About the Industry

Aviation worldwide is a cyclical market and like any business is affected predominantly by economics and politics. Other factors such as deregulation in the USA and Europe had a serious affect on airlines in the 1980’s and 1990’s resulting in many new companies starting up, but just as many closing down from excessive competition.

9/11 had a negative impact on the airline industry internationally, while ironically, in South Africa tourism picked up, and all the local airlines and charter companies fared rather well. Considering that for years South Africa was the political polecat of the world – what a turnabout! Just goes to show how times and circumstances change!

On the other side of the globe, India, China and the Far East are experiencing huge development and are constantly on the prowl for experienced aircrew and are therefore actively head-hunting expatriate pilots from less attractive airlines.  China Airlines, Asianna, Korean, Singapore, Eva Air, Nippon Cargo, Kingfisher, Jet Airways, Air India and Cathay are all in the market for more aircraft and therefore more pilots. Likewise in the Middle East, companies such as Qatar, Gulf Air, Etihad and Emirates are expanding at such a rate that they literally can’t keep pace with their pilot requirements. All of these companies recruit worldwide because they cannot find sufficient crew from within their own countries to meet their requirements. Aviation is one industry that truly is global and where your qualifications and experience are in great demand internationally! All over the world you will find airlines crewed by foreign pilots, not because they won’t hire their own nationals but because demand exceeds supply. That’s not to say that you need to become an expat airline pilot to succeed in this profession. Not at all. It’s simply an indication of the oppertunities and mobility a flying career offers you.(Personally I believe flying for ones own national airline is not only the top job but also the ulitmate honour!)  “That’s all good and well,” I hear you say – “but how do I get to be one of those pilots?”

Firstly – you must have the passion! Who wants to spend the rest of their working life doing something they’re not passionate about? This is a tough and expensive profession to get into. Apart from the money, it’s going to take a huge amount of work and dedication from your side. You are going to need to be very passionate and hard working if you want to succeed. Like any profession you don’t simply qualify and hit the “big time.” If you’d studied law or accounting instead, you’d still have your articles to serve after you qualify. Likewise a doctor his housemanship. The same is going to happen here. After you get your Commercial Pilots Licence – before most companies will even look at you, you are going to need at least 500 flying hours in your logbook. That’s not because the employer doesn’t trust you, it’s because their Insurance Company won’t cover you in their clients zillion buck aircraft! The toughest part of your internship will take place here. (And don’t even think of cribbing your logbook. Any employer can tell within 5 minutes if you’ve really got the experience.) Getting those hours is going to become a very effective indication of your experience. (All your training records and hours are on file with the Flight School, CAA and Aircraft Operator and are available to employers for a background check.) Naturally there is only so much you can learn from the theory books. Some of our students have been lucky and found jobs within a week of qualifying, but this can be attributed as much to whom you know as being in the right place at the right time. (For this reason we stay in contact with our ex-students who alert us to vacancies becoming available in the industry.) Having unrelated skills or qualifications can often help – as in the case of Uri Moll, one of our students who’s ability to speak 5 languages got him the job flying foreign tourists in Namibia – a week after qualifying for his Commercial Pilot License! Likewise Andrew Turton, who’s skill with a video camera made him highly sought after, flying American and German big-game hunters around Africa on safari.  And Ken Geldenhuis whose business expertise not only got him the job but ended up in him owning the whole company! But in my case – as there were no jobs – I chose to study further and became a flying instructor. During this period I also dropped parachutists, ferried aircraft and towed gliders for free, just to get the flying hours. All these aspects develop your flying skills and decision making ability and expose you to aviation at large. In the case of instruction, there is no better way to know a subject than to teach it. Also, you’re getting paid to do it! Some schools have a “go-fer” program where you do the menial jobs around the school in return for free flying hours. But while you’re busy with all this, don’t forget to continue your studies! It’s much easier to keep learning while you’re still in a flying school environment than when you’re out there struggling to earn a living. Get the academic side behind you as soon as possible – the flying side will bring along its own challenges soon enough. 

Once you’ve got your CPL it helps to do a conversion onto an aircraft that’s popular with the charter companies you’re aiming at. Having a Cessna 210 on your license may help get a job flying tourists in Namibia or the Okavango Swamps. Likewise having a twin engine aircraft on your license may make you attractive to the companies having those aircraft on their fleet. As you gain experience you’ll become eligible to fly their larger, faster, more sophisticated aircraft. If they don’t have any, then it’s time to send out the CV once again. This is how you climb the ladder. Slowly improving your experience and qualifications – gradually making yourself more attractive to the bigger operators. 

If you have the money it may be worth paying for a turbine conversion onto something like a Beechcraft King Air or Cessna Caravan. Organisations such as DHL, Fedex the United Nations, the World Food Program and Red Cross all fly these particular aircraft. But before you go to the expense, first check their insurance requirements. Some of these companies will only consider you after you have at least 1,000 hours total time with the type rating. My brother was fortunate to land a job flying a King Air 1900 on contract in Africa and the Middle East – straight after he’d paid for his own conversion. He had 3,000 hours total flight time – and almost all of it was as a flying instructor on small single engine aircraft! Incidentally, he was 43 years old, having come into professional aviation a little late in life. Ironically some companies favour older pilots as there’s less chance of losing them to the major airlines. Training costs in any flying organisation are enormous so they prefer to invest in pilots whom they are more likely to retain for awhile. For this reason some companies require you to sign a training bond before they’re willing to spend the money converting you onto their larger aircraft. This can be anything up to 3 years with a stiff financial penalty if you decide to resign before the end of your contractual term.

Obviously it’s better to get into this job at a younger age, before you have the added strain of family and commitments. Many of my airline colleagues studied for their tertiary education part-time after they qualified as commercial pilots. (This was to be the ONLY occasion I was glad NOT to follow my father’s advice!) I delayed university till after I was established in my airline career. This luckily ensured that I got into an airline at the earliest possible opportunity. The seniority system is peculiar to airlines the world over and for this reason (assuming you are aiming at an airline career) the earlier you join, the better your seniority number will be. This number will dictate your progress in the airline, and will be one of the elements governing your promotion and hence your salary. Most airlines have a bidding system for the various fleets they operate. Likewise you can bid for the specific routes you wish to fly and the dates of your annual vacation. This is all based on your seniority number – so you can appreciate how important this number is going to be! Should you resign from one airline to join another, your seniority starts again from scratch! For this reason job-hopping at airline level is not a good idea unless future prospects in the new airline are really worthwhile.

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