Saturday, January 17, 2009

It's not about the money...

Well, it had to happen. I knew I was going to have to talk about salary again here sooner or later. In response to my earlier blog about Air Ambulance, I received this message:
"I'll make you a wager... Another reason you don't want to fly EMS is because you won't be paid as much as you make flying the Citation. But...You'll never have a more satisfying flying job."

I will take that wager, Greybeard.

I have said for quite some time that I don't mind making the salary I do because I LOVE my work. Small office, great view. It's just that people think pilots make so much money. I know my neighbors in my small working class suburb of Cleveland wonder why I'm driving an 11 year old car and living in a very small old house decorated with furniture I've had since college or purchased during my years in the military (and I got out 10 years ago!). I'm ok with making only slightly more than the average salary in Cleveland (which, in case you're curious, is $58,000). Mostly because I don't care about material things. I don't need a plasma TV (I don't even have cable) and my laptop (which I need for communicating on the road) is a dinosaur. But I know that when people find out I'm a pilot, they look behind me for my Porsche. Or want a glimpse inside my mansion.

So I am always surprised when I get such comments from other pilots. Just like with any other career path, one has to figure out what is important to them. If salary is what matters, you choose the route where you can make the most money, and try like heck to get the education and training to reach that amount. You are not likely to accumulate a big bank balance working a minimum wage job without a college degree unless you buy the winning lottery ticket (and we know where those people usually end up - caution: some profanity but very funny). Makes sense, right? Let it be acknowledged here though, that many, many low wage jobs are essential but backbreaking, like home health care aides and public service workers. Their efforts so often go unrecognized and there is little opportunity for advancement. But I digress.

We do pay more attention to major airline pilots, especially now because of the USAir flight yesterday, who usually make the highest salaries in the industry. They are fighting to keep their pay in this economy, too (for many their pensions have been liquidated and so they can no longer count on the retirement benefit they were promised). The job is not what it used to be. It's a pyramid, where an decreasing number of pilots make an increasing amount of money. But they got there because they stuck it out. It was a reward for years of scraping by on measly pay.

To review:

Once a newly certified pilot is let loose, s/he usually tries to recoup some of the thousands she has paid for her training by flight instructing (teaching other pilots). According to AvJobs, a flight instructor can expect to make $8/hr for working 80 hours a week, at all hours (more when the weather is nice and on weekends), in order to build time to get a better paying job. It works out well, since one has to instruct a lot of hours to pay back all that money one spent on training!

I took the route of joining the military, where I started out at $24,000/yr as an Army Officer. I didn't know when I committed to the Army that I was going to be a pilot, but I chose this route so I had a job when I graduated from college. Going into the aviation branch, I had to be willing to spend six years in the army paying back my year long flight training (learning to fly UH-1 Hueys). Although I didn't have to actually write a check to pay for my training, I did have a lot of responsibility and duties to make up for it. After 7 years of toil (and gaining experience and flight time), I was earning a salary of about $60,000. I was also grateful for my stint in the army because they provided for my fixed wing transition. My unit in Germany actually covered my travel to and time back in the US to accomplish this (I guess they thought I was worth it).

So imagine when I left this "cushy" life for a regional airline. My first year's salary (are you ready?) was $14,000/yr flying Beech 1900s (I haven't ever had enough flight time in helicopters to get a job flying them). Yup, you read that right. 14, followed by three zeros. I luckily had money in the bank from my previous job so I could supplement this income in order to lead the life to which I was accustomed. Though I was living in a run down house with five guys. At least I had my own bedroom. The other guys living there were making enough to cover the payments on the interest of their loans...

In all honesty, I didn't expect to have this job for long. I thought I wanted a major airline job, too. I really like flying helicopters, but I love flying airplanes (I also really like cookies, but I prefer cake, if you know what I mean). But with 9/11, there were very few flying jobs (in either airframe) to be had. I stuck it out and three years later, as a captain for this airline, my pay had gone back to equal my starting pay with the military (from 10 years earlier!). But I had decided this wasn't the flying life for me, so when a guy that I worked with in the National Guard offered to get me an interview with the fractional airline he worked for, I jumped on it. Better lifestyle (admit it, you don't like airline terminals either), opportunity to transition to jets, and better pay. I still had to succeed at the interview and simulator check, but it didn't hurt that I had a resume well rounded because of my time in the military. I'll never forget walking into the interview and being intimidated by the stack of manuals (FAR/AIM, approach plates, etc.) sitting on the table and thinking, "yikes, here it comes." But the interviewer was looking at my resume when I walked in and he said to me, "I'm impressed." Reduced my stress level a bit, but I still had to answer all of his questions correctly.

But we're here to talk about money, let me get back to the salary issue. Combined with my National Guard pay (again flying helicopters), my fractional airline pilot pay was nearing the salary that I had made when I had getting off active duty, but not quite. When I didn't have this supplemental pay from the OHARNG any more, and in my last year with this fractional job, I was making considerably less (about $50k), and this was after three years with an airline, gaining part 121 PIC experience, and more than five years getting jet time. Luckily, this route (described in lurid detail and excruciating length in the paragraphs above), enabled me to get my current job, where I have achieved my "dream," finally surpassing the salary I made 10 years ago! ...but it's still less than $70,000, in case you're curious. I love working for my current employer. There is much more interaction with passengers and we go to various places - we never know what we're going to do next.

Ok, Lynda, what's your point? First, that it's not about the money. I LOVE my job (there's that word again). Anyone who knows me can tell you that I truly do. And my job is satisfying. To me. The vast majority of people are in aviation because they love it (it's all about the love). Trust me, preflighting an airplane in sub zero temperature tends to separate the chaff from the wheat, the men from the boys, the lovers from the fighters..., well, you get the idea. Plus, every spare penny I have (read the above about my 11 year old well worn but well cared for Honda), and then some, goes toward my passion, an organization I founded using women in aviation to inspire girls to achieve their full potential: Girls With Wings. No, I don't save lives with what I do (but I hope I change them), and I have the utmost respect for anyone who does, be they medical personnel, military servicemembers, etc., and those who enrich lives, like teachers and social workers. There are also a lot of jobs out there that are necessary for the on going operation of our society and not all of them would be considered crucial to fulfilling our basic needs of food, shelter and water. They just make our lives better. By the way, Greybeard, thank you for your service.

Second, what we have in life is very often the result of the choices we have made. Like the guy who saw my picture on the Citation X and said, "How do I get a job like that? ...wait, I'm not a girl." I hope I have conveyed with the discussion above that I got this job through much, much training and experience and by pursuing my career with all that I have. If you want a job flying this airplane, you are not going to get there unless you work for it! Please see this page on AvJobs for a great write up on the biz (can't cut and paste and this post has gone on way too long already, don't you agree?).

And one last thing. According to the payscale published on AvJobs as of 1/17/09, the minimum reported salary for a "pilot" and a "rotor wing pilot" is the same, $45,000. The maximum reported salary is $5000 more for the "pilot." The minimum reported salary for an EMS SIC is $35,000, but there's no equivalent position for airline SIC; it only says $19/hr for First Officer and a lot of jobs under the "Other" column are a lot more. Like corporate upholstery: $33/hr. Many pilots even fly for FREE (or to pick up chicks or dudes). See also Angel Flight pilots who donate their time, fuel and airplanes to provide free air transportation for any legitimate, charitable, medically related need. The difference is in those Airbus captains making $140,000. That is what everyone likes to focus on, but how many Airbus captains are there really, compared to when you consider how many pilots there are overall? But then again, the sales and marketing folks are making $400,000. Is that because they're so good at making everyone think we pilots make so much money...?

Whew, I have to stop writing this or it will become a treatise. Thank you, for allowing me to have this opportunity for this post and for reading it all the way through. I hope it has convinced you that I am not a greedy, money grubbing, self centered pilot leading the lifestyle of the rich and famous. I have also served my country (12 years of military service), as Greybeard has done, and I do devote my life to doing what I love and helping others in my own small way.

To all, I encourage your comments and don't always turn rabid on them, I promise. Thanks for reading.


  1. You make "slightly more than $58K" and you've been with your company how long?
    You'd lose the wager kiddo.

  2. (This is the strangest comment section I've ever experienced. I tried to post this already and hope it's not a duplicate.)

    Realized I needed to elaborate-

    I worked three years for a large corporation flying their AStar. I made a living at it, but watched as my fixed-wing brethren made more money while doing less dangerous work. The problem was supply and demand...
    Like me, lots of Viet Nam Veterans had flooded the rotary-wing market and were willing to fly almost for free (literally.)

    February 1st will mark my 41st anniversary of starting ARMY Rotary Wing Flight School. I have flown continually since then, either in the ARMY Reserve or as a civilian, or both. I would not trade my experiences for anything.
    But I have always resented the fact that fixed-wingers, while flying an easier aircraft to fly and flying in a more controlled environment, landing to prepared facilities, make more money.

    Our pilots formed a Union two years ago.
    Now, just prior to my retirement, things are beginning to change. The glut of military pilots has disappeared and because many of our pilot slots are now vacant, wages are beginning to inch upward. That's as it should be.

    Starting wages at my company, in the BK117 twin-engined helicopter, are $45,000, with a raise at 6 months and 1 year, and every year following. $58,000 is about what you'd make if you had worked with us for 10 years or so.

    But... I have lived in the same neighborhood for 28 years. I sleep in my own bed, (although I sometimes do that while the sun is shining and leave for work just after my family has gotten home.) I KNOW that my skills have saved lives, and there are few other jobs that give you that feeling of satisfaction. I have few complaints.

    Treatise? Ha.
    Thanks for giving me the chance to vent.
    I'll drop by now and then to see how you're doin'.
    Stay safe.

  3. Anonymous5:51 PM

    Nothing like flying 70 people around with the word airline painted on your jet for $1,700/mo- before taxes & deductions!! Been flying for 8 years now and I still have yet to clear $40K as an airline pilot. "Living the dream" often turns into a financial nightmare...but we LOVE our jobs, right? ~ Money2Fly