The Aussie Pilots’ Career Path
As part of our series of articles about getting your first job in aviation, this week we look at some of the possible pathways to achieving that goal (as we currently understand them) as well as the longer term prospects. Following our upcoming pilgrimage to Darwin in late March, we will revisit this topic – armed with actual facts.
Living The Dream
Flying for a living is a dream that more than a few individuals have harboured over the last one hundred years of human history. The idea of spending our working days soaring through the heavens evokes a certain kind of romance that you just don’t get from stacking shelves, pouring concrete or adding up columns of numbers.
Budding pilots come in all shapes and sizes. Some may want to learn to fly simply to satisfy some deep-seated issues. Some may be financially motivated under the mistaken assumption that there is a motza to be made as soon as the commercial licence is earned. Others may want to make a profession of it on the premise that if you do what you love for a living, then you never have to ‘work’ a day in your life. Or some such bovine faecal excrement.
Whether the aspiring aviator is still at school or has many years’ experience in the workforce, if they want to make a career out of aviation – and in particular the driving bit – there are a number of paths that may be followed to achieve the dream. The following flowchart attempts to encapsulate our vision of the various options as viewed through our rose-coloured Aviators (as invented by a Mr Ray Ban of Rochester, NY).
In Australia there are a number of entry points into the field. The traditional way is through General Aviation (GA). While it is not technically correct, in this article we will limit “GA” to mean the areas of aviation that are directly administered by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). We have used “CASA” in the above flowchart to represent (almost) the same thing.
The GA training path usually makes sense as the student pilot that is chasing a career will at some point (most likely) end up with a job in charter or instructing in GA, flying regional commuter aircraft (what we will call Regular Public Transport or RPT) or working for one of the major airlines. All these are administered by CASA (in Australia at least).
Recent years have seen the rapid growth of the ‘diet’ end of the industry. What used to be known as the Australian Ultralight Federation, is now known as Recreational Aviation Australia (RAAus). This organisation currently administers fixed wing aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of up to 600kg, as well as some designs that your mother may baulk at going for a joy-flight in. Collectively these are often referred to as Light Sport Aircraft (LSA’s).
RAAus offers cheaper operating costs so that student pilots can get more experience for less money. However, they do charge an annual membership fee (which does not apply in GA) so if you are not going to fly very often then that may offset the cheaper operating costs. Of course, there are many other considerations to be taken into account such as your proximity to airfields with GA or RAAus training facilities, and the relative age of the aircraft used for training.
We are told that ultralights can have somewhat different handling characteristics to GA aircraft. For example, their crosswind tolerance may be much lower, the take-off technique can be a little different, and stall and spin characteristics may be worlds apart from GA types. This might either mean that your ultralight training is less relevant for GA, or that the different experience will make you a better pilot in the long run.
Another alternative is gliding, which is administered by the Gliding Federation of Australia. That is cheaper again for the student pilot and is an excellent way to learn basic aircraft handling skills. While the time spent in gliders may be credited towards GA flying hours, the conversion to a GA licence will require a lot more time and effort than from ultralights.
Some potential pilots go overseas to learn their craft. For example, the USA is a common destination due to the lower cost of flying and flight training. On return to Australia the pilot will need to apply to CASA to convert their licence to Australia. This is usually just a clerical exercise, combined with a thorough test of your patience and persistence. Of course, the prevailing exchange rate at the time of training will have a major impact on the affordability of this option.
One rather radical, if less than effective method is the California Way. You can go from non-pilot to pilot in about three weeks of intensive training. With bright blue skies every day, there is no weather to take account of, or gain experience in. Trainees will fly from one nav aid to another, so there will be no dead reckoning navigation skills at the end of the course.
A great way to learn to fly is to join the Australian Defence Forces (ADF). Within the ADF, the Air Force is the primary employer of pilots, but the Army and Navy also have aviation branches. Unlike private flight training, you will need to convince the government that you are a suitable candidate for their organisation, meeting strict age, health, fitness and other criteria. You will also need to commit and sizeable chunk of your life to their service. But hey, this is about the only place that you will actually get paid to learn to fly. And their ‘toys’ are a bit better than the other options above.
On a serious note, if you are thinking of taking the ADF route to aviation nirvana, be well aware that this is the defence force, not a taxi service. If you are not comfortable with the idea that you may be required to actually and deliberately cause death and destruction as part of your ‘job’ then perhaps stick to one of the more conventional career paths.
The Bare Minimum
At present in Australia it takes at least 200 logged flight hours to qualify for the Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL). There are integrated courses that allow the new pilot to achieve their CPL after only 150 hours, but this may not be the panacea that it first appears to be.
Aero Circus’ own resident Instructor Fabrice warns that a CPL holder with 150 hours will in most cases be lacking in the skills and experience required to get and hold their first aviation job. “At 150 hours a pilot might have the skillset required to pass the CASA flight test, but that has a tenuous relationship to what aviation employers need from their potential recruits” he says.
“Low-hour pilots are still on a very steep learning curve and jumping off that curve early will usually have a massive impact on the resulting skillset. I usually advise young pilots to continue past the 200-hour mark and focus on developing skills not taught in the CASA syllabus, but necessary to become a viable employment prospect.”
Fabrice learned this the hard way. After passing the CPL test late last century, he made his way ‘north’ to seek fame and fortune. He found neither.
What he did find is that the average flying school teaches a pilot only enough to pass an exam, not to be a useful addition to someone’s aviation business. It is not enough to spend $120,000 (in today’s dollars) and a couple of years of your life getting a piece of paper. Fabrice says “Employers expect you to be able to make money for them from day one while not slowly destroying their precious aircraft by flying them like a basic trainer. While some on the job training should be expected, employers generally don’t have the time or inclination to train you to the standard to which your flying instructor should have got you in the first place.”
No hint of bitterness there.
Once the initial hurdle has been passed and the first job secured, the new pilot needs to build hours in the log book. Fabrice continues “At 200 hours total time you might be looking at flying tourists on short scenic flights in a Cessna 172 or similar. This is not all that much different to what you probably did during your RPL (Recreational) or PPL (Private) days, taking friends for a flight around the local area.”
He continues “The main difference is that now your every action is either making or losing money for your boss. Ten minutes in the run-up bay is not going to cut it. You won’t have 2 hours to prepare a flight plan. In fact, any type of inefficiency in flight or on the ground will impact the bottom line. You are no longer flying for fun. Now you are flying for a living, both your own and your employer’s.”
No pressure, then.
You probably won’t be getting paid a whole lot for this, but at least you don’t have to fork out the hire rates for the aircraft anymore. The idea is to build your log book hours so that you can move on to the next stage of your career.
But what happens if you can’t get that first job in the middle of nowhere? Or perhaps your family situation will not allow a relocation to the tropics or the outback.
Another great way to build hours is by becoming an instructor. This essentially means learning to fly all over again, but this time properly. It can be difficult to teach something that you do not understand.
If your flying skills were lacking for the first job (like our resident flight instructor), this is a great way to re-train. However, if your do decide to become an instructor, be prepared to stick with it well beyond the minimum hours normally required for the next move in your career. As the owner of the oldest flight school in Archerfield often says “Most instructors leave the industry just at the time they are getting good at it”.
It is a sad fact that some will use instructing to build hours at someone else’s expense. If you choose to teach, expand your knowledge well beyond the CASA syllabus by reading the great resources such as Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langewiesche, anything written by Jim Davis, and so many others.
But be warned: Becoming an instructor is not easy. The skill level required is far above a commercial pilot. The flying is the easy part. You might be a great pilot, but you also need to be a good teacher. Being an effective communicator requires not only a thorough knowledge of the subject at hand, but also a flexible approach to each student. Not everyone learns in the same way. And if English is your second language, you will have to improve that as well.
Finally, if you have not gained the critical experience of getting and keeping that first job in charter (or whatever), try to find a flying school that knows how to train their students to be job ready, not just to pass exams. If you find yourself looking for an instructing role because you were not properly trained in this area yourself, it is probably best not to seek a job with the school where you learned.
Another avenue to consider for hour-building is parachute dropping, or ‘meat bombing’ as it is unkindly referred to by those who can’t see the point of jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane. Taxi, take-off, climb to 14,000 feet, deposit payload then race them back to earth, land, taxi, rinse, repeat. Straight and level skills are optional. Just don’t get caught up in the excitement of the moment and jump out the door yourself. The owner of the aircraft you are using probably wants it back in one piece. You, on the other hand, are easily replaced.
When All Else Fails
The last option is to ‘buy’ your career. There are several ways to do this, but most involve you paying a substantial amount of money to sit in the right-hand seat of an RPT aircraft or airliner until your log book says you are ready for the next step.
Some training institutions offer a service where you pay a hefty sum upfront for your training, after which they guarantee you a job for one year. Thing is, you are paid for this work out of the upfront fee that you already paid for the course.
The Dream Job
Where you want to end up in the aviation world depends on how you view each available avenue of ‘piloting’. The purist may wish to stay in charter, perhaps moving up to turbo-prop aircraft, but still using all the basic flying skills on a daily basis.
At the far end of the scale, you may wish to fly an Airbus on international routes. Push the Start button then go to sleep. See the world through jet-lagged eyes. Of course, this is a massive exaggeration. It is not that simple. You will also need to push the Stop button at some point as well.
Somewhere in the middle lies RPT, corporate jet jockeying, medivac services like the Royal Flying Doctor Service, as well as a host of other opportunities. But these all require a lot more hours and experience than the fresh CPL can offer.
When The Wheels Fall Off
One of the delights of being a commercial pilot is the annual Class 1 medical. At some point in their career, a pilot might discover that they are no longer able to pass the medical, or the onset of age has dulled their previously sharp skillset. Family life might demand a change that is incompatible with flying. Or they might just become disillusioned with having only 2 buttons to press.
Depending on the reasons, the professional pilot might be able to continue flying with certain restrictions. Alternately they might be able to drop back to a lower licence level (such as PPL) and continue flying for fun, if not reward. In severe cases it may spell the end of flying altogether.
In this event it might be useful to have another career to fall back on. This may be something from pre-flying days, or perhaps a ground-based aviation role. There may be various options available (depending on why your pilot career has ended) such as Air Traffic Controller, LAME (mechanic), refueller, customs sniffer dog, or any of the wide range of jobs to be found around an airport.
Or if all else fails, there are always some shelves that need stacking.