My earlier article detailing a comparison between how much an RSAF pilot earns and how much a Pilot earns in Singapore went viral. As a result, I’ve gotten a lot of messages via Facebook Messenger from people who are interested in making a career transition. What that article failed to highlight is the stresses and sleepless nights pilots experience throughout their entire career. This article aims to provide a look at the other side of the job. Because being an Airline Pilot is not all glamour.
It has been highlighted in many articles that being an Airline Pilot is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Here’s Forbes, Salary.com, Business News Daily and CNBC (well, to be fair, they might all be citing the same research. But you get the point).
But we are used to seeing this guy at the airport.
How is this guy stressed?
What you are looking at is Hollywood. Sure, even the typical pilot at the airport looks (tries to look) kind of cool. But behind all that coolness, you haven’t seen all the struggles and hard work he or she has put in.
Pilot training is expensive. Unless you are lucky enough to get hired by Singapore Airlines through the sponsored cadet scheme, you are likely going to spend more than SGD $150,000 to get your Commercial Pilot Licence. That is no chump change.
While many young pilots have their parents pay for their training, many of these parents aren’t wealthy parents. Some of them mortgaged their fully paid up house just to fund their kids’ dream. And training is a long 1-1.5 years, meaning the entire family is reduced to eating instant noodles (Maggie Mee only because other brands have become too expensive).
“But get the licence already can easily get a job what!”
Which brings me to the next point.
For every Pilot you see strolling their way through immigration and into your aircraft, many others are still jobless. Spending SGD $150,000 for your licence doesn’t buy you a job, the same way that your engineering degree doesn’t come with a job. As a new licence holder, the young pilot has zero experience in operating a large commercial aircraft. Almost 99% of all looking for pilot job listings are airlines who are only looking for experienced pilots. Nobody wants to take in a 200 hour fresh CPL graduate.
There are only 4 airlines in Singapore, and the only airline that is taking in new commercial pilots aggressively is Scoot (who’s hiring?). So that leaves all new pilots with just one realistic and potential employer. To make matters worse, getting a job in Scoot is not guaranteed. It is competitive as hell. Many other similar licence holders are fighting for limited slots. Be ready for the fight of your life.
We can only imagine the amount of stress the young pilots are going through in the interview. With just one shot for a job after the SGD $150,000 investment, it would not fun to drop out from the selection process.
After successfully going through the interview and finally signing a contract with the airline, the new hire receives more training. This time, the new hire learns how to fly a large commercial jet. Since the new hire probably flew a small twin-engine propeller plane (aka Multi-Engine Land) with super basic avionics during their training for getting their Commercial Pilot Licence, the jump from something so primitive to something so advance is huge.
How do you even know if you were a born pilot?
The training programme is intense. Each training receives just 10-15 simulator sessions, and at the end of those simulators, the new hire must impress a Flight Examiner from the company in a Base Check simulator (what is Base Check). Fail this Base Check, and the job is gone.
This failure will hang over the pilot’s head for the rest of his jobless career. Not many airlines will take their chance on this pilot. We now have a pilot with an extremely expensive licence with no airline to go to.
Oh, did I mention that Aircraft Training is another $48,000 out of the new hire’s pocket?
Checks after Checks
After successfully completing the aircraft training, the new pilot moves on to flying revenue flights (known as Line Flights). For the rest of the pilot’s career, every pilot undergoes a yearly Line Check (what is a Line Check) in a normal line flight and a two-times-a-year Base Check in the Simulator. Fail any of these checks, and the pilot would be put on review and potentially removed from the job.
In addition to the formal Line and Base Checks, pilots are put under a constant microscope. Make a genuine gross error in flight? You might lose your licence. Fail to spot a discrepancy in the Flight Plan? You might lose your licence.
Every pilot needs to be medically fit at all times. The stresses they experience concerning their health condition is a lot higher than most other jobs.
Let us take a banker for example. If that banker was diagnosed with Cancer, while it is unfortunate, is still able to work and earn and income. The banker could potentially continue making more than $100,000 in that job while fighting cancer.
Things are different for a pilot. Once diagnosed with a disease like Cancer, it is likely the pilot will have his licence suspended. The pilot will also likely lose his job. As a result, the grounded pilot is left with no income and has to fight the disease on his own, while supporting a stressed out family. If the grounded pilot eventually (likely after years) wins the fight against the disease, the pilot is then able to have their medical condition submitted for review to get their licence reinstated possibly. This potential of losing their licence because of medical issues results in a kind of stress many other occupations don’t experience.
There are options for pilots to insure their licence though. But it is expensive.
Off days. What off days.
It is no secret that pilots get a lot of off days. Short haul pilots generally get 10-15 days of free time at home base, while long-haul pilots generally get 15-20 days of free time in a mix of home base and overseas. The amount of time the pilot actually spends “on duty” is between 100-200 a month, or 20-40 duty hours a week.
20-40 duty hours a week and earning SGD $100,000 to $200,000 a year?
But Pilots don’t just sloth away their off days. The responsibility of carrying 100-300 passengers in your plane means that pilots must bring their A-game to every flight. And to bring their A-game to every flight, the pilot’s life during the off days will need to be tweaked in accordance to their roster. For example, if the next flight is a night flight, the pilot would have to shift their sleep cycle so that they can remain alert though the night flight. It isn’t easy. Try staying awake while counting stars. And this brings about a lot of fatigue and health problems, as detailed in many papers like this one.
Off days are also spent by pilots to study. As a pilot, there are a lot of things that they must know. Pilots must be expert in topics like Human Factors, Navigation, Radio Theory, Meteorology, Air Law in ALL the jurisdictions that the pilot might fly in, Aircraft Systems and Company Policies and Regulations. That is a lot of knowledge in one brain. And pilots are expected to know exactly how to handle every scenario that might be thrown by Murphy (Murphy’s law). And to do that, pilots have to “bring home their work” and hit the books on their off days.
Sure, hitting the books can be done chilling glamorously at Starbucks. But the fact remains. Pilots have a lot to know.
From the high cost of training to the seeming lack of job security, are you ready to risk becoming a pilot?
It is only through years of hard work and possibly years of being jobless that that pilot looks so cool at the airport. So the next time you see a cool pilot walking to for your flight, remember all the hours of work that the cool pilot has put in, remember all the leaps of faith and gamble the pilot has taken before the pilot is able to get you safely to your holiday destination. If you like, you can read more about the career of an Airline Pilot here.