Becoming a pilot is considered a pretty common childhood dream. But of course, like any other career, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows at times. There is a lot to learn along the way, so today I’ll go over 6 crucial tips for starting a pilot career.
I was (and am) fortunate enough to be surrounded by incredible professionals who have often shared their own mistakes and struggles for me and others to learn from. This has been incredibly valuable for me and others walking the same path to take on board.
A flying career is super fulfilling for those who are passionate about it. But there is also a lot of sacrifice involved, long grinds, lots of studying, hard work, constant testing, and disrupted sleep schedules. So let’s go over the most talked about lessons that pilots say they’ve learned in hindsight.
These tips apply to both being in the air as well as on the ground. If we all keep sharing our mistakes and learned lessons, we can help each other get where we want to go more safely and efficiently.
These are not ranked in any particular order:
Let’s dive into it:
1) Know your stuff, thoroughly
Whether it’s weather limitations, the aircraft you fly, your aircraft’s limitations, your company’s Ops Manual, or the regulations: knowing your stuff thoroughly is the bread and butter for any successful pilot.
To some, knowing the bare minimum is good enough. This kind of perspective might be easy to defend when all goes well. However, it’s when shit hits the fan that you will need to rely on your knowledge and procedures that will get you through safely and efficiently.
When workload peaks, we fall back on knowledge and experience that is easily accessible to us in the moment. If the areas mentioned above aren’t ’accessible’ enough in your mind, we’ll simply fall back on gut feeling and instinct, which is often just not good enough. As aircraft and aviation itself becomes more complex, the need to stay on top of the required knowledge increases as well.
But as mentioned earlier, this isn’t just essential for while you’re flying. It’s just as important on the ground. Go / no-go decisions, what school to start your training at, what companies to apply for, interview prepping, what qualifications to get, CRM, or even fire / rapid decompression training. It all adds up and can make the difference when it really matters.
Add that to the fact that to get a job, you’ll need to demonstrate you’re on top of your game, both during the interview as well as the selection process.
The first question I got asked during one of my interviews was what the max continious EGT was of a type I had previously flown, an aircraft type that wasn’t even part of the company I was applying for. Not knowing the answers, or bluffing your way through is not going to work, and you probably shouldn’t want that to work anyway.
2) Always have a plan, but be ready to change it
Preparation is everything. It probably sounds super cliche and boring to most by now, as we get bombarded with it throughout our training and within most modern company cultures.
But it’s like those tips people give when someone’s trying to lose weight: eat less, exercise more. It sounds so boring, but the essence of the message just can’t be explained simpler. Same here.
For instance, the pilot who flies a single engine aircraft and is 10 steps ahead, knowing what to do when the engine fails, who to talk to, what field to land in and what switches to turn, will have a significantly easier time landing it safely if things really do turn for the worse.
That’s a big contrast compared to those that skate by, relying on the ‘universe’ to not cause any emergencies, headaches, or other problems for them. This can work if every day is CAVOK and the aircraft behaves, but it will turn on you when some random variable does not line up as you want or expect it to.
While most interested in aviation usually have a natural tendency to have a proper plan in place and learn about decision making, a plan is only that: a plan. You plan based on variables at your disposal at the time of coming up with the plan. If these variables change though, it can be tough to admit it and change the plan accordingly.
This is especially true for something like HEMS or Search and Rescue, where plans sometimes change numerous times throughout a flight. The aircraft, the weather, the circumstances, the mission details, it’s all very fluid and will not stay the same for very long.
It’s up to us to stay ahead of that and to be ok with a changing plan, no matter how attached we were to the initial one.
The most infamous example of this is press on-itus, or continuing the flight simply because ’we said we should be able to complete the flight’ when weather has in fact severely deteriorated. If all clues are showing you should probably turn around and cut your losses, not doing so has already resulted in many preventable fatal accidents that we’ll cover in the future.
3) Be prepared to sacrifice
This is a less talked about factor within the aviation industry, and is often brushed away. However, starting a pilot career, no matter where you are in the world will come with a lot of sacrifices.
Saving or borrowing an insane amount of money to finance training, moving countries, ending relationships, and rarely seeing family or friends (in the country you grew up for instance). We often have to deal with generally being away from home during days where others have time off like weekends or common holiday periods.
They’re all part of a pilot career. If you’re passionate about the craft, like many, this will be easier to overcome. For those who just follow the money or the ’easy lifestyle’, it can quickly turn into resentment and dissatisfaction with the industry as a whole.
The takeaway here is very much to only embark on your pilot journey if you’re truly in love with it. If it’s more of a ’meh I don’t really know what else to do’, I would steer well clear. People leave the profession, even after numerous years of service and having climbed the seniority lists and attractive salaries, for a lot of different reasons.
The most common reasons are usually burnout, lack of time off, lack of family time, disrupted health and sleep, or for those who struggle to find a reasonably paid job: financial difficulties.
Most of these are possible to manage, especially if you’re passionate about aviation, but there’s no denying that being a pilot can be drag on family life, your body, and your wallet. Ask yourself what the reasons are you are interested in becoming a pilot, and have a brutally honest review on whether or not those outweigh the sacrifices, it’s different for everyone.
4) Learn from mistakes
Mistakes are necessary to grow, but learning from them and preventing them in the future is crucial to grow as a pilot. Luckily, as company cultures all over the world improve, sharing mistakes and reporting errors is becoming less taboo than it used to be.
Not only that, but safety reporting and accident investigations are becoming less about blame and more about understanding what went wrong to prevent it in the future.
But to truly learn from mistakes, it’s a good idea to compile a list. Have a document that you open up before and after LPC’s, OPC’s, debriefs, or other situations in flight where you felt you could do better. Keep a journal, have a place you can document everything you want to improve on, and refer back to it periodically.
Documenting helps with clearing up your mind, and focus on what it is you need to do better in the future. It can also really help before the next test to make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.
5) Invest in others
This one can be hard to swallow for a lot of pilots: it’s not just about performance, hitting numbers, or being able to fly accurately. A job won’t come your way just simply for being a good pilot. There are plenty of good pilots in the world.
You need to get out there. Go to networking events, invest in genuine friendships and connections, help others, volunteer, provide value to others without expecting anything in return, even after you do land that first job.
Whether your agree or disagree with the morals of it, often people within a company get asked ’This person just applied, what do you think of him / her?’. Usually smaller branches within the industry tend to lean on this type of assessment more than the big companies like the airlines, but even there it’s not just about the flying.
To quote one of my previous instructors ’you can teach a monkey how to fly, but you can’t teach him not to be a %&*^. Having someone in your company that performs less than adequate is often easier to train to the required standard, than having someone who is just a constant pain to deal with.
Having the right personality traits is super important and highlighted in this article.
If you are willing to help others when they need something, one day it might come back to you. But even if it doesn’t: helping others progress is incredibly fulfilling by itself, and you shouldn’t be driven to help others just to get something back in return.
6) Take your health seriously
From friends or other pilots who lose their medicals, or have a lack of energy throughout their days and careers, to incidents and accidents linked to fatigue and a lack of a proper sleep schedule.
Sleep and health is something that our generation takes for granted, especially with popular western work cultures where everyone is trying to show off how little they sleep.
But to make things even trickier, a lot of pilots, including myself have to deal with constant circadian rhythm disruptions because of the flying at night. Having a healthy lifestyle that still ensures enough sleep around the night flying can be really hard to accomplish, which is why a lot of pilots sometimes just give up on it.
It’s easy to just drink an extra few cups of coffee and pretend all is fine, but doing this long term can have detrimental effects on your health and as well as your overall performance both on the ground and in the air.
Losing your medical in most countries means being grounded for long periods, sometimes without getting paid. This, combined with the uncertainty of ’will I ever be able to fly again’ is a recipe for stress, anxiety and even poorer lifestyle choices.
Having a proper sleep routine is not easy to Integrate into your lifestyle for those who fly at night or even if you’re just not prioritising it. Why We Sleep by Professor of Neuroscience Matthew Walker, is a good place to start, is recommended by a lot of HEMS doctors I work with, and has already opened a lot of eyes in both the medical and aviation industry. It has many easy to understand tips and tricks to improve sleep as well as your schedule.
We will cover sleep for pilots in a future article.
These are the top 6 tips based on my anecdotal experience, as well as other perspectives from professional pilots I have worked with over the years. If you have other tips or things you think others should know, let us know!