Commercial Airline Pilot - Todd

"... the pilot stuck his head out of the window and hollered, "Hey, do you want to come take a look inside the cockpit?". From my first flight at 13 years old I knew right then I wanted to fly..."

TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF. WHERE ARE YOU FROM AND WHAT DO YOU DO?

I am 57 years old and live in Wilmington, NC with my beautiful wife of 33 years. I have three children who are all married and 5 grandchildren. I am from Annapolis, MD, and a pilot with US Airways (American) flying an A-320 crew-based out of Charlotte, NC. I got hired in 1988 to fly commercially after leaving the active duty Air Force. I have continued to serve in the Air National Guard since that time and I am fortunate enough to have both a military and civilian flying career.

WHAT DOES YOUR TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?

My days are very atypical compared to a 9-5 job. Since I commute to work from Wilmington, I start my trip over to Charlotte by flying a 30 minute commuter flight. I have to be there an hour prior to takeoff on a domestic flight and 1 ½ hours for an international flight to complete my pre-flight checks, information required by all the pilots before flying.

I go through security in the airport just like other passengers, but with a uniform and employee ID I am able to go through a different line. I fly standby on my commuter flight, so there has to be a seat open on the plane. Sometimes I will ride with the pilot in the jumpseat. Once in Charlotte, I go to a crew room and get on a computer, check in for the flight, and check my email. I look for messages from the company like notices that publications have changed, updates, new procedures/regulations, closed runways, and updates about the hotel. We meet all the crew members, including flight attendants with whom we stay with for the entire trip, before we go out to the plane.

Once all of the pre-flight paperwork and operations are completed, we go out to the airplane. I am there 40-50 minutes prior to departure. We complete a crew brief that lasts about 5 minutes covering specific procedures, emergency procedures, communication, and updates on known threats - anything out of the ordinary that could affect our flight or the airline. 

Once the brief is done, both pilots will pre-check the airplane and walk around outside and inside. We load the flight computer, begin communicating with ATC for clearance, and check the weather. Then we wait approximately 35 minutes for passengers to board, and we take the passengers to their destination.

Everyday is different. For instance in February I was able to just work trips on Saturday and Sunday flying to Mexico and the Caribbean. If you’re flying a multi-day trip then you go stay in a hotel and wake up the next day and start over again. Layovers can be a short period or longer than 24 hours. Mechanical issues are rare but they do happen, and they can delay flights. For instance, I recently had a one day trip down to Aruba, and we were delayed an hour because of de-icing. There are a lot of checklists and procedures we had to follow at that time. Unfortunately, that made us late leaving Charlotte and then turning around with new passengers back to Charlotte for their connecting flight, all the while trying to make up time. We try to make up time so passengers can make their connecting flights. In short, a typical day is very atypical. There is always something different, and at times, there is a lot going on.

WHEN DID YOU KNOW THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED TO DO?/WHY DID YOU WANT TO PURSUE THIS CAREER?

I was 13 years old, and I was visiting my grandmother in Staunton, VA, for a week. I traveled from Washington National Airport into Shenandoah, VA. It was the first time I ever flew and I got to go by myself. When I was walking out to the plane, the pilot reached his head out of the window and said, “Hey do you want to come look in the cockpit?” I said, “Absolutely!” Since that first flight as a passenger I knew that I wanted to fly.

A few years later, I was an Eagle Scout and during Maryland’s Eagle Scout Annual Day of Recognition, we got to pick a career field that we were interested in. I spent the day at the airport in Baltimore talking to the air traffic controllers, pilots, and maintenance crew. They took me around and showed me everything that day. However, I didn’t have the money to get flying lessons. I knew that I wanted to be a military aviator and after college, I joined the U.S. Air Force. I learned to fly in the military and didn't have to worry about how I was going to pay for lessons.

 

HOW MANY YEARS OF SCHOOLING/WHAT PROGRAM DID YOU GO TO?

I joined Air Force ROTC at North Carolina State University, where I was playing lacrosse. My timing could not have been more perfect. The era was post-Vietnam and because people were not joining the military because of the negative light around the war, the opportunities were great. I did all the testing required to qualify academically and completed the medical testing and flight screening. I knew as early as the spring of my sophomore year of college that I was going to flight school. It was relatively easy compared to today because the number of people competing to go to flight school were fewer.

After leaving active duty in 1988, I was hired with U.S. Air. The flight program with U.S. Air  was exciting. I got hired by a major airline and got right into the seat of a Boeing 737. Most people at that time started as a flight engineer that managed systems, so when I knew I was entering a brand new airplane being one of the two pilots, I was excited. Some students came from private jets, corporate jets, and the military. It was a cross section of highly qualified aviators.

It was exciting and stressful to go through a new flight program. The program was a fire hose approach - short in duration and packed full of information. Teaching the specifics of the airplane and the entire training took about 6-8 weeks. It was a different philosophy in training than the military, and there was no downtime because we were in class all day and studied at night. Upon completion of the program and passing all of your written tests, check rides, and oral examinations, I began to fly passengers. The first time I flew a Boeing 737-300 there were people in the back of the airplane. It was not a pretty landing. Those things you don’t forget.

The negative aspect of being a new hire meant that I was at the bottom of the list. I sat stand-by and had to call the scheduler within 10 minutes of my pager going off and being at the Philadelphia Airport within 90 minutes of the call. I was living in Annapolis, MD, at the time and commuting to Philadelphia.It was tough season of life and not the best lifestyle. Today, the FAA has rest periods inserted into the schedule, but when you are at the bottom of the list, you spend more time away from home and don’t get your pick of trips.

WHAT ASPECTS OF YOUR JOB DO YOU DISLIKE/LIKE?

After 27 years of being a commercial airline pilot, it is tough to be staying in hotels and not sleeping in your own bed. I love my job and enjoy going to work, but I am ready to come home at the end of my trips. It gets old sleeping in different hotel rooms. Also, it is difficult to maintain an exercise regime and nutritious diet when you spend your time in hotels and airports and eat meals at odd hours.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO?

If people don’t think it's glamorous, they think that you don’t do anything at all. It’s not glamorous. And even though it can be hours of flying with little activity, if something were to happen you have to be prepared to handle an emergency. As the pilot you are responsible for the safety of the people on the plane. On the other hand, it’s not glamorous like it used to be when people used to wear coats and ties when they boarded. Pilots used to have more time at home and stayed in the nicest hotels. Pilots got paid really well and people pursued the industry because airline pilots were fairly compensated for their skills.

They don’t pay as well today as they did 30 years ago, so the financial aspect is dimmer. Some people take it for granted the skills that the pilots have. Just last week, between me and the other pilot we probably had been flying for 60+ years with 30,000 hours of experience between the two of us.

WHAT IS THE WORK/FAMILY/LIFE BALANCE LIKE?

The neat thing about my career was that it allowed my family to travel and see different parts of the world. It was an incredible opportunity for my children to travel far and often throughout the school year and summer. We got to go to so many different places because of the free benefits.

The difficult part is that I go away to go to work. There were a lot of missed birthdays, soccer games, and dance competitions because I was gone. Sometimes we celebrated holidays on a different date so that I could be home to celebrate. Now that I have seniority, I can move my schedule around to make those big important dates.  It takes a while before the lifestyle is more enjoyable and you can count on being at that birthday.

WHAT IS THE SALARY RANGE AND WHAT ARE SOME BENEFITS THAT YOU RECEIVE THAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T THINK ABOUT?

For major airlines - American, United, and Delta - from a copilot in a narrow body plane to a senior captain in a wide-body, the salary range is $70k-$300k. This is not including commuter or regional airlines. The salary amount is a combination of a lot of factors including the type of airplane, whether you are in the left seat as a Captain or right seat as a First-Officer and number of flying years. Everyone on their first year is on “probation”, and the salary and benefits are considerably less, around $70k. Only recently has the first year salary doubled. It was 40,000 and was considerably low and tough to get by.

As most people are aware the travel benefits are probably the greatest benefit. All employees of an airline can ride for free if there is an empty seat in the plane. Each carrier is slight different about prioritizing who gets on first, but most are based on seniority. You are at the top of the list and will be the first standby passenger on the plane if  you are the most senior.

WHAT WOULD YOU TELL SOMEONE WHO WANTED TO PURSUE YOUR CAREER?

The flying hour requirements have increased in the last year by the FAA to 1500 hours of flight time to fly for a major airline. The new law was much needed in order to ensure pilots had the sufficient skill level to take on the responsibility of others’ lives. The increase of minimum flight hours makes it more difficult and more time consuming to obtain a license. A minimum of 1500 hours could be 5-10 years and is very expensive. If you are interested in becoming an airline pilot I would do what I did and join the military. The military will train you and give you great benefits and salary, and the opportunity to serve your country. With that said, you have a lot more responsibilities and the trade off of a different family life. It is not for everyone and is hard on the family, but the military is a great avenue to becoming a pilot.

ANY OTHER ADVICE?

I have the best office view in the world. I watch the most incredible sunrises and sunsets, shooting stars, and huge thunderstorms spitting out lightning. A bird’s eye view of tiny islands dotting the Caribbean, the expansive Grand Canyon or dramatic Mt. Rainier - I could go on and on. The picture that I see everyday never gets old. And I’m flying a lot of trips taking passengers to vacations. They are excited about their trip and appreciative of the pilots for getting them safely to Aruba, Los Cabos, or other destination spots.

That is the neat part of my job. It is different everyday I go to work and it's not 9-5. I still enjoy going to work!  It has been a great career. I can’t complain at this point. Now, there have been very tough times. A lot of people lost jobs, careers, and homes after 9/11. So it's not the career that I thought it would be 30 years ago, but it has been a great ride.

Each airline is different, but the good news is the industry, from an employee's perspective, is very stable now. On top of that, there is a lot of retirement, which means there is a lot of hiring. There are a lot of opportunities right now, and it will be that way for the next 10-15 years.