What Are You Going to Do When You Grow Up?

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Now that I've officially become a senior citizen it's probably long past time for me to decide what I want to do with my life. I could have used some help deciding when I was younger.

For 21 years, Columbia-Greene Community College has been helping students consider their options by hosting a "career day" for junior and senior high school students in the area. Professionals representing some 25 different career choices ranging from agriculture to science pre- sent panel discussions about their professions. The more than 1,500 students from 14 area high schools can select two career panels to attend as well as one general session. I volunteered to participate on the panel that addressed career choices available in "Air Transportation." Luckily I was joined on the panel by a full complement of experts: Dan Pemrick, supervisor of the FAA control tower at Albany International Airport; John Mahony, a flight instructor for BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) and Columbia-Greene's aviation department; and Lori Creeron, a flight attendant with Colgan Airways. The pilot representing the airlines wasn't able to attend, but between the four of us, we had most of the bases covered.

It didn't take us long to establish an order and routine. John went first, welcomed the kids, and then explained about the BOCES program, in which junior and senior students at area high schools can take flight training - at no cost to them. In their junior year the students typically get signed off to solo; in their senior year they're about ready to take their private flight practical and oral tests. If they go to two- or four-year schools with which the program has matriculation agreements, they're credited with four college credits from their high school work. A good deal. John also talked about the advantage and entrée a pilot's license can be when applying for a nonpilot position with an aviation company.

Dan, who trained in the Air Force, worked as a civilian at Manchester Tower and at Indianapolis Center before moving to the Albany tower. It was obvious Dan loves what he does and, although he admitted to occasional stress, he acknowledged it's nothing like that described by Lori.

Being a flight attendant, Lori said, is a rewarding job, but it's not glamorous. She detailed some of the changes that have been put in place as a result of increased security by the TSA and the responsibilities - primarily for the passengers' safety - that flight attendants deal with. Asked by a student if she'd ever been frightened, Lori admitted to having to appear calm for her passengers' benefit after an SF340 she was working on had an engine failure on approach to Boston's Logan International Airport. She remained cool, the passengers stayed calm and the pilots landed the airplane without incident.

In preparation for my presentation, I jotted down a quick list of career options, some of which could be categorized as "professional" pilot and others for which a pilot's license would be an advantage in obtaining a job in "air transportation." Those for which pilot credentials might be a plus for an applicant for a position include virtually every type of profession I could think of including doctor, lawyer and … well, maybe not Indian chief. On second thought, Chief James Billie of South Florida's Seminole tribe bought the rights to manufacture the Meyers Aircraft and, using a Seminole word for "leader," renamed the company Micco Aircraft.

Admittedly there aren't many other Indian chiefs in aviation but there are lots of doctors and lawyers. We all know about FAA medical examiners, but there are all kinds of medical research projects that address pilots' mental and physical stresses and capabilities. And lawyers, specializing in aviation, work both sides of the fence - some protecting pilots and manufacturers and some suing them.

Sales opportunities range from selling airplanes and avionics to selling insurance and space in aviation magazines. All kinds of executive positions are available managing airports and FBOs, and with manufacturing and service companies. And there are positions with aircraft and avionics manufacturers for electrical and aerodynamic engineers.

There's also a wide range of "creative" careers for which having a pilot's license can be a benefit. Public relations, publishing and advertising companies that specialize in aviation have positions in copywriting, graphic arts, typography and photography. There are also opportunities for filmmakers and videographers in aviation. For example, Sporty's Pilot Shop and King Schools have sophisticated film and video production facilities where they create their own professional training programs.

Computer expertise is providing pathways to a variety of occupations. Software programmers are finding their talents being used in developing flight simulators, interactive training programs and avionics systems.

And then there are always jobs with town, city, state and federal government aviation agencies. A good friend who worked with me at Aviation International News moved from a production editor's slot with an aviation publication to a successful and satisfying career as a public affairs specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Having a pilot's license isn't a requirement for becoming an air traffic controller, and in fact Dan Pemrick told the high school students he doesn't even like to fly. But a controller who's spent time in the cockpit is often better able to understand what it's like in the cockpit of a small airplane when thunderstorms are performing on center stage.

And young people with an interest in motors and electronics frequently find satisfying and rewarding careers as maintenance technicians. And then there are opportunities for pilots. It was obvious at the career day that for the kids - both young men and women - the typical goal is to fly for an airline and that was what "air transportation" meant to them. They're not alone. Most young people who express an interest in learning to fly say they want to become airline pilots. So my effort was to impress upon them the myriad piloting professions available in air transportation other than flying for an airline.

My years with AIN were an introduction to and appreciation of business aviation. Many corporations field aircraft, some entire fleets. Flying for a corporate flight department offers relatively good security with the chance to travel around the country and the world. And pilots aren't required to retire at age 60 as they are with an airline.

Flying for the provider of a fractional ownership program could be considered a branch of corporate aviation, but there are advantages. Pilots flying with fractionals get to operate some of the newest airplanes with the most sophisticated avionics. And unlike flying for a corporate flight department, pilots flying for a fractional get their schedules well ahead of time and aren't at the beck and call of a pager.

Unfortunately, because of the relatively low pay scale, flight instruction isn't considered a suitable career choice and is most often seen only as a stepping stone to a regional or airline cockpit slot. Nevertheless, flight instruction is a great way for a newly minted CFI to hone his own skills while introducing new members of the fraternity to its mysteries. While in general an instructor's salary isn't sufficient, there are instructors who have developed training specialties and are able to command reasonable compensation for their experience and skills.

Aviation photography-ranging from beauty shots of completed and outfitted airplanes to air-to-air and air-to-ground images-offers another professional outlet for photographers and pilots. Photographers like Paul Bowen and Russell Munson have captured iconic images and if they're not household names, their work is certainly recognized around the hangars. And William Garnett and Lou Wise have earned well-deserved recognition for their art and ecology air-to-ground photography.

When new airplanes are being developed, experimental test pilots are necessary to open the performance envelope and perform the testing leading to FAA certification. And then, after an airplane is certified and enters production, there's a need for production test pilots to fly each airplane off the line to record squawks and make sure the airplane flies the way it's supposed to.

State fish and game and forestry offices frequently have pilots and their own fleets of airplanes to do wildlife surveys. I recently got an e-mail from Elijah Higginbotham who wrote, "I fly a new Cessna 182 for the Florida Division of Forestry. The Division has recently purchased three 2006 Skylanes with two 2007 models on order. We use these airplanes for forest fire detection and to aid in the suppression of forest fires in Florida."

I met a couple in Pinedale, Wyoming, who were flying a Twin Commander taking photographs from 21,000 feet of the changes in vegetation and suburban sprawl for a government agency. Their flying was limited to severe VFR because clouds would block their view of the earth below.

There are other professional flight jobs: flying in the military and Coast Guard, flying for a police department, flying charter, medevac, and acting as a ferry pilot, water bomber, bush pilot, ag-applicator and cargo pilot, to name just a few more.

You get the point, I told the students, whatever you want to do, there's a niche in the air transportation segment that will appeal to your interests. Decide what you like to do and then find the "air transportation" option that lets you do it. Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional. So what do you want to do when you grow up?