Airline pilots don’t work normal hours and our lives never run on a predictable schedule. Today I’m rolling my suitcase off the front porch of my house at 4:30 AM. I’m one of the first commuters on the road. When I park my car in the airport’s employee lot it’s still dark and I am running a little late. I cut through cavernous parking garages and arrive at the departures door thirteen minutes before my scheduled check in time. I know it takes nine minutes to get from here to our check in computer, which leaves me just enough time to snap few photos of San Francisco’s new, still under construction, control tower. After taking some quick shots I stuff my camera back in my bag, hustle through security, and get myself checked in with three minutes to spare.
By the time the sun crests the horizon we’re already climbing out above Pacifica, CA. It’s a gorgeous scene as rainy weather works its way into the Bay Area. Will this pretty sunrise make up for the long day ahead? Today I’m working what flight crews call “a crap trip”. We’re flying from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, all the way across the continent, and then deadheading (riding as a passenger) back to San Francisco. Counting my one hour driving commute, I’ll be sitting on my butt for fourteen hours today. On top of that, I have to drive back out to the airport early tomorrow morning for a simulator training event, and then, the very next day, I start another two-day trip. Over the next four days I will be doing nothing but flying and driving. I brought this schedule upon myself. I shouldn’t complain. October is always a busy family month with two birthdays, Halloween, and school events. I got all the important days off for the price of this difficult four-day stretch.
The saving grace this morning is my first officer. He’s a great guy. We’ve flown together a couple of times. As we begin the climbing turn towards the east, our coffee fueled conversation swings into high gear. We spend the first two hours of the flight convincing each other that even though the pay sucks, the 401k is not enough, the schedules aren’t what they used to be, and we needed a union on property like yesterday, this is still the best airline to entrust with our careers. Ah, the bravado of middle class white boys who always follow the rules, who always work hard, and who never get ahead. This is standard pilot conversation and normally I bore of it quickly, but today I’m flying with another former regional airline pilot and he shares my world-weary skepticism mixed a shimmer of optimism here and there. How else can you be in this world? We convince each other that we are the two smartest pilots in the sky.
Our conversation finally runs out of steam in central Colorado. I look out the window at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Great Sand Dunes National Park. Maybe I should pull out my notes and study for tomorrow’s simulator event? While ritualistically flipping through my Airbus flashcards I can’t help but think about how much time I’ve spent over the years studying aircraft systems and memorizing lists of aircraft limitations. What’s the maximum center tank fuel imbalance on the A320? What’s the minimum cooling time after a hot start in a Dornier 328? What are the memory items for an emergency descent in a CRJ? Pilots are forever doomed to memorizing lists of aircraft limitations and emergency checklists. At least I can study during a transcon flight rather than using up my valuable earthbound hours re-memorizing random numbers.
By all measures today is a crappy day; long hours and required study. But this is the good life, right? Here I am captain of a new-ish Airbus. I have a healthy family, own a house (well, pay a mortgage at least), am saving for retirement, and make enough money to support my family in uber-expensive California. So why the nagging feeling of dissatisfaction? Wasn’t this the goal, the point of all those years of struggle?
Among pilots there is a habit of optimistic daydreaming and a tendency for us to talk each other into this profession over and over. I think back to my days in college, in the dorms at UND ,where half the residents were enrolled in the flight program. On frozen winter afternoons, us flight students would sit in the common areas and talk endlessly about our career dreams. We’d talk aircraft types, regional airlines, major airlines, pay, bases, and overnights. Whenever the going got tough, say your winter semester’s flight lab was scheduled at 6:00 AM or you had to go down to the financial aid office and apply for another student loan, there was always a pilot friend close by to remind you that someday it would all be worth it. ”Think of that fat check United will be dropping in your account every two weeks” they’d say. There was a religious belief that if you just worked hard enough then you were guaranteed to achieve your dreams.
Of course when you’re surrounded with like-minded people you never question your own plans and motivations. No one ever seriously discusses the downsides; the odd hours, jet lag, the lack of job security, divorce etc. Maybe that was a good thing? Ask a professional in any field, would you do it over again? Most will say “No, it was way more work than I thought it would be. It was way more work than I’d ever do again.” Aviation is the same. I know I wouldn’t do it all over again. I’m happy with where I am now but not happy enough to say it was worth the effort it took to get here. Now I wonder if my youthful efforts were energy well spent, or did that testosterone rocket send me on a random vector into deep space? A career in aviation forces one to live like a nomad. During my eighteen year career (counting flight instructing), I’ve lived in nine different cities. Yes, I’ve made friends here and there and I have contacts all around the country, but I still feel like Ulysses being blown around the ocean, cursed by the gods to never return home. And now, I don’t have a concept of home anymore. After all these years of travel I can say non-sarcastically that the earth is my home. I’m always home. So what is that unsettled feeling?
No, I don’t want to return to the family farm like Ulysses. What I really want is more freedom. I want more time with my kids and the funds to show them the world. I also want time to work on my photography and time to write. Loosely translated, I need more money. Yes, it’s an ugly truth, but money buys freedom. So what can I do? I can’t make more money flying planes. The only valuables I have to trade are my life experiences. After two decades of traveling aviation’s bumpy flight path I might have a touch of wisdom to pass down to the younger generation. I’m not sure how giving advice translates to income (I’m a pilot not a businessman), but I think it’s time for me to start writing a new series about becoming an airline pilot. To my knowledge, there is no honest take on becoming a pilot available. Most of the material comes from flight schools or career consulting firms. Both have an interest in your money and aren’t motivated to tell you the truth. There has to be a lot of teenagers out there who are interested in this career field but have no idea how to get started. Also, I am fond of saying “I wish someone would’ve told me this when I was 24″. Those are my intended audiences, the young and the uninitiated, but I’m also hoping this series will be entertaining to an aviation enthusiast. And for the rest of you, you’ll still get to see my photos (Don’t worry, the flow of photos won’t stop. I could quit if I tried). When I’m done writing the series maybe I will turn it into an ebook and sell it via Amazon. For now, all the content will be completely free and I’ll post it on my Flying the Line page. I’m not sure of the format yet. I’m open to suggestions, but knowing me I’ll probably ignore all advice and do it my own way. Anyhow, feel free to post questions and comments.
*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!