CEO of the Cockpit #11:
Career Day

Do you think it'd be a good idea to invite AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit to speak to students about airline careers? One thing's for sure, he'll tell them what they really should be studying in order to succeed in the front office.


My lukewarm Diet Coke had lost all its bubbles, and my folding chair was getting to feel a little hard as I sat at East State Junior College and Aviation Academy. It was their career day and I was invited as an “expert witness” about airline careers. They had no idea what they were getting into.

I had finished my 10-minute talk, titled: “That’s Not a Cold Sore Dear, I Just Burned My Lip on the Coffee You Brought Up,” a treatise on Pilot/Flight-Attendant relations, and was now surrounded by dozens of students, many still wearing their Ray-Bans in tan cases on their belts. They gathered around me like eager Trekkies who had just sighted Picard.

I signed all items the students brought up to the table for me to autograph: the usual career-day programs, their student pilot certificates, napkins from their school’s “Flat Spin Pizza Parlor,” and, of course, the occasional proffered sports bra. My Sharpie was just about to run out of ink when they all were called back to their seats for the question-and-answer part of our two hours together.

The Big Question

A female student, wearing a T-shirt that said “Kamikazes Do It Once” raised her hand and began the questioning with the age-old poser: “What should I study if I want an airline career?”

Cute kid …

I’m glad you asked me that question, because it goes to the core of what I’m trying to get across to you guys. You should study old movies, stock-manipulation strategies, the opposite sex, and popular culture if you want to succeed as an airline pilot. I’m not saying that aviation stuff isn’t important, but once you get the job, it’ll be less germane to your career.

Every airline pilot knows about flying, and when you go for your job interview, it is important to know the lat-long for the North Pole and how an air molecule works its way through an air-conditioning pack, but the main things that the pilots interviewing you are looking for is knowledge of things like lines from old movies, advice from you on how to avoid the sales tax on their new boat they just bought, and if you know anybody from their old squadron. For this reason, I recommend to all of you that you watch cable television movies, especially the older ones, right away.

Your military competition for these jobs already has a huge leg up on you civilian types. Navy guys, especially, have a great advantage on the old movie thing because, on the ship, they sometimes watch the same movie 30 or 40 times at a whack. If you are flying with a Navy guy and say, “Looking good, Billy Ray!” you can bet your ass that he will immediately come back with, “Feeling good, Winthrop!” Okay, I can see from your blank stares that you people are way behind. That was from “Trading Places.”

I think you see what I mean. Show of hands – how many people can do Bill Murray from “Caddyshack”? How many know which movie had the line: “Son, you got panties on your head”? (“Raising Arizona.”) Shameful! What the hell are they teaching you here anyway?

Usual Curriculum vs. Real Curriculum

College Class“Mostly aviation stuff,” said a student in the third row who had the sincere look of a person really in love with flying and clueless on how to go about doing it. While I sensed a little animosity from him, I knew what he had on his mind. Subtract 20 or 30 years and this kid was me.

“We spend all of our time learning about flying and the business of aviation,” he said. “Right now I’m taking Instrument Flight 101, Enroute Holding 202, and FBO Chock Inventory Strategies 105. When I graduate, I plan on knowing all about aviation and also plan on flying for a living my whole career. I don’t see how knowing movie lines will help me.”

Man, I liked this kid!

Let me ask you a question, I said. How many literature courses are you planning to take here? How many courses on World History? Political Science? Theatre? Other than magneto courses, what kind of education are you getting here?

“My advisor said I didn’t need any of those classes. He said I got all of that stuff I needed in high school and should take nothing but flying courses here.”

Your advisor is an idiot.

It took me a long time to figure this out, and I have the advantages of already having an airline job and a long history of flying, but I’ll tell you this anyway. No matter what career you go into, you should go to college with the intention of getting an education, not a job. I know they won’t invite me back here next year because that isn’t what they want you to hear, but it is true.

There is nothing at all wrong with loving flying and wanting to do it for a living, but in addition to learning all about flying, you need to have a solid background in other areas as well.

“Why?” asked a student from the back. “If all we want to do is fly, why shouldn’t we just study that?”

Why Be Well-Rounded?

Because when you work for the airlines or just about any other aviation company, flying the plane is only a part of what you do. You have to deal with people, the company, and each other, not to mention the rest of the world, and if all you know how to do is fly an ILS, you will be totally unprepared for your career.

What do you think we airline pilots talk about while we are in the air? Flying? Nope. That subject almost never comes up. Every single pilot I fly with has at least two other areas of interest. I fly with lawyers, accountants, even doctors. Most have graduate degrees in areas outside of aviation. All have something else going on other than their last flight.

The reason they are doing all this other stuff is because the job of airline pilot gives you the greatest gift you can get in an aviation career, and something that other jobs in flying simply don’t offer – lots of time off. Using that time off wisely requires a broad education.

When you are a new hire at whatever airline hires you, the excitement of finally making it to the biggies leads you to concentrate on going to that next airplane school, getting in those heavy-jet hours, and expanding your aviation career. Then, after maybe a year, you realize that nobody cares if you have a Lear type-rating. They couldn’t care less if you fly more than the other guy. You are now locked into a seniority system, and the whole idea of getting ahead by being ambitious has become moot.

Safety of Seniority

Airline CockpitPersonally, I think the seniority system is a great way to go. You never have to worry about your co-pilots trying to make you look bad to the company so they can get your job. If you are a kiss-up, the seniority system will keep you from getting ahead. You live and die by your number, nothing else. It isn’t personal, and no matter how many courses you take here in aviation, it won’t move you up one number sooner than death and retirement will.

The reason you should get a broader education than knowing where the pitot tube cover goes is because, when you leave here to go fly through the great big world outside, it is nice to know something about it. My American Studies degree, while having nothing to do with flying, was a godsend in my travels around this country. That stupid art history course I took as a junior seemed like a total waste of time until I had long Paris layovers last year and cruised through the art museums. Accounting 101 had nothing to do with landing an MD-88, but makes me look like less of a fool when I talk over my taxes with my CPA.

There was a moment of quiet as the students swallowed this steaming load of advice. I noticed the teachers looking a little uncomfortable, and one motioned to a student in the crowd to get her to pose one of the planned questions they had coached the kids to ask.

“Do you have a specific list of do’s and don’ts to guide us through our training and subsequent careers?”

Advice From the Experienced

Yes I do. I’ll give you a mixed-up, jumbled set of recommendations. There is no need to write any of these down. I don’t remember anything from my college days, so I doubt you’ll remember any of this yourself. If only one or two of these suggestions stick, your flying lives will be improved.

  • First, as flying students, never be the person who wears the instrument hood on your head as you walk out to the airplane. Just don’t be that person!

  • Don’t give your significant other a T-shirt that says, “Remove before flight.” I know it sounds incredibly witty now that you are young and are just starting out, but believe me, you don’t want to hear, “I’m not planning on taking this off, you’re grounded!” from your wife. Not that this has ever happened to me.

  • Don’t fly sick. If you show up for a trip with the flu, you just gave it to about a hundred other people. The only sick-leave abuse I know about for sure is when you fail to use it and fly sick. Just don’t do it.

  • Drinking alcohol is something you are going to have to deal with and decide about on your own. Some pilots really develop a drinking problem. Thank God we now have programs we can go to and still save our career, but even if you aren’t an alcoholic, you will someday find yourself hung over on a layover with a life-changing decision in front of you.

  • The lavs on the airplane are for peeing only. Don’t be the person that poops on the airplane unless it is an outright emergency, and then don’t admit to it. By the way, a coffee pack stuck in the lav door goes a long way to helping with the smell.

  • Never, ever, wear your sunglasses in a case on your belt. It is so 1970s and was out of date and geeky back then when I did it. The same advice goes for Pratt and Whitney belt buckles, baseball caps with your airplane’s N-number on the front, and wearing any kind of gloves in the cockpit.

  • When laying-over, always show up on time for pick-up in the morning. Set two alarms. There is nothing more distressing than starting off your day of flying late and making everybody in the lobby wait for you.

  • Show up for recurrent training prepared. No excuse for not knowing your job, and everybody there just wants to go home on time. Don’t be the reason they miss their flight.

  • Once you move up out of a position, just move on. Nobody wants your advice on how to run their engineer panel. Seriously, eyes front!

  • If you want to retire with enough money to live on, I suggest that you only marry once. I can’t tell you how many pilots I’ve flown with who have bought way too many women way too many houses and are now fighting for their financial lives. I’m the last person to moralize, but think twice before giving in to the temptation to have that affair (and trust me, the temptation will be there). Is 10 seconds of fun worth living in a one-bedroom apartment while your ex has sex on your former ski boat with your former tennis buddy?

  • Finally, I suggest that, while you are going through this goat-rope we call an aviation career, you take a moment from time to time to simply enjoy where you are. Not many people get to do what we do, and a day being an airline captain beats a day of being the president any time.

With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and P.J. O’Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.