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Friday, December 5, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: The pre-hire stage

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I'd planned to start this series much earlier, but the process (plus keeping up with regular life) has been more energy-demanding and time-consuming that I expected—and that's even after taking Hofstadter's Law (it always takes longer than you expect) into account.

I hadn't planned to enter the Part 121 (airline) world, but then again, when I learned to fly years ago, I hadn't planned to become a flight instructor either, and that worked out pretty well anyway. Aviation has a way of drawing one in little by little. One seemingly big step leads naturally to another one: the "how do I even become a pilot?" step leads to the "can I actually fly this thing solo?" step, which leads to "I just passed my checkride... now what" step.

Some people stop at that step, whereas for others it's just the first flight of stairs leading to an instrument rating. Many stop at that floor, and others—like me—want to see what's the next step after that. That leads to the commercial certificate, then the CFI.

I loved instructing, and didn't expect to move on from there. (Notice that I didn't say "move up", because instructing is a worthy and worthwhile position on its own, not a "lower class" aviation job.) But there was still another step I hadn't taken: the airline world.

Since I didn't get into instructing just build up 1500 hours and run, I had over 2100 hours when I applied. Even so, this didn't even put me in the top half of the class of 9 I was in as far as hours went.

Probably the hardest thing to build up is the required multi-engine time. Most airlines want at least 50-100 hours of multi time. Having a lot isn't a negative, but it's not a huge help, either, since they know you're going to build up plenty with them anyway. You need a decent knowledge of multi-engine procedures and aerodynamics, but spending hundreds of hours in a twin with both engines running isn't all that much more impressive than getting the rating and enough hours to be insurable and meet the ATP aeronautical experience requirements. Once you know "dead foot, dead engine" and "identify, verify, feather", you'll do it so many times in the sim that having barely more than the interview minimums isn't as big a handicap as you might fear. I'll devote a post on some ways to get multi time later. Mine came with a bit of luck, by meeting someone who owned a Baron and needed an instructor to accompany him on trips.

Once you've built up the experience to qualify, it's now a matter of choosing which airline(s) to apply to. There are a lot of factors to consider, and no answer is the right one for everyone since everyone will weigh their factors differently. Or you could take the lazy road and just put your application into and go with whoever calls first, but do you want to trust the next several years of your life to luck?

Some factors to consider:

  • Whether your airline has a base where you live and, if not, how easy the commute is to where you would be based.
  • The type of equipment they fly. (Shiny regional jets, big turboprops, small turboprops, etc.)
  • The stability of the company. Many regionals live and die by the terms of the CPA (capacity purchase agreement) they have with the major or majors they fly for.
  • Upgrade time. This has a major effect on when you start logging that all-important turbine PIC time as a Captain.
  • The company atmosphere and pilot group.
  • Pay and benefits. This isn't as big a factor as you'd think, basically because the pay scales are low at just about every regional, and by the 2nd or 3rd year most hourly rates are in the same ballpark. However, as an example of how benefits make a difference, one major regional that I ruled out flew a particular aircraft that they had major, long-term maintenance problems with, yet their benefits didn't include cancellation pay. If you were working for them, you could show up at the beginning of your four-day trip only to see all those hours vanish, along with your paycheck.

All of these factors will combine to give you the big QoL: Quality of Life. As I said, each one of these will have different weights for different people, so I can't give you the One True Answer—although that doesn't keep the online pilot forums from being filled with hundreds of people who claim to have the "right" answer.

I recommend rating each one of these factors for yourself on a scale from 1-5, with 1 being "don't care" and 5 being "critical". This will help you consider whether the airline you're looking at will be a good fit for you, rather than just taking the word of "PilotDewd007" who said in one of the forums that "Come to XYZ because it's super kewl here!"

As an example of my thinking, here's how I rated each one for myself when I was considering where to apply.

Commute or home base: 2. As long as I can get there, I'm happy. Being home-based would definitely be better, but the airline world changes so much that what's a base today might not be one tomorrow.

Type of equipment: 1. To me, turbine time is turbine time. I'd fly anything from my Cessna 172 to a Embraer 190 and be perfectly happy.

Company stability: 5. I'm too old to sit around getting furloughed over and over again just because the company bought too many jets a couple of years ago and can't afford the payments now.

Upgrade time: 5. Beginning a 121 career at 40 means that I need to upgrade in a decent amount of time so I can still have 15-20 years left when it's time to move to a major. I don't have the luxury of spending 7-9 years as a regional FO.

Company atmosphere: 4. While I can tend to get along with most people, being surrounded by a bunch of uptight and/or cocky people, or pilots who are miserable because of management vs. union issues, for the next several years was not something I wanted to deal with.

Pay and benefits: 2. My wife is an RN, so we already have a good, stable paycheck and a decent health plan.

After you evaluate which places might be a good fit for you and you've applied and got an interview, it's time to prepare for that interview. One of the nice things about evaluating your priorities is that you've also done a lot of the research that you'd want to have done before the interview in any case. After all, you're almost definitely going to get the "Tell me why you applied to our company" question during the interview, and you want to have something more impressive to say than, "Because your planes have two wings."

I will devote an entire post to my interview later, but for now, I will say that the run-down (or what's known as the "gouge") at for the company I interviewed at was spot-on. If you put "[airline you're interviewing at] gouge" into your favorite search engine, you'll have plenty of things to study before your big day so you can dazzle them with your knowledge.

A resource I wish I would have known about before my interview is the excellent overview book The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual by Greg Brown & Mark Holt. (If you prefer an eBook, there's a paper copy bundled with the e-formatted version here.) It is a gentle introduction to the world of the bigger aircraft you'll be interviewing to fly, and it will make your life easier in ground school. I found it only while getting ready for my recurrent training, so my initial training was over before I started reading it. Even so, I picked up quite a few things from it, mostly of the "Oh, so that's why such-and-such is like that." This book is definitely worth the money!

I'll dazzle you more with my interview experiences in my next part in this series, "Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: The interview". If this helped or there's something else you wanted to know, leave a comment!

See the full series index here.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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