So You Want to Be a Pilot: What It Costs And How Much You’ll Make

flight-denzel-washington pilot

Every time I sit next to anyone on a plane that isn’t a baby, a religious nut, or an obnoxious gum smacker, I remind myself to be grateful. I should count myself especially lucky to have taken the window seat next to Mike, a pilot for a Delta connection carrier, who was deadheading from RDU to JFK.

I was headed to the Binders Full of Women Writers conference (#bindercon), and he was just trying to get home. I was in rough shape, nursing the beginnings of a cold and the dregs of a hangover, and he was crisp, well dressed, and wide awake. Usually, those people are annoying; he was not. Taxiing down the runway, lifting off into flight, we spoke briefly about his job, but it wasn’t until he mentioned that some beginning pilots make $20,000 a year that I got really worked up. What? Am I the only one who thought pilots made enough to afford an occasional trip to Paris, what with their lavish salaries and their buddy passes?

He showed me a picture of his adorable kids, talked about the best stops on his East Coast route (Quebec City, if you’re wondering), and tried to explain piloting to me. My expressions of disbelief began to sound like a broken record. Before falling into a dead, narcoleptic sleep, I got Mike’s contact info, and a few weeks later, I caught up with him on the phone about the finances of flying and what he’s got lined up next.

Linnie Greene: Let’s catch readers up to speed. We talked a little bit about this on the plane, but tell me what a beginning pilot can expect to make, as a salary, and what the options are for different types of jobs. 

Mike: It kind of just depends on what that job is. You could probably make $30,000 a year as a flight instructor from flight school. The problem with going to the airlines is that after you – let me back it up. So you want to be a pilot. You go through your training, and there are different certificates that you have to get. It starts out with a private pilot license that costs about $8,000 dollars, then you get your instrument rating, so that you can fly into clouds, and that’s another five or six grand. 

And these are just certifications, like you go to classes and you take a test and you’re certified?

Correct. The FAA requires 40 hours for your private pilot license. I think the nationwide average was about 65 hours, and that’s flight time – that doesn’t include your ground training, any school work you do on your own, and usually there’s about three hours of book work for every hour of flying you do. So that’s just the private pilot [license]. It allows you to rent an airplane and then go fly around on sunny days.

On sunny days only?

Yes, when there’s no clouds. Well, avoiding the clouds – you can’t go in the clouds. That’s when the instrument rating comes in. Then, you go through more studying, more written tests, practical – they call it an oral exam, with an examiner, and then another flight test and get your instrument rating. That allows you to fly a single engine airplane in the clouds.

Is there any reason that one wouldn’t get their instrument rating? It sounds like you really need both.

To be a professional pilot, you will get that. To be Joe Schmo that wants to be able to go fly an airplane once in a while? You could choose a sunny day to go do that. If you wanted to go from Morristown, NJ, to Fort Wayne, IN, and the chances of their being a cloud between the two in a low airplane – good luck getting there without an instrument rating. Sooner or later you’re going to need it if you really want to fly.

I remember us discussing – and you had mentioned this just now – that there’s a difference between being a commercial pilot and a private pilot. What are the advantages to either, and what would a beginning pilot want to do, ideally?

When you get your pilot’s license – now, if you and I go flying, I have to share in the expense of the airplane, and I cannot charge you for my time. So as a commercial pilot, I can make you pay for the airplane, and pay me X amount per hour to take you for a ride. As a commercial pilot, you can charge for your services.

I think we discussed, too, that one could get one’s pilot license and instrument rating, and then fly for a company or fly for an airline.

Oh, no, there’s so much more! [laughs] With that, nothing. You can fly yourself around, essentially, there. So you get your commercial, and then that’s just in a single engine airplane. Now if you want to do it in a multi-engine airplane, you have to get your multi-engine certification, your multi-engine instrument, and your multi-engine commercial.

Wow.

Yeah.

And those cost money, right?

Ohhh, tons. So then, you have your multi-engine instrument and your commercial, and you have about, oh, 250 hours of flight time that you’ve accrued to do this. The next thing you can do is either, with that, hopefully find someone that will hire you with no experience and no flight time.

How likely is that to happen?

Yeah, almost no chance, unless your Dad owns the company or something like that, because to get insured with that little experience costs exponentially more. So they want to see you having thousands of hours. The ways to do that are to get your flight instructor rating. So to become a flight instructor, you have a ground instructor certificate, you have a flight instructor certificate and a flight instructor instrument certificate. There’s also a multi-engine instructor rating to instruct potential students in multi-engine airplanes.

So all of these certificates cost thousands of dollars apiece?

Oh yeah. And you’re still not employed!

How does someone bankroll this? Are there scholarships?

Through loans. So yeah, I can’t remember. I went into debt. With help from my parents, I went to an aviation college, so I have a bachelor’s degree and I got all my ratings and I got out of school with about $100,000 worth of debt, on top of my grants and assistance from Mom & Dad and stuff like that.

And this is without any job offer yet, so you’d still need to accrue a lot of experience.

Oh yeah. So that’s graduating from college with those ratings and no experience. 250 hours. I never did get my multi-engine instructor certificate. I didn’t have a need for it.

What was your first big gig? What did you do when you were right out of college?

So for one year, I instructed at the college I graduated from, and they called it an “internship” and paid me $2.83 an hour to be a flight instructor for the same school that I was charged – God, what was it? — $35 an hour.

That’s highway robbery! 

That is criminal! Now this was 1994.

And then how long did you have to do that before you could get a job that paid you a decent wage?

Well I did that for a year, and the internship ended because it was two school semesters, and then summer came, so I was unemployed. At that point I moved back towards home – not home – but I got an apartment back in Erie, PA. I worked for a  flight school here part time and was a truck driver and worked at an outdoor sporting goods store as I was trying to build hours and get experience.

You had to hustle for a while.

Oh yeah. So that probably went on for, oh, three years, and then, with that, being around the airport, there was a charter group that would use me to fly in the right seat of a multi-engine airplane to fly charter trips. It was nothing full time. It was part time, when they called, if I was available, because I still had to work a real job to pay back those student loans. It was still like $120 a day, maybe three times a month.

A charter trip would just be – was it wealthy folks going on vacation?

Or business. You go take business people to a meeting in New York or go pick up customers for a company in town for the day and then take them back at night. Anything from taking people to Hilton Head for vacation to business type stuff.

How long did you do that, and when did you eventually segue into commercial airlines?

[laughs] Oh, still years to go. So I did that for probably two years, on and off, and then there’s a company that needed a part-time pilot. So it was on call – not on call, but when available. They sent me to school on a jet – my first jet – then paid me, I think it was, $300 a day to fly for them. Still not a full –time gig. I did that for about 8 months and then 9/11 happened, and everyone’s insurance requirements changed.

I’ve never thought about that. What did that do?

Then they were no longer able to use me because I didn’t have enough experience in the airplane, so I couldn’t even fly part-time for them anymore, with their insurance. So then I moved to a corporate company in Cleveland, OH, and for three years, I flew part time for them, just on call, $350 a day. Then they put me on full time and that was my first full-time gig. I made $38,000 a year, and had to drive to Cleveland every day whether I flew or not. That was a four hour drive round trip.

At least they paid you something relatively decent.

That I could almost live on, yep. So I did that for a total of four years, and then I had enough experience that a company closer to home put me on full-time just flying, for like sixty grand. I did that for a year, and then the company that first hired me back here in town, I met their insurance requirements at this point so then they hired me back and put me on full-time. I did that for five years, and then they sold the company and then I went to the airlines.

You were talking about the average salary for a beginning pilot in these commercial airlines …

So yeah, now, the dream job with the major airlines is very competitive. They want you to have experience flying in the airlines, so what you have to do is get all of the commuter airlines, which is what we were on. They pay anywhere from sixteen to $20,000 your first year.

That’s so awful!

Now they’ve also changed the requirements. You now have to have 1500 hours and your airline transport pilot certificate, which is yet another rating, more money.

Do you think beginning pilots know that this is the situation? Are people going into flight school aware of this?

Yes. Well – what happened was that… the late 80s, when US Air captains are making $438,000 a year, and flying four days a month. That’s the golden carrot that they’re holding in front of everyone. So it’s like, “Ok, I’ll go through this corporate hazing, as it were, put up with the B.S., because I know one day I will be there.” Except then, there’s this saturation – everyone got into flying. All the military baby boomers were military trained and airlines loved that, so all of the sudden the flow-through with the airlines just stopped.

Are older folks keeping those jobs, as with a lot of industries?

They are allowed to fly as long as they can pass an FAA medical, and they have a mandatory retirement of 65.

So they’re really staying about as long as they can.

Absolutely, because the more – everything works on seniority, how long you’ve been there. So the longer you’re there, the more you make, the less you fly, the better trips you get.

What is the dream job? What’s the peach that you can get if you sit it out long enough and take your $20,000 a year salary?

Right, so you put up with that for the first year. My second year, I made about $35,000, and then it goes up – not that significantly, but probably another five grand a year. I think you max out at $38,000 a year. You kind of plateau there as a first officer, so you hope for an upgrade, to a captain’s position, and it all depends on the company’s need. They usually start around $60,000 for a regional airline captain.

Does the schedule change at all? Do you get a break in your routes, or is it a little bit easier?

As captain? No, no no no, because of the whole seniority thing, you go back down to the bottom of the pile. So now your seniority changes, because you were the king of the poorly paid guys, and now you’re—

The bottom of the totem pole.

So then you’re sitting reserve at an airport you don’t live at.

What is the scheduling nightmare? Are there any airports specifically that everyone hates to be based out of?

No. The biggest advantage is living in the city of the airport that you’re based at, because then you don’t have to commute to get to work. What happens is these bases change, so with my airline that had bases at Grand Rapids, St. Louis, Buffalo, and people moved there, and then they closed the base. Then they have to commute to wherever the base now is. I live in Erie, PA, I was based in Cleveland. I could drive there. They closed the Cleveland base, and I was then based in JFK.

Which is a much more brutal commute, right?

Right! Since there’s no airline service from Erie to JFK, I drive from Erie to Buffalo, which is an hour and fifty minutes, wait for a flight, hopefully get on, because I’m not guaranteed a seat.

I remember talking about this, because I think you had trouble getting on the plane to JFK.

Right, so hopefully you can get to work. That’s the stress. Which airport it is, it doesn’t really matter. Obviously the bigger the airport, the easier it is to get flights from different places.

What’s your current position?

I gave my two weeks notice, and it was my last day two days ago!

Oh heck yeah! Good for you! Congratulations! What’s the next chapter?

So there’s a guy in Erie, my local airport, which is 4.6 miles away from me instead of, you know, 700 miles away. He’s buying a plane and I will be his corporate pilot again.

Do you think that this new job has made all of the suffering worth it, to be a pilot?

Well, no. It’s not – how do I say this? What it does, it gets me home more. I’ve got four and seven year old daughters. With that airline schedule, I was just gone all the time. I’d come home and from a trip and the two of them would be bigger. It was just like, “Ugh, come on!” My wife has done the single Mom thing without me being around to help with it, everything from dishes to laundry to getting the kids ready for school, so she’s exhausted. What this does is it helps me help more with that.

 

Linnie Greene is an essayist, book reviewer, and fiction writer who will soon call Oakland, CA home. She’s had or will have words with The New York Times, Electric Literature, and The Hairpin, among others. She has three cats and an affinity for pizza.

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