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Advice my mentors never gave me

So you want to fly for a living? A word of advice – PLEASE DON’T! Certainly not unless you’re passionate about it. For that matter; don’t consider a career in anything you’re not passionate about. The world is full of inanimate grey people who hate their jobs. Don’t become one of them.

Flying, like most professions, is pretty tough to get into. In must professions you don’t simply qualify and hit the big time. You pay your dues, build up experience, and learn the ropes before you’re anywhere near ready to shoulder the responsibilities the job entails. That happens whether you’re a surgeon, accountant, lawyer or an airline pilot. As a doctor you could qualify as a specialist in about eleven years. To strap yourself into the left seat of a 747 in SAA will take about twenty – after you’ve joined the airline! Your first command on a Boeing 737 will take about 12. Some smaller airlines may take less time but only because the experience level to join them is higher – so either way, you’re not going to short-circuit the process by much.

The real question is – how do you get your feet onto the bottom rung of the ladder and start climbing? And more importantly, to whom do you ho for advice? Often parents hock themselves to the limit to get their child through a Commercial Pilot License only to find that, after qualifying, their child is still largely unemployable! And worse – the CFI can’t even give them decent career guidance! Most schools are happy to take your money but offer precious little advice after you’ve finally got that revered qualification under your featherless wings. This is because very few of them have any real experience outside the academic environment. Fortunately this is changing as more retired airline and corporate pilots are getting involved with flight schools at ab-initio level. Not purely as flying instructors and lecturers but more importantly, as mentors. They’ve been there and done it – they’re in a better position than anyone to direct your future in aviation.

Once you’ve got your CPL, you’re theoretically employable, but with only two hundred hours and an instrument rating, no self-respecting company is going to entrust their zillion buck aeroplane into your sweaty little talons. They’d rather offer you their daughters first. And even if they did – no prudent insurance company is – going to risk their profit on you being able to do the job properly. And herein lies the rub. Insurance companies don’t often show much interest in your abilities until you’ve accumulated at least five hundred hours. After that they’ll grudgingly give you the nod and figure whether a loaded premium is worth a bet on your skills in their client’s asset. It’s all about money – and supply and demand. Don’t forget this fact. It’s going to rule your life – and not only in aviation.

Two decades ago you could get invited to a selection board at SAA with just 500 hours, and an instrument rating and multi engine rating on your CPL. Technically, this is still the minimum entry-level experience required – but don’t even waste your time – except to place your CV in the file. Here it’s about supply and demand. While there are more experienced aviators applying for your job, you don’t stand a chance of getting it! Don’t fret though. Ironically, this is going to work in your favour in the short term! You see, SAA being at the top of the ladder will recruit from the rungs below it, ie from the smaller airlines. These in turn will be short of pilots and will recruit from a rung below them, in the corporate or charter companies. Likewise, these operators will look further down and so it goes on. What you need to do is make yourself as attractive as possible to the lower rung operators. This will take time and hard work and these days there’s even another factor to consider. Affirmative action. Naturally these aspects also need to be addressed in aviation. But thankfully, unlike most other industries, there can be no token appointments. A token accountant or lawyer maybe – but a token pilot is a guarantee for disaster. Over the next few years many of SAA’s senior Captains will reach the retirement age of sixty, precipitating a huge pilot vacuum in the lower echelons. Cadet pilots alone will not be sufficient to fill these new positions, and that’s without even considering expansion!

Most airlines in SA have some sort of cadet training scheme aimed at the previously disadvantaged but prohibitive costs will ensure that there will always be a demand for privately trained individuals with the passion and zeal for the job. So there’s still plenty of hope on the horizon.

Your toughest challenge is to get yourself from 200 to 500 hours. And don’t even think of cribbing your logbook! Any Training Captain can tell within 5 minutes whether you’ve really got the experience. My advice to students with the aptitude is to consider becoming an instructor after you’ve earned your CPL. That way you get paid while you accumulate valuable experience and hours. Also, there’s no better way to know a subject than to teach it. And when you do eventually move on to bigger and faster aircraft, an instructors rating will prove invaluable to any company employing you. There’ll always be a demand for trainers in any organization. Staying in a training environment also makes it easier to continue studying towards your ATP subjects, which for any future airline career will be essential. On the flip side, some students have been lucky and walked directly from flight school into a bush or charter Job. Again this can be attributed to ‘supply and demand’ and depends as much on whom you know, as being in the right place at the right time.

Aviation is notoriously cyclical. In the eighties politics ensured that flying jobs were scarce. For the six years between 1981 and 1987 SAA didn’t recruit one single pilot – and when they did, they took mostly ex-airforce guys. These days that’s no longer the case as the SAAF now sign their pilots to lengthy and expensive training bonds making it as unattractive to join, as it is to resign. Also, the hours you can expect to fly in the airforce can’t compare with what you’ll acquire in a civilian establishment. Once you’ve chosen flying as a career path, the most important thing is to choose a reputable flight school to begin the process. Here it word of caution. As in any industry, aviation has its share of unscrupulous operators. Study the small print very carefully. Some schools demand full payment upfront then – have financially debilitating penalties if you choose to terminate or change schools mid stream. Also some schools are advertising courses for which they are neither suitably qualified nor accredited. Yet others make promises as to the time frame required to complete courses – and then charge penalties if extra time is needed to do so – even in unforeseen circumstances! Make sure you know what you’re paying for. Some schools quote a total package without giving a clear breakdown of the aircraft hourly rate or the type you’ll be flying – leaving you with that ripped off feeling when you realize how much you’ve been paying for simulator time!

Unfortunately the CAA being a regulating rather than a policing authority is largely powerless to act against these companies as it’s not within their domain to determine what constitutes unfair business practice. The onus therefore falls on the student or sponsor’s judgment. Don’t be afraid to ask past or present students their opinion. There is even a website (www.pprune.org and www.avcom.co.za) where opinions are often expressed. You have a large investment at stake. Just as you’d do your homework before enrolling in a university – you need to the same with a flight school. Please, whatever you do, don’t be pressurized to sign any contract before you’ve shopped around – that’s a sure sign all is not as it seems.

The author is an A340 Training Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College George.

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