Boeing has forecast a need for 88,000 new commercial pilots in North America over the next two decades. The U.S. pilot population and annual piston flying hours have steadily declined since 1980. A first officer flying under FAR Part 121 rules must now possess an Airline Transport Pilot certificate with up to 1500 hours logged prior to employment. The regional airlines are already feeling the effects of limited pilot supply. Representatives from government and industry recently met for a Pilot Supply and Demand Summit at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
None of this is any surprise to anyone who has kept up with the trends. They beg the question: is learning to fly worth it anymore? Why would anyone spend $100,000 getting all of the licenses and ratings, work bottom-rung flying jobs to get the 1500 hours, and then seek a $22,000/year position at one of the regionals? It makes no economic sense. For better or worse, commercial aviation is not the glamor industry it used to be. For decades airlines relied on the glamor factor to keep the pilot pipeline full and it worked. That began to change when the airlines were deregulated. Another big part of the pilot supply and demand equation was the large number of highly-trained and experienced pilots leaving the military and joining the airlines. That too has changed in recent years as the ranks of military pilots have thinned. It will be interesting to see how all this sorts itself out.
So much for the airline career path, what about corporate flying? I am sure there are opportunities for enterprising individuals with the right ratings and connections. The pay ranges widely according to the type of equipment flown. Corporate pilots spend a lot of time on call and sitting around at airports, but they get to fly some pretty nice aircraft.
There is a fundamental difference between flying for a paycheck and not. A business owner may very well have a legitimate need to self-pilot an aircraft for business purposes. It does not take many airline trips connecting through a hub airport to realize it is often just as fast or even faster to go direct in a small plane. That is not to say the two are on equal footing. There are days when no one should be making the trip in a piston single.
However, the main difference between professional and non-professional flying is likely to be frequency of experience. There is no substitute for doing something repeatedly. It has been said the brain is more like a muscle than a computer. When a Blue Angels pilot was asked how the team attains to such a high level of proficiency, his answer was “practice, practice, practice.” They go on 120 training hops before doing their first show of the season. If it is true for the Blue Angels, it is certainly true for the rest of us.
I am always saddened to read about someone coming to grief because it was a case of too much airplane and not enough pilot. Simply put, if one does not have the time to acquire and maintain serious piloting skills, one should not be flying a serious airplane. The definition of “serious” depends on the background and experience of the pilot of course, but it must address things like retractable landing gear, number and type of engines, pressurization, and cruising speed.
All right, so maybe you don’t plan to fly for a living and you don’t own a business. What makes learning to fly worth all of the time, money, and trouble? Some people may want to obtain a private pilot license for the sake of the accomplishment. The same could be said of getting an instrument rating, which I personally found to be very challenging. The thrills come much faster in video games, but in the end they are just that: games. On the other hand, flying a plane is a real-world undertaking with real-world risks and rewards. Watching the earth roll by from a few thousand feet above it is an experience like no other. I am sure it pales in comparison to orbital flight, but how many of us have any chance of doing that?
Owning an aircraft only makes sense if there is a reason to use it on a regular basis. An older but simple airplane is ideal for someone who wants to fly locally on nice days, and it can be relatively inexpensive. Stepping up to cross-country capability really means instrument capability for both pilot and aircraft. This is a significantly larger commitment. There are recurring certifications required for the altimeter, transponder, and pitot-static system. Instrument flying proficiency is a highly perishable skill. It may take 20 or more hours per year of practice approaches to be ready for that couple of trips in actual IMC. Some parts of the country get much more instrument weather than others. An instrument rating affords the opportunity to go when others cannot. It also affords the opportunity to get into bigger trouble if risk is not properly managed.
My observation has been that people become pilots of one sort or another because they are either born with or else have acquired a passion for flying. It requires a high degree of commitment to participate at any level. That passion may eventually become just a job for some, but for me it has been worth it. Maybe that is why I chose not to fly for a living. My passion for flying remains to this day. In fact, I was recently speaking with a fellow long-time pilot who admitted to getting grumpy when he has not flown in a while.
I have been an airplane nut since childhood. It is true that aviation was more of a novelty “back in the day,” but there is more to it than that. It is worth it to skip the long lines at the TSA checkpoints. It is worth it to go directly where you want to go, as fast as you can go. (Yes, there are speed limits up there, but they start at 200 KIAS and are not all that limiting in terms of getting from A to B.) It is worth it to pass over the traffic jams and road construction. It is worth it to see sights which can be seen no other way. It is worth it to have a skill that less than 0.2% of the general population possesses. And that is in the United States. I expect the percentage is even lower elsewhere.
Let’s not forget that flying your own plane also means you get to choose your travelling companions. Sometimes that is priceless, to draw from those old credit card commercials. Concerning the comfort factor, I would say maybe even a Mooney has an edge over the average coach seat these days.
Using a light airplane for personal transportation has its risks, but it is not an impossible task. My mechanic (who is also a flight instructor) says there is no one thing about flying that is inherently difficult. There are just a lot of them to be done, and they must all be remembered. It does require a delicate balance of both confidence and judgment. That too is what has made learning to fly “worth it” for me.
How about you?