Will Work for Food: A Pilot Looks at 60 ...

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One of the classic fallback jobs for airline pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60 is to become a flight engineer on airliners requiring three crewmembers. Sadly, though, that option is becoming increasingly endangered as manufacturers are striving to maximize cockpit automation and limit the number of required crewmembers to only two. All of which presents a major dilemma to pilots in their 50s who are not ready to formally retire. What's a healthy, not-so-wealthy pilot to do? Having recently turned 50, AVweb contributor Ken Cubbin is facing just that question. In this tongue-in-cheek introspective, Ken runs through his options. He hasn't settled on anything yet, but he's having fun getting there.

JAL logoWell ... I've reached the halfway mark. I am now 50. Lord, 50! Where the heck did all those years go?

Why it seems like only yesterday that I left school and....

Oh no! I'm starting to channel my father! The scary thing is, he keeps looking at me from the bathroom mirror. How'd he get in there? That's what I'd like to know.

Start again.

A Brief History of Time

Since I got married young, my 20s were spent trying to get established. Juggle a job, kids, a mortgage the size of the national debt of Jamaica and my first wife, otherwise known as the daughter of Satan.

My 30s ... hmmm ... now where did they go? I know I must have gotten through them, because I am now here, on the other side. Brilliant deduction, wouldn't you agree?

I remember my 30th birthday party — I cried over my lost youth and was consoled by ... oh no, don't drop names. The rest is a blur.

Better forget about my 30s for the moment ... oh, I guess I already have. Oops.

Well, I know what I did with my 40s! I worried about how I'd soon be 50! And, I also decided to further my education. I guess you could say I'm a late bloomer. Impending redundancy as a professional flight engineer was some kind of incentive I tell you!

747-400 cockpit I spent a long time deluding myself that aircraft manufacturers, airlines and authorities would see the folly of having deleted the flight engineer position and reinstate the third crew member on future aircraft. Airbus did say in an article I read some time ago that they were considering a third crew member for the A3XX , but it ain't gonna happen. I accept that now. I can move on.

Although I still think it's not such a great idea to fly a great hunk of aluminum tubing with hundreds of people crammed inside with only two crew members, I am finally reconciled to the fact that my days are numbered. I thought I might be able to get to age 60 with JAL, since they intend to keep their classics for another ten years or so, but now Boeing is suggesting that a two-man crew conversion for the "classic" 747 is a go.

Bummer! Just when I was getting the hang of it.

Cash I was a little disappointed that I didn't win the recent big lotto jackpot of over $360 million. That would have made searching for a new career a moot point. My wife — the rational one of our union — pointed out that I may have had a better chance of winning had I bought a ticket. Bummer again! Still that would have been nice, wouldn't it? A big bucket full of cash and nothing to do but avoid spending it foolishly. Next time, maybe. And I'll try to remember to buy a ticket — you know, just to make my wife happy.

Now, what to do with my 50s ... hmmm ... let's see.

Note to self: Don't sit around worrying about becoming 60. Go with the flow. Ying with the Yang.

Oh, there's one other complication: I have a four-year-old son.

A Small Surprise

An Australian friend of mine refers to him as "spanner." As in, "throwing a spanner in the works." He christened Zachary so after I had told him that Brenda's (my one-and-only) unplanned pregnancy had been a surprise to us both when it happened.

Who would have thought that babies are made that way?

Wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said something to the affect of, "God laughs while we make plans." John Lennon wrote a similar sentiment in his song to his son, Sean: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

I think I like John's better; I'm not at all comfortable with the impression that God's having a great time at my expense. I'd rather think that, in the wise old words of the renown philosopher, Forrest Gump, "shisen happens."

Didn't know Forrest could speak German did you? I did ... I saw the movie; he looked like president material to me; sort of a cross between Al Gore and Dan Quayle. A real go-getter.

JAL 747 Of course, my wife and I are overjoyed at having been blessed with Zack, and we don't feel the least bit burdened by having him in our lives. However, since I was 46 when he was born, even if I can fly with JAL until age 60, he will only be 14 when I retire. Ergo, I need to keep working well past age 60. So if I need to change careers, wouldn't it be the wise thing to do it sooner than later?

Please note that I've always been a wisenheimer.

What's an enterprising flight engineer to do?

To Be Or Not To Be?

Since I just passed a Japan Civil Aviation Board (JCAB) physical examination last December (some of you might remember my description of that experience), I could be an astronaut. You know, the shuttle does have a flight engineer.

No, that wouldn't do; I don't have a Ph.D. Even the guy who cleans the shuttle has a Ph.D. in dental flossing or something.

I feel sort of the way I did when I was leaving high school: I could be this, that or the other. I've been this, now I need to try the that. The other, I will never try.

My mother, God rest her soul, was under the mistaken belief that I could be anything I wanted to be. Hmmm ... obviously she was factoring out the real world in her analysis of my abilities. Truth is, once you get on the 'train of life' it's darn near impossible to jump off at full speed. The train has to stop; that is, you have to first lose your job or suffer a similar catastrophe. My train is slowing down a little (impending redundancy) so that now it may not be so hard to jump. Just gotta close my eyes and go.

Recognition of my plight was the incentive to begin my MBA last year. Now that I am 50 percent through — for the optimist in me, that means only a few more subjects to go to finish — I feel as though I am learning new skills I can apply to improve my career choices.

Please note that the pessimist in me has been told to shut the heck up.

Media reports have indicated that baby boomers will need to work longer in order to sustain the lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed and that an expected labor shortage around 2010 will enable them to do so. Life expectancy is increasing and people are remaining active longer. Retirement at 60 these days seems laughable.

Only the FAA thinks that retirement at age 60 is a great idea ... and you know what a great sense of humor that organization has!

Who wants to go fishing, play golf or garden for 30 years? (Professional fishermen, golfers and gardeners excepted.) Not me Ghungadin! (Apology to Indians for probable misspelling.) I got work to do!

Government To The Rescue?

Not only that, but our beloved social security system has been systematically pilfered by politicians wishing to spend money on more worthwhile projects, such as grants to the Piracy and Looting Use of National Deposits to Expend Recklessly (otherwise referred to as PLUNDER), to the point where, guess what? Baby boomers may be S.O.L. (in German: shisen outa lucken) when it comes to receiving benefits! Who would have thought that spending all the money collected would have left nothing in the coffers? Go figure!

Social Security logo Even if the funds are there in the future, or the system has not been "improved" by our benevolent leaders, I won't be able to draw full benefits until I'm over 67. In all probability, that may be stretched out to 70 in the next few years.

If Ted Kennedy gets his way, I may not draw full benefits until I'm in my eighties ... but, cheer up people, the social security system will officially still be intact.

The best scenario for me to receive full social security benefits is that I only have to wait around 20 years. Unfortunately, ten of those will be during a period when current circumstances would see me unemployed.

Twenty years ago, 20 years sounded like a long time! Now it just seems like it might be sometime after next Christmas.

In reality, at age 60 I could be an unemployed father with no medical insurance.

Now that sounds rosy doesn't it?

Getting A "Real" Job?

Ah, but it ain't all bad. I've got my astronaut health and I'm still young, right?

Not according to a bad-mannered youth who had the cheek to refer to me as "old man" after I had reflected my displeasure (right hand, middle finger) at him for nearly having knocked my family down with his car.

Old man! Who the heck does he think he's talking to? Why, in my day....

Geeze, now I'm beginning to sound like Homer Simpson. D'oh!

Note to self: Look into job as nuclear plant operator.

So lately I actually started to send out a few résumés to see what sort of response I would get from prospective employers.

Put out the feelers. Test the water. Stick out my neck. Offer myself for flagellation.

What an exercise in frustration!

I have finally come to appreciate what Rodney Dangerfield has been expressing all these years: "I don't get no respect!"

Note to Rodney: Maybe if you expressed yourself with better grammar, you would.

Most companies don't even acknowledge that you send a résumé, let alone offer you a bone of hope. All these human resource experts, trained I'm sure in psychology, ignoring people as though they were ants underfoot. I know they probably get way too many résumés to look through closely, but a simple acknowledgment of one's efforts would be nice. Hearing nothing is like a virtual affirmation of Wayne's World characters' expression: "I'm not worthy."

I have heard that some human resource managers have a computerized scanning process for résumés. Apparently the scanners are looking for words that match job requirements. Words like: task management, project development, BS coordinator, Intergalactic Demodulator.

But wait, this is America! For every problem there is a solution! There are people who will assist you in "loading" your résumé with these catch words so your résumé won't get flushed by the computer. It won't guarantee that you will stand a better chance of getting the job, but at least your résumé won't end of down the gurgler. Do you believe this? How can human resource managers expect to find the right person by this method? All they'll find is the craftiest (Spanish for fatherless bandit) in the bunch!

Then again, that might be what they're looking for!

It seems to me that having your résumé peppered with catch words would make it look a little disjointed and illogical. Something like the results that are displayed when you use a search engine on the Web. But, if that's their game, I'll play. I'm a craftsman.

Note to self: Twist mustache in crafty fashion and look up person to assist in placing catch words in résumé.

To be truthful, I have gotten some responses, even one interview — Technical Writer for Volvo in Greensboro, N.C. However, when I told them my salary history and found out what they were offering, I think I lost any chance I may have had at getting offered the position.

It's a little-known fact, but writers — along with other professions, such as scientists and teachers — are only worth a meager crust of bread. After all, all they do all day is sit on their ass and type! How hard can that be? Only citizens of geekdom or professional sportsmen and women sports stars are worth any money ... they have the real talent.

Note to self: Take anti-bitterness medication immediately.

Oh well ... it's okay. Besides, I need more of a challenge. I am capable of so much more than merely writing at the eighth-grade level for mechanics' overhaul manuals. I can at least write for the 10th grade! Why who knows, if I may even be able to write for Hollywood stars! Come to think of it, that's probably only a sixth-grade requirement.

Thinking Outside The Box

Boeing takes off In my MBA assignments I have developed a long-term vision for Southwest Airlines, analyzed and suggested ways to improve JAL and offered business solutions to a local FBO company at Piedmont International Airport. Of course, these companies don't actually know about my grand schemes, but the professors who marked my assignments were impressed enough to grade them well. Therefore, I think I have good analytical skills.

I can communicate, verbally and in written form (at least to the eighth-grade level), and I am personable. Why, even I like me! And I'm a fussy SOB!

For years I have thought that I would do well in sales ... I have engineering expertise, am well-traveled and experienced at dealing with peoples of various organizational rank and ethnicity — plus I'll soon have my MBA. However, sales is a difficult field to break into without inside contacts. Most companies seem to want someone straight out of college so they can underpay them.

Hey! Take me ... I'm still in college.

As you have no doubt figured out for yourself, part of the trouble is that I don't want to give up the relatively good salary I'm earning now in order to change careers. I like JAL and the leasing company to which I am contracted has treated me decently. To voluntarily give up what I am earning now to accept something much less would seem frivolous. After all, I would have to work something like twice the number of years to earn the same salary. Problem is, if it's going to be hard to find a job in my early fifties, it might be near impossible to find one after I'm 60. Another problem is that I would like to stay in the Greensboro area. North Carolina is God's own country.

Implied message: I need this job, but want another.

Second implied message: I want to have my cake and eat it too!

Heck, some pimply-faced kid just outta college can earn six figures plus options in a dot-com company! So he can program some software that will be used, discarded and forgotten in three months. Let's see him fly an airplane, replace a generator, perform an audit, win a contract, lift those bails, tote those wagons ... you get my point.

I've got experience! If necessary, I'll get pimples!

Existential note: What the heck is experience anyway? If a person has 20 years experience and no one notices, does he really have experience?

Realistic response from dot-com company: Do you use Clearasil?

Actually, having experience seems to be part of the problem. I have heaps of experience in training, maintenance and flying, but none in running a company and very little in sales or marketing — except my MBA assignments. Well, that's not altogether true. I did win an award for designing a marketing campaign for JAL's introduction of the 777 to its fleet. In the 80s I researched and authored a report on flight engineer redundancy and retraining for my trade union that was used in negotiations with the company, and I assisted in adapting JAL's training program to fit gaijin students — even did voice-overs for training videos. But nothing I have done has directly contributed to the turning around of a company in trouble. That's what I'd like to do — maybe. Or sell a good product for an aviation-related company.

I actually tried to send my MBA assignment to Southwest Airlines, but was told that I am not the first student to offer their opinion. The nerve of students! Offering free advice! Hey, maybe there is a revolutionary idea out there somewhere; not looking is the first sign of stagnation people! Southwest Airlines, you might be developing myopia.

Existential note: If a guy yells in a forest and no one hears, did he make a sound?

Realistic response: He better be wearing an orange jacket or he'll get shot!

Well, whatever happens I always have one card up my sleeve: I can send my wife out to work! She's younger than I so she can work longer and we can keep medical insurance. She's going to be working anyway, so I'm sure she won't mind if I stay at home, right?

What's mo' better, is I could sit on my ass all day and drink coffee! Just like a real writer! I can do that! Heck, I've got experience baby!

Hang on ... it can't be that easy!

Come to think of it, I bet my wife would expect me to do the laundry, clean house and do all sorts of other jobs. Eeww! Some of the glitter's working off this idea.

Note to all female readers: I actually do help around the house now. I'm not an ignorant male chauvinist — I'm a moderately-educated male chauvinist!

Advice from father: When you're in a hole, stop digging!

Back from my tangent.

I could start my own business! Heck, I've got the tools. I could buy a franchise for — I don't know — leather upholstery repair! Now there's got to be a demand for that, right?

How about a fast-food chain? Everyone has to eat ... don't they?

I don't know. Knowing my luck, the nation would go on a health-food kick the minute I open a pizza joint or everyone would suddenly become animal huggers and dispose of their leather furniture. The roadside is littered with the bodies of disgruntled franchisees; apparently many of the franchisers are more interested in selling the franchise that helping you successfully manage your new business. Now, who would have thought that business people could be so self interested?

Nah ... I still like the idea where I sit at home and drink coffee while my wife goes out to work. I can live with that. Maybe I'll even sweep the floor once in a while.

Into the sunset... Our jobs tend to pigeonhole us into limited categories where our true talents are often underutilized; this leads to frustration and job dissatisfaction. For example, among the pilots and flight engineers I know, there is one who is an excellent musician and plays professionally on weekends. Another runs a large trucking company and one fellow based in Honolulu is a superb artist whose works are commissioned regularly. For these guys, flying is the job they have to do to earn a living; I'm sure there are many like them in the industry. I believe that each of us is capable of doing many things and sometimes, through life's black-comedic journey, some of us end up in a career that, had circumstances been different, would not have been our first choice. If our employers actually recognized and tapped the potential in each of us, employee frustration levels would be reduced and employers would reap the benefits of the talent right under their noses.

Well, I guess that's it. Personally, I'll continue to demean myself by sending out the occasional résumé and believe in John Lennon's philosophy. Maybe a satisfying, well-paying job where I can utilize my true talents will land in my lap when I least expect it. You never know; it could happen. Some company, somewhere will recognize that I am an untapped resource and hire me in a New York minute. Maybe...

Hopefully, God's not laughing right now....