The Pilot's Lounge #61:
So You Want To Go Into Professional Aviation
AVweb's Rick Durden recently taught a class in aviation law, and with the help of many in the Pilot's Lounge, presented the students with ideas on how to succeed, keep your sanity, and maintain your principles in the wilds of the aviation industry.
I consider myself very lucky to be able to go into the pilot's lounge, here at the virtual airport, and talk with or exchange e-mails with some very perceptive, knowledgeable pilots. I deeply appreciate the time they take to educate me so that I can write this column. In the last five months I sent a lot of e-mails and made quite a few phone calls to the regulars of the lounge, asking for assistance and advice because I had, perhaps naively, agreed to teach an aviation law class at Western Michigan University for the semester that just ended. I thank each of you who took the time to answer my questions and to offer advice, because facing 70-some bright, motivated young men and women who want to make a career of aviation caused me to do a lot of thinking about what I should be teaching and how to go about it. After fielding their questions and spending time talking with them, I'll argue vehemently with anyone who says our high schools are failing. I was impressed.
I found that I remembered the intense desire I had to get into aviation when I was in college and the frustration with the lack of guidance available. In the questions that were asked of me, I saw the same hunger for knowledge among the students, and felt the same desire for some idea what it was like "out there." I wanted to find a way to pass along information from outside the textbook that might be of some assistance to them both in the process of making a career in aviation and trying to simply keep them from killing themselves in an airplane. I was hesitant to do so. I was concerned that I would sound presumptuous on one level and, on another, more than a little doubtful that college men and women would listen to comments about flying airplanes from some middle-aged dweeb in a coat and tie.
After several talks and e-mails with the folks here in the lounge, I decided to go ahead and try it; I would talk about certain subjects and try to give a real-world perspective to what it was the students wanted to do. With the help of the pilot's lounge regulars, I put together areas that I wanted to cover and went into them periodically during the last half of the semester and then finished up at the end of the last class. What follows are the fleshed-out notes I used when I did my best to pass along some of the hard truths about this business.
I've done my best to keep this class "real world" so that when you are an airline pilot or running an FBO, or president of an airline, you will recognize when a legal issue is about to bite you and can take the necessary steps to identify what issue exists, be aware of its significance and then deal with it appropriately. From the real-world context, as someone who has been in some aspect of professional aviation continuously for over 30 years and has a lot of friends who have been at it longer than that, I would like to close out this class by talking very frankly with you about the business most every one of you in here wants to enter.
I remain of the opinion that professional aviation is one of the most rewarding occupations around. Some times it is financially lucrative, but, if a large income is your goal, the odds are better in other fields. Nevertheless, professional aviation can be one of the most enjoyable ways for you to spend your working life that you can imagine. It's not perfect. It's not even close to perfect. However, if you go into it with your eyes open, you may be able to recognize the imperfections before they blindside you and you can take steps to protect yourself from the warts on the face of aviation. As with any endeavor, knowledge truly is power; the more you know, the more able you are to protect yourself and potentially change things for the better for you and those who are to follow.
Once you are flying for a living, if you are truly willing to take intensive recurrent training every six months, and apply yourself to it, you are going to increase your chances of dying in bed, rather than an airplane, immeasurably. If your decision-making process starts from the assumption that you cannot make a given trip safely and that you have to find evidence that is strong enough to convince you that you can go safely, you will live a long time.
With recurrent training and conservative judgment, the two areas left that are most likely to kill you are weather and maintenance. Resolve to become a weather guru. Read Bob Buck's Weather Flying and then go on to more advanced material. If you are flying jets, get to know high-altitude weather and aerodynamics, because ignorance of that world outside a maximum-differential pressure vessel can kill you.
In your first, entry-level job, you will probably be pressured to fly airplanes that are not well-maintained. How far you can go in agreeing to fly such equipment is a judgment call both from the standpoint of whether junk can fly but also from the risk of a violation if the FAA happens to ramp check you and pieces fall off of the airplane as you fish your pilot certificate out of your wallet. Get to know the systems of your airplane intimately and make friends with the mechanics so that you can develop a healthy feel for which glitches really matter and which don't. Learn how to write a squawk so that a mechanic can understand it and have a fighting chance of fixing it. If you are told by your boss not to write up squawks, get out of there as fast as humanly possible. There are other jobs and far, far better ways to die.
It's A Small World
Don't tell off the chief pilot or director of operations when you depart a lousy job. While it may feel good for a minute or two, the aviation community is small. A year or two down the road the fact that you were professional when you left that job may mean everything because that same chief pilot may be making the hiring decisions for the dream airline job for which you are interviewing.
Expand your circle of friends in aviation as widely as possible. By the time you have your CFI, you should know enough people that if your airplane breaks down two states away, you will have a friend in that city who can let you sleep on his couch. You never know when the fact that you have friends with whom you keep in touch will lead to that evening phone call that says, "So and so is hiring pilots with your ratings and flying time, if you can be there tomorrow with a resume, you'll get a job." I've seen it happen more than once.
Airline Seniority And Management
Many of you will work like crazy and become airline pilots. Once you are employed and pass the requisite checkrides, your entire future will be controlled by the God of Seniority. It, not your skill, experience or intelligence, will determine what routes and airplanes you fly, where you live and whether you have a job during economic downturns. As such, you have very little control over your destiny. However, you will have some and it is up to you to take the steps to develop the knowledge applicable to the situation to allow you to influence your destiny. That means educating yourself in the rules that apply to your job, the political realities of the job and how you can most effectively communicate with and influence those who make the decisions that affect you.
Overall, because of seniority, you will be at the mercy of the management of your airline. You will rapidly find, with some notable exceptions such as Southwest Airlines, that airline management is staggeringly incompetent, and often stunningly unethical. Sometimes shockingly so. Recently, one airline demanded major salary cuts from its contract employees in order to stave off bankruptcy, while simultaneously approving a massive bonus program for its management. Yet the management spokesperson saw nothing wrong with that concept and said it was necessary to pay lots of money for managers. In a flat economy? Pay bonuses to boobs who drive the airline to the edge of bankruptcy? At least two airlines that took the no-strings-attached, year 2001 financial grants from the government given after 9/11 (the airlines did not have to account for how they spent the money) did not use all of the money to shore up the companies, but paid out nearly half of it in executive bonuses while calling for pay cuts for the pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. Another, currently in bankruptcy, was awash in money six years ago as a result of salary givebacks by contract employees. Its management proceeded to squander the surplus on a half-baked plan to get into the already saturated fractional bizjet market as well as exercising the financial genius of attempting to buy another airline that had a negative net worth. When the inevitable downturn happened, the airline had no cash and the employees, reluctant to trust those running the show, were not exactly excited about further pay cuts, especially when management didn't rush to take cuts themselves. Just a thought: When you see leaders call for suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots, if they don't rush to volunteer for the job themselves, but seek to keep their comfortable positions and let other suckers give their all for the glory of the regime or company, perhaps you might want to do a little mature deliberation before you volunteer for the "honor" being offered.
Airlines tend to hire young, bright MBAs to handle their finances. Those kids have no airline experience or reflexes, yet they are making decisions for which they are not qualified, and they have this interesting history of pricing airline seats below cost, while trumpeting the obsolete concept of market share. Perhaps they figure that even though they lose $5 per seat, they'll make it up on volume. The airlines promptly compensate for hiring managers who know nothing about aviation by staffing their operations department with pilots who know little about management. The promoted pilots too often figure that the way to manage is to intimidate and belittle those they manage, perhaps figuring that no one will then notice they don't know what they are doing. The results of the management techniques are predictable and quite obvious right now.
What can you do? The first thing to do is recognize that your future is largely in the hands of people who can move laterally or upward to another airline should they take yours into the toilet, while you, on a seniority system, will have to start at the bottom at a different airline should those managers screw things up. As a result, they have nowhere near the personal incentive you do for your airline to do well. Your best set of tools and defense mechanisms is a combination of education and the ability to communicate effectively so that you can influence the decisions of management. I strongly suggest to you that you get a graduate degree as soon as you can. One of the big positives about flying for a living is that you have more time off than the poor sucker sitting in an office. There are a number of excellent schools that have advanced degree programs on the Internet. They are tailor-made for pilots. While I strongly recommend that you never, ever stop learning, in the environment of professional aviation today, a graduate degree is a huge plus. If you pick up an MBA, or a masters in management or finance, and you become active in your union, yours is a voice that will carry some weight. Should you decide to try to move into the management side of the airline after flying the line for some years, the combination of a graduate degree and your aviation experience will allow you to outclass the local talent in nothing flat. It also means that if those geniuses in the front office, who don't give a damn about the pilots, tank the company, your chance of finding another job in aviation at better wages than a new-hire co-pilot are excellent.
Aviation's Ugly Secret
Racial, religious and sexual discrimination is very much alive and well in aviation. It is a white, male-dominated world, with its fair share of bigots who think that airplanes somehow won't fly unless white, heterosexual, protestant males are in the crew seats. They are convinced that the airplane knows the color of the pilot's skin because, by gawd, the Wright brothers were white and only white men are good enough to fly airplanes. The data regarding women having lower accident rates than men is lost on them. Women still get accused of sleeping their way into employment positions; they still get propositioned by married, male pilots, who proceed to turn in negative reports on their piloting skills when the proposition is turned down.
I recently received yet another report of a female co-pilot in a three-crew airplane who had the male flight engineer reach around from behind and fondle her breasts. She complained, and the captain and flight engineer both denied it happened. She was told to take a checkride on short notice, after a very unpleasant interview with the chief pilot in which he impugned her integrity but did not question that of either of the other two pilots. Amazingly, the captain who had been on the flight was placed in charge of the checkride. To no one's surprise, she failed it, and the airline was able to get rid of someone who "wasn't on the team."
A charter operator recently told its one female pilot that she had to go to a beauty salon for a "makeover" and start wearing makeup, and until she did, she was grounded. She had been flying there for some time without any complaints. She was not a person who ever wore makeup and she was aware of the warnings about the danger of burns when wearing lipstick in the presence of 100% oxygen.
If you are not a white male, don't be so na´ve to think that discrimination is a relic of the bad old days. Be prepared for it and decide ahead of time what you are going to do when it occurs. Know your rights and talk with your peers to get a feel for what you will be willing to tolerate, how you are going to react, where you are going to draw the line and how you are going to document it and fight it. If you are a white male, resolve not to tolerate displays of discrimination in any form, and to work to fight it.
Continue to learn. Always. It will greatly improve your quality of life in innumerable ways. Do not confine your reading to the USA Today you pick up free at the motel desk. It's the newspaper for those with short attention spans. Once you are rated and flying, the reality of life on the flight deck is that there is very little intellectual stimulation. You will hear a fair amount of loud, uninformed, right-wing politics from the same bigots who tell the racist jokes. You are a citizen of this country. As such, you are responsible for how it is run. Read material from the entire political spectrum, continue your education and make informed decisions rather than follow the loudest voice on commercial radio or television. You owe it to yourself and your country to be informed on all sides of issues that matter to you and your family.
Always, always, always have a library card. It's free. When you are a poorly paid co-pilot, the library is one of the best sources of inexpensive entertainment and unbiased information you can get. When you are a wealthy captain, you'll be a tightwad anyway and will continue to use the library; however, you may wind up on its board of directors.
If you have not done so already, learn a second language. The U.S. is one of the very few countries in the world where we are not required to learn a second or third language in school. With the world becoming more and more competitive, not having a second language is going to be a handicap during your lifetime.
Mechanics, Your Signature Is Your Bond
Those of you who are going to become maintenance technicians, my hat is off to you. You will have a great deal of job security in the near future, as we are short of mechanics. You will find that, from time to time, you are pressured to sign off work before it is completed to your satisfaction. Take some time to think about what you are going to do now, before the time comes. You, more than almost anyone in aviation, put your career on the line every time you sign off maintenance work, so do not do so lightly. And, if you go into the maintenance business for yourself, if there is only one thing you take from this course, I hope it is that you resolve never to let a customer's plane leave your shop until you have filled out the logbooks and received payment in full.
You are going to gain about 20 pounds in the next 10 years and wonder where it came from. We Americans are the fattest people on the planet, and it is rapidly showing in the fact that our overeating and under-exercising is doing a great deal to not only drive up our medical costs but also shorten our lives. Flying is a sedentary occupation, so unless you resolve to continue to exercise, you will become a heart attack candidate by the time you are 40, and you may get that great job in the left seat of a 747 only to lose your medical because you haven't been smart enough to take care of yourself.
Recognize that among the risks you will run is that you are going to be riding crew vans regularly and staying in hotels. Wear the seatbelts in the vans. You don't want to be remembered as one of those poor slobs who died in a van driven by some minimum-wage cowboy. When in the hotel, count the number of doors between your room and the exit, because when the fire gets going, you are going to be on your hands and knees to stay below the smoke. If you detect a fire, call 911 and report it, don't call the front desk. They'll only send someone up in the elevator to verify it before they call it in, and that someone may die when the elevator door opens into the fire. Learn how to survive in hotels and how to protect your health in circumstances where you are around a large number of people on a daily basis.
When Your Recreation Turns On You
A certain portion of you in this room, probably about 25%, will have significant trouble with drugs or alcohol. Sorry, it's just the nature of being human. You are not macho because you can drink a lot and fly the next day. That ability will diminish rapidly as you move through your 20s. About a quarter of you will discover that your body is wired such that at some point it will quit tolerating alcohol or drugs well. It's not because you aren't macho or that you have some weakness, it's just the way you were born. If you are one who falls in that group, you will be faced with probably the toughest task you will have in your life. You'll have to quit drinking or give up the drugs you enjoy. And, because of the nature of the beast, your body will fight you all the way. If you get a DUI or someone close to you suggests you need to cut down on your drinking, and your reaction is to rationalize the DUI or push away the friend, consider it a red flag that it is truly happening to you. At that point you have to be a realist and do your best to accept the fact that you were issued the genes that cause you to handle alcohol or drugs poorly, and move right into the process of getting help from those who know what they are doing so you can stop before you completely screw up your life or kill yourself or someone else.
Pilots suffer from a very high rate of A.I.D.S., Aviation Induced Divorce Syndrome. You will be regularly in the presence of members of the opposite sex at work, in bars, restaurants and hotels. The opportunity for sexual encounters is greater than in many other professions. That means that if you consider marriage, it would be wise for you and your spouse to be to reach an agreement on appropriate behavior for each of you, that you can and will live with; or that you not get married. You have to be completely honest with yourself. Professional pilots have to retire at age 60. One or two divorces can mean that your retirement mansion has wheels under it and that Extra 300 you were going to buy to enjoy is made of balsa wood and has a rubber-band motor.
The FAA is neither all good nor all bad. There are a certain percentage of absolute bastards employed by that agency, so protect yourself by knowing and following the regs. There are a certain percentage of very good people employed by that agency. Befriend a few. They will add markedly to your quality of life and may just be able to get you out of a jam initiated by one of the bastards. You may also find that the FAA is a good employer, particularly if you like the idea of becoming an air traffic controller.
Pilots tend to be foolish about money. The standard riddle is: What does an airline captain do with all of his excess money? He invests it until it is gone. Take a finance course or two and don't pick your investment advisor from the yellow pages.
Volunteer. Give back to aviation. Continue to fly little airplanes. Get involved in the Scouts, community groups, museums, politics, and youth organizations. You have gotten to where you are with the help of others. It's time for you to start being the helper. It feels incredibly good.
So, learn all you can, pay attention to what is going on around you all the time and may you enjoy a long, happy life in aviation.
See you next month.