Where Do You Belong?

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One of the things I love most about aviation is the incredible diversity of jobs and experiences available to those of us who venture into this exciting world. There are so many disparate flying gigs out there that referring to them with the generic “pilot” moniker is almost deceptive.

I’ve got friends who are professional aerobatic coaches, bush country explorers, test pilots, flight instructors, fire fighters, sightseeing tour specialists, military aviators, ISR (Intel/Surveillence/Recon) pilots in Afghanistan, banner towing experts, ferry pilots, VLJ mentors, formation sky typing team members, and more.

I even know a few who fly for airlines.

There are countless nooks and crannies in the flying world! An example from my own life: I spent several years working for Dynamic Aviation on a sterile insect technique contract here in Los Angeles. If you’ve never heard the term, you’re not alone. The shortest description I can think of would be “cropdusting in a dense urban environment”. What made the job unique is that we were dropping live sterilized fruit flies instead of chemicals, and the aircraft we used were restricted category, ex-military King Airs.

But we had many of the other elements you’d find in any other cropdusting operation: light bars, AgNavs, low-altitude flying, and certification as an aerial applicator. I wrote a “day in the life” of the operation a few years ago if you’re interested in reading more about it.

Every flying job requires a different combination of talents and abilities. The iPad-specific P1 Aviation Magazine recently completed an interesting three-part series on the unique skills required by pilots in corporate flying. This happens to be my current niche, and it echoed an early realization that not everyone is cut out for this line of work.

You might think “hey, flying is flying — they’re all airplanes!”, but there’s so much more to it than just manipulating the flight controls. At a Part 121 airline like United or JetBlue, someone else prepares a weather package, computes weight & balance, files the flight plan, handles security, greets the passengers, loads the bags, organizes the catering, restocks the galley, and cleans the cabin.

In charter and corporate flying, the pilots are responsible for all those tasks — and much more. The actual flying is almost an afterthought. That’s not to say the aviating is not important — obviously it’s our primary job! But corporate aviation is less of a transportation business than it is a service industry. It requires a specific mindset, and the fact is, there are plenty of outstanding aviators who just don’t fit into that mold. It’s simply not in their DNA to futz with those things, to spend hours waiting for passengers, and to roll with the punches when the schedule invariably changes. Somehow I’ve developed a knack for it.

On the other hand, I’d be a poor fit at an airline. While the monthly schedule would be attractive, the limited route network, large terminals, long lines, compensation issues, mergers and bankruptcies, unions, and seniority system are not for me.

So when someone tells me they’re interesting in flying professionally and want to know what it’s like… well, that’s a tough question to answer. A day in the life of a Alaskan fish spotter bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of a cruise pilot on an Airbus A380. The guy in the Gulfstream at Mach .80 isn’t in the same league as the one flying the blimp at 40 miles per hour.

I think the key to happiness as a professional pilot is to “know thyself”. Forget Hollywood films and dreams of financial riches. Those things are fleeting no matter what your career choice. Instead, explore the market to see what’s out there, and then pick something that fits your personality and natural talents. As my father once said, “Life is too short to do something you hate every day.”

So… where do you belong?


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2013/12/30/flying-careers-choose-wisely/.

5 comments

  1. Outstanding post!
    Being a pilot, i’m almost used to the first question from a person i’d be talking to: “So which airline do you fly for?” When in my opinion, airline flying is the less desirable form of flying for me. Thing is, the people simply don’t realize the vastness of the term ‘pilot’ :)

    1. Yup, I get that all the time. In fact, even after they learn that I fly on-demand charter for a living, the most common question I’m asked is: “Are you interested in becoming a commercial pilot?”

      To most people, “commercial” = “airline”. They seem genuinely surprised that a major scheduled airline would not be every pilot’s brass ring — which is odd, because they’ve flown on the airlines and know how unpleasant it can be.

      1. I just got my Commercial Pilot’s Certificate Yesterday :-) I’m still on cloud 9 but even I don’t know what I want to do, or CAN do with it since what can a 350 hour SE pilot accomplish with a commercial rating with no ME experience?

        I am passionate about 135 travel, tail wheel, classic aircraft and ME piston aircraft. I think the biggest reward would be to teach, but after that, I’d like to fly something faster, higher and more interesting. Not in the air force or Navy sort of way (although that would be cool), maybe Helicopter, because by nature of the beast you are always in interesting places, doing interesting thing

        1. Congratulations on the new certificate! There are plenty of things you can do: aerial advertising, local sightseeing, ferrying airplanes, towing gliders, aerial photography, etc.

          Teaching is a great way to meet people. And if you teach in the high performance (Cirrus, Bonanza etc) and tailwheel/aerobatic realm, the flying is guaranteed to be interesting.

          Helicopters are something I’d like to get into as well! Pretty expensive, though, even for an add-on rating.

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