Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Career Paths

The beauty of this job is that there are almost as many pilots as there are career paths leading to a pilot job.

In Europe, most people think of famous training organisations such as Oxford Aviation Academy (OAA), or Embry Riddle in the US.
But there are many other schools where you can train the modular way and do each step in a different location, and it is usually some two or three times less expensive.
There are hundreds of options for someone willing to become a commercial pilot.
In Europe, the two main ones are integrated training with an airline sponsorship (CTC with easyJet pilot placement for example), or the less expensive modular training, usually with no airline connection.
Doing an integrated training with a school that doesn't offer any kind of airline placement is, to my mind, a huge waste of money. Those schools know how to sell the "dream" job and a lot of people fall in the trap.

It is difficult to give realistic figures, but in average in Europe, for the past few years less than a third of newly qualified pilots have ended up getting a pilot job. In some schools, this figure can be as low as a few percents.

We see an increasing number of young people suddenly deciding they want to become airline pilots. They usually have no interest in aviation in the first place, didn't take any flying lesson or trial flight before, and blindly listened to the schools' misleading commercial talks.
How many of them get a job in the end? A very tiny amount.

A lot of people enroll in pilot training with no post-highschool degree, no fall-back job and a rather low or inexistant level of awareness towards the job market.
Outside of the English-speaking countries, a lot have a very poor English level, resulting in even worse chances of getting employed.
Worse even, most think they will end up flying a big shiny jet straight out of school and don't even consider anything else. Seems like the love for Aviation is long-time gone for a lot of newbies.

So what's the real story like?

I've listed below a number of career paths from different individual with different stories, all from the French aviation forum Aeronet:

  •  PPL, CPL/IR - MCC training, 5 years doing various ground jobs while flying from time to time as a safety pilot, FI (Flight Instructor) Rating, Beech 1900 type rating with a FO contract, a few years later Captain on the B1900, then moved onto the PC12 as Captain and more recently flying the Be350 with 2400 hrs flight time. 
  •  PPL, CPL and IR from 1998 to 2000, dispatcher for three years (until 2003), FI rating, ground handling agent until 2005, flying turboprops from 2006 and flying jets from 2008.
  • PPL in France, CPL, IR and MEP in the US, licenses conversion (FAA to JAA) in France, FI in a flying club, FO job in a small regional airline before working as an Air Traffic Information Operator and dispatcher, and later on being hired as a CL604/605 First Officer.
  •  Gliding license in 1998, glider instructor in 2003, PPL in 2004, glider towing, ATPL theory - CPL/IR/MCC from 2006 to 2008, glider towing in 2009, volonteering pilot in Africa for Aviation Sans Frontiere (NGO) on the Cessna Caravan in 2010 with 700 hrs total.
  • First flight back in 1991, 8 years working in the Air Force, PPL in 1995, commercial pilot training spread over 5 years from 1996 to 2001, MCC in 2003, estate agent for a year, 3 years working in aircraft ground handling, FO Cessna Citation for one year and now on the Global Express.
  • Initial pilot training (PPL and ATPL theory) from 2004 to 2006 while working in computer sciences, successful in the Thomsonfly Cadet sponsorship, sponsorship which was later on cancelled due to the economic crisis. First pilot job as of summer 2009 as a skydiving pilot. 
  •  PPL in 2001, post-graduate degree in 2004, 2 years working in a cloth shop, emigrate to Canada in 2006, CPL/IR training in 2007, from mid-2007 until mid-2008 working as a ground agent uploading and unloading cargo aircraft in Ontario, and from then on FO on the Embraer 110 (turboprop).
  • Graduate degree in 2003, ATPL theory in 2004, 2 years working as a dispatcher, failed Air France pilots' selections, CPL/IR training in 2007, glider towing, moved to the UK and a lot of short-term jobs, first pilot job in 2009 flying the DHC-6 Twin Otter in remote islands.
  • Airline pilot training from 2002 to 2004 in Belgium, first job in 2004 working in Senegal flying the Robin HR100 (small 4 seater), mechanical degree in 2005, back in Africa in 2006 flying the Cessna 207, Piper Seneca and Navajo. Back in Belgium in 2007 but no luck with the job-hunting, other than a few safety pilot flights on a Be90 Kingair. Finally got a job in 2008 working for a cartography company, in 2009 same company but flying the Merlin.
  •  1998 to 2001 : Cabin Crew based in the UK. PPL in America with IMC and night rating, ATPL theory back in the UK, JAA CPL in South Africa (Johannesburg), IR in Coventry (UK) on the Cessna 310Q. In 2003, MCC on the 737-400. Later on this year : cabin crew (CSS). From 2004 to 2007 : dispatcher in the UK, in 2005 self sponsored Type Rating on the ATR42/72, first FO contract in spring 2007, Captain by late 2011.

I hope this gives you a better overall insight.
If all you want is to fly a shiny jet, you get the wrong idea.
Get interested first.
There is a lot to discover: gliding, skydiving, ultralight, tail-wheel, aerobatics, formation flying...
And as an aspiring pilot, there is quite a fair chance you will end up flying single engine propeller aircraft a few years before getting any kind of pilot job. If you don't like this idea, think again.

(Some) schools like their students to wear shiny uniforms with stripes to fly their PA28 ...
Why not after all, but the fact people are doing CPL/IR training doesn't mean they will all become airline pilots.

One advice I was given a few years back was : If you hesitate between pilot and something else, do something else. A bit harsh but it gives the idea.

If you want to get a job, you need to have not one plan but many of them.
More than that, there is no way you will get a job if you don't act to make things happen.
Quite a lot of people go to the US to get FAA licenses and wonder why they don't get hired back in Europe.
It is already very difficult when you have the proper licenses (JAA)...
(Read : Getting a pilot job in Europe)

Before you take any decison, you should ask yourself whether this is the lifestyle you want and what it would imply.
Some people are very satisfied in this industry but a lot do not fit the lifestyle or find drawbacks overcome the positive aspects. This of course depends a lot on the job you get as a pilot.
A freight dawg (cargo pilot) won't have the same life as a business pilot flying Citations. You don't really get to choose but generally, you can expect years of struggle, unstability, financial difficulties (at the biginning at least) and the reccurent necessity to relocate.
Add to that unhealthy working hours with very long and exhausting working periods (often over 12 hrs of duty in a day and easily more than 50 hrs in a busy week).
Many people don't have the motivation to put up with the struggle to get a job. They will send CVs and wait home for that call which will usually never come.
As you can see from the above-listed career profiles, among the lucky ones who fly for a living, a majority have had lots of varied positions before ending up in that right hand seat, and these intermediate jobs may have played a great role in successfully becoming an airline pilot. Whatever you do in between is up to you, that's the beauty of this career, no two pilots share the same story.

Why didn't I choose the "integrated" training? I wanted to get UK licenses, fly in the US, build my hours at my own pace and have a bit of adventure. An integrated school plans everything from your first introduction flight to graduation.
I was told the wait between training completion and flying a commercial aircraft would be demotivating, I certainly was lucky and worked hard to ensure I would enjoy my time and in fact I loved every second of it.

I was inspired by many people and this helped me make up my own career path.
Among them, Danny, a fellow French pilot who made it to the US and now flies for Delta. Two easyJet pilots who shared their adventures on blogspot, Captain Dave ( flightlevel390.blogspot.com ) flying the A320 for Delta. Shaun Lunt, a young American bush-flying in Alaska in his Piper Super Cub and taking the best pictures one could find on the internet ( shaunlunt.typepad.com ), sadly he tragically died while flying his Super Cub. Three French PPL pilots flying for a couple of months in the US sharing their wonderful pictures online ( thebarteam.blogspot.com ). Olivier, another friend who completed a JAA training in the UK and now flies the Be200 ( lj35.blogspot.com ) ...
Those last two greatly influenced my choice of building my hours in the US and do a CPL/IR training in the UK.

That's your career and you get to choose every step, if you want to.
When you take a decision, make sure this is the right thing for you.