically when nobody else was hiring pilots. Quite a few worked outside of aviation, doing whatever would pay the bills — many sold real estate or insurance, for example. These folks have been on the other side of the fence and generally didn't find the grass all that green. Like those who came to aviation later in life, they tend to have an obvious appreciation for their present job despite circumstances that could have turned them bitter.

I've been reading Dick Karl's column for a long time and have always enjoyed the good doctor's perspective (as an aside, if you haven't read his book on medicine, Across the Red Line: Stories from the Surgical Life, you really should — it's on Amazon). He's clearly had a long fascination with professional pilots, and airline pilots in particular, many of whom he counts among his friends. ­Meanwhile he's gone through a succession of faster and more capable aircraft, culminating in his present Piper Cheyenne turboprop, which is about as close to an airliner as personal airplanes get. Yet when Dick retired from surgery at the age of 67, his first impulse was to get himself hired as a junior copilot flying CJ3s for JetSuite! The transformation from lifelong wannabe to wizened pro has been fascinating to follow. Dick is discovering things that I've long taken for granted — the sublime reward of a well-flown approach at the end of a long, hard day; the cockpit camaraderie fueled by shared gripes, rumors and triumphs; the personal cost in missed birthdays and absent weekends. It's interesting to hear these things anew from someone who's already had a long and successful career on the other side of the fence.

With the uptick in hiring, I've been getting a lot of email from readers querying about their prospects for making the jump to professional piloting. Many of these are from early-middle-age men with an established career and a family and a Private Pilot license. I try to answer their questions from the perspective of someone who enjoys his job but has known a few too many miserable pilots; there needs to be a balance between encouragement to follow one's dreams and realism about what they will find along the way. Here's what I tell them:

Yes, the airlines and many other employers are hiring in large numbers now, and will most likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Yes, there is an acute pilot shortage at the lower end of the industry, and it's starting to raise pay for newer pilots. However, there is still a great deal of turmoil in the regional sector creating unpredictable winners and losers, and in any case this remains a notoriously cyclical industry. Even during good times there is a downside to consider. It's a 24/7 sort of business, meaning someone has to work nights, weekends and holidays, and it's always going to be the junior pilots. You'll spend far more time away from home than your "normal" friends, especially if you commute. There will be stress on your marriage and other familial relationships at times, not to mention your rapidly diminishing pocketbook. Flying can occasionally be surprisingly tough work, even when you're well established in your career. One of the surprises of going to a major airline was finding myself working even harder than I did at the regionals!

If you choose to commit to a flying career, you and your family need to understand the sacrifices involved and go in with eyes wide open. The only reward for some time will be doing something you love and little else; other rewards will eventually come, but they may take longer than you think, and so they shouldn't be your primary motivation. When your career takes an unexpected turn and the dream job seems further away than ever, a deep-seated love of flying and a conviction that it's all you're cut out for is the one thing that will pull you through with sanity and humor intact. If that describes you, my advice is to make a transition plan that gets you qualified to fly commercially in a reasonable time but with minimal debt and interruption of income. If you're going to make the jump, now is as good a time as any. Make a plan, go all in, and don't look back.

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