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.”
Blake Beitelsbacher, CFI at the Fargo Jet Center, has been flying for five years and teaching for four months.|
When I ask him how many hours a week he would average as a new charter pilot, I was surprised by how small the number was. It added up to about eight flights per month. “But you need to remember, a lot of charter is short flights. I would fly one hour out and one hour back, and it would take up the day.”
“Can you pay a mortgage on that type of flying?” I ask.
“I was on salary,” he says. “Charter pilots are often on-call, so we have to be available no matter what.”
Mark flew charter for four years. The company he worked for also had the contract for the fixed-wing air-ambulance in the region, and in his last year he worked full time for the medical service, flying a King Air 200. He would work 14 days straight, seven day shifts and then seven night shifts of on-call readiness, and then have seven days off. “I gained a lot of experience. I started off as a co-pilot in the King Air, and some of the pilots had been flying that plane for six or seven years; watching how they dealt with various situations was invaluable.”
The hospital was sold, and the new group moved the flight service in-house instead of contracting it out. Mark was offered a job with the hospital and took it. Now he flies only medical flights and no charters.
“I enjoy it. It’s fun. You never know where you’re going to fly on any day. Your pager can be quiet for days and then suddenly you’re dispatched to Boeing Field in Seattle. I’ve been there, and to Panama City, Florida, to pick up patients.”
“There is a lot more to commercial aviation than just business jets,” he says. “Health care is growing. Health care is a recession-proof business. A hospital needs a life-flight service — it’s essential — and while charters can peak and valley with the economy, you need an air-ambulance like you need a fire department and a police department.”
Mark has no desire to move to the airlines. “I’d be gone a lot more and I would be paid less,” he says. “Right now, there’s rarely an overnight anywhere.”
**Epaulets and All **
If you called Central Casting and asked them to send you a dashing young pilot, they could very well send Jim Corbo. Now 31, he started flying 10 years ago after a spring-break trip to Colorado.
“Just being in the airport was the coolest thing for me,” he says. “Watching the pilots walk by and watching the airplanes come in and out. I was flying by myself, and that was pretty darn cool. That’s what got me sparked on the whole deal. I knew flying was where I wanted to be.”
“Ever since that day in the airport,” he continues, “I’ve always seen myself as one of the commercial guys. It looked cool, and the opportunity to travel all the time was mind-blowing. Just to interact with all the people in the airport and such — that’s what I wanted.”
After working through his ratings and putting in some time as a CFI, Jim got his first interview with a regional airline when he had only 320 total hours and nine hours of multi-engine time. But he was not offered the job after that first interview. He just did not have enough experience. “So I thought, if I want this job, I need to start flying a lot more regularly, and that’s when I started instructing a lot more. I gave as many lessons as I could for a year — and I just kept updating my application — and then I got another interview and a chance to try it. That one worked.”
Like with many commercial pilots, Jim’s flying is affected by the boardroom as much as by the weather. Jim flew with Mesaba Airlines for a year before Delta took over. “They wanted to get rid of the turboprops, and even though I wasn’t flying one, it was all seniority-based, so I was out.” Jim moved to Red Wing Aeroplane and flew with them for a year as a first officer, then left to take a job at Compass Airlines, which is flying for Delta again.
Mark Malmberg moved from CFI to charter flying to piloting an air-ambulance. Medical work, he says, is recession-proof and calls for the most interesting flying.|
“There was lots of room for moving up,” he says, “But then they started re-evaluating their contracts with Delta, so when Red Wing called and offered me a job as a captain, I couldn’t refuse. Now I’m back to flying charters again. But every step is a step up. I’m getting all the PIC time I want, which is what I need for future airline interviews.”
His dream job is to fly Boeing aircraft for Southwest or FedEx or UPS, or a Challenger or G5 for a private company. “I’d love to fly the big heavies. And I’d love to throw some international routes in there.”
Not every pilot wants to carry passengers. Sometimes the hope is to work alone.
You don’t often see a J-3 or J-5 with a 200-horsepower engine, but if you do, it might be Scott Rustad flying it. More likely he’ll be in his own 230-horsepower Stinson 108. Scott has been banner towing for four years. He works for a company that owns several Applebee’s franchises, towing banners that advertise the restaurants. He also flies a Cessna 172 that has an underbelly sky sign. “It’s just like the Goodyear blimp,” he says.
Scott is an aircraft mechanic and flies charters as well. He says he enjoys banner towing and flying with the sky sign. Each year he puts in just under 100 hours with the banners and another 100 at night. “You get to see a lot of very interesting places,” he says. Banners get towed over beaches and sporting events and civic celebrations, so there is always an interesting scene below the wings. “You need to get an LOA — letter of authorization — for this work, so you learn about different local laws too.” Scott says the best way to get into this part of flying is to seek out one of the few companies that offer instruction. “A lot of us learned the hard way,” he says. “But there are companies that take green guys every year. The very best thing is structured learning.”
**CFI and Loving It **
Sarah Staudt started flying when she was 18. Now she is 26. “I always thought it would be fun,” she says. “When I was 5 or 6, Dad had a friend with a little plane, a single-engine low wing, and he would take us up. This was out in northern Ohio and you could see Lake Erie and everything. Very beautiful. I just thought it would be something cool to do, so when I was old enough, I looked into it, called them up and that was it.”
“Is that when you knew you wanted a flying career?” I ask.
“Oh, God,” she whispers. “I don’t really know. I think it’s always been there. I enjoyed school, but being inside all day was something that got old. In my high school, not every classroom had windows and I couldn’t imagine a life like that. Flying is something that allows me to be outside and kind of have my own schedule to some extent.”
Sarah enrolled at the University of North Dakota’s Aerospace Camp when she was in high school, then enrolled at UND for college and moved quickly through her ratings. Her commercial, instrument and multiengine check rides were all combined. Her CFI and CFII were earned four months apart.
Sarah worked as a part-time instructor before graduation and then full time after, which is fairly common for graduates, but moved to Fargo, North Dakota, 15 months later when she got engaged. There were no CFI positions open at the time — she got a full-time job through an employment agency — yet she quickly got involved with the Civil Air Patrol. The CAP airplane is based at Fargo Jet Center, so she had the chance to get to know many people at the FBO. She kept checking job boards, and “here we are!” she says.
Sarah cannot imagine doing anything else. “I think I’m in a good place,” she says. “I love instructing, and I have a lot of new private and sport students coming in. I really have no desire to go to the airlines or to cargo. I like the education side of it. I get to go on all sorts of local adventures and meet all sorts of interesting people. And yet I’m home and in my own bed every night.”
The Dark Side of Pilot Life?
“There’s nothing like the opportunity to live and work in your home base,” says Jim Corbo. “I was fortunate with Compass to be based in Minneapolis. A 20-minute jaunt to the airport, and off I went. I hear horror stories, especially these days, of commuters trying to make it to and from work. Commuting takes away from your days off. So naturally, pilots try to minimize the amount of time spent going to and from work. That creates a ton of stress — especially now that airlines have cut routes and shrunk airplanes.”
Sarah Staudt is happy as a CFI at the Fargo Jet Center and member of the Civil Air Patrol. She foresees a long teaching career. “I think I’m in a good place,” she says.|
“Some companies have ‘commuter clauses’ in their contracts — which allow for missed flights; however, if one would use it too much, they were subject to discipline or termination. When I worked at Mesaba, I was based in Memphis. So, my commute to work was a 20-minute drive (to arrive at least an hour before my flight) plus a two-hour jaunt to Memphis, Tennessee. Back then, the commuting was easier, but I had days where I’d almost have to battle it out with other commuter pilots to get on the flight.”
“And as far as crash pads are concerned — I did the aviation no-no and stayed in the airport if I got stuck. I was fortunate to have a schedule that included a full line of flying — not reserve — so I knew exactly when I needed to be at work or not. Not being on reserve makes your quality of life better. A reserve schedule is usually five days on-call, followed by two or three days off. During that time, you never know if you will get used or not, plus you have to be able to make a two-hour call-out. So they would have you on a tight leash. I would commute in before my first flight and commute back to Minnesota after my last flight. Of course, the catch — no flights back to Minneapolis after I arrived, or full flights, or whatever.”
Jim says, “First-year regional airline pay is absolutely terrible. No questions. While the specifics of how one is paid differ with each airline, the two I have worked for paid a base rate of 75 hours per month. These hours are based on door closed, brake released, ready to push back from the gate to brake set, door open at the destination. For the most part, we are not paid for delays or swapping airplanes, or anything else as long as that door is open. Roughly speaking, I was paid between $23 and $24 per hour. You do the math. For pilots on reserve, unless some unusual things happened that month, they never see hours above 75. Line pilots would make more depending on how much they wanted to work. For me, I saw this as a time-building opportunity so I worked my butt off. The most credit hours I racked up in a month was 110 (which included some holiday pay). Believe it or not, I was excited to see that paycheck — which was still small.”
“I can only sympathize with those with massive debts, families, mortgages, school loans, etc., who are still trying to pursue the dream,” he says. “It’s easy to say, but passion needs to outweigh financial expectations — especially for those new to the industry. Looking ahead, though, the pay is still pretty good depending on the company. The six-figure income is not entirely out of reach.”
Sarah Staudt is happy as a CFI. Still, the financial side of being one does not often lead to mansions and swimming pools. Sarah has student loans, car payments, insurance bills and the rest. “When I was a student,” she says, “I worked 12 to 18 hours a week at a second job. I saved up and bought a bicycle so I could save on gas.” After graduation Sarah got married, and the benefit of dual incomes helped ease some pressure. “Still,” she continues, “I lose 65 percent of my take-home pay to student loans and car payments. I know a lot of people who just deferred a bunch of loans and are paying them back one at a time so they have a little spending money for things like hobbies and entertainment. I also know several people who used public assistance programs such as subsidized housing, food stamps and the local women’s clinic for health-care needs. Instructing is really only working for me as a sole source of income because I have my husband’s income to supplement.”
Aviation is not immune to the small-mindedness that affects other professions, and Sarah has seen the sometimes unusual challenges.
“A lot of it depends on where you are,” she says. “Here and at UND, I don’t feel like there was any difference. We’re all just part of the team. But I’ve been other places where I’ve been told that being a woman in aviation is not ideal. For example, I had a scholarship for a Learjet 31 type rating, along with another girl. It was all going great. At the end of the program, we met the examiner and were told there were no worries at all. On the day of the check ride, however, we were told we would not be taking our check rides. Being a woman in aviation is a tough row to hoe. That’s exactly what he said. He gave us the signed 8710 forms (as if we could take the check ride elsewhere), then he walked out.”
**Every Level Is Entry Level **
Aviation is one of the few careers where every step up is also a fresh start. You can be a new pilot, and then a new CFI, and then a new commercial, a new multi, a new charter, a new co-pilot, a new captain. Each change brings a new level of excitement and opportunity. The advice from those in the field is pretty clear.
“Keep options open,” Mark Malmberg says. “Network. Remember that the aviation world is small and your reputation will precede you. Do a good job no matter who you’re working for or what you’re flying. It doesn’t take long to get the time you need to move up.”
Jim Corbo says, “Go for it! We’ve all heard about the pilot shortage coming up. If you love to fly, you’d be insane not to get your ratings and build your time right now. It’s awesome. There aren’t too many jobs out there where you can go up and see the sun every day.”