Climbing the Ladder: Making the Step from Piston Driver to Airline Pilot

Nearly every pilot harbors some small dream of flying for the airlines, cruising along in the Flight Levels as a member of a crew in a state-of-the-art machine. Those who choose to pursue that dream are faced with a number of unusual trials along the way, and the rewards, while plentiful, aren't always what you would expect.


It was about eleven at night when I pulled into Signature’s ramp at Baltimore. It had been one of those weeks in the check-hauling business; I’d battled a fair amount of poor weather all week, though in this instance it had been the low-ceiling-and-visibility variety more than the thunderstorm or icing types, which is what I typically preferred of the three. Smoother air than the convective stuff, and the latter selection necessitated filling the alcohol tank on the Baron, which made the entire interior intolerably pungent for the duration of the flight. Hand-flying approach after approach was stressful enough, though, and I was grateful that this particular Friday night was severe clear and uneventful.Signature’s staff knew me relatively well; I had two daily flights to BWI, and typically would stop in to say hello or commandeer what was left of the popcorn from the trademark machine found at most FBOs (for a reason I’ve never entirely been able to identify). Though sometimes the ramp was busy, most of the time by my second arrival things were at a near standstill, and it often took some time to locate a lineman to accommodate my minimal fuel order to ensure adequate reserves for the return trip to Richmond.This was a typical night. It took a few minutes to find the desk agent, and I knew it would be a while before the 100LL truck would pull up to my aircraft, so I stood against the back wall and watched whatever television station had been left on in the lobby.Seldom did anyone take the time to speak with me. With all the glamorous aircraft that drove into a ramp like that on a consistent basis, it was rare that anyone would take much of an interest in the Beech or Piper with worn paint and oil streaks laminating the exterior that was under my command. I tried on a few occasions to strike up conversations with the transient pilots who came through, but generally at that hour they weren’t in the mood for dialogue. After several discouragingly short exchanges, I had decided to mostly keep to myself.A hotel shuttle arrived and dropped off a DHL crew for a flight leaving that evening. It wasn’t unusual to see a group of 727 drivers pass through the building around that time. I never identified exactly where their aircraft were parked, but the Signature ramp personnel took them out to wherever it was in the van every night. My timing on this particular evening had resulted in the sole available ramp guy being occupied tracking down the low-lead truck, so they were instructed that they’d have to wait until my aircraft fuel order had been processed until getting ferried out to their aircraft.It was difficult to avoid identification at that point as the operator of the contraption creating the holdup to this particular congregation, and after a moment the captain decided to strike up a conversation about the battle-scarred bird I was waiting to drive out.”Where you headed?” He asked.”Richmond, if she manages to hold together that long.”Hauling Freight?”Yeah, mostly checks, though I’m empty for the ride home. Nothing too glamorous. Not exactly what I’d bargained for when I signed up for a job in the aviation industry.”He chuckled through a very sincere smile. “Yeah, I remember going through that phase of this career. It often didn’t seem like it would ever end. It will. Strange part is that you’ll look back and miss it.”I reluctantly agreed with him, though I had difficulty in truly believing his advice. It was a famous motivational tactic among those on the other side of the job market — let the subject know that it was the “best flying you’ll ever do” and “you’ll look back on this and reminisce someday.” Perhaps. I suppose that years from now I’ll forget about the dinners made of dried noodles and getting home two hours after any civilized human being has already gone to bed, about moving every three months to take maximum advantage of an opportunity in an industry laden with economic volatility and tainted with public insecurity.Like so many other people who drive aircraft around for a living, I had managed to perfectly time the next step in my career with the bottom falling out immediately after the shock of September 2001. Shortly before then, I had maintained a rather accommodating position as a salaried flight instructor in a university flight program while occasionally getting the opportunity to occupy the right seat on a few corporate aircraft to build experience in heavier iron. By the time I was thrust back into the job market, my old job had already been filled and I was left with taking whatever was available, which turned out to be hauling bank paperwork in the Southeast.The flight back to Richmond was peaceful, and I found myself thinking a lot about what the DHL captain had said. The grass is always greener on the other side, I guess. After the heartaches of the past year, I hoped that I would be able to determine the validity of his claims firsthand. Soon.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Two-Minute Phone Call

Whether you believe in fate or just adequate timing, two weeks later I was sitting in a new-hire class for Chautauqua Airlines filling out insurance paperwork, having my fingerprints taken and having bodily fluids analyzed to ensure compliance with federal requirements to let me become a glorified bus driver. Airline jobs can be somewhat like winning the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes — it comes as a complete surprise and without much warning, and invariably you’re happy when news arrives.I can’t compare the experience of the group that surrounded me with one that would have come before terrorism, bankruptcy, and economic uncertainty, but I’m certain that the level of appreciation was markedly improved from before. During the boom times, I had plenty of friends who jumped through bridge program hoops and started flying people around with very little practical experience and effort in acquiring the position. At least half of my brethren in class, on the other hand, had been waiting a year or more for Chautauqua to call them back after their interview, and many others had been scheduled for classes that had been cancelled before 9/11. One, Bob, was on the third airline in his career. Pete had left a flight instructor job for class last year, and when it was cancelled, found he had already been replaced at his previous position. He had been driving over 60 miles each way for the past year to another flight-instructing gig to pay the bills while he waited for something else to come his way. Another, Rob, had been scheduled in the same hiring class as Pete after his first had been cancelled, who himself had spent years with the Army in South Korea trying to secure a position as a helicopter pilot to no avail. Everyone, in fact, had a sob story or two.None had thought we would be sitting where we were then. I had personally witnessed too many times when friends in the freight business had been given rays of hope that led to dead ends. One had waited in ComAir’s hiring pool since late February, with promises of a start date in late spring, then early summer, then early fall. He finally started a week before I did in late October. Another left for Piedmont to be promptly furloughed halfway through class and return to the bottom of the seniority list at his old job. Getting noticed in the first place was a laborious process; even friends who walked in resumes had little effect on bringing light to one individual out of hundreds, if not thousands, of equally or more qualified applicants with more prolific recommendations. It was a roll of the dice and nothing more. Coincidence and incredible luck had landed all of us in a job, and we all recognized both the fortune afforded us as well as the potential for our luck to turn sour equally expeditiously.


The first week of class was dry and the quantities of material covered were expansive. It was difficult to not take the work seriously, as the price of not living up to the mark was to return to another uncertain future. Study commenced from the moment you departed the shower in the morning until nearly the moment your head hit the pillow, and even then thoughts of HAZMAT and departure release amendments haunted all of our dreams. It didn’t take long for it to become difficult to discern one day from the next.There were, however, a number of more lighthearted things other than lecture that were taking place as well. We played with fire extinguishers, flare guns, and life vests with the same enthusiasm of kids running rampant with their new Christmas toys. Face after face was paraded in front of us to introduce the group to the people and departments we’d be working with once through training, though the names and positions faded quickly among the hours of chart interpretation and de-icing procedures being shoved into our heads.Security issues and terrorism prevention were a part of the indoctrination process, and they took on a much more serious and sobering tone for us than might have happened a few years ago. During breaks we found ourselves discussing hijacking situations and self-defense practices with a sincerity that was, in itself, disheartening. Though the possibility of such events occurring is still admittedly rare, interception procedures and hostage negotiations took on an entirely new light for all of us.Our “indoc training” ended with a vigorous and admittedly difficult examination, but after several nervous moments while the proctor evaluated our answer sheets, we were all given the green light to proceed and traveled en masse to St. Louis to start aircraft systems and simulator training. Flight Safety International became our surrogate home for the next five weeks. The same process started again of inaugurating each day with a pile of note cards with limitations or emergency procedures, followed by eight hours of new material to occupy us for the following evening.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Training in the modern environment is, in many ways, of significantly different composure than airline training of the past. Simulator technology and computer advances allow a different method of immersion than was previously available. Systems that were at one time taught by diagrams of ludicrous complexity and clutter have been reduced to each respective part in a PowerPoint presentation and can be animated through proprietary programming to enable the class to experiment with switch positions and see the resulting effect on the system diagram. Shuttle valves move during gear retraction on-screen, and electrical relays open and close with changes in configuration of generators or external power sources. The systems themselves have become so highly automated that in many cases there is little the pilot is able to control about a particular system in any case, so the knowledge in some ways becomes of the “gee whiz” variety. This is not to say that training of the depth and caliber is unnecessary; at several times during the course of discussion, situations that either had or could have happened were examined that were not properly addressed by automated systems or checklist items. Though it would seem appropriate in these situations to alter the checklist to accommodate a better procedure, one became quickly aware of the complexities of modern aviation regulation and the role of litigation in certification of transport aircraft. Though the systems had been revolutionized, there remains more than enough bureaucracy in the development of procedures to necessitate an in-depth understanding of which buttons are pressed in which order.Our focal point was the Embraer 145 Regional Jet. A product of stretching the popular EMB-120 (“Brasilia”) turboprop into a longer, sleeker, turbofan design, it had brought many of the systems of its predecessor along with it, adding a fair amount of power and updating avionics to create the design that has triggered a major paradigm shift in the aviation industry. Many of the conventional lines between what was previously considered “commuter flying” and “mainline flying” have dulled with the emergence of the RJ over the past few years, and turmoil in the industry has lead to an abundance of mudslinging over scope clauses and stolen business by regional air carriers. A primary example of the disparity was displayed most prominently in the fact that Chautauqua is hiring pilots while the major airlines continue to let their employees go. Our talks with transient mainline pilots tended to support the idea; however, that the animosity was directed more at corporate policy and greed than at the rank-and-file among us, at least in the majority of cases. In any case, it was very apparent that the “pilot shortage” advertised for the duration of the late nineties was at best an optimistic dream, at worst an outright lie. There is not enough food to feed those in line.

Co-pilots of the Round Table

It was very unusual to not find a portion of the class in the hotel lobby at any given time pounding numbers into their heads. There was a constant rotation of people in and out of the discussion, the subject changing to accommodate whatever was the most stifling or bewildering concept that had been introduced for the particular day. Most of the people in class had little or no turbine aircraft exposure, so the inner workings of a jet engine were enough of a challenge; adding air cycle machines, EICAS messages, Flight Management Systems, and a myriad of other alphabet soup to our vocabulary made the process akin to traveling to foreign nation and trying to ask where the bathroom is with a dictionary and hand gestures. The seat probably has more knobs and buttons than the average Cessna trainer.As a result, we ended spending a lot of time with each other. Lacking other family or friends, we formed our own sort of fraternal order, a brotherhood of romantics whose path to a lifelong dream was marred by only a few weeks of “drinking knowledge from a fire hose.” Beyond the study sessions, the group became a haven for the insecurities and intimidation that had been thrust upon all of us. We had no illusions that there were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of hard-working and dedicated people out there — with equal or greater experience and drive than all of us — who had not been afforded the opportunity that we had been given. It left a terrible burden to not only ensure we avoided letting ourselves down, but also each other and the rest of those waiting their turn.Somehow, fueled primarily by coffee and doughnuts, we all manage to struggle through the systems training and the subsequent “Systems Integration Training,” or SIT, where we were plopped down in front of a paper mock-up of the cockpit and taught to run checklists and push imaginary buttons to eliminate any hesitation when we are thrust into the simulator. During a short break before starting in the “box,” most of us took our first taste of the travel benefits afforded us as airline personnel, whereby our company ID and a bit of patience rewarded us with a seat to nearly any destination.Poor timing necessitated our return immediately before Thanksgiving, though, and but for the grace of a classmate we would all have spent the holiday with leftover fast food and whatever unheated rations that remained in the mini-fridge in the hotel room. Instead, our classmate Pete and his parents arranged a small feast in a rented hotel suite for the weary of heart among us. By the time we sat down to eat, now almost six weeks into the process, it might as well have been my own family at the table. After over a month of Pizza Hut and Wendy’s, turkey, sweet potatoes, turnips, and pumpkin pie tasted like water to one who’d been lost in the desert for days.

The Box

The last step in the process was the simulator, and though certainly the most fun part of the training, it quickly became apparent that it was the most crucial and daunting of the tasks so far. Habits that had been ingrained in all of us from the onset of flight training had to be relearned with a different degree of delicacy and backed with a faster pace of preparation. One instructor said that it’s often joked that students must be tied to the aircraft with a rope to ensure they don’t fall too far behind it. We all did, though to varying extents and at different stages. Anticipation over the oral examinations and the simulator checks grew during the balance of the week, though all of us admitted, despite our best attempts to believe otherwise, that we were prepared for the tasks.Six weeks prior we might have well been asked to pilot the space shuttle to the moon, but by exam time the troop could identify every switch and button in the cockpit. Even after passing the checkride, the reality that we had very little practical experience made the step into the actual aircraft — with people on board — another source of anxiety. Few had doubts any longer about our capability to handle an in-flight fire or trim runaway, but cabin announcements and gate assignments were daunting enough battles to contend with, and more likely to embarrass us as we emerged from our cocoons into a life of epaulets and airport terminals.

Our last day of training was spent at the actual aircraft learning how to pull emergency exits out of their respective plugs and do mundane tasks like opening and closing the main cabin doors. Though it was a trivial ceremony, the assignment of the balance of our uniforms (including hat brass, belt buckles and very plain and unremarkable ties) had a certain degree of significance to all of us. The next morning as I prepared to deadhead home, it was a powerful moment to look in the mirror and see the effect of the years spent beneath the boundary layer. We came as flight instructors, and cargo pilots, and banner towers, and the furloughed. We all came with a well of defeat and a small surplus of misfortune. We left in uniform. Yes, we left with the knowledge that years from now we will perhaps no longer harbor the illusions of a career that we grew up aspiring to be a part of. We left knowing that there will be long days in strange places and small towns, in crummy hotels with supper procured at a vending machine, grounded due to weather or mechanical folly. We left realizing that, in time, this will be a job, conceivably just like any other job, with the same potholes and pitfalls of another position with a larger, more ambiguous title. But we left with the hope that the cynicism we observed in our predecessors is a feigned characteristic to ensure that we fit in a society of disheartened laborers when there truly is something magical about flying.

An Answer

One evening a few weeks later, Nick, the Captain, and I had slightly more than 40 people in the back going to Philadelphia. It was snowing in Columbus and snowing even harder in Pennsylvania, with multiple reports of moderate turbulence the whole way. Our departure time had been changed three times due to en route flow control, though as we taxied onto the runway we managed to be only a few minutes behind schedule. There were two more flights to complete after we finished this one, and the conditions ensured that there would be little improvement in the pace of the evening. We entered the cloud layer almost immediately after liftoff, and the ice protection systems fired without delay to combat the buildup taking place on critical surfaces of the aircraft. However, moments later we out-climbed mother nature’s wrath to just barely catch the sunset over an overcast layer blanketing the Midwest for what must have been hundreds of miles in every direction. Five seconds of splendor within a 12-hour day would turn out to be the most motivating moment of the evening. As the sun dipped down below the horizon, I couldn’t help but think to myself about the DHL captain’s words of only a few months ago and wonder how I’d respond to his proclamation that the best was behind me.Simple, I guess. “Bull.”