The Life Of A Pilot: What it Looks Like at Every Stage

The Life Of A Pilot: What it Looks Like at Every Stage

Article and Photo by Ally Melick, CRJ Pilot, CFI-I, MEI

Growing up, my family took a trip to the beach yearly and, for me, the vacation started at the airport. Watching the planes take off and drawing pictures on the plane were some of the best parts of the trip. When we deplaned I’d give the pilots my art while gazing at all the buttons they had in their office to push. I never considered that someday it would be my job to look out the window at the clouds and push all the buttons. After flying for over half a decade and counting, I have gotten a grasp of the life of a pilot from student to airline pilot. It takes years of dedication and hard work and sometimes is not as glamorous as it seems. If you’ve ever met a pilot, you’ll know it because they will tell you, but honestly it’s hard not to show off such an accomplishment knowing all the work that goes into it. 

Student Pilot

I attended a 4 year university to get my Bachelor’s degree in Aviation and Aerospace Science. Before getting into aviation I had no concept of what flight school was going to be like and the commitment involved. I took 5 or 6 classes per semester throughout college and trained separately at a flight school across town. Additionally, I worked 30-35 hours per week at an on campus job. On days I wasn’t flying, my day started around 6 am. I would take the light rail down to campus and start work by 8 am. Being able to stay in one place all day attending classes throughout the day and working in between was a lifesaver. Classes would go until around 7pm and then I’d get back on the lightrail for my commute home.

During flight training it’s recommended to go at least 2-3 times per week so that you don’t backslide on your progress. I tried to fly at least one weekday and one day on the weekend to achieve this. A typical day that I had a flight lesson, I would drive to the airport first thing in the morning to meet with my instructor and go back to campus in the afternoon to finish up the day. These days were always the best since it broke up the monotony of the week and I got up in the air doing something I loved. Once I had my private pilot’s license I continued working toward the rest of my ratings and finishing my degree, but in my free time I was still around airplanes building time with friends. Those are some of my favorite memories. The freedom you gain is unmatched being able to rent a plane with your best friends and go anywhere.

Certified Flight Instructor

Becoming a Certified Flight instructor is a difficult road and it gets even more difficult after the checkride. There is so much pressure to keep integrity and give students the best education they can get. However for me, like many, it was a job and my main source of income. Pilots need 1500 hours to be considered for a job at an airline, so instructors typically stay employed at flight schools for 1000-1200 hours after they get their CFI certificate to build time for the airlines. As an instructor, my goal was 3 lessons per day which would equate to about 4-5 hours in the plane and 1-2 hours briefing with students. At this pace it would take approximately 300 days to complete all of my required hours. Of course, factors such as weather and cancellations played a huge role in the amount of time it actually took. My schedule was open to students from 8am to 6pm to book lessons and many exceptions were made for people who wanted to come in before school or work or needed to fit their night hours in. There is a limitation on instructors of 8 hours of flying per day, but this sometimes meant a full 12 hour day to include the time spent on the ground. In the end, I spent about a year and 2 months working 7 days per week to pay the bills and get to my dream job. The life of a flight instructor is a grind, but in the end I take great pride knowing that I got to take part in a couple people’s journey of becoming a pilot.  

Airline Pilot

Getting to the 1500 hour goal is such a relief, but the work doesn’t stop there. Airline training is a full 2 months away from home studying the aircraft you will be flying followed by a few trips of initial operating experience (IOE) and several tests along the way. Once you’re fully qualified with the company it’s typical to be on reserve for a few months, meaning being on call 16-19 days per month. Currently, I hold a line which means that I bid on my schedule every month and get awarded specific trips for the whole month. As an airline pilot, your quality of life is determined by your seniority. Sitting at about 50% of the first officers in my base on the same aircraft means that I am typically able to get the days off that I want throughout the month, but bidding for specific trips is more difficult. An average week on the job includes anywhere from 2-6 days on at a time. Personally, my favorite trips are 3 days because it's just enough time away that I'm not driving 40 minutes to the airport every day and short enough that I can get home quickly to spend time with my friends and family. As a pilot for a regional airline we fly shorter routes and to places that are not always the most exciting, so being home as much as I am is a great benefit for me. An average 3 day trip at my airline consists of 4-5 legs per day with the minimum 10 hours of rest at the hotel in between. Each day we’ll start bright and early and end the day in a different city. 

Although the days can be tiring, I am grateful everyday sitting in the right seat of that jet. As an airline pilot I have traveled to places I never would’ve otherwise and stayed in the most luxurious hotels in cities you’d never guess. Every day is something different and every week I’m in a different place with new people. It is years of hard work getting to this point, but there’s no other job in the world quite like it.

Article and Photo by Ally Melick, CRJ Pilot, CFI-I, MEI

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