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Why we fly

One of the most difficult questions for me to answer over the years has been, “Why do you fly?” As an airline pilot, it seems the general public has a clear view – at least in their eyes – of what that answer should be for me. It’s the money, prestige, and glamour of the job. The reality is that although those things are present to some degree in most piloting jobs, there is far more going on than just those superficial answers.

The real truth is that the job of pilot is tough, demanding, exhausting, exacting, and occasionally rewarding. So the question comes again, why do we fly? To understand why we fly for a living (or maybe just for fun) you need to know what it takes for us to get there, and why we go through all the hard parts to get where we are.

During my career as a flight instructor and airline pilot, I have met a lot of people who started out with the idea of becoming a commercial pilot, but somewhere along the way they simply decided to not become one. When I was teaching full-time at a small flight school near Seattle I had several students come through the doors with every good intention of becoming airline pilots. They saw what they wanted to see – the money, prestige & glamour. Once in the front seat of a small Cessna some of them realized right away that they didn’t have the basic skills to safely maneuver the craft through three dimensions day in and day out. They were the lucky ones. The money and time they would have spent on a futile attempt at a career were saved for other purposes. Other students kept pushing, driven by the dream of money, prestige & glamour when all the signs were there that they should step aside and analyze what was really going on. They could manage the airplane, but it was never easy, and the fundamental rules of flying state that the actual control of the airplane needs to be the easiest thing you do. Your brain always needs to be several miles ahead of what is happening to you now, not straining at 100% just trying to keep the plane sunny-side up. If you have to spend all your mental energy on this moment right here and now, too many things out ahead of you can jump up and bite you in a bad way. These people tended to fade away after they got their private or commercial pilot’s license because it took too much energy to just get out and fly.

For the majority of my students though, flying was fun and easy. But even for those who succeeded at learning how to control an airplane, the road didn’t get smoother. Finding a job as a pilot can take a long time, and a lot of money. Because of my timing versus the world economy, it took several years from when I earned my commercial license until someone paid me to fly a plane. Sometimes that world economy works against your hopes and dreams, or occasionally, you’re in the right place at the right time. Luck does play a huge part in a pilot’s career path. Just ask the people who got hired in the last few years of existence of TWA, or Eastern, or Braniff. They had quite literally made it to the big leagues, but because of events beyond their control, their airlines folded, or were absorbed by other, bigger competitors.

Because of the way airlines work, if you lose your job (or quit), you start over at the bottom of the seniority ladder at your new company. Quality of life can change drastically when that happens. Someone who was once a senior captain with their pick of days off, routes, and schedules, would find themselves back in the cockpit at a new airline as a junior co-pilot with no say in their days off or schedules, and at a payscale that was a fraction of what they used to make.

But even beyond that, there are more subtle issues at play. During the late 1990s hiring boom I saw a strange trend popping up on some online pilot message boards. A few pilots became disenchanted with their jobs just months after finally landing their first real airline position. What it boiled down to was that after all the years of work, of pushing harder and harder to get their hours and licenses and ratings, applying, interviewing, reapplying, and testing, they suddenly floundered when they finally got their job and were faced with the fact that they didn’t have to push any more. The chase of the job had become the focus of their life, and once they had it, they didn’t know what to do with all that energy and frustration they’d been producing for so long. Some adapted, but several left their ‘dream career’ when they discovered it took away what they’d been living with for so long.

Once an aspiring airline pilot has made it to a commuter or regional airline, there are a lot of mines in the road that could bring their career to a complete halt. Blogger and airline pilot Erika Armstrong recently wrote a very good article about the difficult life of the regional pilot, and how those conditions are contributing to a worldwide pilot shortage. Some pilots look at the regionals as a career destination, but for most, it is just a stepping stone enroute to flying the ‘heavy metal’ at a major airline. The subject of how airlines treat their pilots is too broad to cover in this article, but it can make a huge difference in how much effort a pilot has to put into actually being able to enjoy the job.

This career attracts a larger percentage of Type A personalities than most other jobs. It’s a stereotype that pilots have a big ego and a big personality, and there is more than a hint of truth to that. But the reality is that type of person may not be the best pilot. Yes, it takes drive and ambition to get through the years of training and sacrifice to make it to the airlines. But in my opinion, it’s the people with a good, quiet confidence that turn into the best pilots. They understand the responsibility that comes with the job, and do their best to do it well without the need to bask in the money, prestige and glamour. It helps to be the type of person who can understand more technical subjects, think ahead of the here and now, and multi-task calmly and clearly. Those traits can be honed and improved over time if not in full bloom during training, but it’s that quiet confidence that can determine who will do well in the position.

So once someone makes it through that arduous path of training, testing, learning, applying, and working up the ladder, the question still remains, why do they fly?

For each of us that has made it this far, there are probably just as many shades of difference in how they’d answer. Yes, once someone has made it to a big airline the pay can be very good. Prestige and glamour can be there too, although in much smaller quantities than were present in the 60’s & 70’s heyday of the ‘jetsetter’. But what keeps us coming back day after day, month after month to this exhausting, tiring, frustrating job? Why do we fly?

I can only answer based on what I’ve heard from my many pilot friends, as well as my own experience. First, there is a lot of satisfaction in carrying out a complex task skillfully. That applies to flying whether it is in a tiny two-seat Cessna or the 290+ passenger Airbus that I currently fly. Bringing a flight to a safe completion, especially when complex airspace, weather, or other conditions are present is definitely part of the answer. This also applies to a wide variety of piloting jobs outside the usual airline gig. Helicopter pilots do all sorts of crazy flying that would scare the used food out of most of us – logging, fire fighting, crop dusting, and flying tired & cranky CEOs to their weekend homes in the Hamptons. Other pilots may be flying cargo in very old & beat-up planes because they’re trying to build hours. Still others may be corporate pilots, or air taxi operators. Whatever the position, every one of them would admit some degree of satisfaction when a difficult flight is completed cleanly and neatly. This isn’t meant to imply that flying is not a safe career. The idea that flying is dangerous comes from the history of aviation. It’s a well-worn cliché that the most dangerous part of our job is the drive to work. There may be a very small number of pilots who fly because they enjoy the danger, but most of them wouldn’t find today’s flying jobs satisfactory, and may just pursue the danger aspect on their own by stunt flying, low-level hijinks, or just taking their personal airplane to remote and dangerous airstrips.

For a lot of pilots, myself included, being able to avoid the 9 to 5 work routine is another big factor in why we fly. I had such a job for over a decade before becoming a full-time pilot. It helped pay for my flight training, but the job itself was repetitive, boring, and ultimately would have been soul-crushing. Being a pilot means that your work conditions are constantly changing, whether it is a new route, unforecast weather, heavy traffic, or a new airport. It is these factors that prevent almost any piloting job from becoming ordinary and boring.

As a senior pilot it is easier to adjust your schedule to meet your needs. Like I said before, pilots do run the risk of ending up at an airline that folds or merges, making such choices impossible. But for those who do make it for many years at one airline, being able to take off the week of their kid’s spring break or high school graduation is a big reason pilots enjoy their job.

The travel itself is another big benefit. I know that even someday as a senior captain, I’d never be able to afford weekly trips to Australia, or Japan, or China, or even San Francisco or Las Vegas on my own. But it is quite simply the reason for the job itself that we get to travel to exotic corners of the world. Regional pilots may not have quite the same spectacular destinations that pilots for major airlines do, but even most small towns across the US can provide something interesting to see or do.

And finally, for me, one of the biggest privileges of the job is the incredible beauty we get to see from our office every time we go to work. Sunsets and sunrises, towering thunderstorms blasting their wrath on the ocean below, diamond studded skies on moonless nights, waving green and red aurora close to the poles, the jewel-like cities of the world as seen from seven miles above, snow capped mountain ranges, expansive deserts, and the frozen wastelands of the arctic regions – these are the things that I look forward to every time I step into an airplane, no matter what its size is.

Somewhere on the list above I can find a reason to enjoy almost every flight I take. It was a very long, winding road to get to where I am now, and I could never have guessed the exact route it would take when I was starting out. But finally now, all these years after starting down the road toward being a pilot, I am here, having dodged (or at least endured) the potholes and pitfalls along the way. Yes, I do enjoy what I do, and that is why I fly.

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