Landing Your First Flying Job
If you're a new pilot just getting onto the professional ladder, or if you're considering making the jump from private flying to professional, you may be surprised to find the rules for getting the job are different than you expected. AVweb has this guide of practical tips for the job hunt.
What a difference a couple of years makes. It was barely two years ago that the pilot employment market was sizzling. Airlines were siphoning thousands of pilots into the cockpits of Boeings, while corporate flight departments and fractional jet outfits were recruiting airmen by the truckload, it seemed. All of that upward movement created vacancies at the bottom of the employment food chain. Times have changed.
For those graduating one of the aviation mega-colleges with a fresh degree and a wallet full of pilot certificates, for the many who have invested money equivalent to a tidy home in the suburbs with a major proprietary flight academy, and for the mid-lifer contemplating a career shift and about to max out the credit card at the local flying school all for the sake of getting into flying for a living, there is this sobering bulletin. Aviation is once again a competitive career track littered with airmen and women who end up as bankers and sales reps because they could not grasp the realities of their chosen field. They failed to recognize the unique realities of launching a flight career.
Some New Realities
Reality #1Aviation is a dues-paying industry. Much like a professional sports star, a well-paid flying professional has invested years in the minor leagues. Just as a medical school graduate is destined to time served as an intern and then resident before the big bucks come flowing, the aspiring professional flyer must also serve an internship at long hours and low pay. Unless daddy owns a Cessna Citation, it is the exceptionally fortunate individual who can circumvent the system. Thus, the first entry-level flight position as a Commercial pilot may be as a flight instructor or banner-tower, steering a jump plane for local parachutists, or flying a small aircraft for a tool and dye company in Kansas. Then onward to charter and light twins. Next to the regional airlines or smaller companies flying turboprops. Then -- about five to eight years down the road -- the Big Time, piloting jets, when the real financial rewards finally arrive. Yes, there are exceptions to the normal course but they are relatively few.
Aviation is a business. Although most of us get into flying for the fun and emotional satisfaction of it, never forget that we are all components of the air transportation industry. Thus, we should approach our career choices and the job hunt in a businesslike manner.
Ultimate career success takes planning. Although there are aviators who luck out by being at the right place at the right time -- such as the Colorado-based LearJet captain who worked years ago as a lineboy fueling the airplane he now flies -- most of us need to develop a game plan to snag that first job as a pilot.
For the vast majority holding a Commercial Pilot Certificate with 250 hours logged, locating that initial flying position will take one or more of four basic job search patterns.
The Direct Mail Marketer
This technique is the most basic of all job locating tactics. The idea is quite simple: Flood the market with resumes and hope for the best. The process is best described as "Shooting In The Dark." It is a method that most fledgling pros must rely upon, especially if they have not built up a network of industry contacts over time.
When pursuing this strategy, most job hunters fail to recognize that they are becoming "Direct Mail Marketers." The response rate for companies using this advertising vehicle is low: 3 to 5%. This means that for every 100 catalogs stuffed into mailboxes across the country by a single firm, fewer than five recipients will purchase anything. Nonetheless, mail order enterprises earn millions of dollars with this method.
The first step is to define the target. When I present my aviation career workshops on college campuses throughout the country, I typically pose this question: "Where will you be 90 days after graduation?" The responses generally are like this: "I dunno. I guess I'll get a job flight instructing somewhere." Not good enough! Without a clear goal, there is no way to develop a job search plan.
Presume, though, after assessing your own preferences, you do conclude this: "I'd like to be a flight instructor for an FAR 141 flight school in the state of Colorado, preferably in a collegiate environment." You know that your dream of being an professional pilot will require compliance with a ton of regulations, so you might as well get used to the idea of maintaining records. What better place to start than with an FAR 141 school? Further, instructing with an aviation college or academy means that you will be flying every day and not hanging around the FBO lounge waiting for the next customer to pop in with a certificate for an introductory flight.
Once the goal is set, begin the research on Colorado aviation institutions such as AIMS Community College, Northwestern Colorado Community College, and Metropolitan State College ... all with fine aviation programs. Search the internet for Web sites, addresses, and contact names. Develop a cover letter and resume. Mail them.
Remember that 3 to 5% response rate. For any real chance at success, you will need to send at least 100 application packets into the employer marketplace. You want to reach the decision-maker who has just lost a superb CFI this week and is desperately in need of a replacement. You want to reach the employer who is "buying" right now.
Developing a mailing list can be a daunting task. The recommendation: Devise an "A" list and a "B" list. Of the one hundred names and addresses you have obtained through internet sites, airport directories, and other commercially available sources, choose the 20 employers that you really want to work for. Personalize your cover letter. Address it to the person who is in a position to hire you. For the other 80 possibles, send out your generic "To Whom It May Concern" form letter.
So, you've done it. One hundred manila envelopes with professionally constructed cover letters and resumes are shipped ... and nobody calls. Then you call. Follow up! At the very least, contact everybody on the "A" list. Build a rapport. Perhaps there are no openings today. However, there could be someone planning on submitting a resignation tomorrow and you want to be on the top of that employer's mind when the position suddenly becomes available.
A responder is a hunter who surfs the internet for clues as to where the jobs are hidden, and borrows, pilfers, or subscribes to every imaginable "help wanted" publication.
It seems that there is at least one new aviation job service setting up shop in cyberspace everyday. Although it is impossible to begin to list all of the addresses, a simple stop at some of the web's major aviation servers is a good starting point.
There are several excellent "paper" media job sources, too. Air Jobs Digest and Aviation Employment Monthly routinely feature pages of entry-level flying positions. Additionally, Trade-A-Plane and the numerous regional Flyer and Aviator tabloids display ads from eager employers searching for aircraft piloting talent.
The secret to responding to a job advertisement is the cover letter. In some instances, you may be replying to a "blind box number" and have no clue as to the name of the company.
A well-constructed cover letter will have four segments:
- What are you applying for?
- Why are you qualified?
- Why do you want the job?
- Call to action.
The applicant must capture the interest of the prospective employer immediately. One way to do this is "drop" a familiar name at the outset. "Billy Bob Jones, a mutual acquaintance and Assistant Chief Instructor with your school, has suggested that I submit my application for an entry-level flight instructor position."
There should be no doubt after reading the second paragraph that you are eminently qualified for the position. "A review of my resume will reveal that I possess CFI, CFII, and MEI flight instructor ratings. I have acquired over 300 hours of flight time and 45 hours of dual instruction given while serving an internship with the Joe Dokes University flight department, an FAR 141 school."
The third segment is pure "sell." "Billy Bob has recommended your school as an excellent environment to learn and grow. I believe that my aviation educational background at Joe Dokes University, my previous experience in customer service positions within the food industry, and my prior work as a flight instructor with a 100% Practical Test pass rate for my students, demonstrate that I would be an ideal candidate for your organization."
The final segment is something like this. "I would welcome an opportunity to interview with you at your earliest convenience and at my expense. Your telephone response would be most appreciated at 555-5555. However, if your schedule should preclude your contacting me, please accept my phone call next week."
The Cold Caller
This tactic takes stamina and intestinal fortitude. Put on the finest duds, secure a dozen or two resumes in the back seat of the Civic, and head out to the target area. Knock on doors.
An acquaintance graduated Emery Aviation College several years ago with not one contact in his address book. Frustrated at nil response to employment packets mailed in the blind, he donned his best sport coat, shoes, slacks, shirt and tie, and aimed at Columbia, S.C. After visiting several flight schools, he was welcomed into one particular FBO. The 30-something chief pilot appreciated the lad's determination and ingenuity. He said, "Look. I'd like you to meet the owner next Tuesday."
Tuesday came around and, by the time the meeting concluded, he earned a job ... not only as a flight instructor, but as a "First Officer" on the company King Air.
A novel suggestion: The best time to Cold Call is when not looking for a first job. For those aspiring professionals still in the midst of training and months away from launching the job search in earnest, consider taking a trek to that part of the country and to those potential employers that hold the most personal interest. If northern California flight schools are attractive first stops on the career ladder, plan a vacation to that part of the world. Visit airports. Hangar fly with the locals. Collect business cards. In most instances, operators will be delighted to chat when they are not faced with the unsavory task of turning you down for a job.
One reality of the aviation game that was intentionally saved for this moment is this: In flying, more often than not, it's who you know!
Building a network of aviation business contacts and friends is not an overnight affair, but it is a process that should be pursued from the first day of flight training.
Consider this scenario. A flight school owner loses a veteran instructor to the cockpit of a regional airline Beech 1900. Before that businessperson places an ad, before the file of dusty resumes is exhumed, before college placement offices are consulted, he or she is apt to walk down the hall to another CFI on staff and ask, "Say, do you know somebody?"
This same pattern is repeated continuously on all levels of the aviation career spectrum. Talk with a corporate pilot, an airline captain, a medevac chopper flyer, or a flying cop ... they will all agree: It's who you know.
Unfortunately, many fledgling commercial pilots have been sequestered for years on a college campus or airport property without the benefit of regular contact with the real world. Then, once cut loose from the training nest, they are alone without comrades and mentors.
Strategies To Pursue
During training, meet as many professionals as possible. Become a line-service worker on a part-time basis at the big airport. Attend as many industry conventions as possible: NBAA, AOPA, WIAI, etc. Enroll in Air Safety Foundation Flight Instructor Refresher Courses and "do lunch" with attendees, many of whom are chief pilots for some outfit someplace. Stay in contact with your peers and instructors. Maintain a database and communicate regularly. Send Christmas cards. Help them find jobs when you are in a position to help.
Most important, stick to it! You may be blessed and find that first job with the first application. However, employment consultants say that it is not unusual to search six months before landing that perfect first slot. Do not give up! Aviation is the place to be and the effort will be worth it!