Dear Baby Pilots

Dear Baby Pilots,

At least a couple times a month I see someone post a variation of the following question, either here on TPN, or on one of the other aviation career groups I follow:

“How can I build hours without having to ________ ?” (be a CFI, fly nights, work for peanuts, move somewhere else, etc.)

I also recently participated in a discussion where someone suggested that many people are padding their logbooks in an attempt to reach ATP minimums and get an airline job.

Basically, I see a lot of young pilots looking for shortcuts in the aviation industry. I thought about making this a “tough love” post and using my three favorite flight instructor techniques (fear, sarcasm, and ridicule) to help adjust your mindset. However, I don’t think that’s necessary. Once we look at a few points, I think you’ll agree that shortcuts just won’t get you what you want.

First off, I don’t blame you for trying to minimize your pain! This is a tough industry to break into. The barriers to entry are high – financially, academically, and otherwise. It’s tough to invest so much with the expectation that it’ll be years before you see a significant return. If the collective internets treat you roughly when you ask these questions, part of the reason is definitely that things are so great for us greybeards (yes, sadly, I can own that at the ripe old age of 38) that it’s easy for us to forget how daunting things looked when we started out. On behalf of all crusty, old pilots out there, I apologize for our behavior.

Whether you’re just thinking about an aviation career, or you’ve already started on your way, rest assured that 1) it’s worth it, and 2) you can do it.

My life as a major airline pilot is truly wonderful. It’s so little work for so much money that I feel guilty every time I think about it. The work is fun and interesting, and it gives me time to spend with my family and pursue interests that I would have never had the time (or money) for until now. There’s a lot of doom and gloom saying that pilot jobs will disappear very soon. Yes, that will happen someday, but not today. Our world’s leading-edge transportation automation technology is at the faltering baby step stage, but it’ll have to at least get to collegiate level before it represents a real threat to our jobs.

Speaking of baby steps…I know you don’t want to hear it, but taking shortcuts in aviation won’t actually do you any good. Like it or not, you must go through a process of development as a pilot that takes both time and money.

You might be saying, “But Emet: YouTube! The world has changed! I can learn anything I want to online. College is a thing of the past!”

In many cases, I enthusiastically agree with you! I’m in the process of saving thousands of dollars by laying tile in my house. I saved at least $600 by installing a water softener myself as well. Yes, the only reference I used to learn how to do these things was YouTube. I got a book on Quantum Mechanics last Christmas. Between reading it and watching the author’s accompanying Stanford lectures (for free, on YouTube) I’m learning something far more complex than glueing plastic tubes together or sticking squares to a floor. Technology has become an amazing educational equalizer in our world.Unfortunately, aviation doesn’t work this way. You can’t read some books or watch some videos and magically acquire those skills. The Matrix is still fiction.

Human beings have a few different types of memory. We all know about short- and long-term memory, but most basic psychology courses don’t get much into procedural memory. Remember when you were first learning to throw a ball, drive a car, or even dress yourself? At first, it took a great deal of conscious effort to accomplish any of these physical tasks. Errors were common, and you couldn’t dream of multi-tasking. However, after a few hundred repetitions or a few dozen hours, you’re now able to accomplish these tasks without any conscious thought. That’s because your abilities to do these tasks are now stored in your procedural memory. You can probably weave through traffic on the highway, while eating a spicy chicken chalupa, while texting your mom, while singing along to your favorite Five Finger Death Punch song, right?

Please, don’t actually do this, even if you can! The point is: procedural memory is a powerful resource. Once you’ve repeated a task enough times you can do it, skillfully, without significantly taxing your conscious mental faculties.

Now it’s time for a secret: Whether you like it or not, other pilots can tell if you’re using procedural memory when you fly.

Your airline career starts with a very challenging training program that includes several checkrides. After that, you have to complete at least a couple trips of Operational Experience and another check ride with a Line Check Airman. I’ve known these programs to challenge even experienced military jet pilots with thousands of hours, and lots of instructor time. They’re not something to sneeze at. Your instructors and LCAs have many times your experience. They know exactly how a 1500+ hour pilot should be able to fly. It will be painfully obvious to them if you’ve tried to take a shortcut.

After training, you go out to fly on the line and there is no leeway for lacking skills. You’re expected to be able to fly the most challenging approach in the system, to the shortest runway, in the worst weather, from day one. Whether it’s flying a rock-solid instrument approach, flying a safe and legal visual approach, dealing with the radio insanity that is Chicago O’Hare while also properly running checklists and hitting all your required call-outs, or landing an aircraft in challenging conditions, you will not be able to perform to standards if you haven’t obtained the requisite experience…or more.

This means padding your logbook is the worst possible “solution” to your problems. You may look like you can handle all these situations on paper , but if you lack sufficient experience you’ll run the risk of busting checkrides and jeopardizing your career in the long run. Flying at a major airline is a 20-30 year career that can easily pay $10M. Don’t risk losing that! Just fly for a couple more years and get your hours the honest way. It might cost you 10% of your remaining years available, but it’s better than losing 100% of your career!

To take this a step further: put yourself in the shoes of a major airline hiring manager. A lot of your new hires have had trouble getting through training. You’ve heard increasing rumors of people falsifying logbook entries. You were a low-time pilot once too…you know how to pad a logbook just as well as anyone else. With a minimal investment in resources, you could start investigating the validity of any logged flying that seems fishy. You could even do it very casually. You’re going to be calling past employers and training programs anyway. You could just add some remarks like, “You guys must have had some terrible weather in Daytona Beach the last few years…I’ve never seen anyone from your operation with as many IFR hours as Johnny.”

“What’s that, you’ve had 330+ days of sunshine per year for the last decade, and most of the clouds you do get are thunderstorms? Interesting….”

That’s just one of many ways I could think to ask about suspicious logbook entries without people even realizing what I’m doing. It could get out of control from there.

At my company, you almost can’t get yourself in trouble if you have a good attitude and you don’t lie. If you walk into the Chief Pilot’s office and say, “Boss, I screwed up. I’m sorry. Here’s what happened. Here’s how I was wrong. Here’s what I’m already planning to do to fix it,” you have a great chance of not getting fired. It’s wonderful!

However, even one instance of obviously lying to the company could be enough to get you booted. If hiring departments start feeling like they have a reason to scrutinize applicants’ hours, there will be no mercy. If they find evidence to show that you artificially inflated your hours, the next time you hear from anyone at that company will be the last. What’s worse, aviation is a very small industry. If this were to get identified as a systemic problem, I could see companies sharing names with each other…for everyone’s good.

Don’t screw yourself out of a great career trying to cut a year or two off your personal development. Don’t screw up an honor-based industry by giving airlines a reason to dig this deep!

I constantly hear the protest that a pilot doesn’t need 1500 hours to safely fly as an airline First Officer. I wholeheartedly agree with you. ALPA, the world’s largest airline pilot union doesn’t, but I think they’re dead wrong.

The 1500-hour rule was enacted after the crash of Colgan Air 3407. The FO on that aircraft had more than 2200 hours, and the Captain has several times that number. The 1500-hour rule would not have prevented that tragedy!

The US military sets pilots loose in multi-million dollar jets every day with far fewer than 1500 hours. A fighter pilot probably has fewer than 300 hours when he or she becomes Combat Mission Ready, and can become a flight lead just a few hundred hours after that. A lieutenant could command the crew of a C-5, KC-10, B-1, P-8, C-130J, etc. on multi-week worldwide missions with little or no direct oversight…with fewer than 1500 hours to his or her name.

1500 hours is an arbitrary line in the sand that means very little.

The difference for the military is the quality of the training and experience that pilots get. This doesn’t mean your civilian training program was bad, it just means that the military has an effectively unlimited budget to provide their pilots with more. (Your tax dollars at work….) When I taught USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training my students generally did two events per day. That could be any combination of flights (in the 1000 hp, pressurized, aerobatic, turboprop T-6A as a primary trainer,) or simulators (in a $4.5M setup with a 240° wrap-around screen with high fidelity graphics.) If you’re lucky, your civilian training program might have included an hour or two of upset recovery and aerobatics in a Citabria or a Decathlon. USAF UPT starts with about 40 hours of intense aerobatics. You probably learned instrument flying in something like a C-172 that maxed out at 120 KIAS. Maybe you even had a Cirrus with an autopilot. UPT students fly the radar pattern at 200 KIAS and definitely do not have an autopilot. After aerobatics and instrument flying, military pilots refine and hone their precision and aerobatic flying skills by doing all of the above…in formation against another student. Then, they move on to a multi-engine jet and do another equally-challenging 4-6 month syllabus, before moving on to get trained for their operational aircraft.

If civilian flight students could afford this kind of training, I don’t think even ALPA could continue to support the 1500-hour rule. Sadly, this is just infeasible.

Instead, civilian pilots have to try and obtain some of the same kinds of experiences that military pilots get while out flying for a living. The prevailing theory is that by the time a pilot finally gets to 1500 hours, he or she will have seen enough unusual and challenging situations that his or her experience will be sufficient. If you’re lucky, this will be true. However, I’ve known pilots, even in the military, who don’t even get the experience they need after many hundreds of hours.

I remember flying a PC-12 in Afghanistan one night to a base with a single runway with moderate (but not especially challenging) crosswinds. My copilot had about 900 hours and had already been slated to upgrade to Aircraft Commander soon. It was his night to fly and he tried to put us well on the downwind side of the runway with a significant crab angle. This is a military pilot who had made it through all the training I just mentioned and who had flown hundreds of hours in this area. Despite all of his experience, he was unable to compensate for a crosswind. In fact, I ended up concluding that he may not have even been aware of the crosswind in the first place. Remember how I said we know if you’re operating from procedural memory?

After hearing all this you might think that the military is a shortcut, right? They’ll pay for college (in many cases) and then they send you through one of the most highly-respected flight training programs in the world…a program valued at roughly $1,000,000. You generally skip flying dinky little airplanes (says the guy who owns a C-170A,) instead starting out on a large turbine-powered airplane of some kind. You rack up hours quickly. By the time you’ve fulfilled your 10-year commitment to the military, you’re more than qualified for any airline job and shouldn’t have any trouble getting one.

I did this route and loved it, for the most part. However, it’s far from a “short” cut and definitely not easy. While it made my financial life a lot simpler, it made life more complicated in almost every other way. I spent a lot of time training to fly my first aircraft, but never got to employ it in combat. On my next aircraft, I deployed 7 times in 4.5 years. The work was fulfilling, but the pace was brutal. The deployed living conditions were bad enough that most Americans would riot if forced to live in such circumstances in the States. I’ve filed VA disability claims for conditions that are genuinely the fault of the US government making bad/unnecessary decisions in those places, at the cost of my long-term health. Both of my children were born during that time, and I missed far more of their childhood than is right for any father. Speaking of family, the USAF also decided that there’s no need to keep families together in peacetime either, so they assigned me and my wife at separate bases (sometimes as far as 4000 miles apart) for most of our careers. I loved the flying, the mission, and most of the people, but I paid dearly for my “free” education and training. Again, not a shortcut.

If you’re like more than 99% of Americans who don’t think those circumstances sound attractive, you’ll have to build your hours with some other flying jobs before moving on to the regional airlines. This route protects you from some of the hardships of military service, but it’s no cakewalk either. The pay has gotten a lot better, though it’s certainly not lavish. You’ll start very junior in a junior organization, and slowly work your way up to a job that still requires you to spend a lot of time at work. However, after a few years at a regional, you’ll have enough hours and experience to compete with military pilots for a major airline job.

The interesting thing about these two paths is that they both seem to take about the same length of time. If you were to take two college graduates, one civilian and one military, and start a clock the day each one begins flight training, it’d be roughly 10 years before either of them could make it to a major airline. While it’d be nice if we could expose this as a plot designed to serve some dastardly purpose, I believe it’s nothing of the sort. It just takes about 10 years to get a pilot the experience he or she needs to operate at the scope of a major airline.

Yes, second-year regional airline Captains command aircraft along many of the same routes as the major airlines, with up to 76 passengers, every day. Yes, military pilots command large turbojets all over the world as lieutenants. However, both of these scenarios have caveats. In both scenarios, a new Aircraft Commander/Captain is someone with a license to learn, and a need to use it. He or she learns by doing with the help and close oversight of a parent organization. A regional jet just can’t get far enough from the nest to be beyond help. A military pilot has so much oversight that it’s stifling. Is that oversight necessary for a senior Line Check Airman at a regional, or an experienced Flight Lead or Instructor Pilot in the military? No…but that’s the point. It takes time to go from the AC/Captain who doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know, to a sage old pilot who doubles as a fountain of knowledge and provides that aforementioned oversight to his or her more junior peers.

When a major airline hires you, they need you to be capable, on day one, of at least contributing meaningfully on a crew carrying several hundred passengers for several hours on a multi-hundred-million-dollar jet. If you break a regional jet (owned by a major parent airline,) it can be replaced relatively cheaply. If you break a military jet, Uncle Sam just charges the repairs to the taxpayers. The liability and insurance risk involved with international widebody operations are enormous. (Malaysia 370 anyone?) They’re not the kind of thing that an underwriter or stockholder can risk on pilots without the skills to operate safely and reliably.

So, how do you get the requisite skills? Part of it is training, and part is experience. Good training can go a long way. This is why the USAF can put a pilot in command of a B-1 bomber, or a formation of F-22s with just a few hundred hours of total flight time. Their training makes up for their inexperience. This is also why the FAA allows military pilots to obtain a (Restricted) ATP at 750 hours when civilian-only pilots need 1000, 1250, or 1500 hours before they can hold the same rating. (Those other sub-1500 options representing degrees of more focused training for some civilian pilots.) However, training only gets you so far. Getting experience to build procedural memory is also important.

One of the things I love about flight instructing is that students do things you would never willingly try on purpose…not even in a simulator. Their actions are, at times, extremely dangerous and it’s only through superior skill and judgement that the instructor keeps everyone alive. Every time this happens, the instructor learns something new and becomes a slightly better pilot. (The student might glean part of that benefit, though frequently he or she is too clueless to even know what happened. Am I wrong?)

This effect isn’t limited to flight instruction. Every kind of professional flying presents a pilot with unique challenges from time to time. Either these situations are things you would never intentionally practice because they’re too dangerous, or they’re just so unexpected that you never would have dreamed it could happen. The process of encountering these events, considering your options, and implementing a solution makes you a better pilot. Frequently, the lessons you learn though those situations will help you deal more effectively with (or, better yet, completely avoid) trouble later in your career.

This process also helps you build good habit patterns – critical ways of doing things that will continue to apply for the rest of your career. From the way you think about fuel, to the way you read and brief an instrument approach plate, to the way you interact with others on the flight deck, these habit patterns are crucial if you want to be able to handle the burdens and pressures of operating large airplanes for long distances.

This is why I say there aren’t many shortcuts in aviation. It’s going through that process, in situations that nobody could or would ever simulate for you, that gives you the experience you need as a professional pilot. The major airlines (and insurance underwriters) don’t want you to have 1500 hours (or 3000, or 5000…depending on the job) because their astrologer or the FAA (same difference?) said that’s a good number. They pick a number because they hope that while building all those hours, you’re exposed to enough unique and challenging situations that you’ve developed the type of meaningful experience they need.

Sadly, many pilots manage to do a lot of flying without encountering those important types of situations. Maybe they only fly piston singles in areas dominated by sunshine and light winds. Maybe they’re instrument rated pilots who have never actually flown through a cloud. Maybe they just do the same thing every day and that flying becomes so automatic that their pilot skills actually atrophy.

If you can fall victim to these things as a pilot not trying to find shortcuts, imagine how much worse your overall experience will be if you do find a way to skip ahead? If you haven’t seen a variety of challenging situations (that can’t be safely simulated) early in your career, how prepared will you be to handle them when you’re carrying 200+ passengers and dealing with all kinds of operational pressures? How are you going to handle a real stall, and a critical system failure in a highly automated airplane, in the middle of the night, over the Atlantic, if you haven’t spent hundreds or thousands of hours getting used to the flight characteristics and habits of turbojets at high altitudes? (Air France 447) How are you going to fly a safe visual approach if you aren’t used to hand-flying, thinking on your feet, using pilot math, and dealing with challenging crew dynamics? (Asiana 214) How are you going to have the inherent ability to pay attention to the airplane and maintain a good crosscheck when it’s late, you’re disgruntled and exhausted, and the weather is terrible? (Colgan 3407)

Like it or not, you need every bit of experience you can get to safely and effectively operate big airplanes. That experience isn’t limited to sick & rudder skills. It includes Crew Resource Management, real IFR/bad weather operations, tough decision making, figuring out how to get good rest on the road, figuring out how to prevent being distracted by hunger while also staying nourished during a long day/trip, and much more.

You won’t get that experience by skipping steps or finding shortcuts, and you certainly won’t get it by logging hours you didn’t actually fly. Unfortunately, you won’t even get the right mix of experience if you only ever do one type of aviation before going to the airlines. A CFI who does nothing but teach at ERAU, UND, or ATP Flight School for 1500 hours will have little of the experience I mentioned above. The same goes for someone who has done 1500 hours of crop dusting and parachute dropping. One of the reasons that companies want you to have turbine time is that it means you’ve probably flown far enough for the weather to change, you’ve run into situations where you find yourself skosh on fuel, and you’ve had to put the airplane to bed at a strange field every once in a while.

If I were in your shoes again, I’d look for many different kinds of flying opportunities. I’d find one, for me it’d be flight instruction, where I could get a large number of hours. I’d look for others that challenged me though. I’d look for corporate/charter jobs, cargo flying, aerial survey, aircraft delivery, pipeline patrol, etc. There are great resources out there to find these kinds of jobs. I follow Corporate Aviation Job Listings on Facebook. I see a lot of high-time jet jobs on there, but I also notice plenty of lower-time jobs. I’ve seen several CFI jobs that will also get you a type rating and flight time in a corporate jet.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to find flying opportunities is to go out into the world and fly! Find some kind of job…anything…that lets you at least fly around your area. When you stop places, talk to the people there and find out if they need pilots. If you are a good worker (always on time, always safe and conservative with the aircraft, don’t whine, etc.) your boss and others will notice. Aviation is a very small community. If your boss knows your aspirations and thinks you’re actually an asset as a pilot, he or she will mention your name when slightly better opportunities arise. The more people who know you, personally, as a good, conscientious pilot, the more likely you are to get access to those better jobs.

As part of your pursuit of valuable experience, you need to be willing to move. I have a buddy who’s trying to get into the aviation industry. He looked all over his area for flying jobs, but couldn’t find anything he wanted, given his lack of experience. I used to send him job listings all the time, but he always said, “that’s the perfect next step, but I don’t want to move.” He spent a long time sitting around not flying because of his attitude. Every month of that cost him $25,000-$50,000 in end-of-career airline pilot pay.

The question for him, and maybe you, is: how badly do you want to progress to your ideal job? While I say there aren’t shortcuts, you definitely have the power to adjust the amount of time it takes to get the experience you need. If you pass up flying opportunities because you don’t like the pay, terms, or location it will take you a long time to get the hours you need. If you want this badly enough, why wouldn’t you take every opportunity you could get? If you can get a good job that gives you the next step you need in your career progression, move wherever you have to for it!

(Yes, there are a couple caveats here. First, don’t sacrifice safety for hours. Don’t sign on with an organization that cuts corners or pushes pilots to make bad decisions, no matter how many hours they promise to give you. Also, I assert that family is important enough that you can’t sacrifice them in your pursuit of aviation. You can’t necessarily uproot a spouse and kids every year or two while chasing jobs. You may need to delay having kids, just deal with the opportunities in your area for a while, or live somewhere undesirable where flying opportunities abound (NYC or LA) for a while. This means your career progression may take longer, but it’s worth it. No job pays enough to cover the cost of having to support two or more families due to divorce.)

It’s easy for me to say all of this from my cosy seat as a major airline FO. It’s certainly more difficult to put into practice. If you’re a fan of podcasts, check out Episode 12 of the Bigger Pockets Money show. The guest, David Greene, isn’t a pilot, but many of the principles he talks about apply to us. He worked extremely hard early in his career in an effort to set himself up for success later in life. He made a lot of money in mediocre jobs by always hustling and striving to be great at what he did. If you adopt this philosophy as an aspiring pilot, you’ll be able to get the hours and experience you need sooner than your peers. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only true shortcut in aviation. It’s an opportunity to cut out time without having to sacrifice quality experience or actual flight hours. Don’t shy away from the hard work of gaining that experience…it will absolutely pay dividends later in life. You’ll be glad you did it. I sincerely hope that my wife and kids will be passengers on your aircraft, and I’ll be glad that you sought out valuable flying experience before you became their pilot.

I hope to hear your voice on the PA soon!

Love,

Emet

Ps. Delta recently announced a new Propel Program. In an unprecedented step, they’ll interview and hire students during their senior year in college. They’ll work with you to choose a path to build time. Once you’ve attained the required amount of experience, you’ll go directly to training as a Delta pilot. It’s an outstanding program. (Yes, it’s limited to certain university programs for now. It’s also limited to pilots who haven’t graduated yet. Sorry if you don’t fit those criteria, but there are other options for you. We can talk about those another time.)

Delta wasn’t the first or only company to innovate on pilot development. JetBlue has several flavors of Gateway Programs for aspiring pilots.They’re also good ways to get paid while going from mid-time commercial pilot to full-up airline pilot.

These are just two programs. There are others out there and I expect we’ll see many more in the coming years. It’s a great time to be a pilot.

Leave a Reply