Real Answers from Real Pilots

Is the sky really bluer up there?

Hi everyone! Just joined this site after perusing as a guest for over a year.
About me: I’m female, I just turned 32, I have a Bachelors and Masters degree in Social Work and tons of diverse and unique work experience. I’m here because I have always dreamed of being a pilot. Only until a year or so ago I ignorantly assumed this was totally outside of my reach for various reasons. I went down other professional paths, but I always find myself back on sites like this and watching hours of vlogs from pilots - dreaming of what could be.

I suppose now that I’m older, and I’ve accomplished other benchmarks in my life, I’m thinking more seriously about going for my longest held goal: to fly! I scheduled my first test flight a few weeks from today and am doing a lot of research online.

After reading many of the posts, I’m not as discouraged about my age. I’m much more concerned about money and debt. I want to know that the potential cost would not only work out financially, but that becoming a pilot is, generally, a positive and a fulfilling pursuit. I’ve worked enough jobs to know that things aren’t always as they seem, so I’m hoping some of you can answer some of the following questions to help guide my decision:

**- How many people enter the program with prior debt? (I currently have $50k in federal student loan debt) and my boyfriend and I are talking about buying a home. What does repayment really look like? Have any of you done this on top of other debt (a mortgage, especially)? **

- Even before Covid, I’ve seen quite a few pilots online who never truly “make it” - they end up stagnating at a certain level, or writing for aviation blogs, or selling aviation supplies - what’s going on here? Is the pay-off not really what we’re being told?

**- What is the culture like in the industry? I never would have guessed that my time as a Social Worker would be as cut-throat and back-shabby as it turned out to be! What are the difficult aspects of the industry as a whole? **

- A family friend’s father was a pilot, and he always complained of never seeing his dad - can you speak more to the impact on relationships and family?

All jobs have ups and downs, pros and cons. The older I get, I see the ‘pros’ list for becoming a pilot growing in comparison to other career options. I hope I’m not just kidding myself!

Thank you so much for your feedback and insight! I really appreciate it. I’m excited to start taking the next steps.

Aloha Jade and welcome,

I’ll take a stab at your questions, more is certain to follow:

  1. I don’t think there’s an actual stat but I think it’s safe to say the majority of people start their training with some level of debt. The younger ones have just graduated college and have student loans, those of us who start a little later have mortgages, car loans etc. When I started not only did I have a mortgage and a car payment, but I also had 3 young children to help feed, by braces etc. I won’t lie, it definitely required a significant sacrifice which led to some pretty serious arguments. When all was said and done however the sacrifice was relatively short lived and I was able to pay down the debt in relatively short order. Finally when I made it to a Major, for the first time in my life I was completely debt free. It’s a process but totally doable IF you’re up for it.

  2. There’s a few things “going on here”. First the fact is not everyone can or should fly airplanes. Learning to fly is challenging. You don’t need to be a genius or a brain surgeon but it does require some level of intelligence and coordination which frankly not everyone has. Some have fear, some get airsick, some struggle with the skills and some are just unwilling to put in the work. Regardless if you can’t successfully get through the training you can’t be a pilot. Assuming you do things do get easier but there can be obstacles. If you’ve got some blemishes on your record (DUI, aviation incident/accident, drug arrest, etc) that’s a problem. Some people simply don’t interview well. We get tons of questions about enhancing your resume and other things to do to make oneself attractive to the recruiters. Fact is when you get an interview at the airlines you’ve met their requirements. The biggest part of the interview is trying to determine if you’re the kind of person the bulk of the pilot group wouldn’t mind being locked up in a confined space for several hours or days. Are you a good fit? Finally it could just be bad timing. No one saw Covid coming and it devastated the industry. No question there will be a recovery (it’s happening now) but if you were trying to get hired a year ago things looked pretty bleak. Guaranteed there are pilots who threw in the towel and will never return. That all said if you’re willing to work hard, do well in training, have a clean record, and can present yourself as a friendly non annoying person for at least a few hours you should be fine.

  3. Culture can vary from airline to airline, base to base and plane to plane but my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. The nice thing is since everything is based on seniority there’s really nothing to be cutthroat or back stabby about because it really won’t accomplish anything. Sure if you desire a mgmt or training dept position there are politics involved but otherwise you show up, fly around for a few days for the most part with some very nice people (there are of course outliers you won’t like but that’s life) and go home. Very pleasant all in all.

  4. That’s probably the biggest negative of the job. Being a pilot by definition requires you to travel away from your home. Part of that however is self inflicted. As pilots we all want to advance. We want to upgrade to Capt, fly a bigger airplane, move on to a Major, upgrade again, fly a bigger plane. While advancement is positive salary and satisfaction wise it’s a negative when it comes to home life. Since everything is based on seniority, all these moves push you back in your relative seniority. Here’s what I mean. You get hired as an FO and you’re at the bottom, crappy pay and crappy schedule. As you build seniority as an FO your schedule will improve greatly and one day you’ll be senior enough to upgrade to Capt yay! Problem is you go from being a senior FO with a good schedule to a Jr Capt with a lousy one. Soooo do you take the upgrade with the pay bump or stay an FO and be home for Christmas? You take the upgrade because the baby is young and really won’t remember, the extra money will help the family and there’s always next year. But next year you get the call to go to a Major… and so on and so on. Long short you will definitely be missing holidays, family events etc. On a plus side when you’re home you’re home. There’s no homework or other responsibilities and you can often get stretches of days off which is nice.

As for “ups and downs” (pun intended?) to me it’s a no brainer. I honestly believe I have the greatest job on the planet and life is better than I could have imagined. While I definitely missed some of my kids growing up events, the fact that I’m a happy guy makes me a better father, better friend, and a better person all around. I had a trip coming up not that long ago with this FO I really didn’t care for. I complained to a friend and they asked “what’s wrong with him?”. I thought for a moment and finally responded “nothing”. I realized I get to work with so many awesome people I’ve become spoiled to the point I’m complaining about this one pilot who I didn’t LOVE flying with and that was really my biggest complaint in a while. Again life is good :slight_smile:

Adam

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Jade,

Welcome to the forum, thank you for posting and the detailed introduction.

Money and debt are the largest concerns people have, and for good reason. There is no denying that flight school is pricey, but it is really a bargain when compared to the earnings potential over a career.

  1. I am not sure how many people enter the program with prior debt, but it is a safe bet that many do. I would highly suggest that you call Kirk in ATP admin and talk your financing questions over with him. He is an expert on all such things and can give you far better answers that any of us can.

  2. I too have seen pilots that have not made it. Not to draw absolutes here, but most of them failed to make it for a particular reason, usually not having a college degree. Other things that can stand in the way are DUIs, FAA violations, etc. For those who keep their records clean, have a college education and figure out how to be polite to people, the vast majority make it to where they want to go.

  3. I like the airline culture. Pilots all tend to get along, generally even with pilots form other airlines. For the most part everybody is there to help each other and get the job done safely. I typically enjoy going to work and usually fly with great guys/gals.

  4. I am divorced, even with that I see my kids 12-16 days per month. And those are whole days. Sometimes I miss holidays and birthdays, but we reschedule for when we can. I can tell you that I am on the road a lot less than my step father who is an executive. This career has also allowed me to offer my kids things that I never could have otherwise, like weekend trips to Colorado and frequent flights back and forth to our home in Michigan. Like most things, the job is what you make of it.

Chris

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Jade,

I agree with everything previously mentioned. As for the repayment question, there are different types of repayment options available. If you can’t find that info on ATP’s website, call and ask to speak with Kirk in Finance. He’s your best resource for that.

And to add to the other comments made about balancing family time, the job does not have a traditional schedule by any means. However, at my airline we are guaranteed 13 days off per month and as the others have mentioned, you get the full day uninterrupted. So in terms of total time spent at home, it evens out. It’s just divided up differently.

I think the key is to make the best of it. Obviously I can’t speak for your friend, but I’ve been told by many pilots with kids that being away is actually harder on the parent than the kid. Kids are resilient. And if they don’t know any different then they won’t have anything to compare it to. Still, there are things that you can do as a parent to stay connected with your family while you’re away. The use of technology is an obvious option but it is still an important one nonetheless. I also know of a pilot that sends a postcard home on EVERY layover. It’s ironic because the postcards usually don’t arrive until after he’s back home, but his daughters LOVE them! So, regardless of how inefficient that is, his girls are reminded in a tangible way that their dad is still engaged even while he’s gone.

Maximizing my time at home is something I think about quite often these days. I am also 32, but also married, with a kid on the way. I’m fortunate to be bidding around 50% in my respective group as a Captain. My goal right now is to make my schedule as consistent as possible, which I was actually successful in doing next month. I was able to get every Thursday, Friday and Saturday off, until my COVID vaccine appointment moved things around, but still. That’s pretty good. We should have no problem affording daycare with that schedule.

An opportunity has also come up to teach ground school. If selected, that may give me even more time at home, but I have yet to find an answer to that question. I’m just sharing that to help illustrate that there are other opportunities for pilots than just flying if that interests you.

That said, like Chris, I have missed many holidays but we always find a way to celebrate one way or another. Luckily for me, just by chance for two years in a row now I’ve had overnights in PAE on Christmas which is only an hour drive from where we live and is a drive my wife is always willing to make.

This job has certainly forced me to contemplate my values and priorities. At the end of the day I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do and my family has been nothing but supportive. So, what more could I ask for?

Tory

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@Adam @Tory
Thank you all so much for your responses. They were thoughtful, thorough and honest. It sounds like some of my biggest fears and barriers are shared by many and overcome with hard work, ethical behavior and a solid long term strategy. I plan on contacting ATP this week to get more concert information for the school I’m closest too (Austin, TX). I very much appreciate your feedback and encouragement!

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Of course, Jade. Keep us posted!

Tory