"Should I put the flaps in now?"
"You want me to add the flaps man?"
"Hey man, you AWAKE over there?!!"
I snap out of my daydreaming and shoot a quick glance at my student, who's puzzled as to why I'm suddenly not paying much attention. I give him the nod of affirmation, and he continues with the before landing checklist. Moments later, he lands us squarely on the runway centerline, advances the throttle to full power, and we take off for yet another lap around Athens' airport.
It's 3:30 on a blistering late August day, and I'm going on my sixth hour of instruction given for today, my twentieth hour this week alone, and for the fifth consecutive month, one hundred hours of flight time. I'd say I'm tired, but that would be like saying Chinese food contains a bit of sodium. Exhausted seems more accurate. So on a 95 degree day, just a few moments after I've plowed through my inflight spaghetti lunch sans flight attendant, I steal a few minutes of gazing at the distant clouds while pretending to flight instruct. The left seat pilot, my student, doesn't mind too much-he's preparing for his first solo flight a few days later- and so he actually welcomes my apathetic and disconnected demeanor. Still not entirely certain of himself, he poses questions like these, almost, I wonder, just to see if I'm still paying attention. I am, but barely. With this heat, a full stomach, and a competent student at the controls, staying awake in the cockpit should merit receiving nothing short of the Nobel Prize.
As a student, I encountered burnt out instructors very early on in my training. I can still recall flying with a guy who, from the minute I cranked up the engine, plugged in his iPod and, like a homeless man riding the city subway, slumped over against the window, reclined the seat, and snoozed for entire two hour duration of the lesson. It's true, and ultimately what cost him his job and his just-beginning aviation career. So, for the sake of any company VP's who might have stumbled across this blog, let's just go ahead and throw it out there: I'm not burnt out. Just tired. But thanks for asking. I'm certain one day I'll look back at my time with this company and be glad I worked here, but the seven days-a-week, jam packed flying schedule has started to take its toll. And because of that, I feel ready to move on.
I've recently surpassed 900 hours of flight time, a number that seven months ago, when I began instructing, seemed insurmountable. When I initially began my flight training getting to this point as an instructor was always on the backburner; I stupidly envisioned myself instructing for just a few months, then immediately being picked up by my dream regional airline and strolling into that shiny jet cockpit with all the graybeard captains applauding my achievements and welcoming me into that exclusive fraternity. I don't how I could have been so naive. There's been a few nibbles of interest from the regional airlines, but nothing concrete. I've seen the airlines gobble up many of MY instructors, making hearing their stories of fast jets, great layovers, and gorgeous flight attendants all the more excruciating. I want to be there with them. Adding insult to injury happens everytime I hear a rumor of an airline hiring someone with fewer hours than me. Did it really happen? Who do I need to call? What's wrong with me? But for every story of someone being hired, I see the other side of the coin as well: a few of my comrades around our Atlanta branch have well in excess of 1,500 hours, and are still waiting for that call. Gulp. That's another six months for me, easy. Could I make it that long?
For some of the crappier regional airlines, 1,000 seems to be the magical number. That's just less than one hundred hours from where I sit now. I'm watching the Hobbs meter closer than ever on my instructing flights, for with every tick gets me another fraction of an hour. While I'm eager to leave my current job and move on to the bigger, fast airplanes, I'm not in a hurry to live in some Newark slum crashpad apartment with eight dudes, one of who is going to inevitably be named Lenny and have horrible hygiene, eat PB&J sandwiches again three meals a day, and live off of $16,000 a year. I'll pass on that, and wait for a more desirable company to hire me. I've got my sights set on a few, and am furiously networking in hopes of landing that first big break. My resume is at their disposal and I fire them off a fresh copy every twenty hours I accumulate, Persistent much? Just enough to have them not become annoyed with me.
As I'm learning, there are no shortcuts to the airlines. It's a mantra I repeat everytime I step inside the Cessna for more pattern work with those rookie pilots. There's not much glamour to be found in flight instruction, and in those moments where I'm daydreaming about greater things, I'm reminded that my time here is not up yet. I've seen too many good pilots lose their jobs as they grow weary of the daily grind and the demands that are placed upon flight instructors. The good news, for me, is that my love for flying remains strong.
I started this post well in excess of a month ago. Actually, I forgot for awhile that I even have a blog. Like a barking dog that needs to be let outside to go to the bathroom, I need to be reminded. In the weeks that followed, I did the unthinkable and INCREASED my flying pace, pushing myself over the vaunted 1,000 hour mark and into realistic consideration for a First Officer position with a regional airline. Those hundred hours were some of the longest of my life, but I'd made it.
And then, on a gloomy October morning, just when I had stopped furiously checking my cell phone every 5 minutes for potential HR pilot recruiters' calls, I got one: a prominent regional airline based in Dallas, not far from where I trained nine months ago:
What do you say when the phone call you've dreamed about is actually happening? There's no manual for how to handle this, but I'm certain you're supposed to suppress your excitement, at least momentarily. I could not. My mouth immediately went desert-dry, and I stammered out a quick-but-nearly-silent, "Yes, it's me." A soothing voice introduced herself as the head of HR for American Eagle airlines, and soon calmed my nerves by offering me an interview date of November 8th, and soon the details were hammered out: I would be receiving a packet of paperwork via email in the next twenty minutes, and it needed to be filled out ASAP. All the minute details of my life, including driving record, education, complete employment history, and even the number of cavities I've had were to be faxed back to company headquarters prior to my interview. The amount of paperwork was overwhelming. Who knew that becoming a pilot would involve the decimation of several Costa Rican rain forests?
The days that followed became a frenzy of hunting and gathering: jobs that I forgot I'd had (Hello, Menards!) suddenly became vital sources of employment data. References from what seemed like the Ice Age were contacted. A complete residence history. Birth Certificate. Worst of all, I had to request my collegiate transcripts. Gulp. Will they care that I could only muster a D in Biology?Regardless, I threw myself into the great search with reckless abandon, and soon, a mound of data had been stockpiled. Now, a week from my interview date, the process is nearly complete. Apparently, at the airlines, it's important to avoid hiring Al-Queda or other people with a propensity to be untrustworthy. Chances are good that if you're a) family, b) a close friend, or even c) a fast-food employee whom I've had minimal interaction with, you'll be contacted for your impressions of me and my ability to safely pilot paying passengers on a big, shiny jet.
My nights now consist of pouring over my old textbooks and aviation charts, hoping to find any glaring weaknesses in my technical knowledge. A buddy and I have started grilling each other with mock interview questions, hoping to get out all the bad answers and polish ourselves up a bit. I bought a new suit. Got my haircut. And in the upset of the century, I'm even going to the dentist to make sure my pearly whites are who we thought they were.
One week to go. In a blog post that started 100 hours from my goal, it's only fitting that I didn't finish it until now, just past 1,000 flight hours. I'll be back in a few weeks to recap the interview and maybe a flying story or two. But for now, it's back to the interview prep. In the words of Bud Light, Here We Go...