Turning Professional

Turning Professional

Turning Professional

Every month I receive a surprising number of reader emails from pilots on the subject of turning professional. Almost all have a couple of thousand hours of flying time, a commercial license and are in their 50s or early 60s. Many are professionals in other fields such as doctors, lawyers or accountants, or have been successful in business and want to “pivot” (the word often used) into doing something else. The questions I am usually asked include: How did you personally get into doing this? What is it like to fly professionally? And, (following a brief description of their own pilot credentials), what can I do to improve my chances of “turning professional” where I am paid to fly nice equipment? There seems to be enough interest in the topic to where I thought I would share my own story.

My piloting background is unique with a route more circuitous than most of those writing me. I started flying in my last year of high school just because I was always fascinated by airplanes and took the first opportunity I could to act on that interest. A year or so later, I had a private license and 100 hours of flight time only to realize that flying recreationally was not an activity I could afford. I either needed to figure out how to get paid doing it or I would have to quit. Luckily, I married someone very supportive of what I wanted to do. My wife and I lived in south Florida and with both of us working, we had some (not much) spare funds. The weather in Florida was always good and the flight training relatively cheap. We lived off my wife’s income and I spent mine on flying. In just over a year, I had a commercial license and a CFI rating. With all of 210 hours, I got a job teaching other people how to do what I just learned. 

At that time, airline hiring required a couple thousand hours plus instrument and multi-engine ratings, and in most cases, a four-year college degree. I was building flight time as part of my job, so that was not a problem, but the college degree was a different matter. So, I enrolled in a local community college while instructing full time and finished my freshman year. But in south Florida at the time, the only university offering a four-year degree was a private institution with tuition way beyond my reach. So, my wife and I decided to return to her home area (Seattle), where I could attend a public university at much lower cost. 

Within a week or so of arriving in Seattle, and with about 1,000 hours of total flight time, I obtained another job as a flight instructor. The pay was around $4 to $5 per flight hour, which was not bad given working at McDonalds (a job common to other college students) paid about $1.50 per hour. Three years later, I had over 3,000 hours and was close to finishing my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Washington. I was prime airline pilot bait, but there was a recession underway and the fish were not biting. United Airlines, however, went on a brief hiring spree when it unexpectedly appeared three pilots were going to be required in the front of their newly acquired 737s. I applied and interviewed with their local chief pilot. He was a very decent fatherly type fellow, with a grey mustache and grey hair. After listening to my story, he put his hand on my shoulder and said in friendly and concerned manner, “Young man, if you continue with the application we will hire you, but my advice is to first finish your degree at the UW. If we hire you now, we will base you in New York on standby, and in less than a year, we will lay you off.” Moving to New York for 12 months did not at all appeal to my wife or me, and neither did getting laid off with an incomplete college degree. We decided to follow his very kind and wise advice. 

As it turned out, the airlines did have a massive pilot layoff in the year that followed, and a lot of my former flight instructor buddies wound up with jobs like selling men’s shoes at the Bon Marche for years until the airline industry finally turned around. In the meantime, I finished the B.S. degree and built another 1,000 hours of flying time. But now, with thousands of airline pilots on furlough and few non-airline pilot jobs available, prospects of flying for a living looked very dim for a long time to come. However, I had done fairly well academically with a major in psychology and a minor in chemistry – which happens to be
qualifications many medical schools like to see in their applicants. So, I applied to medical school, and to my surprise, was offered a “full ride” scholarship for the first year. I promptly accepted. 

While attending medical school, I continued doing various types of Part 91 and Part 135 flying as we needed the income. Four years later, I found myself with a medical degree, 6,000 hours of flight time and a residency position for post-graduate training at a well-regarded university hospital in the Southwest. Early on during the residency, I remember working in the newborn nursery one afternoon when I heard on the radio that (what do you know) the airlines were facing a shortage of pilots and were urgently looking for applicants. I was certainly qualified and thought about it for a while, but decided not to pursue it. After four years of medical school, I was at a critical point of my medical training. Plus, they might offer me a job flying as flight engineer on a 727 only to lay me off in a couple of years. 

Three years later, I became a board-certified doctor and airlines were indeed again laying off pilots. Seven years after that, the airlines again went on a hiring spree. By then, I was in my early 30s, had 7,000 hours and nearly every rating known to man, but I was also comfortably situated as a physician, home every night and making a B747 captain’s pay. I like flying all right, but not enough to be stupid about it. I stayed working as a doctor and flying a lot personally with just the occasional professional flight.

A little under 20 years went by and the practice of medicine changed in this country. An increasing number of physicians were either plain quitting or retiring early out of frustration with what had become an untenable malpractice environment and an increasingly dysfunctional healthcare system. As this was unfolding (and with our children grown), my wife and I decided to take a two-year sabbatical, move onto our boat and just go cruising. When we returned and I asked my physician friends how things were, they all said, “Stay away, it has only gotten worse.” So, I got a job working internationally as a cruise ship doctor. But while home from those trips, my old dream of flying for a living began to look more and more attractive. As luck would have it, aviation was in the early stage of yet another one of its booms, with pilots being hired left and right by the commuter airlines. This resulted in a shortage of pilots qualified to fly turbine business aircraft. I was fortunate enough to find several flying jobs I could take on a part-time basis without needing to move to another part of the country. And that is how I wound up doing what I am now. 

One of the questions I am often asked is, with such a varied background, how did I like returning to flying professionally? Truth is, I found it to be more enjoyable and vastly improved from when I did it earlier. The equipment is much better and easier to fly. Direct routing via GPS all across the country is now common. Downloaded weather radar makes it so you always know what kind of conditions lie ahead and on either side of your airplane. The ground services around the country have vastly improved. Flight plans can now be filed or changed easily over a cellphone. FBOs across the country have become professional service organizations, with transportation, hotel accommodations and catering services readily available. And finally, the position of “pilot” I find (quite strangely) is often more highly respected than the title of “doctor.” All of this makes the job of flying professionally, at least in the corporate world, much more rewarding than it was previously. 

The negatives still exist, however, and a lot of pilots wanting to fly professionally tend to overlook these. It is kind of obvious, but the reason why people own business aircraft and pay other people to fly them, is because they want or need to get somewhere often on short notice. They often do not know exactly when they will return, or if they might not need to add some additional destinations once the trip has begun. If the passengers need to stay somewhere for several days to a week, the airplane almost always stays at that location. The pilots either hang around or occasionally will be sent home via airline in a coach seat, then return when the airplane is ready to move. This is just the nature of the business but it can result in a pretty tumultuous lifestyle. Living out of a suitcase, eating in restaurants, staying in hotel rooms, not being certain when you are going to return home. Waiting for passengers to return as the weather deteriorates can get tiring after a while. The pilot group I fly with likes to say, “We fly for free, but get paid to wait,” and that has a lot of truth in it. 

So, if you have carefully evaluated the positives and negatives and are still interested in flying professionally (maybe you are tired of your current job), what should you do now? The answer depends on your age and background. Say, if you are in your 40s, have 2,000 hours, an ATP and a multiengine rating, odds are pretty high you could be hired by a commuter type airline in fairly short order. You will fly SIC in jets like a CRJ, be gone for two weeks per month and fly a lot of legs on each trip. But it will be a lot of fun, especially initially. And because the schedules are usually well known in advance, I would highly recommend this path if you are so inclined.

However, most of the Twin & Turbine readers writing me are closer to 60 than 40. At that age, getting hired by a Part 121 carrier is less likely because the airline does not have enough time to recoup their $100,000 pilot training investment before that pilot must stop flying for them due to the “age 65” rule. The “age 65” rule, however, does not apply to Part 91 operations, and it has been my experience that a lot of the business passengers like to see a little grey hair sitting in the front. These are good jobs that can take you to a variety of places, and the turbine equipment is a lot of fun to fly. So, if inclined to “turn professional,” you should look into them. To enhance your probability of getting a job flying corporate jets, it is useful to have at least one jet type rating. A Cessna Citation type rating is a good place to start as there are so many of them in the corporate world and the training is relatively cheap. Another qualification corporate employers like to see is a CFI with considerable flight instruction experience. Flight instruction gets you accustomed to flying in the right seat and dealing with all kinds of unexpected problems that type of flying can present.

So, my advice if you are considering turning professional is have at it. At least a couple of years of professional flying will be a lot of fun, is quite achievable in the current environment, and will add greatly to your life experience and the stories you can tell your grandchildren. Life is short, so go ahead and make
the “pivot.” 

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