While The Iron Is Hot

To Fly Pro, Or Not To Fly Pro: Ten years ago, approaching age 40 and afraid that the light at the end of the tunnel might be an oncoming train, I was shopping for a career change. I was also browsing the flight schools in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs around Washington, DC, after a lengthy hiatus from flying. In the process of interviewing with several flight schools for the position of part-time employer, I also picked up the inside story from several chief flight instructors and professional pilots. The product of this research took the form of a list of pros and cons regarding a new life in the left seat. Here’s the tally:

On the plus side, I loved flying. What better way to earn a living than doing the thing you love, right? I also thought working 15 days a month might be cool (OK, 20, if you included a lengthy commute to and from your hub city). Then there was a six figure salary somewhere off in a hazy future. At the time, I was seriously considering optometry school, and training would probably be a quarter of the cost — even less, if you considered start-up costs of a sole or joint practice. I could have remained in the DC area while learning to fly, and I even had the option of continuing with my employer (then GTE) on a part-time basis. I figured that I wouldn’t have to worry about academic credentials, since I already had two degrees.

Initially, there was the high-profile, macho ‘glamour’ appeal, though I suspected that might be over-rated. Still, a flying career would allow great freedom in family vacation and personal travel, due to reduced or almost free courtesy passage. One of the biggest draws was what the demographics predictions said would be large numbers of pilots retiring in the next few years, accompanied by a hiring boom. (Don’t forget; this was 10 years ago. They sure got that part right!) Some other check marks in the ‘plus’ column were that it would absolutely expand my circle of friends and, in the long term, the anticipated large chunks of free time would allow the possibility of developing second career interests, or a side business. The ‘pro’ column looked pretty good.

THE BAD NEWS (A Slightly Longer Section)
The reality flash from one pilot was that I would likely get bored with flying the same routes and adhering to the same procedures. I was told that I’d get bored with computerized cockpit controls and that, by the time I was wearing epaulets, I wouldn’t really be “flying” at all. I’d be working in a large organization (no culture shock for me there), but without the autonomy I was used to. Plus, I might get stuck in or near some “undesirable” hub city and I would always have a significant commute to work. Based on what I was hearing, it was highly unlikely that I’d live within five miles of my “home drome,” as I do now. I’d be away from home regularly, and I wouldn’t be there when my wife and children needed me. (That’s about when I was first introduced to the acronym AIDS — Aviation-Induced Divorce Syndrome.)

Another sour note was that I’d be pretty low on the salary totem pole for the first few (maybe as many as 10) years. I’d probably have a younger boss. Then there were the uncertain job prospects. (But again, this was 10 years ago.) The word from those who’d been there was that my health benefits would be uncertain, at best, with the regionals. Then there was mandatory retirement. Plus, if I developed any significant health problem, I could get unceremoniously bounced from my job. Oh, and I’d better get used to working irregular hours, too. Actually that was a non-issue for me, after years of following the tides in marine biology, and then later in flight dynamics keeping telecommunication satellites in orbit (another area where the time of day means almost nothing). Besides, I’d always been a congenitally and insufferably cheerful type at oh-dark-thirty, anyway…

The next bullet really lit off the spousal whoopee cushion, though: Where would I get the money for our kids’ future college education? …and say “sayonara” to the discretionary income we’d been used to. There was the hard-boiled prospect of paying my dues in uncertain flying conditions, in often-uncertain equipment, while building hours as a freight dog, or towing banners, or flying the pipelines … whatever. And, again, there was the unpleasant reality that I’d be inundated with company procedural minutiae. Then of course, my wife would occasionally remind me that flying as an avocation is about as safe as mountain climbing — your mileage may vary.

The Verdict
Well, there was a resounding “thump” as I fell off my cloud: The “nays” outweighed the “yeas.” If I was single and hadn’t had ankle biters, it would’ve been the other way around (especially if the times then were like the times now, where the average CFI’s flight school residence time is measured in months, not years; you younger single folks, take note of my title!). But I took the low road. I went the Walter Mitty route. I flew all I could, but on a non-interference basis — with my family as Priority One. For me, that was the right decision. And you know, those 10 years, between then and now, went by so quickly. In less time than that, the nest will be empty. One guess where I’ll be…