This is a series in which I get to learn about America from you.
James, 28, is an airline pilot. He grew up in southern Illinois, and is currently based in Chicago. I was excited to find out about life up in the air (and learn how pilots really feel about turbulence), and I hope you enjoy his interview as much as I did!
What inspired you to become a pilot?
When I was nine years old, my mom knew a guy through work who was a pilot, and he took me up in his Cessna 152 as part of the Young Eagle Program with the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA). I remember being completely nervous and also thinking it was the coolest thing ever.
Then, as young people are prone to do, I got distracted and drifted away, though I maintained a casual interest in aviation. I went to college at the University of Illinois in 2002 to study Astrophysics. I did that for two years before I finally realized it just wasn’t for me; upper level calculus was giving me a stress aneurism.
At the time, I was supporting myself with profits from online poker. I considered dropping out of school and moving to Las Vegas to take a run as a poker pro, but my mother probably would have probably disowned me. She insisted I finish my degree.
So there I was, flipping through the course catalog, looking for a new major, anything I could tolerate just to knock out my degree and be done with it. Aviation 101 caught my eye.
I took my first flying lesson in June of 2004. I remember it was a miserably hot and sticky day in east central Illinois. As soon as the flight was over, I marched into the aviation academic office, dripping with sweat, and changed my major on the spot. That was eight years ago and I haven’t looked back.
What’s surprised you about the job?
I need to preface this statement by saying that I love my job and there’s nothing else I can imagine doing. I’ve also been fairly fortunate thus far in terms of luck and timing.
However, there are many negative things about this business: The pay is absurdly low, at least starting out. I think many people would be surprised to know that a first-year pilot on a regional jet, responsible for 50 to 75 lives at any given moment, is lucky to clear $20K in his first year. After taxes, not to mention all the expenses one gathers from a life on the road, it can be barely enough to scrape by.
Granted, it goes up over time, but with the constant volatility of mergers and bankruptcies, many pilots find themselves out of work and subsequently back on first year pay multiple times.
Seniority is everything and nothing transfers over. If you’re a 20-year captain and your airline goes belly up, at the next place you start, you end up in the right seat as the most junior first officer, back to first-year pay and benefits. (I’m actually on my third airline in two years, and hence, two straight years of first-year pay—it’s tough.)
Many pilots, even those at the major airlines, have taken pay cuts between 40-70% in the years since 9/11. Pensions have been completely trashed. It’s getting better as airlines figure out a sustainable business model, knowing that passengers can be won and lost by a fare difference of $1.
Also, the days can be long, up to 16 hours, and you’re gone from home a lot. You work early mornings, late nights, weekends, holidays, and everything in between. Bases will come and go, and you can’t always move your whole life to where you’re based, so you end up commuting.
I’ve commuted to both Houston and Minneapolis from both St. Louis and Chicago and it can get really stressful. It really is a lifestyle more than just a job.
ANYWAY, that said, I know I just painted an awful picture, but if you find yourself in the right situation at the right company at the right time, it’s best job on earth. There’s constant variety, you typically get at least 11-12 days off per month, free travel benefits, and for the most part, you leave your work at the office. Also, I really enjoy operating the machine.
How many flights do you make in a typical day?
It depends, but I’d say 2 to 4 is typical. It’s rare, but some days you’ll just do one leg with a long layover. Others you’ll do 5 or 6. I’ve done 8 in one day and that’s exhausting. Schedules depend on your seniority and we’re paid by the flight hour, so a good trip is a productive trip. The more you work in a day, the fewer days you have to work.
How do you have a relationship with this kind of schedule?
I’m fortunate that my girlfriend is amazing and extremely supportive of what I do. She travels frequently for work, so she gets it. You need someone who understands the sacrifices necessary and is cool with it. I know a few pilots and flight attendants who date within the industry because it’s easier when someone understands this lifestyle.
Do you want to travel during your days off, or is getting in a plane the last thing you’d want to do?
You’re spot on in that many days, the last place I’d be caught dead is an airport. That said, with the travel benefits this job affords, I’d be a fool not to use them. Most of my travel has been domestic, usually to where my girlfriend is working if I’ve got days off. We’ve spent both of our anniversaries so far in a different city and we hope to continue that traditio. We plan to do some international travel, but I’m still fairly junior at my airline so the problem has been building the vacation time to allow it. We’ve got a pretty long travel to-do list right now.
What do you think of passengers who applaud after the landing?
Hahaha, do people do that often? I generally I can’t hear the applause from where I am. I guess it’s a compliment, but applause seems silly. It’s just that no one else, except performers, gets applause for performing a basic component of their job. You don’t applaud the IT guy for fixing your computer or the butcher for cutting your meat, right? Landing airplanes is my job, and I’m glad to get you there safely, but a smile and a thank you on the way out is plenty.
But maybe I should start applauding the IT guy? Ok, but as a pilot, do you ever get impressed with the work of other pilots when you’re a passenger—like the way they land a plane?
I’m digressing here, but it’s a good opportunity to make an important distinction. What passengers interpret as a “good” or “bad” landing might not be that accurate because you generally don’t have the big picture. For example, I might make an incredibly soft touch down, and everyone’s thinking, “Oh, great landing,” but if it was off centerline and I floated halfway down the runway to do it, that’s a lousy landing.
On the other hand, if there’s a gusty crosswind and/or it’s raining on a short runway, the safest way to land the airplane is going to be fairly firm. On centerline and in the touchdown zone is a good landing to an airline pilot. Sure, soft is nice and on a calm day with a long runway I aim for that, but it’s not the priority. Just keep that in mind next time your pilots bang one in and you think, “man what a crappy landing.” Maybe you don’t know the full story and it was actually a great landing given the conditions.
So to get to your actual question, I’m more impressed by thorough but concise PA announcements (especially when I’m trying to sleep). I appreciate when a crew keeps the passengers up-to-date with what’s going on during a delay for an open gate or something like that. It’s what I try to do when I work.
Do you get nervous during turbulence?
Haha, believe it or not, I get asked this question all the time. Short answer: Nope, not even a little. Longer answer: No airplane in the history of commercial aviation has ever been brought down because of turbulence. Not a single one.
The amount of force that aircraft are certified to withstand is incredible. (And believe me, I’ve seen a few withstand some good jolts without a single scratch or dent.)
It’s something you get used to as you deal with it on an almost daily basis, just as I’m sure doctors become accustomed to blood. Not only does it not make me nervous, but it hardly even bothers me, unless it’s enough to spill my coffee.
The best line I’ve ever heard regarding turbulence, and my go-to explanation when anyone asks me this question, is from a guy named Patrick Smith, a pilot who writes a column for Salon.com.
He said: “Pilots don’t worry about turbulence any more than sailors worry about waves on the ocean.” And that’s absolutely correct. That’s all turbulence is. It’s not dangerous. More annoying, really.
There’s a big difference between what scares passengers versus what scares pilots. If you ask the typical nervous passenger, it’s probably turbulence and engine failures. Those are the two most benign things to a pilot.
I already covered turbulence, but the thing that many people might not realize is that a majority of pilot training, namely in a large commercial jet, centers around “abnormals,” i.e., things breaking.
We train over and over and over for engine failures and fires at the worst possible times, we practice landings with flight controls inoperative, we go over every instance of the landing gear not going up or not going down, and we have a giant book of procedures called a QRH or Quick Reference Handbook that covers almost every conceivable emergency. That’s most of what training is.
What’s the most annoying thing airline passengers do? I want to know so I don’t do that!
Two things off the top of my head: (1) When we’re on the ground and someone gets out of their seat, we have to stop the airplane completely and aren’t allowed to move until everyone is seated. So say we land, perhaps we’re early and our gate is occupied. While we wait, someone ignores the seatbelt sign and gets up to use the lavatory.
Well, suddenly our gate is open, and we can’t move until that person sits back down. In the meantime, another flight comes in, our rampers go to that gate to bring that plane in, and so now we’re waiting again because you couldn’t hold it for five more minutes.
Also, seriously, please please please leave your seatbelt on until we get to the gate and turn the seatbelt sign off! In the last few years, three different airplanes like the one I fly have been struck on the ground by another larger aircraft. When I travel in the back, I see people take off their seatbelts when we’re still taxiing and it’s extremely unsafe. Look up the video of Comair getting hit by Air France at JFK a couple years back. It’s on youtube.
Seriously, you’re not going to beat the plane to gate, and unless you’re in the first row, you’re not going anywhere as soon as the door opens so please be patient. We’ll get you there as quickly and safely as possible if you just listen to what we say. I promise it’s for your own good.
(2) Completely unrelated: When people complain about the price of air travel. I don’t think most people realize what a deal they get these days. The price of a plane ticket has essentially remained unchanged since deregulation in 1978, and that’s not accounting for inflation.
So basically if you pay $500 for a ticket today, you would have paid $500 for that ticket in 1980, and that’s in 1980 dollars, so probably more like $2,000 in today’s currency. What I alluded to earlier about the horrific salaries and wage cuts has been because airlines have been forced to race to the bottom in terms of ticket prices and outsourcing labor.
And then after people get a great deal they complain about everything: The plane’s too small, we don’t serve meals, they charge for bags, etc. Everyone wants top quality service and products for rock bottom prices.
People flying Pan Am in the 1960s paid the equivalent of about $10,000 dollars to fly from New York to London. Now you might pay $800 and quite frankly you get what you pay for. It shouldn’t be cheaper to fly than to drive, and on many domestic flights today that’s the case.
What’s your goal from here?
I’d like to eventually keep moving my way up the ranks. I’m currently a First Officer and on pace to upgrade to Captain in five or so years (though those things are hard to predict).
What exactly is the difference between a First Officer and Captain?
The Captain is in command of the aircraft. We traditionally take turns flying, and it’s the job of a good First Officer to advocate his opinion during times of decision making, but the captain gets 51% of the vote. It’s a function of seniority more than anything, so basically the captain has worked at that particular airline for a longer period of time and as a result makes more money. He may or may not have more experience than the FO, though usually he does.
I’d like to move into that seat sometime in the future though it’s an enormous responsibility and some days I feel like I still have a lot to learn before I’m ready for it. I really enjoy the company I work for and the type of flying we do, though I have aspirations to move on someday. Traditionally, pay and benefits (such as guaranteed time off, minimum pay per day, etc.) increase with the size of aircraft you fly so I’d certainly like to fly heavy international metal someday for a major airline.
However, it’s a very volatile industry and there are many people competing for those few great jobs. As I mentioned earlier, luck and timing have more to do with career progression than anything.
You mentioned that you’ve gotten to see America from above. Can you tell me more about that?
I think my favorite thing, the more my career progresses, is the variety of places I get to see at work. I’ve been as far west as San Diego to east in Portland, Maine, north in Calgary to south in McAllen, Texas, and everywhere in between.
As a flight instructor in Arizona, I flew low level above the Grand Canyon, which was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. I’ve been everywhere from the busiest international airports to the tiniest gravel strips in the middle of nowhere.
And yeah, while my job now takes me to some fairly small cities, it’s nothing compared to the places I’d go as a flight instructor in Arizona. Most of those airports on that map are of the “single-strip-of-dirt-in-the-middle-of-nowhere” variety. It’s the Wild West out there.
It’s a really liberating feeling, and also very isolating. Most people are surprised to learn the number of tiny airports out there—I’d guess there are more than 10,000. Almost every town has one. Most are just small strips of grass or concrete, non-towered, no air traffic control of any kind.
Wait! No air traffic control? Isn’t that difficult?
I think people get confused about the role of ATC in the national airspace system. They’re vitally important, mostly due to the volume of traffic. However, any airplane is more than capable of taking off, navigating, and landing without any guidance whatsoever. The problem, or rather the reason we need them, is there are tens of thousands of planes all coming and going in different directions from everywhere, in varying weather conditions, so ATC’s job is to separate and sequence them.
If an airport doesn’t have any ATC services it’s typically because it’s really small with very little traffic, so you can manage your own separation once you get there. So to answer the question: it’s actually easier sometimes. Going into O’Hare or LAX in the middle of rush hour is hard. Going into Bemidji, MN or Aberdeen, SD when you’re the only airplane for 50 miles is actually simpler.
But, to get at your original question about America; I’ve been to so many small towns and big cities, and while each has its own distinctions, most of them are really the same. I know it sounds terribly cliché, like I’m writing the climax of a Disney movie…They’re all different, but the commonality is the people.
Most of my local interactions are with airport workers, waitstaff, bartenders, hotel employees, cab drivers, etc. There’s a lot of commonality among the type of people who work these jobs. Their backstory, the things they have to say about their town, both good and bad, and how most are just happy to help or make small talk during the ride to the airport.
Dealing with snotty and ungrateful passengers at the airport all day can make you sort of lose faith in humanity, but much of that is restored talking to awesome people all across the country. Besides the work itself, getting paid to travel to places I’d never go otherwise and interact with the locals is one of my favorite things about my job.