The airline pilot
Once pilots are well established in an airline and have paid off their training costs, the pay starts to look pretty good, especially for captains flying big jets as opposed to co-pilots flying small turboprops. But it can take many years to get to that point. And for some pilots, getting their first “proper” airline job can be a long and tortuous process via general aviation (see general aviation lifestyle below).
Airline working hours are irregular. Duty periods can start at any time of day or night, and duty hours can be long.
On short-haul scheduled services, pilots will find themselves at home most nights – but not necessarily at “normal” hours – and occasionally will overnight away from base in hotels. The globetrotting image is not generally applicable.
Long-haul pilots spend a great deal of time away from home in hotels, which is tough on families. They also get reasonable periods of time off back home, but these may be midweek. If your partner is a professional or business person with a demanding job and a “normal” work routine, getting time together and sharing family responsibilities can be challenging.
Freighter pilots and charter airline pilots often have even more irregular hours than scheduled passenger crews, because the airline is more likely to work around the clock.
The public image of the job – formerly seen as rather glamorous – has changed as flying has become more routine, and particularly since the post-9/11 in-flight security regulations physically separated the pilots from their customers behind a locked cockpit door.
Crews hardly ever fly together repeatedly – the vagaries of the rostering system mean you fly with different crews all the time. But camaraderie, especially on trips that entail overnighting away from base, can be a positive lifestyle factor. Having said that, pilots as a race are a pretty assertive lot, so personalities come into the equation and harmony is no way guaranteed. The camaraderie that does tend to be guaranteed is the looser one of being a member of a global aircrew family. There is a consciousness that you all share a unique and awkward lifestyle, which tends to be rather inward-looking because the job’s irregularities make it more difficult to harmonise with people in “normal” jobs.
Travel concessions for family are a bonus that all airline employees share, but as load factors climb, the chances of carefully planned trips together being messed up is increasing.
The business aviation/corporate pilot
Depending on whether you work for a big corporation with its own fleet of aircraft, a wealthy private owner, a private charter operator or a “fractional ownership” operator like Netjets, your lifestyle could be very different.
Working with a corporate fleet is a bit like being an airline pilot with a charter operator.
Pilots with ad-hoc private charter operators have to be ready to fly at short notice, often to unusual places, so there is plenty of variety but often low hours over a year.
Working for fractionals puts you on a slightly more predictable roster than ad hoc charters, but the variety is good and you generally get more hours.
All business/corporate pilots need to have good social skills because they have to be able to work personally with customers to help meet their needs. They also have to be resourceful if unexpected difficulties occur away from base – especially at remote airfields – because they are responsible for coordinating the whole operation, not just the flying. This can make it a demanding but very rewarding job.
The general aviation pilot
The variety here is almost infinite, so it is not possible to describe all the lifestyles in this sector.
The jobs include agricultural aviation, airborne surveillance, commercial sightseeing flights, and flying instruction at clubs or FTOs that offer ab initio training, and utility “bush” flying in remote areas supporting mining or other communities. Rotary wing pilots can do all those jobs plus ad hoc business charter, search and rescue, offshore oil support, police surveillance flying, and emergency medical services.
Helicopter flying is potentially the most varied flying job in the world. While airline pilots fly – mostly – from major airport to major airport, helicopter pilot missions can take them almost literally anywhere. The missions they are tasked with are jobs that nothing but a helicopter could do, so rotary wing pilots have to be very good at risk management or they will end up in accidents. But that level of challenge to a pilot’s ingenuity and skill is what makes helicopter flying satisfying.
Read the next article about becoming a pilot, Learning the skills to be a professional commercial pilot
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