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One Pilot’s Journey

Fellow Squawkers, a recent career upgrade has demanded much of my time - hence my temporary absence from FlightAware. With the aforementioned complete now, I’m happy to be back in the writer’s saddle, covering aviation topics intended to provide perspective from my view as an airline pilot.

The gradual onset of airline pilot retirements and subtle signs of industry prosperity have allowed me to transition from my captain seat at a regional airline to the first officer seat at a major airline. A promotion, yes - but peculiar that trading the coveted role as captain for that of a second-in-command first officer be considered as such. It’s just one of the many intricacies along the path in a pilot’s career, a journey for many that begins the first time they see an airplane flying overhead.

For me, this journey began at the age of four. I remember my first flight, peering out the window and gazing across the wing of a Boeing 727 in amazement. What I now know to be flaps and ailerons, at the time didn’t matter. What mattered then was seeing these devices in motion, knowing that the pilots up front were controlling them. It was a single moment in my distant past that created an enduring inspiration, and this for me set the wheels in motion.

The pursuit of becoming a professional pilot revolves around the attainment of multiple qualifications. Accumulating the necessary experience is a daunting task, but immediate hands-on exposure from the onset of training is a big motivator. Something as simple as sharing the radio waves with a passenger jet during my private pilot training course, the initial training hurdle, provided a tangible moment of great inspiration. Earning a private pilot license, as with any level of pilot certification, involves both flight and ground school training that culminates with a final flight test called a checkride. During the checkride, an FAA representative tests a pilot candidate against a standard of pass/fail flying maneuvers, simulated emergency scenarios, and knowledge benchmarks that must be met or exceeded to earn certification. Routine evaluation and testing is a reality that all pilots must grow accustomed to throughout training and beyond as a professional aviator.

At a steady pace, alongside earning a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics, I had earned the qualifications necessary to fly with sole reference to instrumentation (IFR) as well as multi-engine and other complex propeller aircraft endorsements. After the FAA signed off on my commercial pilot certificate, allowing me to fly for hire, I quickly pursued and earned a flight instructor rating. Teaching others to fly is a rewarding experience (with modest pay) and it’s the most common way aspiring professional pilots accrue the bulk of their flight hours necessary to interview for an airline or corporate flying job. After instructing for a year, I had built 1,000 total flight hours – a common threshold for consideration with the airlines.

My timing was such that a post 9/11 lull in airline pilot hiring had finally passed. A mere month prior to graduating college, I successfully interviewed with a commuter airline to fly a 19-seat turboprop aircraft. After a two-month company and aircraft specific training program, I passed the final flight simulator checkride and was soon flying passengers as a first officer around the northeast U.S. to feed a major airline network.

However, as a testament to the fickleness of the airline industry, signs that my commuter carrier soon would face a period of potential layoffs forced my pursuit of yet another opportunity. This time I landed a first officer position with a regional airline, flying a 50-seat regional jet. At that time, prior to the mandatory airline pilot retirement age changing from age 60 to 65, major airlines were feverishly hiring pilots from both commuter and regional carriers in anticipation of massive retirements. My rapidly growing company seniority propelled me into captain training within a few years. Earning the coveted captain position allowed me to accrue valuable flight hours as a pilot in command, as well as a much needed salary increase. With my eye on capturing the attention of a major airline, in an effort to further boost my qualifications, I became a company check airman. In this role, I was responsible for grooming new first officers and captains as they transitioned from flight simulators into the actual aircraft.

With ten years of airline experience and after weathering a lull in hiring due to a battered economy and a rising retirement age, my application was finally recognized by a major airline. After yet another interview and training regiment, I’ve since been thoroughly enjoying the fruits of my labor as a Boeing 737 first officer. And therein lies the caveat I mentioned earlier. One does not normally carry with them, from one airline to another, their former captain position. It’s the way it works in a seniority driven career, but in time, the captain seat will once again call my name.

The journey I’ve walked you through is typical, but there are pilots who’ve certainly traveled different roads; some smooth and others filled with potholes. Timing is the key element that we all cling onto – it’s the driving force that can make or break job security and quality of life. In a business slave to cyclical times of prosperity and downturn, calling a successful career outcome can only occur the day a pilot retires. For me, knock on wood, so far so good!

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preacher1 6
Tis' sad that regionals and commuters are all in there now on capacity contracts and hardly anything of that type is home owned anymore. Tis' sad that at least the seniority can't be transferred and the majors hire from that pool rather than go on the street. In my book, a Captain is a Captain, whether on a CRJ200 or a 777. Just a different AC type. The good part of all this Daniel, as you say, is that you are on Big Iron now and that Captain's seat will come back to you in time. Hang in there guy.As you said, regardless of how we all got there, patience is the final answer.LOL

[This poster has been suspended.]

preacher1 2
No I didn't do a bad choice of words I guess
shuras85 5
Thanks, Daniel! Something to look forward to. Tired of all the pessimism in the industry.
Dave Mathes 1
Paul, it's sad you have such an apathetic attitude towards your chosen profession...
Aaron OBrien 1
I'm looking to acquire my PPL within the next year. I'm 16, and I've always wanted to be a commercial pilot. I can only hope for the initial funding, but with flying being my absolute passion, any sacrifice can be made. I hope that the retiring baby boomer pilots will leave a vacancy for me in the coming years.
Good luck on your new path...
shawn white 1
I'm looking forward to my own training in two years. From any "professionals" out there and not online ads, for flight training in the US is it better to get a bachelors degree first (like at WMU or Embry-Riddle), or just go with a flight school like ATP that doesn't give a university degree. Will most airlines hire you if you have a commercial pilots license earned from a fast track flight school but no Bachelor's degree?
Daniel Fahl Staff Writer 6

Great question. There are some fantastic aviation universities across the country that will prepare you for a career in aviation and really boost your knowledge in aeronautics. However, a degree in AVIATION is NOT required. I would have appreciated this insight when I was in your shoes. In retrospect I would have earned a business degree or anything unrelated to aviation. It's always good to have a plan 'B' to fall back on should you lose your flying job due to medical or a myriad of other reasons that make a professional flying career unstable.

A majority of pilots boast a college degree, but it's generally not a requirement when seeking an entry level airline job. On the other hand, the more competitive flying spots such as with a major carrier, typically would require a college degree. It's not uncommon for junior pilots at the commuter or regional level to earn an online bachelors degree after they've been hired in anticipation of working for a major one day.

Seniority and timing is everything in this business. The faster you can accrue your flight time and ratings, the sooner you can apply with an airline and climb the ladder. The benefit to a fast track program versus the 4-year college route is that you will land an airline job statistically much sooner. But at some point, you will most likely need to focus on a college degree while working a full-time job. Fortunately you'll have lots of downtime at hotels to earn an online degree!

It's a personal decision, but my advice is to consider a fast track program followed by a degree in an unrelated field.
shuras85 3
Shawn, not really, you have to earn your ways up. The regs, if approved, will require you to have min 1500 hours (ATP) to be a first officer for an air carrier. You can try commercial, but that market is very protective and self-sustained. But don't give up, most of us don't.
shawn white 2
But is it better to pay for 4 years of college that would include courses in deeper maths and related subjects, or just one year of a flight school and then instructor jobs to earn your flight hours?
preacher1 4
I think Daniel's advice is good. A man always needs a plan B as we know not what the future will hold. Alexander's advice is good also, as the decent 135 jobs are coveted. There are quite a number of them out there but hard to get in the door. Our company looked at over 1000 apps/resumes` here a few weeks ago when we were talking seriously about expandingand we got them all by word of mouth. Pay was not the issue but treatment was the main drive. Again, I say decent 135 jobs.
Andrew Deibel 4

As a recent graduate, earning my pilot licenses and Bachelor's through one of the named schools, it was a great experience. I believe it has made me a better, more informed pilot for it. However; now that I have the cost to school plus flight school, I have found it very difficult, yet not impossible, to find a entry-level pilot job that can support my debt payments I am now bound to. I have also found that many employers will pay for some schooling, as ways to relieve some school debt if you choose to get a Bachelor's degree.

Either decision will benefit you, it all depends on your particular situation.

My recommendation based on my circumstances mirror's Daniel's. Build time first then figure out how to get your degree, who knows maybe you'll stumble upon someone who will pay your full education.
It is a great job but that writing is whack. Sounds like the drivel we were all exposed to in Weezy Johnson's (RIP) advanced writing class back in the early 80s. Man up and stop being so self-referential. ENC1101 at the local community college may be a good place to start. That is all.
paul patten -2
Sheesh!!!!Diarrhea of the keyboard. It's just a job. I did it for 35 years and after awhile
you'll be bitchen like everbody else.
Daniel Fahl Staff Writer 2
"The journey I’ve walked you through is typical, but there are pilots who’ve certainly traveled different roads; some smooth and others filled with potholes." Maybe you missed that part?

I'm glad that despite your bitterness you still have enough passion to peruse the squawks page. Thank you for your criticism, your thoughts have been noted.
preacher1 4
Daniel, he speaks of diarrhea of the keyboard but apparently besides being a Captain/FO, fails to realize that you are a staff writer and that is what you are supposed to do.I flew 135 Big Iron for 36 years(707 and 752, set retirement just before the rule changed; did some fill in for awhile and last December, went back on contract for my old employer, taking left seat part time on a like new CRJ200, and current on the 767 and King Air they have, and I guess I'm set until 65 rolls around next year. Point is, not everybody dreads their job as the comment above, nor are they jealous of one that enjoys their job. Life is not a bed of roses and it is the same way with a job, BUT, if the good outweighs the bad, go for it and Blue Skies.
If you don't like what you do, especially in a field like aviation, please remove yourself because people who don't like what they do often bring that piss poor attitude to work and make the trip miserable for everyone. Commercial aviation is a team effort and a positive attitude goes a long way.
Dan Scarborough -6
weak. get over your awesomeness and start pulling gear for another decade loser.
Daniel Fahl Staff Writer 4
Dan I think maybe I pulled your gear a few months back actually. If you are who I think you are, I had a good time flying with you, and I'm quite shocked at your comment. I'm certainly not awesome, but my career path is what it is. As a staff writer I'm asked to cover certain topics, my career path being the most recent. Feel free to peruse the spectrum of my contributions by clicking on my name, or visit for more.

This article isn't geared toward someone such as yourself, it's aimed at folks seeking inspiration to begin a career in aviation, or even those who've always wondered what it takes. Sure I could paint the picture of an industry that has the capability of beating people down resulting in attitudes such as yours. I've had my struggles and I've definitely got a long career ahead of me that is sure to present new challenges. But my role here at Flightaware and as a writer in general is to inspire and enlighten. I rely on guys such as yourself to fill the gaps.

One of the caveats of doing what I do is donning a flame suit and taking criticism because I simply can't appease to everyone in 6-900 words. I'd be happy to expand more with you on a personal level if you wish though, [email protected].
preacher1 3
One thing about it young man is that you do what you do very well, and I don't see loser anywhere in your stories or comments, nor in your career path. Your detractors here seem to have forgotten all the bumps and knocks along the way and have tried to turn them into a vendetta to the whole world, rather than accept them and go on. Hang in there.
Please tell me this negative comment and poor punctuation did not come from a NAVY trained pilot.
ric lang 1
Have NO idea what set this guy off? As a longtime viewer of pilot career activity, seems that there are a huge number of ways people find to finally get into the air. Myself....I was a line wrench, flew as FE on 52s in SAC, never wanted to be a driver, never thought about the "magic of flight", learned to "fly" due to job requirements, found I liked it.
Key point is you like it.
preacher1 2
For every 2 like have posted above, there are 200 that feel differently. If that was not true, there would be such a pilot shortage out there it wouldn't be funny, but some would rather bitch than take the bad with the good. When that bad starts outweighing the good, it's time to leave. Problem is, most of those guys don't have a plan B and just continue to bitch their whole career and make it uncomfortable for everyone else.
True words preacher1. I see ATPs working for $9.53/hr and scrambling for any contracts crumbs out there and I see, sadly, those with the "I got to my scale so I don't care about anyone else". They ride the "I'm an pilot" without having cultivated any other profession or give back to others.
preacher1 3
I have been blessed and have not had to make such a bumpy ride but all of it has some good and some bad. In my case the good far outweighed the bad.
Well said and amen.


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