With over 30 years of flying under my wings, I can’t imagine any other way of living. Over the last 10 years, I have been teaching beginning flight lessons to private citizens at a local airfield in the Southeastern US. Each day I fly the skies in a small Cessna aircraft teaching new recruits the physical and mental necessities of flight.
When people think of pilots, most immediately think of commercial pilots flying for major airlines, which is a common misconception. I got my start running mail for priority package services in the early 1980s. I have loved my job from the minute I began flight school in the late 1970s and would rate my job satisfaction at an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. From the time I built my first model airplane until the time my wings are laid to rest, there is nothing else I would rather be doing than piloting my aircraft.
I also believe that I have had one of the most important jobs possible. In the early 1980s, I carried important documents overseas. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I also helped fly humanitarian missions to bring in needed supplies of food and healthcare equipment to the many people suffering from the collapse of the Soviet regime. Although I didn’t actually distribute supplies, the thanks from the workers on the ground that we received once we touched down was enough to know that what I did saved peoples’ lives. I believe flying was a calling, of sorts, and will never stray from my wings.
Unlike some others, I don’t have a four-year degree in physics or other hard sciences. I began private lessons as a teenager and was accepted into flight school shortly after my twentieth birthday. Presently, most commercial pilots have at least an associate’s degree and most have a bachelor’s degree. However, that was not required thirty years ago. I feel that I was lucky because even three decades ago flight school was a challenging field. Consequently, I wouldn’t change one thing about my experiences.
I finished at the top of my class upon leaving flight school and started running banners for local resorts at Myrtle Beach. At the time, there was nothing that would keep me grounded until the first time I ignored a flight bulletin discouraging the take-off of any small craft. There was a hurricane 100 miles off of the Georgia coast in early September and on the ground you would have never known it. However, once I got in the air, the headwinds proved to be a totally different story. I was only in the air 30 minutes but during that time there were many moments where I wondered if I may had flown my last flight. After that incident, I have never disregarded any flight warnings whatsoever. Humility was something that was not taught in flight school where we were all chocked full of confidence and thought we knew everything.
Back in the mid 1980s, I began running smaller courier flights in Central and South America. I was overnight in a small town outside of Panama City when I was approached by a young man about my age. He talked me up for awhile and asked me to take a ride with him. I was a little reluctant considering US relations with the country although he seemed friendly enough. I was taken to a small bar far in the country where I was approached by five men in camouflage outfits. I was offered a job, with great pay. However, it was not my style. Fortunately, the men did not get angry when I turned down the offer. I was taken back to the bar and sent on my way. This was the strangest night of my life and looking back I now realize just how lucky I was.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed flying commercial airlines, I believe another calling of mine was to become a teacher. Teaching eager students the art of flying is what drives my life and is the reason I rise from bed each day. However, there are some times when I want to pull my hair out. Some students, I was very similar in my youth, think they know it all after one lesson. They begin to take chances just as I did. It really bothers me when I have a student that wants to fly when the weather is inclement. Although I understand their desire, I wish they would sometimes trust that the teacher knows best. This is one of the few stressors of my job.
Commercial flying was great pay, and I was able to save enough money to retire at age 50. I even made enough to purchase two small aircrafts, which I use for my flight lessons. Even now I make a decent living, and when it is all said and done I take home about $50 thousand dollars annually. That is counting the three weeks I take off in the spring and the three weeks I take off in the fall to visit my vacation home in Costa Rica.
The airline industry has changed greatly over the past two decades, however. Salaries are not nearly as inflated, and those looking to break into the industry should be prepared to have a four-year degree before he or she applies for flight school. I was lucky to get in and out at the prime of the business. In five years, I hope to purchase another plane, which will be used for private excursions into Central America and destinations further south. I never plan to stop flying.