Fellow Squawkers, a recent career upgrade has demanded much of my time - hence my temporary absence from FlightAware. With the aforementioned complete now, I’m happy to be back in the writer’s saddle, covering aviation topics intended to provide perspective from my view as an airline pilot.
The gradual onset of airline pilot retirements and subtle signs of industry prosperity have allowed me to transition from my captain seat at a regional airline to the first officer seat at a major airline. A promotion, yes - but peculiar that trading the coveted role as captain for that of a second-in-command first officer be considered as such. It’s just one of the many intricacies along the path in a pilot’s career, a journey for many that begins the first time they see an airplane flying overhead.
For me, this journey began at the age of four. I remember my first flight, peering out the window and gazing across the wing of a Boeing 727 in amazement. What I now know to be flaps and ailerons, at the time didn’t matter. What mattered then was seeing these devices in motion, knowing that the pilots up front were controlling them. It was a single moment in my distant past that created an enduring inspiration, and this for me set the wheels in motion.
The pursuit of becoming a professional pilot revolves around the attainment of multiple qualifications. Accumulating the necessary experience is a daunting task, but immediate hands-on exposure from the onset of training is a big motivator. Something as simple as sharing the radio waves with a passenger jet during my private pilot training course, the initial training hurdle, provided a tangible moment of great inspiration. Earning a private pilot license, as with any level of pilot certification, involves both flight and ground school training that culminates with a final flight test called a checkride. During the checkride, an FAA representative tests a pilot candidate against a standard of pass/fail flying maneuvers, simulated emergency scenarios, and knowledge benchmarks that must be met or exceeded to earn certification. Routine evaluation and testing is a reality that all pilots must grow accustomed to throughout training and beyond as a professional aviator.
At a steady pace, alongside earning a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics, I had earned the qualifications necessary to fly with sole reference to instrumentation (IFR) as well as multi-engine and other complex propeller aircraft endorsements. After the FAA signed off on my commercial pilot certificate, allowing me to fly for hire, I quickly pursued and earned a flight instructor rating. Teaching others to fly is a rewarding experience (with modest pay) and it’s the most common way aspiring professional pilots accrue the bulk of their flight hours necessary to interview for an airline or corporate flying job. After instructing for a year, I had built 1,000 total flight hours – a common threshold for consideration with the airlines.
My timing was such that a post 9/11 lull in airline pilot hiring had finally passed. A mere month prior to graduating college, I successfully interviewed with a commuter airline to fly a 19-seat turboprop aircraft. After a two-month company and aircraft specific training program, I passed the final flight simulator checkride and was soon flying passengers as a first officer around the northeast U.S. to feed a major airline network.
However, as a testament to the fickleness of the airline industry, signs that my commuter carrier soon would face a period of potential layoffs forced my pursuit of yet another opportunity. This time I landed a first officer position with a regional airline, flying a 50-seat regional jet. At that time, prior to the mandatory airline pilot retirement age changing from age 60 to 65, major airlines were feverishly hiring pilots from both commuter and regional carriers in anticipation of massive retirements. My rapidly growing company seniority propelled me into captain training within a few years. Earning the coveted captain position allowed me to accrue valuable flight hours as a pilot in command, as well as a much needed salary increase. With my eye on capturing the attention of a major airline, in an effort to further boost my qualifications, I became a company check airman. In this role, I was responsible for grooming new first officers and captains as they transitioned from flight simulators into the actual aircraft.
With ten years of airline experience and after weathering a lull in hiring due to a battered economy and a rising retirement age, my application was finally recognized by a major airline. After yet another interview and training regiment, I’ve since been thoroughly enjoying the fruits of my labor as a Boeing 737 first officer. And therein lies the caveat I mentioned earlier. One does not normally carry with them, from one airline to another, their former captain position. It’s the way it works in a seniority driven career, but in time, the captain seat will once again call my name.
The journey I’ve walked you through is typical, but there are pilots who’ve certainly traveled different roads; some smooth and others filled with potholes. Timing is the key element that we all cling onto – it’s the driving force that can make or break job security and quality of life. In a business slave to cyclical times of prosperity and downturn, calling a successful career outcome can only occur the day a pilot retires. For me, knock on wood, so far so good!