Ever dreamt of flying as a kid? This job is glamorous, pays well, and most pilots don’t even consider it a job – since they are having such a good time doing it. However – not everyone can become a pilot, and those who make it have to be constantly aware of dangerous situations. To become a pilot you have to be healthy, intelligent, and the training is long and expensive as a civilian, or requires long military service if you want to fly for the armed forces. And of course, this is a dangerous job – nearly every pilot faces emergencies in the sky – and emergencies can be fatal.
Job description: Pilots are highly trained professionals responsible for flying aircraft. Pilots can fly various types of planes and helicopters, on different types of assignments – from airline and cargo pilots, to test pilots, crop dusters, search and rescue helicopter pilots, aerial ambulances or VIP transportation. Pilots plan their flight path, check weather conditions, calculate the fuel needs and weight of the aircraft, along with the distribution of weight throughout the aircraft. During flight, pilots navigate, communicate with air traffic control, continually monitor the instruments and if need be, resolve any emergencies that occur during flight.
Most pilots fly for airlines as pilots, copilots or flight engineers, but others (around 35%) are commercial pilots – a broad definition including test pilots, crop dusting pilots, helicopter search and rescue and medevac pilots, and pilots flying little serviced passenger or cargo routes. Commercial pilots can also fly traffic and criminal activity monitoring duties and other missions.
Many aircraft need a two man crew, which consists of:
- Pilots – the captains of the aircraft, and are responsible for all aspects of the flight.
- Co-pilots - share many of the duties with the pilot, including monitoring instruments, communication with ground control and piloting the aircraft.
Both the pilot and co-pilot can actually fly the aircraft, and often switch positions, especially during long flights. Older or more complicated aircraft have a third crewman, the flight engineer:
- Flight engineers - operate systems and monitor instruments
Work environment: Airline pilots spend many hours away from home, since many routes and destinations involve overnight stay-overs. When away from home, the airlines provide the flight crew with hotels, transportation and allowance. Pilots on long routes which fly across time zones can often experience jetlag. Allthough piloting in itself is not physically demanding and is done in comfortable conditions, the responsibility for the safety of the passengers and the need to be constantly on the lookout for any signs of emergency can take a toll, and the job involves a lot of stress.
Commercial pilots usually do not spend much time away from home, but they face their share of dangers: test pilots reach into the unknown – testing new planes and equipment. Crop dusters fly very low, and are exposed to toxic chemicals. Helicopter pilots must be on the lookout for electricity wires, poles, trees, bridges and any other objects that they can collide with.
Fatality rates: In 2010, the fatality rate was 70.6 per 100,000 workers – making it the 3rd most dangerous job in America by fatalities.
Gender: There are many female pilots –in airlines and commercial aviation. Gender is not an issue for flying an aircraft.
What makes it a dangerous job: The main danger pilots face is crashing – this can occur during landing or takeoff (the most dangerous stages of flight), bad weather, mechanical problems or collisions with other aircraft or objects.
Hours / Lifestyle: Airline pilots spend many hours away from home, the exact amount depending on the routes they fly. There is a maximum amount of flying hours airline pilots can fly each month. Also, airline pilots have irregular schedules – they may begin flights at any time, any day of the year. Commercial pilots are usually not away from home, but may have irregular schedules, like airline pilots.
Pay: Airline pilots earn more than commercial pilots. The average annual salary for airline pilots in 2010 was $115K, and for commercial pilots $73K.
Requirements: Most pilots learn to fly in the military (Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines), but more pilots are coming from civilian flight schools certified by the FAA. Also, airline pilots must be certified individually for each type of aircraft. Pilots must be in generally good health, with good vision – although today perfect vision is not mandatory, and it is possible to become a pilot with glasses.
Training: Pilots from the military go through flight school of the branch they are in. Civilians seeking a FAA license must be 18 years or older and have a minimum of 250 hours flying experience. Airline pilots need many certifications, and must have night, cross country and instrument flying experience. Major airlines usually hire pilots with about 4000 hours of experience.
Career opportunities: Training is long and expensive, so many civilian pilots work as flight instructors to reach more flight hours and experience, and to earn money for further training. Pilots usually advance to more senior positions (from copilot to pilot) and to larger, more sophisticated planes (from a 4 seat , single engine propeller plane to a 500 seat, 4 engine Boeing 747 Jumbo jet).
Job opportunities: Pilots can find work anywhere, as long as there is an airport nearby. Also, the military offers exciting pilot jobs – if you are up for it.
Job prospects: There should be plenty of job opportunities – as the need for transportation is constantly growing. Low cost, regional and cargo airlines are the fastest growing, and new pilots will have better chances of finding jobs there.
Not dangerous enough?: Naval aviator, crop dusting, helicopter cattle herding
Further reading material:
Other dangerous aviation jobs:
Photo by: Wir.Dienen.Deutschland / flickr