Written by Shem Malmquist   
Being an airline pilot can be one of the world's best jobs. First year salaries range from $25,000 to over $50,000 per year. Pilots who have worked for a company for 10 years could have annual earnings close to $300,000. It is possible for a pilot to have even higher earnings during the course of a career. A pilot might only work 8 days in a month. They never have to take their work "home" with them; their job is finished when they leave the airplane. Pilots have retirement and benefit packages that exceed what most other professionals earn. They get free or reduced rate travel. They get reduced rate hotel and car rentals. Pilots even have the time off to use these fringe benefits.

Most pilots love their jobs, to the point that they even will fly for fun on their days off. Sounds great, right? Well, there is another side of the coin.

While some pilots do earn those high salaries, most pilots at major airlines earn around $100,000 per year. Still, not bad, however you have to consider that very few pilots actually work for major airlines. Unlike other professions, which can be reasonably assured that they will get a job once they have finished school, etc., the majority of qualified pilots are not able to procure jobs with a major carrier. My company recently received 7,000 applications for 50 job openings. All of these people were qualified.

How many days a pilot works depends on a number of factors, including which company a pilot works for and how long the pilot has worked for that company. Pilots can work as few a 8 days in a month, to as many as 20. While pilots at a major airline might work 14 days in a month, you must keep in mind that they are not coming home from work on those 14 days. They are actually away from their homes and families half of every month, or more. This is a high price to pay. It would not be physically possible to work much more. Pilots are already living out of their suitcases half their lives.

While pilots do not take their work home with them, they are required to be prepared for tests.. Most pilots take a checkride twice a year. This requires some home study. In the event of failure a pilot could find him or herself out of a job. In addition, pilots are expected to maintain currency in new techniques and procedures, and keep their charts up to date.

Another drawback is the high cost of becoming qualified to be a pilot. A pilot either has to go through the military, which is an 8 year commitment after pilot training, or pay for that training him or herself. In addition to needing a bachelor's degree (in any subject), a pilot needs a lot of intensive training in the field of aviation itself. This is expensive, especially if you consider that there is a fairly good chance that a pilot will never work for an airline.

A pilot also needs to be in good physical condition. Captains need to pass a physical exam once every 6 months; other commercial pilots need to pass an exam every year. A pilot could be out of a job if a health problem is discovered. In addition, pilots are subject to regular drug and alcohol tests. If you have ever had a problem with drugs or alcohol you need to choose a different profession. Furthermore, your driving record is scrutinized, and any felony convictions are disqualifying. In addition to the physical requirements, a pilot must be mentally fit to perform the job. Unlike most other professions, many people's lives depend on the pilot's ability to stay calm and collected while solving problems.

Finally, a person seriously considering a career in the airline industry should be aware that the airline business does not offer much in terms of job security. Airlines that once seemed to be invincible have gone out of business, like Pan Am and Eastern airlines. The pilots of those carriers had to seek employment elsewhere. If they took a job as a pilot for a different airline, they started again at the bottom. There are pilots who were Captains at Eastern Airlines, who are now Flight Engineers for a different company. Eventually they may move back up to Captain, but they are not given any special priority over anyone else who was hired at the same time. All promotions within a company are based on seniority (years of service) with that company. Previous experience might help someone get hired, but that is all.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee of advancement at any airline. If you get hired at the right time, you could be a Captain in as little as three years, while those hired just six months later might spend five years or more as a Flight Engineer before they even get a chance to become co-pilots.

All this needs to be considered if you are thinking of being a pilot.

What does a pilot need to know?

Well, of course a pilot needs to be able to fly an airplane. Flying an airplane is nothing like driving a car. It requires a very high level of skill. It literally takes years to acquire the skills necessary to fly commercial jets. Furthermore, a pilot is always working on his or her skills; there is always room for improvement. Most people think that this is all there is to it, once you have acquired the skill to control the airplane you can safely fly it. While these skills are impressive, they are only the tip of the iceberg for a professional pilot. Many pilots will tell you that the skill of flying an airplane is only 5% of what it takes.


What else is there?

A pilot must be very knowledgeable on a variety of subjects. To be a professional pilot you must:

1) Understand theory of flight: This requires a fundamental understanding of physics. While there is no requirement to understand mathematics above algebra (although it helps if you do understand higher math), you do have to be able to understand and apply the concepts of physics. A pilot must understand laws of motion, mass, inertia, pressure, temperature, fluids and gasses. This is the only way to understand aerodynamics (subsonic and supersonic), aircraft performance (including aircraft loading), hydroplaning and system operations and limitations.

2) Understand meteorology: This, too, is rooted in physics. A pilot must not only be able to interpret the weather that he or she is provided, but must also be able to make judgments as to the validity of the weather forecasts themselves. Often the pilot is the only one that can observe weather phenomena, and must be able to report what he or she is seeing accurately as well as make a quick analysis of the conditions. This includes how the changes may affect the weather forecast itself and how those changes may affect the safety of the flight.

3) Understand aircraft systems: All machines use the principles of physics to operate, and so a pilot must understand the areas of physics that apply. In addition, a pilot must understand aircraft maintenance, otherwise there is no way to tell if the mechanics did their job right. It is not enough to trust the mechanic; your life, and the lives of your passengers, are at stake.

A pilot must fully understand how their engines operate (be they jet or not), as well as how all of the various components on the engine function and interact. The engine is not the only mechanical component, however. The pilot must have a full understanding of electrical systems (including all of the components), the hydraulic systems and the pneumatic systems. In addition, the pilot must be familiar with the cable and pulley systems that may be incorporated to operate flight controls, etc. Without a thorough understanding of these components there would be no way to trouble shoot a problem that occurred in flight. (Remember, the mechanic does not fly with you).

The pilot must also understand metal bending limits, material fatigue, etc. In this way the pilot can determine if there is a possible structural problem, and if there is, how serious it might be.

4) Understand navigation: Navigation is a broad subject, with many important aspects. There is much more to navigation than simply getting from one point to the next. First, a pilot must understand how maps and charts are constructed in order to properly interpret them. There are many ways of making charts, and each has advantages as well as pitfalls. Charts made for pilots to land in poor weather have their own sets of limitations and problems. A pilot must fully understand the safety margins that are incorporated into charts, and how they affect each phase of flight. There are times that an altitude or course deviation of just 100 feet could be dangerous. A pilot who does not understand charting will be flying inefficiently at best, and could even risk a crash.

While it is true that much of today's enroute navigation uses airborne computer equipment, what if it fails? A pilot must be able to navigate via dead reckoning, celestial, or any other means of navigation that would enable the flight to be completed safely. There are times when a pilot will navigate using only the chart and visible landmarks, and other times when a pilot will use ground based radio signals. The pilot is responsible for understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each type of navigation used, and knowing when to use them.

To be able to navigate also requires a thorough understanding of geography. Furthermore, a pilot must be familiar with international laws and current political situations in various countries. In an emergency, a pilot must know which countries are hostile or unstable, and which are safe. This requires staying abreast of current world events.

Part of navigation also involves the weather. Pilots will often have to deviate from their normal course to avoid dangerous weather conditions. Sometimes this is not possible, and the pilot must be able to make decisions based on the known risks.

5) Regulations and air traffic control: A pilot must be familiar with all the regulations that may affect his or her flight. There are literally hundreds of regulations that must be complied with for every flight. These regulations are written by legal professionals, therefore, a pilot must be able to read and understand legal documents. Most of these regulations come from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but a pilot is expected to comply with the regulations of various other government bodies, both Federal and State. In addition, pilots flying Internationally are governed by International law as well as the laws that are specific to the country to which they are operating.

A large section of these rules pertains to the carriage of hazardous materials. A pilot must understand the properties of various chemicals and other agents in order to be able to comply with these rules.

Air traffic control involves many regulations. In addition, there are books of procedures that air traffic controllers must follow. The pilot must also be familiar with these procedures. In the event the controller makes an error, it is the pilot's responsibility to recognize that error and to then take what ever action is necessary to complete the flight safely. In additions to the procedures, the pilot must understand the limits of the controller's radar and radios. Radios include the communication radios as well as ground based radio navigation aids. This requires an understanding of electromagnetic wave signals, and how the different wave lengths of radio and light waves can be affected by various phenomena.

6) Pilots must have some knowledge of physiology:. While a pilot is not expected to go to medical school, the FAA does expect a pilot to be able to recognize physical problems that may affect him or herself or any passengers. The pilot also has to know how to prevent these problems in the first place. In addition, the pilot must understand the various illusions and sensations that occur in flight that could adversely affect safety.

Pilots also need to study past aviation accidents so they can better understand the human factors that may have contributed to them.

This is only a partial list. Each of these subjects can be studied in depth. In fact, most of these subjects are available as Doctoral programs in our universities. While a pilot is not expected to have multiple doctorate degrees, he or she is expected to thoroughly understand these subjects. Without such understanding, the pilot cannot operate safely. Flying an airplane requires risk management, and risk management is not possible without fully understanding all the principles involved.


Jobs outside of Major Airlines

Flying for a major airline is not the only choice. Although airline flying is the top of the field in terms of salary and benefits, there are other ways to make a living as a pilot. Some of these are corporate aviation (flying company airplanes), agricultural flying (crop dusting), and you could fly full time in the military. Regional (or commuter) airlines also employ pilots, although the pay scales and working conditions are not like the major airlines. If you like to teach, you can teach people to fly for a living. This can be at the primary level up through airline instructing. Pay scales for all these jobs vary, as do working conditions. You can expect salary ranges of $20,000 through $80,000 per year.

If you want to be involved in aviation, but being a professional pilot is not for you, there are many other jobs within aviation. You can work as an attorney practicing aviation law or as a doctor in aero-medicine. Other possible fields include meteorology, air traffic control, business management, aircraft mechanics, etc. While you do not need to be a pilot to do these type of jobs, being a pilot might provide more insight into the various opportunities available to you.

After reading all this, if you still feel aviation is the career for you, than you are ready for the next question.


How do you start?

First of all, the younger you start the better. If you are still in high school, now is the time to start. If you're older, that's O.K., but do not procrastinate.

If you have never flown an airplane, go out to the local airport and take an introductory ride. These are usually fairly inexpensive, and you will get a chance to fly the airplane. If you don't like it, stop here.

If you're like most people, you will enjoy that first ride. Although the flight school will probably try to persuade you to start flying lessons right away, it is better if you don't. Instead, see if they offer a ground school course. If they don't have one themselves, they may know of one. Ground school is where you will begin learning the basics of the subjects mentioned above. If the school does not offer ground school, or if the next ground school course does not start for several months, pick up some books and get started on your own.

There are quite a few books that are written for beginners. One of the better ones is the Student Pilots Flight Manual by Kershner. The FAA also has a good collection of books.

Now comes the real test. If you enjoy what you are studying in ground school (or in the books) you will probably enjoy flying as a career. Everyone likes flying the airplane, but being a professional pilot requires a lot of study. If you don't enjoy the subjects, flying is not for you.

While most of todays airline pilots came from the military, it is not the only route. By earning your flying ratings and acquiring the experience through private lessons and later by working as a pilot for small companies, you can get the experience you need to apply to a large carrier. However, if your goal is to fly for an airline, you should strongly consider the military route. The airlines are bound to continue to prefer the experience military pilots obtain.

Whether you choose the military or civilian route, you should learn to fly privately first. This start will help you in military flight school, if you choose that route, so you can't lose by taking lessons. Get out to the airport and get started. Your worst enemy is procrastination.