I am a first officer (pilot) for a cargo/freight company that operates a Part 121 airline.
How would you describe what you do?
I fly a wide-body airplane full of cargo world-wide.
What does your work entail?
Pre-flight: reviewing lots of paperwork ensuring the official flight documents, crew, and aircraft are legal and safe for flight. Performing a pre-flight inspection of the various aircraft systems, an external inspection of the aircraft, and reporting any discrepancies to maintenance, the captain, and the flight dispatcher.
In-flight: complete lots of checklists, fly the airplane, monitor aircraft systems, monitor the weather, monitor the performance of the aircraft, and communicate with air traffic control and the company via a myriad of radios, computers, or satellite communications. Ensure a safe and efficient flight. Supporting the Pilot In Command (the captain).
Post-flight: complete paperwork, file any regulatory paperwork required by law, file any aircraft maintenance issues in the aircraft’s logbook, conduct a safety review of the flight, and perform aircraft shut-down checks and inspections. Complete country immigration and customs requirements.
Outside-of-work: maintain a FAA First Class Medical. Although the requirements are not up to military fighter pilot standards; as a minimum you must keep your blood pressure in check, correctable eyesight to 20/20, and have good hearing and overall decent physical fitness.
What’s a typical work week like?
There are many different work weeks depending on company, cargo versus passengers, regional versus major air carrier, and type of airplane flown. I fly a wide-body long haul aircraft. Trips are usually 10-14 days long and are always overseas flights transiting many time zones. A trip starts with a 1hr 30min show at the airport before flight. Review the paperwork, pre-flight inspect the aircraft. Then fly 8-16 hours to an international destination. Spend 24 hours up to two days in a hotel. Then repeat and continue that cycle for the duration of the trip. The trip may involve you deadheading (prepositioning) as a passenger on a commercial airline to pick up a jet somewhere. I am off work the remaining days of the month (16-20 days). Trips do not follow a typical Mon-Fri work week. You may also be away from home during holidays.
How did you get started?
I attained my flying experience by serving in the United States Air Force for 8 years. There I flew several transport category aircraft and held several rankings such as co-pilot, captain, instructor pilot, and standards check airman. During the final years of my military career, I took the FAA exams and check rides necessary to receive an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. I then flew for a major passenger airline before taking this job.
What do you like about what you do?
I love to travel and see the world and I love flying airplanes. There is a lot of responsibility given to you — the aircraft cost a couple hundred million dollars and the cargo is very expensive. I get a day or two at most layover locations to travel, eat, and have fun. I get a lot of time of work.
What do you dislike?
Long flights can be extremely boring and fatiguing. The cargo can be hazardous.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Compensation in the airline industry varies wildly depending on whether you fly for a regional company or major airline, what type of airplane you fly, and seniority/longevity. Most pilot ranks are unionized and the negotiated union contract pay dictates dollar per flight hour pay. Per the FAA, pilots are limited to 100 hours/month and 1000/year. Pilots are generally paid by the flying hour (whenever the engines are running) and receive per diem for food while on the trip. The company pays for hotel rooms and taxis to and from the airport.
How much money do you make?
Airline pilots who start at entry level regional airline pilot jobs start at $22,000. Senior Captains at a major airline can easily clear $300k a year. Right now I am making $150,000/year.
How much money do you make starting out?
$65,000 (Due to my military experience, I was able to start at a major airline and not at an entry level position)
What education or skills are needed to do this?
Most companies require a college degree (technical preferred). You will need to attain several FAA certificates/ratings. You must have excellent communication skills, eye/hand coordination, and cognitive/problem solving skills.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Avoiding fatigue which could impact your health or judgement.
What is most rewarding?
The amount of home time.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Don’t pay for the flight training yourself unless you or your parents are money bags rich. Don’t go to a “aeronautical science” college to get a degree in flying. At some point during your career, you should expect to be furloughed. Having a technical degree will allow you to get a real job outside of flying should you get furloughed, lose your medical certificate, or worse lose your certificate. It is extremely hard to get your wings, but it is very easy to have them taken away! Find a military Guard or Reserve unit who is willing to send you to military flight school on Uncle Sam’s dime.
How much time off do you get/take?
Trips are usually 10-14 days. The rest of the month I am off work unless I choose to pick up extra work. Vacation starts at a minimum of two weeks/year and can be as long as a month or more if you are senior.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
The airplanes fly themselves. Sure the autopilot is on during cruise flight, but you monitor the autopilot and program it and give it commands via a console or keypad — you’re still flying the jet.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
Become a Captain, Instructor Pilot, or Check Airman for my company.
What else would you like people to know about what you do?
Don’t jump into this career without doing your homework. Your job is to travel and you will spend a lot of time away from family/friends. The industry is cyclical and so you must have a decent education to fall back on in case things don’t work out as planned.