Real Answers from Real Pilots

Career Change or not at 35?

Hello everyone!

A little information about myself… I turn 35 in 2 days, married with 3 kids (16,9 and 3). We live in Gilbert, AZ. My wife and I have full time jobs. She’s in banking and has been there for 20 years. I’m a manager at an investment firm for 15 years. My position is not very demanding, its an operations manager role so nothing related to sales or advising clients. Together we make a decent living, I’m at about 90K and she’s about 70K. So nothing crazy but definitely enough to live a comfortable life and all.

Some of you might have already seen my FB post in one of the groups but would like more input. Long story short I’m at a point in life where I’m thinking whether or not to continue my career in finance or make a crazy change to become a pilot. I want something more fulfilling with with the opportunity to make good money down the road. People have asked me whats the underlying reason for me to want to start something new and honestly it’s two reasons. I want something exciting and and challenging, not sure that this office thing is something I really want to do for the next 30 years. I would be lying if I said money wasn’t a factor. Having the opportunity of making over 150K down the road is also a reason. I’m about maxed out in my current gig, I probably have another 10k that I could make but realistically thats about it.

Being a pilot is something I have always thought about and for the past year I have been looking more and more into it. Based on my research here’s what I know and please correct me if I’m wrong. If I go to ATP’s zero to hero program I’m looking at 81K. I understand that’s not including some other additional expenses for materials, testing fees and etc. So lets call it 90K. From what I’ve read, working full time and doing this program is really not an option. It will take approx 1 year to get all of my certifications. From there I can be an instructor and will have a small salary of 40K for about 1-2 years while I build up time. From there I would have to be accepted into a regional airline and make somewhere between 40k-60k with perhaps some type of sign on bonus that varies depending on the company from 10k-17k. From there another 1-2 years “hopefully” and eventually making it to the big 4 at which your real career starts.

To get to my currently salary it sounds like it’s going to take about 5 years not including $80k-$90k in debt. I understand you can get a loan depending on your credit, employment status etc from Wells or Sallie Mae. Sounds like the interest is all over the place from 5% to 10%. My wife and I have excellent credit so that’s not too much of a concern plus we have access to some funds that can offset the cost.

Looking forward from hearing from everyone. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Esteban,

I have to be frank, there’s ALOT of “if’s” in the above and it’s also very optimistic.

While you can make $40k flight instructing, it depends where you’re instructing and of course the student load which can vary seasonally. The bigger issue I have with your plan is thinking you’ll be at a “Big 4” Major in 1-2 years “hopefully”. Not going to happen. While the Regionals are hurting the Majors are not and there’s a whole lot of 3yr+ Regional Capts with thousands of turbine PIC time ahead of you. 5-7yrs at a Regional is much more realistic.

Finally as a Capt at a Major airline I take strong exception to your statement “at which your real career starts”. Nothing could be further from the truth unless your criterion for a “real career” is solely based on salary? I’m sure the Regional that hires (as well as the hundreds of pax you fly daily) would love to hear that you consider the flying you’d be doing was simply practice for the Big 4. More important what happens if you never get the call? I know many pilots who’ve made the transition but I also know quite a few who never did or it took them 10 years plus. I good friend if mine who was hired when I was at the Regionals was just hired by United after 14yrs. One of my check airman from when I was hired just got the call after over 20yrs.

There are no guarantees in this business and I know of no reason why you wouldn’t be successful but just making the statement you did above could cost you your shot. If that were to happen would you consider that you had failed in your aviation career. These are seriously things you need to consider. Another friend of mine who’s arguably the best most knowledgeable pilot I know (he holds a National position for the pilot union and has been a lead check pilot for decades) never made it. Difference is he loves his job. While I’m sure he still questions why, he’s made his peace with it. Mainly because he still gets paid pretty well (low $100ks) and again loves what he does. Do you think you’d feel the same way?

Adam

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Thank you Adam for you honesty. My apologies for the poor choice of words. I did mean it in a salary way definitely not towards any airline company specific or the responsibility of any regional pilot. But I definitely understand your statement. For me its all about doing my homework and research before making a complete 180. Would I venture into this career as a pilot of the most I could make was $50k, most likely not. I understand it’s a big commitment financially and time consuming but one that from what I’ve read very rewarding. This page has given me a lot of good information and a lot to think about. Thanks again Adam.

Adam hits a few of the key things you need to get past if you are going to take the plunge. You may wash out. Likelihood? If you’re intelligent and work hard, not very - but it could happen. Your class 1 FAA physical could get denied due to a new illness five years into your new career putting you out of the airline cockpit. You will be a rookie again. If you are at the top or nearing the top of management in your current field and are used to being the smartest and/or most powerful guy in the room…there’s the ego-check and the gut-check of being a novice who is nearing your 40’s (in my case 50’s). The earnings. Aside from tragic financial trainwrecks mentioned earlier, there are dues to be paid, and Adam’s right; depending on a bunch of variables many known, many unknown, you could be flying ‘heavy metal’ at Delta in 5 years (highly unlikely), or flying a CRJ till you are 65, in your case, perhaps much less likely if you work hard and make well-timed moves (assuming they are open to you, industry/econonomy dependent).

If you are weighing pros and cons (which I certainly am) and for your family’s sake want to ensure you are not being financially foolish, I’d urge you to do a permanent regionals set of calculations and one that includes a reasonable timeline where you might be flying for a legacy carrier. Reading between the lines about your current earnings, and assuming you find a career flying to be a fulfilling professional life, it sounds like either scenario (earnings-wise) would work out. However if you’re counting on having your cake (find some career happiness) and eating it too (double your current salary in about six years) I think an abundance of caution before making the leap is very important. In my personal situation, I’ve determined that there will be a long-term financial cost to my family; however I’m not doing them any favors by focusing on cash when my current job makes for a less-than-satisfying homelife (because I’m miserable), and likely won’t get any better in the years to come. Financially, I can make the the airline pathway work…just barely. I shouldn’t hurt my family’s living standard; we just won’t likely see any increases in material comforts, but I’ll be challenged by the early schooling process, don’t mind being the “new guy”, and overall think I’ll be immensely more gratified by my job. In short, I think I can make the balance work…and I’d gladly fly regional till I age-out (and there’s a pretty good chance that’ll happen at my age).

Take your time, work the numbers, search your heart for what is most important to you; and read, read, read…there’s a ton of variables that might not yet have occurred to you (how seniority works is huge…and how it affects where you live, FO to CA progression and then loss of seniority when you make a move from company to company chasing that increased salary, or when your airline is merged and you are bumped down or let go etc. etc.). Leaving security, stability, and a good salary is a big decision. Good luck Esteban. I feel you pain.

Thank you sir for taking the time to respond in length. It’s a very challenging decision for sure… To be honest if I can get to 100K as a pilot and have a career that I love then I can live with that through retirement. I’m not expecting to make the 200k-300k that some people talk about, I realize that I may be too late for that but if I can make a decent living and have the self fulfillment then I call that a win.

Esteban,

Before we even get into all of this, have you taken an introductory flight yet? There is a big difference between sitting in the back of an airplane and actually flying one.

Chris

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