Tips for becoming a commercial airline pilot

Hilarye Family Travel, Family Travel Tips 6 Comments

A couple of months ago I interviewed my favorite flight attendant, well here is an interview I did with my favorite pilot (who also happens to be my brother-in-law) Chris. His love for all things airplanes, airlines, flying, and the friendly skies are palpable. If you get him talking about his love (other than my sister-in-law and two adorable neices of course) he gets a sparkle in his eye and will talk your ear off. Hopefully this interview will answer all your airline pilot questions but if it doesn’t feel free to leave them in the comments section!

DTM: How long have you been a pilot?

Chris: There are many ways that someone can become a pilot.  The three most common are flying for the military, attending a flight school, or earning your licenses at your local airport.  All three ways are perfectly acceptable and each has its own strengths.  I attended the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota, located in Grand Forks.  UND is a large state University with a topnotch aviation program. I took my first flight lesson during college and earned my Private Pilot’s license when I was 19.  I continued to earn more licenses and upon graduation became a flight instructor for the University.  I eventually became a check airman and was qualified to issue the Private, Instrument, Commercial and Multi-engine licenses.

After gaining many hours and experiences, I was hired as a first officer with my current airline when I was 25 years old, and upgraded to Captain three years later when I was 28.  I fly the Canadair Regional Jet primarily around the Midwest, east coast and Canada.

DTM: Why did you decide to become a pilot?

Chris: Early in life, I either wanted to be a pilot, train engineer, or ship captain.  I guess I’ve always been fascinated by the transportation industry.  My uncle was a hurricane hunter and flew large planes into the eyes of hurricanes for the United States Air Force.  He was definitely there to encourage me to chase my dream of becoming a pilot.

As I grew older, I began building model airplanes, reading technical books, magazines and decided that being a professional pilot is what I was going to do as a career.  Whenever my family flew or I’d fly during high school, I’d always stop by the flight deck and visit with the pilots.  A close hometown friend growing up and myself used to attend several air shows and fly to various destinations during high school.  One trip took us down to Orlando for a few hours to visit a fellow friend and on another trip, we flew to Chicago’s O’Hare International for 12hrs just to watch planes and visit with people! This good friend also became an airline pilot and he now works for the FAA as an Air Traffic Controller.

When I graduated from high school, flying for the military was not an option since I wore glasses/contacts.  With today’s technologies and advancements in the procedures, certain types of vision-correction surgeries do allow you to become a military aviator.

Dr. Bruce Smith (who is Dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota) once said, “The love for aviation is like a contagious disease.  You can never loose it, but you certainly share your love with others”.  Why am I a pilot? I do it for the thrill of piloting a pressurized aluminum tube seven miles up at 550mph over the ground, landing at 167mph and for the experiences of visiting many places most people will never get to see.

DTM: What is the hardest part of your job?

Chris: Being an airline pilot has many great benefits but there can be a few headaches at times.  Dealing with the uncertainty of the industry and dealing with delays can be quite stressful. Being away from my family for six days at a time can be tough on somefamilies.  However, it is nice when I’m at home, I do not have to worry about work at all.  I talk with my wife and kids several times a day and thanks to our web cams, I get to see them too!  Even if it is only on my computer.

A clever saying about the aviation industry is, “The only constant in aviation is that things change”.  Throughout my six years with the airline, I have been based in several cities.  When I was hired, our crewbases were at Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Appleton, WI, Washington Dulles and Atlanta.  Our company closed every single crewbase and now our crewbases are in Philadelphia, Washington Regan, New York LaGuardia, Norfolk, VA and Raleigh-Durham, NC. Many pilots and their families had to make the difficult decision whether to relocate to the new cities with the hopes that these bases might stay open, choose to commute to work, or quit the company.  (As I write this, there are rumors that two of our bases may indeed soon be closing)  I live in the southern midwest and choose to commute to work.  There are no direct flight so I fly to one airport, hop on a second plane and fly to my base.  All in all, from the time I leavehome to when I get to work, around seven hours have passed.  I do this twice a week and many times on my day off.

DTM: What is your favorite part of your job?

Chris: My job is to reunite people with family and friends, helping them get to their vacations, help them travel for their business or job interviews and going back and forth to school. Flying for an airline is a challenge that is always changing and rewarding.  As pilots, we are constantly aware and are responsible for every aspect of the flight.  We are very familiar with weather and are constantly monitoring the weather at our departure, enroute and destinations.  By ensuring that the aircraft is loaded correctly, having all of the required paperwork and documentation, knowing about any needs our passengers may require and always being ready for the unexpected emergency are a few ways to maintain the most important part of being a pilot –SAFETY!

I enjoy working with everyone involved with getting an airliner off the ground.  My team includes my first officer, my flight attendant, the dispatcher back at our company headquarters in Appleton, WI, the ground crew, the many maintenance crews, air traffic controllers, even the person who empties the lavatory is part of the team.  As Captain, I am responsible to ensure that all of these individuals come together and complete their jobs efficiently and safely to get the aircraft ready for flight.

DTM: What is a common misconception people have about commercial airline pilots?

Chris: A classic aviation joke goes, “How do you make small fortune in aviation?  You need to start with a large one”!  When I speak with strangers and they discover that I am an airline pilot, they immediately think that I have a small fortune.  In fact I do…only it’s very, very small. Many folks are surprised that pilots are paid by the hour.  This clock only runs whenever passengers are in the plane and the doors are shut. Waiting for the hotel shuttles, the rides to and from the hotel, going through airport security, all the preflight preparations, waiting at the gate for a late aircraft to arrive, the boarding process, waiting around an airport for several hours between flights…these are all times when we essentially “Donate” our time since we are off the clock.

Back in the “Glory Days” of aviation, being an airline pilot was a great profession and one could make a very good income.  Prior to September 11, 2001 and the many pay cuts that followed, many senior pilots at the major airlines were able to bring home $300,000 per year.  Many of those same pilots today bring home only $190,000.  That is almost half of what they were making.  An employee in any industry who has worked loyally for 35 years is able to build up a great pension.  Now, the US Government decided that airlines could cancel the pilot’s well-earned pensions all together.  Today, airlines are making a great deal of money and top management continues to give themselves huge bonuses.  This all happens while the many pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics are still giving up lots of income with pay cuts.

In the regional industry at some companies, the new-hire first officer piloting your flight today can be making as little as $16 per hour. At the end of the year, they will be brining home only $13,500 –Gross before taxes.  It’s sad that most professional pilots have a 4-year college degree, years of specialized training and experience, work very hard (up to 16hrs per day) and still easily qualify for food stamps and are considered to be living in poverty.  They could quit and work at a fast-food chain and are able to make more money.

Airline Management can always find other pilots or companies to do your same job for cheaper, and they do.  With many regionals, you can still have a great life making decent money, having good schedules and providing for your family.

DTM: What question do you always get asked?

Chris: If the engines quit, will the airplane fall out of the sky? Nope!  Modern aircraft are designed to be very aerodynamic.  In fact, during the descent from high altitudes when we bring the engines back to idle, they produce very little thrust.  With my aircraft, we have a 2.5 X 1,000 glide ratio.  This means that for every 1,000 feet we descend, we move forward around 2.5 miles.  If we are at the planes maximum altitude of 41,000’ and we loose both of our engines, we could glide around 102 miles before we would be back on the ground.  There are many suitable airports within that distance for landing.  But don’t worry; there are many different ways we train for to restart an engine if one fails.

DTM: What is the weirdest thing you have ever seen as a pilot?

Chris: I remember flying one night somewhere in Oklahoma over a line of strong thunderstorms.  While watching the light show the storm was providing, we began to see lightning shooting up into the sky from the top of the thunderstorm.  It was a neat thing that I have only seen a few times since then.

My favorite thing I’ve seen happened just over a year ago, departing from New York LaGuardia on New Year’s Eve.  Our departure’s flight path allowed us to turn right over Times Square at a relatively low level.  Seeing the ball and the ten’s of thousands of people was quite amazing.  Then a few short hours later that night, I smiled as I watched the ball drop on television and thinking, “Hey, I was just there”!

DTM: What insider tip can you give people to make their lives easier when flying?

Chris: If flying on an airline… Fly in the mornings- more open seats, fewer delays and usually less weather. Give yourself at least an hour for connections- since airlines usually begin boarding 30 minutes prior to departure and close the jet bridge door 10 minutes prior to departure, it pays to get to the gate on time.

Become educated on the layout of airports- this way if you are running late, you aren’t overwhelmed when trying to find your way around.  You can always ask a pilot or flight attendant if you need help!

Finally- remember that your flight crew does not like delays either. The later we are, the shorter our overnight time becomes at the hotel! Even though at times we may be a little busy with paperwork and checklists, we are usually more than happy to have visitors visit our front office and say hello!  Who knows, someday I may be your Captain?

Comments 6

  1. He failed to mention that the flying public always looks for the cheapest fares. Sometimes they get what they pay for. And DO NOT blame pilots & flight crews for delays due to weather!!!! It’s a tough profession!

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