The inaugural year of the new millennium was the year I celebrated my 41st birthday and became an airline captain. If this accomplishment conjures up images of a smiling teenager taking her first airplane ride on a rural grass strip, enrolling in a collegiate aviation program, and following a standard career path step by step – guess again!
In The Beginning
When I was a kid growing up in New York City, my grandfather used to take my brother and me to Kennedy Airport on the weekends. It was free, and it got us out of the house. We loved to watch the airplanes go up and down. Looking at the Boeing 747, I couldn’t believe that something so huge could actually leave the ground.
My fascination with flying continued. I watched American citizens walk on the moon. I used to tell people I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Except that astronauts were men, so I couldn’t be one. When I got old enough to start thinking about careers, flying wasn’t even presented as an option. I was to go to college, graduate, and earn a living in some well-accepted profession.
I graduated from college in 1980 with a double major in journalism and sociology and immediately went to law school. I began practicing law in 1983, and, for the next 10 years, worked as a trial attorney in Washington DC, Maryland, and later, Chicago.
My legal career was very successful. Just one thing. I never enjoyed my work. Never. I would have left legal practice to pursue my dream career, but I had no idea what that career was.
And then it happened. That small, seemingly insignificant moment that ends up changing your life. I had just started practicing for a small firm in suburban Chicago and was chatting with one of my new clients about how we spent our spare time. He said he was a private pilot. When I mentioned to him that I’d been interested in aviation since I was a small child but didn’t know how to go about learning to fly, he said, “Call my son. He’s a flight instructor.” So I did.
After flying for two hours in a Cessna 152 with my client’s son, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Of course, my instructor had to convince me that, yes, companies actually pay people to fly airplanes. I couldn’t get over the fact that you could be paid to do something that was so much fun.
That was February 1991. I was 32 years old. I was making $75,000 per year, paying back college and law school loans, a mortgage, and a car loan. Then 16 months later I was a CFIA-II working full-time as a flight instructor. How, you ask?
Ya Gotta Wanna
Since I didn’t have thousands of spare dollars lying around the house, I had to work full-time while flight training. In the legal business, full-time means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, especially if you are involved in an active trial. I studied for written exams every night after my 12-16 hour day was over. On weekends when I wasn’t required at the office, I was at the airport. If I couldn’t fly due to weather or aircraft availability, I sat with an instructor and did ground school. Any kind of ground school. Anything to stay “in the game.”
I wanted it. Earning my flight instructor ratings, to me the key to being able to make a living as a pilot, was all I could see. I visualized myself with a student, explaining the things that were being explained to me, in the airplanes I was being taught in. And I would not, could not stop until I reached that goal.
It would have been easier and faster if I could have flown full-time. But I couldn’t afford to quit practicing law. That’s how I was paying for flight training! I still owed money to lenders for my college and law school loans, so quitting my day job was not an alternative.
I was able to find a local flight school that could train me on a flexible schedule. This was critical to me, since I frequently had to move training events due to my constantly changing work schedule. My flight school was large enough to always have an instructor available when I needed one.
In May 1992, I earned my CFII and was ready to begin my career as a professional pilot by flight instructing. The year that began in February 1991 with my first flight and ended with this accomplishment was awfully hard. If I didn’t have my vision of completing training and starting to earn a living as a professional pilot clearly in my mind, I wouldn’t have made it.
Choices and Cheerleaders
No matter who you are, when you change careers, there is something that you are used to having, and like having, that you will have to give up. Depending on your financial and family situation, many material things may have to be discarded.
Once I knew my income was going to go from $75,000 per year annual salary, benefits, firm provided car-phone, etc., to $10 per hour as a flight instructor and no benefits, hard decisions had to be made. The first was that I had to sell my home. The second was that I had to give up my nice car. In fact, I shed so many expensive trappings as I was going through flight training, my friends dubbed me “The ’90s example of Downward Mobility.”
When it got hard, or I thought I was crazy, what got me through was the encouragement of my flight instructors. Having the right instructor for you is not only important, it could be a career issue. Case in point. My primary flight instructor, a woman, was constantly bragging about me to other instructors, telling them how hard I worked, and what a quick study I was. She also thought that my career change was pretty cool and constantly encouraged me, even when things got hard and I hit roadblocks in my training.
But more important, she loved to fly as much as I did, and she had a lot of confidence in her abilities. I got to see, early on, what a confident, bright, professional female pilot looked and acted like. When other instructors didn’t trust their students, or themselves, enough to fly in actual instrument weather conditions, my instructor said, “Let’s go.” To this day, I welcome the chance to fly in IMC when others at my level are still tentative. And every time I’ve gone through a training event in my career, I have been told what excellent instrument skills I have. For that, and for every time I fly an approach to minimums and land safely, I thank Captain Susan M. Kohr, flight instructor extraordinaire.
This highlights another belief that I had to give up to complete my career change. That was the idea that you can do it alone. You can’t. Don’t try.
Without being able to “let go” of things in my life that weren’t as important as flying, and without having people around to encourage me, I would not have succeeded.
Myth #1: You’ve got to fly for a major to have a satisfying career in aviation. I spent five years in corporate aviation flying for two Fortune 100 companies. In those five years, I earned my first jet type rating in the Falcon 900 and Falcon 50, a commercial helicopter certificate with a Rotorcraft-helicopter instrument rating, and flew all over the world. Because of my corporate experience, I stood on the Great Wall of China, watched a calving glacier in Alaska, ate waffles with melted Belgian chocolate in Brussels, and stuck my foot in the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary.
I also spent hours and hours waiting for passengers who didn’t show up on time and didn’t call. I’ve had my pager go off in the supermarket checkout line and had to dash off, literally leaving groceries behind.
Today, I’m back in the airline industry. When I was flying turbo-props for a large regional airline, I had a schedule that included numerous 14-hour duty-days, multiple legs with short turns, and more oh-dark-thirty get-ups than I could count. I’ve traded my pager for a cell phone and only leave groceries in the cart when I’m called out on reserve!
Myth #2: You’re too old! You’ll never get an airline job. Wrong. You’ll get one if you’re qualified and do well at the interview. When I started flight instructing in 1992, the majors weren’t hiring, and pay-for-training was the only way to fly for a decent regional. I also believed that, because I was 33 years old and had only 250 hours, I couldn’t get a major airline job.
Well, the airlines have started hiring again. And they are hiring every qualified candidate they can get their hands on, including my dear 47-year-old friend who didn’t touch the controls of an airplane until she was 38. What is she flying? A Boeing 757 for Northwest Airlines. Not bad, eh?
Here, however, you must be realistic. There is one major airline that flat out will not hire you unless you can be there long enough to upgrade to captain. They will tell you this right up front. Their upgrade time has been as much as12 years, and all airline pilots must retire at age 60. You do the math.
Myth #3: If you work hard and are skilled, you will be welcome everywhere you go. Flying is still very much a man’s world. Your excitement, enthusiasm and willingness to learn will not always be welcome. This is particularly true if you are as or more competent than your male peers. You are different. You do not look like everyone else. If you are changing careers, you are also a little older than your peers. You have life experience. This sets you apart. Be prepared.
The difference in life experience levels will be most glaring if you fly for a regional airline. If you are my age, your captains will be from 10 to 15 years younger than you are. In terms of their ability to do the work – get the aircraft safely from one place to another – age will not be an issue. But when you fly a whole month with someone and frequently find yourself on the road with him or her, you’ve got to find some common ground. It can be a real challenge.
Every woman knows this is true. Some admit it, some don’t. And we all handle it differently. Some adopt the attitude and countenance of their male counterparts. They try to be guys. For some, that works. I tried. It didn’t work for me. Here the best advice is: be yourself. That’s the one thing you can do better than anyone else in the world.
How do you know whether you can fit in at any particular job? Research. Preparation. Do not take a job unless and until you have learned as much about the company and the people working there as you can find out. Talk to other pilots. Talk to non-flying professionals at the company. Go to the library and read about what’s been happening at the company over the last few years. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. I have made bad professional choices that a little legwork could have prevented. I cannot stress this enough. Every job you take must be a good fit personally and professionally.
Myth #4: “They only hired you because you’re female.” More than once during your quest for the perfect job, you will hear someone say that women get more opportunities than men. You will also hear more than one person tell you that you will be considered for and obtain flying jobs over more qualified male applicants. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Sometimes, it’s actually true.
I obtained one corporate flying job in my career solely because I was female. My co-workers never let me forget it either.
What they forgot, however, was that I was also qualified for the position. Frankly, it didn’t matter. I was never permitted to fit in at that job. And it hurt me professionally. I always knew the problem had very little to do with me per se than it did with a perception my co-workers had that nothing I did could change. These are dangerous types of situations, and I urge you to watch out for and avoid them.
One of the reasons many women prefer airline jobs is that personnel decisions are a bit less arbitrary. The airline industry is heavily regulated. And most, if not all, Part 121 carriers have pilot unions. That does afford a certain measure of protection.
In the end, common sense prevails. Are you comfortable in your work environment? If you cannot honestly answer this question “yes” then do not stay in the job you are in. Some challenges aren’t worth it.
The question is not, “What job can I get.” The question is, “What job do I want?” If you want a corporate career, go for it. The great corporate jobs are out there. I know. I had one. The great airline jobs are out there. I know. I have one. I have seen aviation from both views and it looks great from any angle!
The Straight And Narrow – Not!
There are as many flying jobs for women as there are women to fill them. No joke. In my brief 10-year career, I have been an instructor, a regional airline pilot, a corporate jet and helicopter pilot, and now a DC9 pilot. All that in just 4,300 hours of flight time. I went from flying regional turboprops to corporate jets, to helicopters, back to corporate jets, back to regional turboprops, and now to transport category jets. And a career could be made out of any one, or all, of those positions.
There is a flying job suitable for every personality. Do you love to teach? Get all of your instructor ratings and find a job at an established flight school or university department. Like to explore the unknown? Find a part of the country you want to learn about, and a charter operator or flight school that operates there. Like flying heavy iron? Build time at a Part 121 regional carrier and apply to the airlines. Want a secure and stable job in a particular area of the country and don’t care what you fly? All of the larger regional airlines are obtaining 30-70 seat jet aircraft and are becoming companies that people want to retire from. When I left corporate aviation to return to the airlines and pursue my dream of flying transport category jet aircraft for a major carrier, I picked a regional that I also knew could be a career stop for me. There are no guarantees in this business, certainly not of getting a major airline job, and I chose my regional airline job carefully, and, I believe, wisely.
The best news is, nothing is forever in aviation. Six years ago I was looking for a corporate job, and my face was getting flattened again and again by doors slamming shut. I ultimately found one, but it took a long time. Now, corporate flight departments can’t keep good people because airline hiring is so brisk. Six years ago, my friends who wanted to fly for regional airlines had to front the cost of their training to get hired by the better companies. Now, these companies are lowering their hiring requirements because they cannot find enough pilots to fill their seats.
Circumstances and moves made to advance your career can make a flying career look unstable. In 1994, I had four different jobs and five addresses. That may be a bit extreme, and it wasn’t very enjoyable. But it was temporary. When the situation is right, when you’re happy, you know it. That’s when it’s time to stop.
And Another Thing…
One of the stories I love to tell is about a friend of mine, a former U.S. Army pilot, who was interviewed by a major airline. This occurred years ago, when the airline required applicants to complete a physical exam before the personal panel interview took place. The physical ran long, it was a Friday, and the four retired captains on the interview panel wanted to get the interview over with. Meanwhile, my friend was being poked, prodded, tested and re-tested. Before he could properly put his interview clothes back on and freshen his appearance after the grueling physical, he was shepherded into the interview room.
There he sat, with his tie askew and socks sagging. He had to ignore his inadequate physical presentation and proceed with the interview. For an hour, three of the four captains questioned him. The fourth captain simply glared at him.
Finally, as the interview drew to a close, the fourth captain spoke up. “What can you offer our airline?” he growled. My friend figured he had nothing to lose at this point, so he simply looked at the captain and said “A professional appearance!” The other three captains laughed. “What else?” the fourth captain demanded. My friend thought a moment. “A sense of humor,” he stated. “Good,” the captain pronounced, “you’ll need it!” Of course, my friend was hired.
Never forget who you are, and what you have.
Originally published in Woman Pilot • January/February 2000