Flying training: Is the reward worth the risk?

The journey to a cockpit isn't always easy. Will the destination be worth the bumps along the way? Only you know.

Author’s note: I don’t have a crystal ball but I do have first-hand experience of trying to fulfil my dream of becoming an airline pilot during the worst global recession anybody could remember at the time. 

If you are currently wondering whether you dare risk spending £100,000 on flight training whilst the aviation industry is so clearly on its knees, I hope this blog helps you.

When I was 18 and in my first term of university, I realised I was at a fork in the road. One direction led to becoming a Graphic Designer; the other led to God-Knew-What, but it involved a frighteningly-large bank loan and a sliver of a chance of flying aeroplanes for a living. I still remember weighing up the options; known versus unknown.

It’s a decision that hasn’t changed in the 13 years since I was trying to make it. If you take on a loan for £100,000, what if you can’t find a job at the end of it? What if it all ends up being for nothing?

You get more risk-averse as you get older (I have anyway) and looking back I don’t know why I wasn’t more terrified of the risk I ended up taking. But I took it: the unknown. I got a Class 1 medical to make sure I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree right from the start, dropped out of university and expected to be starting flight school on an integrated course within a couple of months.

The week I moved out of my university halls was the week that the Lehman Brothers collapsed. The 2008 Financial Crisis had begun, and my bank loan evaporated; they simply stopped answering the phone.

A very young-looking Jack next to his first command

Around the world, airlines stopped hiring. Some went bust. Pilots were made redundant. The trickle-down effect of job-losses eventually reached flight schools as people fell back on flight instructor qualifications to scrape a living. Within months, nobody was hiring. And I mean nobody.

This is all happening again, right now. It’s been more dramatic this time because of the speed with which the pandemic hit and how rapidly air travel collapsed, but the effect is the same. Back in early 2008 and with no money, I realised it was going to be a bit longer than ‘a couple of months’ before I started flight school.

Weirdly – looking back – I don’t think I ever considered giving up. And that’s my first point to make to anybody who is considering this particular gamble right now. Once you’ve rolled the dice, if you really (really) want something, I think most people will accept their new path and make the most of what opportunities it brings, even when it doesn’t turn out how they expect (and that last part is probably the only thing I’ll guarantee for you!). You simply adapt to your situation, which is perhaps reassuring when considering taking an unknown path.

Completing multi-engine training on the DA-42

So I got a job working in a camping shop, and hated it with every fibre of my being. I wasn’t stimulated in any way, was expected to care about backpacks and sales and tidy racks of stupid coats, and I was paid £4.62 per hour. Aged 19, all my friends were at university making new friends, while I lived with my parents and had no social life. I used to stand in a field with tents in it, looking up at aircraft flying over. I worked at that shop for nearly a year.

Eventually I scraped enough money together to start my training and life improved dramatically. I’d found my calling, and it was worth every penny. But the integrated course idea had long-gone, I was training bit-by-bit in a modular fashion on my own. It was going to be harder, take longer, and arguably leave me less likely to find work.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most challenging part of my training was the whole year that it took me to complete the ATPL theory exams. I couldn’t afford to study full time, so I got a job working behind the desk at a local flying school and took a distance-learning course, starting my days at 6am and working well into the nights on my own, back living with my parents again. Over the 14 exams, my 97% average pass mark is still probably the achievement I’m most proud of. It was during this time however that I was introduced to a particularly bitter and disenchanted pilot.

While a superb flying instructor, he’d had an extremely rough run of luck in the jet-propelled world. According to him, all that awaited me in my career was redundancy and disappointment, and he took great pleasure in telling me – every day – about how shit my dream job was, and that’s if I was lucky enough to get it. There were times when his words left me thoroughly demoralised, but looking back they also probably prepared me well for the realities of airline flying and – ultimately – what I was trying to achieve: a job.

Learning the ropes

Over the years that followed I finished my training and spent all my money. I mean that literally: I had spent everything. I had a bank account with nothing in it, and the global jobs market for pilots was precisely un-changed from when I’d started…non-existent. Not a single person I knew from flight school had finished their training and found an airline job, and my own position was simultaneously fortunate but bleak: I had a temporary ground-based job at a charter airline, but I was homeless. 

My job was simple…every day I scanned paperwork into a computer and filed it. For three months. When I couldn’t stay overnight on a friend’s sofa I squatted in a cold, damp caravan round the back of the airfield where I’d done my training, and for everything else I had a duvet in my 30-year-old car. That being said, at work I was lucky to have a fantastic boss who always found me additional work when my short-term contract projects were up. Gradually I progressed to helping in Engineering, Finance and Ops, and even once got to fly in the right hand seat of the King Air. It was another year before I would get my break; my first flying job, on a 737.

 So…was it worth it? If you are currently at your own fork in the road, should you also choose the un-known?

Learning on the job

If you wanted my advice, I would take you back to that disenchanted instructor. As disheartening as his constant ribbing often was, I would say that the result was I knew full well the worst of what I was getting into. Which brings me to my second point for any aspiring airline pilot in the current pandemic…be honest and ask yourself: is this exactly what you want?

These days I am fortunate to fly 787s all over the world. My hard work ultimately paid off and I love my job, but at 6,500 hours now it is just that – a job. I resent early starts, missing family events, working Christmases and not being able to plan ahead more than a few weeks. And my life still revolves around grass runways and small aircraft, because that was and always will be my first love; flying.

Jack’s Stolp Starduster. Fewer seats than his usual aircraft!

You might decide that your love of flying can be supported by an alternative career that doesn’t involve the investment and risk associated with a commercial licence. For example, some of the world’s most successful aerobatic pilots do not fly commercially, while many commercial pilots in low-paid jobs cannot afford to fly aerobatics! Ask yourself – even if it all goes to plan – will it give you what you want?

The current ride – a Boeing 787 Dreamliner

And if an airline career with all the associated conditions is what you want, then I wouldn’t be put off by the negativity of the pandemic. Nobody can tell what will happen, and the likelihood is that there won’t be any jobs going in the short-term at least. However this time around there are reasons to be optimistic. Not the least of those could be that our current dire situation is not the result of inherent problems in global economics, as it was in 2008. It’s the result of a pandemic which, once finished, might well mean air travel picks up faster than people predict. Humans are travellers, and personally I don’t think that will change.

But most of all, I would never dissuade anyone from following their dream. Wherever that path takes you, I wish you the best of luck.

Jack was lucky to get an early exposure to aviation, and now flies the 787 Dreamliner as a First Officer for a major UK-based passenger carrier. He is passionate about grass-roots flying and maintains a share in a Chipmunk. He is also a glider pilot, having represented the UK at glider aerobatics.

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