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Reprinted from the June 2000 Issue of
Flight Training magazine®

New Directions

Changing Careers at Midlife

Changing careers. It sounds like an intriguing idea, and some of the flight school recruiting brochures are so enticing: fly to exotic places, earn top dollar, operate sophisticated new-generation airplanes while earning the respect of your family and friends. Certainly, the stuff of daydreams.

It should be simple enough to choose an aviation career if you're just starting out in the job world. But what if you're not a kid any more and you're well-established with a family and other adult responsibilities? Can you turn your professional pilot dream into a reality?

If you've got a passion for flying, no doubt you've considered chucking that desk job for the lure and romance of the wild blue yonder. Maybe, after years of thinking about it, you've finally fulfilled your childhood dream of learning to fly. Now, with your newly minted private pilot certificate you're wondering just what it would take to make the change from weekend to full-time pilot?

On the other hand, perhaps you've had your certificate for some years, flown occasionally, but never really considered it as a serious option - until now. Your day job pays the bills, puts food on the table, and is downright boring. You ask yourself, "Am I crazy to seriously consider a career change at this late date when I'm almost 35 (or 40 or 45) years old?"

Age isn't the inhibiting factor that it used to be. Pilots with a real desire to fly airplanes are finding jobs available as more experienced pilots begin moving up out of their entry-level positions. Your maturity, educational background, and "street savvy" will interest a pilot employer as long as you demonstrate a sincere passion for flying and are willing to do whatever it takes to make your flying career a reality. Your age and ability to interact with customers will likely gain you some instant credibility, often causing employers to assume that you've got more experience than your logbook actually shows.

Before we go any further, let's cover one very important issue that you simply can't ignore - your educational background. More than 82 percent of pilots hired in 1999 by all airlines - large or small, passenger or cargo - had a four-year degree in any subject. Pilots with two or three years of college comprised just 12 percent of the total, while pilots with fewer than two years were a mere 6 percent of those hired. Simply stated, if you don't have a degree, start working on one, either in conjunction with your flight training or as a separate long-term goal. Al-though maturity and flight experience will net you points as you near the top of the aviation career ladder, ignoring the educational preferences of employers will cause them to question your ability to successfully complete their training programs.

If you're seriously considering the possibility of a pilot career, begin by researching all of the various training options available. Talk to your pilot friends; visit the numerous aviation Web sites, including AOPA Online (www.aopa.org), for information on training options and advice; and check out your local FBO, as well as any local or national organized flight school programs that interest you. You've probably been reading those advertisements for years; now it's time to go ahead and request the information so that you can actually see for yourself what they're selling and how they propose to put you in the pilot seat at a commercial airline.

This preliminary investigation will become a very important part of your career education and a good investment in your future. Think of this as your own personal research project and devote serious time to considering each option, whether it is an accelerated program that crams all of your flying into six intensive months of training, a two-year college program that leads you to the right seat at a specific regional airline, or a local FBO that offers all the ratings you seek with no particular structure, save that which you design to fit your personal needs.

Talk with other pilots from your age group who have attended your target schools. Be sure to solicit some input from current attendees as well as those who dropped out if you can get the company or school to come up with some of these names. (A very good test, in my opinion, of a school's legitimacy and honest business practices.) When you question pilots, ask them what they liked and disliked about their training, how they came to choose that specific company, and whether they would do anything differently if they had to do it all over again. Another very important question is how their estimated costs compared with what they actually spent on each particular rating or certificate.

Once you've completed your training survey, take some time to make a quick passion check to see where you fall on the "flying fanatic scale." This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. After you have some idea of the dollars you're likely to invest, or at least some minimums, ask yourself whether your passion for flying has subsided. Are the sacrifices really going to be worth the long hours and meager initial monetary return?

Start with the "flight academy" training alternative. Imagine yourself away from home and family for four to six months and see how you and your pocketbook will feel. Visualize yourself attending daily classes with students half your age and trying to relate to them during your off hours. Shared living quarters may or may not be a part of the program, but realize that this immersion system is harder on the older career changer for more reasons than just financial ones. Are you still excited about the prospect?

How about the responsibilities that you leave at home? Can your present job survive without you? What about your family, your friends, your other activities? Will you come to resent what you've had to give up just to take on a job that initially pays $800 to $1,200 a month and increases, at the regional pilot level, to $1,200 to $1,800 per month? It may take you four to eight years to regain your former income level.

Maybe you've decided to try and commute to your training site. Can you afford the travel time and hassles that will interfere with your learning? Is your performance going to suffer because you're exhausted just by getting there? What happens when you don't finish the various ratings in the time allotted? Can you afford the extra time and money it may take to accomplish your goal?

I'm definitely trying to paint a gloomy picture here so that you'll see the dark side of the equation to help balance the glitzy "pilots wanted" advertisements that can easily cloud your decision making. Now let's look at some less-glamorous alternatives to the rapid immersion system to see if these options might mitigate some of your concerns and achieve your goal at the same time.

Home schooling, as I like to call it, is the local training alternative that allows you to complete your flight training at your own pace, on your own time schedule, while still maintaining a "life" by hopefully funding the training through a reduced work schedule and some shuffling of priorities. Since you are facing a large financial drain, try to plan a training schedule that allows you to minimize your dollar loss from your regular job.

Perhaps you can begin work earlier or later to allow some training time each day, much like at a "regular" flight school. Work with your instructor to set up a structured program that lets you fly at least three or four times a week and includes ground instruction before and after each lesson. If the weather turns sour, or maintenance delays arise, you can devote that lesson to ground school subjects. And do expect to pay for the ground time, just as you pay for those flying hours. They're important to your progress and will likely equal or exceed the time that you spend aloft.

If you find that you're having trouble studying at home, arrive at the airport ahead of time and study in the flight school classroom where you'll have the peace and quiet you require. If you work at it, you can likely duplicate the big school's training environment by planning your training carefully and sticking to the schedule with the same determination that fuels your passion to fly.

Given the expensive nature of your new career, particularly if you're starting out from ground zero - very little or no flight time - plan to obtain your private pilot certificate at your home airport. The training conditions may not equal those that you see advertised, but you'll find that the local contacts become in-valuable as you progress along your new career path. The wealth of information you'll gain from the exposure to a wide variety of pilots and their experiences will put you miles ahead of the trainee who isolates himself.

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After you listen to students, renters, owners, transient pilots, instructors, and charter pilots who frequent a local FBO, you'll have a much better idea of how you can pursue your flying dreams. Many a first flying job has been lined up long before the new pilot was qualified, just by networking during those beginning months as a student. Your current or former coworkers can be a good source of flying hours - and shared expenses - when you point out how quickly you can get them to distant job sites or new client locations that they had thought were unreachable.

Many career changers want to quit their day jobs and dive right into flying full time. It's a nice option if you've got the resources, but most folks need to establish a balance between their old, steady income source and their new, expensive flying passion. I recommend that you keep your primary income source securely in place. The first few years of pilot employment - following the large cash outlay to complete your basic ratings - will net you little more than poverty-level wages. Your present job can also serve as a backup if the industry or your health takes a downturn and you need income.

If, however, you've got the opportunity and funding to complete your training in a short time, be sure that you do it in a rational, career-enhancing manner. Remember, what you do now will have great bearing on how it's received later. Investigate all the alternatives thoroughly, just as you would any major lifestyle change. Use some good crew resource management (CRM) skills, consulting all your resources and considering all the options before you make your decision. For example, purchasing 10 hours of flight time in a Boeing 727 - an airplane you're not likely ever to fly - doesn't advance your credibility, just your gullibility.

Instead, think about what will en-hance your career and demonstrate your real passion for flying. Earning a CFI rating, for example, will teach you a lot about flying, particularly from the right seat, where you'll spend a good bit of your professional career. It's also a logical progression that will increase your self-confidence, demonstrate your passion for flying, and start paying - however slowly - some of those heavy flight training expenses.

By the way, pilots who whine about "having to flight instruct" as a way to build flight experience are immediately suspect to those of us who paid our dues and are in a position to help you find that first flying job. So keep an open mind as you progress through each training phase, and remember that your job is to demonstrate to those who can help that you're worth the effort and will put our assistance to good use.

Many pilots wonder about the advisability of purchasing a flight engineer or type rating to enhance their quest for an airline job and move up quickly into the big leagues. Midlifers may figure it's a way to hurry up the process and might make them more saleable in the job market. Most of this type of training results in your obtaining very minimal flight hours and is considered window dressing, eliciting little more than a raised eyebrow from chief pilots.

If you've got a solid opportunity to fly the flight engineer panel or log time in a large airplane, by all means consider the tradeoffs in spending the many thousands of dollars required. For most pilots, however, that money would be much better spent acquiring more multiengine pilot in command cross-country time to meet new-hire minimum flight times. Your story, detailing each flying job you landed and how you overcame the obstacles to achieve your goals, will be of great interest to your future employer. Demonstrate your good sense now by choosing options that make sense for your situation and demonstrate that you're willing to pay your dues.

One private pilot I know yearned to leave the confines of his prestigious accounting firm and pursue his dream of flying. He decided that a big-name flight school and its concentrated learning program were definitely for him. He completed his commercial and multiengine ratings during his three-week vacation and returned home with a renewed passion to find a flying job to use his new skills. Few companies, he found, would hire a low-time multiengine pilot, so after some careful soul-searching, he quit his full-time accounting job, hired on as a consultant to his former employer to maintain a steady income source, and resolved to fly each subsequent hour in a rented twin until he met the 100-hour minimum needed to fly for a scenic charter operator.

Fortunately, he had the luxury of a steady income with flexible hours and a high rate of pay. He continued to freelance in the accounting field while flying as a first officer for the Part 135 (charter) operator, gaining valuable multiengine turboprop experience. Although his total flight time was low, the combination of his education, work experience, maturity, and interpersonal skills earned him a flying slot as he demonstrated his passion and determination to change careers and live his dream. Today he's a captain with a major airline, glad that he took that first decisive step.

For each success story, there are countless tales of woe and hangar yarns that detail the financial nightmares that led to a pilot's demise. They include everything from folding flight schools that took the money and closed their doors to stories of accidents that occurred during checkrides to careers that were ruined by pilots flunking out of their first new-hire training class. I've come to realize that for a midlife career changer, many times it's not what you do but what you don't do that ensures your success in aviation.

Be wary of radical changes that appear to be the quick and easy solution. Quitting your job, mortgaging your home, and racing off to a high-dollar flight school may be the stuff of your dreams, but it can become your worst nightmare if you leave yourself no alternate solutions should things fail to turn out to your liking. How you've accomplished your midlife career change will be of keen interest to the interviewer when you apply for your dream job. If you can show a logical, well-planned career progression and a real desire to do the job, you'll go a long way toward making your case a believable one.

Smooth your midlife career change by carefully planning each move. You've got some great opportunities ahead of you - enjoy each stage of your journey to that coveted left seat.

Karen Kahn is a captain for a major U.S. airline and author of the new book Flight Guide for Success-Tips and Tactics for the Aspiring Airline Pilot. She also runs Aviation Career Counseling, a pilot career guidance and interview counseling firm based in California. For more information, contact her at 805/687-9493; fax 805/687-6226.

By Karen Kahn

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