Gear Up: Starting the Aviation Job Hunt

** Photo courtesy of PlaneSense**

Once upon a time, I lusted after owning a jet. I played the lottery in the hopes of winning enough money to own and support one. One time, I even put a down payment on a Cessna Citation Mustang. This was before I checked my net worth or calculated any realistic hopes for my net worth in the future. Ultimately, the fever subsided, and I started, more appropriately, to find satisfaction in owning an elderly turboprop. After all, if I won the money and had the jet, where would I go? Mostly back and forth from Tampa, Florida, where I live, and New Hampshire, where I have a cottage that is close to two of my children who live in Boston. I would also go to Georgetown, Delaware, where my oldest child lives with her husband and two sons.

All this I can do in the Piper Cheyenne that my wife, Cathy, and I own. Sure, we go to New Orleans occasionally and sometimes travel around Florida and to the Bahamas in the wintertime, but our track is mostly a predictable one. I never really needed a jet to get around; I just needed a jet because I wanted to fly one. When you’re in your mid to late 60s, there aren’t many ways to fly a jet without having the money to own one. Too old for the airlines and too distracted by life’s other pleasures for the hectic life of a Part 135 pilot, I could think of few alternatives.

Then I thought about PlaneSense, a Pilatus PC-12 operator based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I heard they were hiring. Importantly, there were days on and days off. What about a life of flying fractional owners of this magnificent turboprop around the Northeast? Though not a jet, the airplane is a monster turboprop with exquisite interior space. Besides, someone else would be picking the destinations, making variety a part of flying. Of course, somebody else would pay for the jet-A.

So I decided to retire from a lifetime of surgical oncology and try to get hired. I will leave the financial and emotional ramifications of such a career move for someone else to ponder. I sent for and received the PlaneSense application, which included a take-home exam that I found bewildering. I won’t disclose the exam, but suffice it to say that one question vexed me so that I asked the former director of standards at Southwest Airlines to help. He didn’t know off the top of his head but volunteered to find out. (He did.) Another vexing question I put to John and Martha King over dinner. Martha was cautious. She said she thought she knew the answer but would check and let me know. (She did — she was right.)

After much consultation, inquiry and Googling, I filled out the application cum exam and sent it in. I knew my age and current occupation would be a question, so I enclosed a letter of explanation. I left out the bits about having somebody else pay for the gas and pick the destinations, but the letter was not disingenuous. I described my excitement at flying a Learjet 31A for Elite Air of St. Petersburg, Florida; how much I enjoyed flying with other pilots; and how surprised I was at the satisfactions of customer (wealthy customer!) service. Cathy even found a way to put a picture of a PC-12 in PlaneSense colors on the bottom of the letter.

A few weeks later, I got my rejection notice. Crestfallen doesn’t do the emotion I felt justice. I knew I had competitive hours, turbine time and ratings. I also knew I was an oddball. Turns out that “doctors seeking second careers” is not an unheard of phenomenon. How, really, would anybody at PlaneSense, or anywhere else for that matter, know that I was serious? Jokes about doctors in Bonanzas crowded my head. I had blown my best chance at working at a well-respected company that I knew had employed pilots older than 65 years of age.

I had no realistic backup plan. It looked like I would have to dotter into old age as a surgeon on the wane, a fate I dearly wanted to avoid. I was not ready to retire, but I was ready to do something new. I remembered that I had a friend at Atlas Aircraft Center, the maintenance and avionics side of the PlaneSense house. He is Jack Shields, Atlas’ avionics manager, and I know him from a major avionics project on our Cheyenne.

In an email, I expressed my disappointment and asked if he could figure out what I could have done differently to improve my chances. By this time, I was completely motivated to find a job, and I did not want to waste a petulant response to rejection without learning something. Jack’s reply was simple.

“I don’t know, but if I were to put myself in their shoes (hiring committee), here would be some questions I would have for you: Why would you want to leave what you’re doing and come up here? What about being a successful doctor, writer, charter pilot in sunny, warm Tampa? How long would waking up at 3 a.m. for eight straight days last (worst-case scenario)? Do you realize that the pay isn’t comparable to a Gulfstream pilot, let alone an airline captain?”

I noted that he did not seem to think age was a factor, so I wrote him back explaining that I wanted to leave medicine and to fly full time, that I had spent the last two years getting commercial and ATP ratings along with the Lear type rating, that I had been getting up at 5:45 a.m. for 43 years, and that, not to sound smug, but I could now afford to fly for a living, as obnoxious as that may sound. And then I waited.

In the meantime, Mike Shafer of Mercury Aircraft Sales, a terrific guy and aircraft broker, went to work on my behalf. He contacted a number of operations in Florida, all of which told him no thanks. One said the company was “looking for younger blood.” Gradually it dawned on me. As a white male baby boomer, I had never, not once, been subjected to prejudice of any kind. From what I heard Mike say, it was beginning to look like I was too old or too odd to compete.

It may be illegal to make employment decisions based on age, but you can sure see the sense of it. Why would anybody want to hire somebody on Medicare? Not only might they keel over at any moment, but they might also be slow on the uptake, set in their ways and unable to grow and change. Though some young pilots might leave to fly for the big boys, a baby boomer has an actuarially defined half-life. I didn’t like it, but I understood it.

But there was also this: I knew PlaneSense had a chief pilot close to 70; I had to come face to face with the likely fact that it wasn’t age that held me up in this instance. I was lying to myself if I thought it had.

I had contented myself with some serious whining when, out of the blue, I got an email from Chris Loprinze. I did not recognize the name and had almost deleted the message when I saw the subject: “Don’t give up!” The email was from the chief pilot at PlaneSense. He said he had spoken with Jack Shields “in an effort to get you an interview here.”

He went on, “Your responses to our vague questions about an accomplished surgeon’s suitability for an entry-level corporate aviation job have been exactly what I would have expected from you … In a professional capacity, my interests are maximizing efficiency and ensuring that we have qualified candidates in our pilot ranks … On a more human level, aviation dreams are why we all got started. I would love to help you complete yours. I feel this company is something you would enjoy immensely. I also feel our company could benefit from someone with your experience, background and level of professionalism … I love a cause and an aviation cause even more so. If I can be of any assistance within the confines of my current position, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”

Wow. Never in my lucky life had I ever gotten an email of such important grace and generosity. I made plans to visit PlaneSense and to meet with Chris and Ray Torres, PlaneSense’s vice president of flight operations. I couldn’t wait to get there.

So on a cold spring day, Chris, Ray and I went to lunch, after which Chris and I sat in a new PC-12 and talked as a slanting early spring sun suffused the cockpit. I didn’t know if I would get an interview, but I certainly knew I had been heard.

A week later, the phone rang. Twice. One was an offer to interview at PlaneSense, but by that time, things had changed and were looking up. To be continued …

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Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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