Professional Flying: Is the romance gone?

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Is the romance gone from professional flying? Why do most of these pilots choose golf, boating, hunting, ad nauseam over a pleasure flying on their days off? (For our purposes, professional flying refers to the airline, charter, or corporate pilot.)

I am going to throw out some harsh estimates; these are not based on any real data, just my observations over the years.

Nine out of ten pro pilots don’t fly outside of work; worse yet, I estimate that almost half would quit flying altogether if they didn’t need the income.

These are pretty condemning estimates, but I have seen it time and again.


You’ve lost that loving feeling…
My 1st exposure to this phenomenon was at my home field. There was a large oil company that had several airplanes based there and in all the years I was there, I never met one of them. They never flew for fun, just for work. As a young man I couldn’t understand why these guys had no interest in all the cool things we had going on down at the south end of the field. They would land and head straight for their cars, never to return until beckoned by their employer.

Why does this occur?
A few theories:

DID IT! GOT THE T-SHIRT! – Flying professionally is the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice. As humans, once we achieve a goal, we often loose interest and gravitate to news things – call it career ADHD.

TIME – Most flying jobs require lots of time away from home. Not a problem when you are young and single, but as we age and have families, we resent flying because it is takes us away from the people we love. I remember lamenting about how I never wanted to be a truck driver, like my Grandfather who was never home, only to discover I actually adopted a similar lifestyle in terms of schedule by choosing to fly for a living.

INSECURITY – Threat of loosing your job. Aviation has proven to be a tough business and there are many professional aviators that have gone through one or more major employment upsets – this is not a pleasant thing and again adds to the resentment.

CULTURE – Closely related to loosing your job is the, “I hate my employer”, culture that is prominent in unionized flight decks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-union, in fact I believe companies get the union they deserve, but it can have a negative affect on the lifestyle as a crewmember.

CONTAGION – Exposure to sour grapes. Airplane cockpits are confined spaces where you spend countless hours next to someone you might otherwise never associate with. If that person hates his or her job, it can rub off on you thereby multiplying the ranks of sour grapes aviators. Don’t be dissuaded by people with bad attitudes, they would likely be angry no matter what they are doing.

LACK OF EXPOSURE – There are lots of people that never stopped and smelled the roses in GA flying. They hurried down their career paths, be it military or civilian, and never enjoyed the fun you can have just flying around.

SATISFIED – Work flying is all I like. You are scratching the itch. Flying at work is the romance you seek and you have no interest or motivation to repeat that exercise on your time off. So be it. I would suggest this group lacks imagination, there are aspects of GA flying that don’t compare to flying-for-hire.

THE COST –  Just like everyone else, cost is a barrier for the pro pilot too. Sure they don’t need as much training, but the cost of things like fuel, maintenance, hangar, aircraft rentals, don’t change and it’s expensive. The glory days of airline crews that work 7 days a month and making $300k a year are not a reality for most crews.

In conclusion
I don’t mean to turn anyone off of flying as a career, it can be extremely rewarding, but I find it helpful to know the pitfalls going in. And to be fair, this phenomenon is true of most vocations. How many accountants do you see doing taxes for fun on the weekends?

Many, many pilots love their work and excel at it. I believe it is the person, their positive attitude, that is key. Having the right attitude, and the resilience to keep it, is really important in life and so it is for the professional pilot. Flying can and should invoke a passion in us; that is what got us into the cockpit in the first place. The good news is, many pilots will find their way back to their roots as they get older and wiser.

I would love to see you thoughts on this subject below. Please comment.


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