Which way to the Pilots Lounge?

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By Alun Lewis
St Helier

I think if there's one thing I've learned from my time as a pilot, it's that nothing is really guaranteed when it comes to jobs in aviation and the route one person took to that elusive first job, won't necessarily work for someone else, but I'll go through what I've done so far and hopefully some of it will be useful to somebody.
I began my flying career after finishing University in 2001. I went to work at a local flying school in the operations department, the pay wasn't great, but it gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in aviation from operations to maintenance and flight training. During my 4 years there I completed my private licence and managed to save some of the money required for the commercial training, but most importantly, learned a lot about the world of general aviation through talking with instructors and other pilots, some of whom were also flying commercially. It was through these conversations with ferry pilots, airline pilots, charter pilots and private pilots that I realised it was the world of Corporate Charter that really captivated my imagination.
Now there are a number of ways to get from no flying experience to achieving a commercial licence and none of them are cheap. I decided my best route would be the modular route, choosing the schools which suited my needs for the different stages of training. The other option of integrated training, which takes less time and is more consistent, I felt was too expensive an option for me at the time. I began with getting a Class 1 medical certificate from the CAA -as this is required for commercial flight operations and if I couldn't get that, then there wouldn't have been much point in continuing with the training- and securing a loan from the bank for the remainder of the training costs. After I had my medical certificate it was on to 6 months of full time ground school training to complete the ATPL (Airline Transport Pilots Licence) examinations. These exams can be studied for through distance learning and indeed that is the cheaper option, but I felt it would be better for me to fully immerse myself in the course as distance learning takes a lot more self discipline. 
My plan of going into Corporate flying lead me to Oklahoma in the USA to gain the FAA Commercial Licence and Instrument Rating. My reasons for choosing America for the first part of the flight training, were the strength of the pound over the dollar at the time and because a lot of charter companies operate Jets on an 'N' (American) register to save on operating costs, so I felt if I obtained both the American (FAA) and UK (JAR/EASA) licenses, I would have more chance of finding a job. A Student Visa is required before you can attend a flight training school in the USA and follows a long day spent at the American Embassy in London. After two months in the USA I returned to the UK and converted my FAA licence to a JAR licence. 
As fantastic as it was to have completed all that training, I still had no job on the horizon and now I had a sizeable loan that would soon require me to start making repayments. Through the contacts I had made at the flying school, I managed to find a company that offered Pilot's Assistant (PA) work on aeromedical and charter flights to tide me over until I could find a full time flying position. PA work is basically flying in the right hand seat of a single crew aircraft (either Piper Chieftain or Beech King Air at this particular company) and helping the pilot with flight logs, radio work and other general tasks, but isn't time you can log and is really just to gain experience and keep flying. I was paid £50/day and fortunately managed to get enough flying to keep me going while I began the unpleasant experience which most new pilots will go through, of sending out endless CV's to every company across the globe with the hope of getting a positive reply from a prospective employer. I continued the PA work for about 8 months looking for work at the same time, but as so often happens I didn't receive any invitations for interview. I also applied to a number of sponsorship schemes, again with no success. I did however find that I liked the single crew flying and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for challenging flying. For single crew commercial operations in the UK, there is a minimum experience requirement of 700hrs total flight time, with most companies requirements being at least 1000-1500hours and that includes about 100 hours instrument time and 40hrs multi-engine time as well. As I still only had the 250hrs I had finished training with and couldn't fly as a Captain for the company I was with, I called the flying school I had attended in Oklahoma and asked if they needed any flying instructors and luckily for me they did. I had considered other options such as aerial photography or parachute plane flying to build hours, but flight instruction really was the most efficient route. I had never really wanted to be a flight instructor and didn't think I would enjoy it, but once I had got a couple of students through their training and discovered which training methods worked and which didn't, I found I really enjoyed it and that it not only improved my confidence with instrument flying, but also improved my communication skills. It is worth noting that with FAA flight training you can become an Instrument Flight Instructor before being a PPL Flight Instructor. This was great for me as it meant I could build up my hours and instrument time for single crew operations.
There are many people who have progressed through their aviation career thanks primarily to time spent as a flight instructor, and I think it should be considered as a serious option when deciding which route to take, particularly if funds for training are tight. I know that within the airline industry especially it is possible to buy type ratings to get a job, but for many this is simply not an option, whereas flight instruction means you can earn a wage whilst building flying hours and as I have mentioned before, you can begin to network with many different people which I have discovered is almost as important within the corporate flying world as the flight training itself. I instructed both PPL and Instruments for about a year and with the increased flying hours and experience I began to receive positive replies from prospective employers. When I came back to the UK I contacted the charter company I had flown for as a PA and was offered a job with them flying a Piper Chieftain twin-engine piston aircraft. I flew the Chieftain for four years on both charter and aeromedical flights and during that time, learned more about myself and flying than at any other point of my career, and it was through the contacts I made flying the Chieftain that I was offered a position as a pilot on a corporate jet. 
All in all it took about 2 years from finishing my training to getting my first job, so it certainly wasn't a quick process and even after that it took another 4 years to progress from piston flying to my first jet job. I think anyone considering a career in aviation needs to be aware that it can be a lengthy and expensive process with very few guarantees, but there are always options available to anyone willing to make the effort. My journey took me to the USA and currently I am working out of the Channel Islands, so a willingness to move where the work is is another consideration. The aviation world is constantly changing and the path I took is just one of many which are available to aspiring pilots, it wasn't easy but it was worth it and I really wouldn't want to be doing any other job and on a clear day, the views from the office window are breathtaking.


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