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Careers: Flying & Aviation/High School- Considering aviation as a future career


Hey, my name is Swayne. I am currently 15 years old, and a sophomore in High School.

Next summer I plan to begin work on my private Pilot's License which I hope to obtain shortly after I turn 17 next winter. Ever since I was a little boy I have had a passion for aviation. I guess it's in my blood (both grandfathers were pilots--just private). I just recently started thinking about what I want to do when I graduate from college. I have posted on many forums asking questions, emailed back and forth with: SWA President of Pilots, Kent Wien (from cockpit chronicles) and a few other people. I know it takes a lot of dedication to be a pilot, and luckily for me... I have many years to plan and decide if it is the right path.

I also will be meeting with a few family friends who are pilots (one a GIV corporate pilot, another with Delta). My goal by emailing and meeting with these people was to separate some fact from fiction in this industry.

I have this tentative plan in mind for the future:

-Go to college and master in something other than aviation (like entrepreneurship or business)-- luckily I have a 4.0, am and Eagle Scout, and am in 4 honors classes so far, so I should be able to choose a decent college.
-Attend ATP or some other flight school a year after graduating.
-Begin building hours as a CFI in pursuit of a Regional Job
-Apply for majors (both here in the US and overseas)

One thing I have gotten frequently is a lot of mixed feedback from the forums and other people. One person told me to "run, run away, as fast as you can" another, "Don't even consider it, you will be trapped." The thing is, from what I have heard from many other pilots via email (and the people I know personally), it can be a completely different story. The people I know love their job, and would probably hate doing anything else for a living (I feel like that would be me...)

Based on that I have a few questions:

1.) What should I think when I get responses from online forums or people who tell me to run?
2.) After years of flying, do you still look forward to it like you did when you first began? (I got worried after someone told me that it would feel like driving a bus after years).
3.) Does my tentative plan sound viable?



One last thing.... not sure if you can answer this:

I am a Sophomore. Currently, I have a 4.0 (weighted) in school and am taking 4 honors classes. I am in the United Nations Student Alliance (not mock UN--we raise money). I am also an Eagle Scout. I used to play a lot of tennis (played JV in 8th grade--but have not been doing it recently--might just do weightlifting all year).

I am not sure whether or not I will graduate with any Varsity Letters (as I might continue lifting for the rest of High School). How will a Private Pilot's License look as an Extra Curricular on a College Application? Do you think it will help with the fact that I might not have a varsity letter?


1.) What should I think when I get responses from online forums or people who tell me to run?

It's definitely something to consider. Everyone's experience is a bit different and unfortunately, there have been a huge portion of those who entered the industry like I did in 2001 who have not had a good career ride. I always recommend the forums at, & to aspiring pilot for further research and opinions on the career. AA pilot Kent Wein is an awesome guy and I am sure he had some great words of wisdom. (His family started their own airline that grew into jets, Wein Air Alaska, so you know he has seen a varied landscape!) SWAPA was also a good choice to inquire, but IMO the pilots at SWA likely have a much rosier outlook of the industry because they are sitting pretty career and compensation wise compared to other pilot groups. Especially a pilot like current SWAPA President Mark Richardson who was hired in 1995. I spent many years working ground operations there and know lots of SWA pilots. They were (are) one of the golden companies to get hired with due to their compensation and benefits, although that is changing after the Air Tran merger. Their pilot group is now very young. Without explosive growth their upgrade times will push towards 20 years- much like the stagnant legacy carriers over the past decade. This now makes then somewhat less attractive for pilots who are 40+ as they may be career F/Os, even if they are well paid. Many pilots at the regionals now fit this profile due to the stagnant hiring at the majors.

The projected growth at airlines like Delta and United are positioning them to be the places to be hired in the next few years to obtain a more rapid career progression. Thus more money as you make captain sooner. I have friends I have flown with who have gone on to both and they are all very happy. The three I know at Delta especially. All were hired in the past 6 years, so they are viewing their career prospects from the bottom of the pilot seniority list as very good over the next decade. They are also happy with the pay.

On the flip side, many regional pilots have decided that is where they will stay. A jet captain can make $125K/yr at the right company with some seniority. I know several pilots who have no intention of giving up their seniority to move on. They make good money, have a good schedule and their seniority makes family life easier as many can bid to be around for holidays. This is not worth giving up to start over again at a lower pay to fly a major. It's a quality of life issue over money.

2.) After years of flying, do you still look forward to it like you did when you first began? (I got worried after someone told me that it would feel like driving a bus after years).

Personally, I do still enjoy it but I do see the "bus" like aspect. Since I have gone to the jet, I often feel the trips are not as fun as when I was on a turboprop. Unlike many pilots I work with, I loved it and consider it more real flying than an overly automated, FMS navigation, high flying jet. I miss being low with a view and slogging around in the weather. (O.K., MILD weather!) Yet jets are cool too. I have my days where all I do is complain about work, but on the whole for a person who lives and breathes aviation I have it pretty good all things considered: I may be relatively junior in seniority but at least I am a captain. The pay could always be better, but I am finally no longer living paycheck to paycheck like I did for many years as an F/O (which I did twice). My base is now 1,700 miles from home (and commuting sucks) but at least I have a job.

Since high school I have done nothing but work in aviation, having started out cleaning cabins at night. It's not just what I do but a real part of who I am. For those who feel that, it's hard not to go into the field even if the outlook may not be as rosy as in decades past. Who knows? Perhaps the next 10 years really will see some growth with the "looming pilot shortage". One is predicted every decade or so, but this time it seems we are in for some real hurt as there are really no pilots in the training pipeline compared to years past. Record low numbers of pilot certificates have been issued over the last several years. Of course, low pay until established (a term I shall use loosely!) in the career is also another reason many may not be interested in the career. I spent many years as a F/O because I didn't end up with a fast upgrade (under 5 years in my book). This kept my pay lower and stalled my career as I didn't get PIC time sooner to apply with a major. A 2 year period of furlough didn't help either. I have friends who started airline flying years after me who have eclipsed me in terms of career pay and moving up to larger aircraft or airlines. Some were very lucky and got on at the right regional at the right time. Others quit and jumped around to find a better path. One of my friends quit the airline life all together and went back to instruction in the San Francisco area where pay is $80 an hour (going rate in the area for a gold seal CFI with her level of experience) and flies at least 30 hours a week. This is far better than under $40K at a regional! I did make a change too, but it turned out to be a lateral one for me and I didn't accelerate my career or advance my pay. Experiences like mine are why you real so much negativity on the forums. Some are in a better position to tolerate it than others. I guess I was one of them.

3.) Does my tentative plan sound viable?
The no aviation degree will score you bonus points with many- you'll need to have a fallback in case of a furlough or if you lose your medical. Of course, another option would be to get a double major and 'kill two birds with one stone' as they say. The rest of your plan was my chosen route but I went to a local flying club and not an academy type big name flying school. I don't know how much debt you are willing to take on, but I would assume flight school like ATP will fun you $55,000 after the cost of your degree. I see that as starting out with $150-200K in debt out of the gate. Not ideal. It's like a 30 year home mortgage! I worked full time while training and time building. I couldn't fathom trying to pay off a debt like that as I started the career with zero college or training debt. A few pilots I work with who went to Embry Riddle said they would not chose that route again due to the cost even though it was a good experience. They would at least transfer in with a lot accomplished to reduce the cost.

Here is a chart of interest that compares the 4 year degree cost at aviation universities-

4.) How will a Private Pilot's License look as an Extra Curricular on a College Application? Do you think it will help with the fact that I might not have a varsity letter?

I am not sure what things universities give weight to on applications, but I can't see how a pilot certificate could hurt. Anything that shows you as an achiever cannot be bad!

That's my 2 cents worth. Blue skies to you in your aviation endeavors!  

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D. Norkus


I can address questions about airline pilot employment & entry level airline careers in the United States, women pilots, flight training, pilot certification, U.S. flight scholarships (mostly for women), aviation & airline safety topics, aviation accident investigation and airline operations. ***Please note, I cannot address flight training & career queries from outside the United States, or aero engineering degree programs/careers, aviation management topics. ****


Airline captain with 15 years past experience in airline ground operations. I have previously flown as a commercial skydive pilot & ferry pilot and majored in Aviation Science

International Organization of Women Pilots- The Ninety-Nines, charter member of Women In Aviation International, Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, Air Line Pilots Association.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University; Aviation Safety/Accident investigation.

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