Too Old to Switch Careers?

An airline captain weighs in on whether you should consider the change.

Three weeks ago I flew from Austin to Tampa with Flying columnist Dick Karl in his personal Cessna Citation CJ1, and then interviewed him on camera for a V1 Rotate episode (and bonus episode). If you missed those videos I highly recommend them, because Dick is a really smart, interesting, and funny guy who has done a lot of neat things and has great stories to tell. 

The TL;DR [too long; didn’t read] version, however, is that Dick had a successful career as one of the nation’s leading cancer surgeons, but always admired and envied professional pilots even as he owned a succession of increasingly sophisticated airplanes. After retiring from medicine at age 68, Dick got himself hired as a Part 135 FO at JetSuite, and had a three-year second career in flying. Now 78 and retired again, Dick is still a super-sharp pilot, but age-related insurance challenges will likely be forcing him back down to the lower flight levels with the mere mortals. [editor’s note: Dick will be writing about this journey in his column “Gear Up” in the print edition of FLYING.]

I’ve been thinking about Dick’s encore as a pro pilot a lot the last few weeks because I’ve been seeing a lot of forum posts by prospective midlife career changers asking if they’re too old to start flying. Most of these posters are in their 30s or 40s, though a few are in their late 20s! 

Many of these posts have a somewhat rueful tone, implying that they’ve missed the boat because they weren’t 23 years old with a fresh ATP the moment that the pilot shortage kicked into high gear. This always gives me a good chuckle because I had the aviation world’s worst possible timing (getting my ratings immediately prior to 9/11), I spent the “lost decade” stuck at the regional airlines, and I still consider my career rather successful (so far, knock on wood). But then again, I was fortunate in that I knew exactly what I wanted to do at a very early age, doubt never really entered into the picture, and starting young gave me plenty of time to wait for the industry to right itself.

Here’s the reality: the most successful pilots you and I will ever know, from a career earnings and advancement standpoint, were born in 1996, entered college in 2014 just as the entire aviation industry really got going again, worked hard and graduated with 1,500 hours, spent a couple years at the regionals and/or LCCs [low cost carriers], and got hired by a major airline last year at the age of 25, right at the start of the post-Covid hiring wave. These folks aren’t unicorns; they’re already somewhat common at my airline and the other two legacies, and I know of several already in the left seat. They are looking at a potential 39 years as major airline captains, with career earnings of at least $11 million in today’s dollars. Compared to these folks, I’m totally pathetic—I didn’t make major airline captain until 38! And if you’re just starting flight training today, well into the hiring wave, in your 30s or 40s? Yeeeesh. Welcome to Loserville, population: you.

I’m being sarcastic, of course. Such wild aviation success stories are an absolute aberration, historically speaking. But because such rapid advancement is the norm at this moment, it seems many new and prospective pilots are considering this as the yardstick of success—and comparing their own prospects in deciding whether to take the leap. This is ludicrous. I don’t compare my fortunes to those of last month’s Powerball winner, which is effectively what a 25-year old major airline captain is. Such extremely lucky cases shouldn’t even enter your calculus in deciding whether to take the plunge. The only comparison that’s really valid is what you’re doing with your life right now.

Let’s do some quick math. Flight training from private to MEI (multi-engine instructor) is currently running around $100,000, give or take. If you have enough years of flying left to make $100,000 more than your current job or alternative career path, flying is a financial win. That’s the case for most white-collar workers in non-managerial roles in their 30s or 40s, and even some in their 50s. Most can break even without ever flying for a major airline, or any airline at all. 

Now, high earners will have a much harder time making the numbers work (Dr. Karl made less than 10 percent of his previous salary as a JetSuite FO, for example)—but are more likely to be in a financial position to accept decreased income while maintaining an acceptable standard of living. It’s true that this income is at somewhat greater risk than most careers, particularly because of medical factors, and many health issues crop up in one’s 50s. I would only consider a midlife career change if you’re in good health with excellent prospects of maintaining a first class FAA medical into your 60s. If in doubt, consult an aviation medical examiner (AME).  

With money out of the way, lifestyle becomes the prime consideration. Many people in their 30s and 40s have young families at home, and most are established in their career enough that they have some stability and control over their schedule. They are likely used to being home for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, first steps and Little League games. Being new and junior in a 24/7/365 business like aviation is likely to come as a shock to such people (not to mention their families). This is the price of having far more time off work than most high-paying career fields. With some seniority, the lifestyle gets much better. Those who particularly value control over their schedule may sacrifice career advancement and earnings to stay senior at one company. In my experience, enjoying this career requires a fair amount of flexibility, both from you and from your spouse and kids, if you have them.

Quite honestly, though, the triggering factor ought to be whether you love flying so much that doing it makes you happier than most anything else. If you’re not sure because you haven’t flown much, get your private pilot certificate before committing to a career change. Do it on a vigorous schedule to simulate the rigors of professional flying. You’ll know by the check ride whether it’s for you.

I’ve flown with a lot of midlife career changers and, for the record, as a group they tend to be pretty happy with their choice. They also tend to have a balanced perspective that is often lacking among those of us who have done little outside of aviation. But within this group, there are some who came to aviation because of dissatisfaction with their former career, and there are others who switched because of their overwhelming fascination with flight. Dick Karl said something very insightful about these two groups during our chat: “The latter avenue is much more likely to provide pleasure than the former, because running away from something is way different than running towards something.” To this I can only add that if you are unsatisfied with your current life, a career switch to flying is unlikely to improve things, certainly not in the short term with all the stress and turmoil and family friction of the transition. First address the sources of your dissatisfaction, and then consider whether flying is something worth running towards. 

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