August 12, 2015

7 Steps to Become a Pilot

Most of my pilot cohorts tell me that they wanted to be pilots for as long as they can remember. Sure, as a kid I’d look up and think, wow, how cool would it be to actually fly one of those, but that’s as far as my pondering took me. That’s as far as it goes for most people. I didn’t start flying until I got a job working the front desk of an FBO and discovered that pilots weren’t noticeably smarter, they were just exceptionally focused and viewed themselves as having the ability to pilot a plane. As strange as it seems, stepping into the thought process that you actually want to be a pilot, rather than having an abstract desire, is your first step.

1) View Yourself as a Pilot. Aviation is a mindset. If you want to just goof around in general aviation, it’s a wonderful hobby. If you intend to make this your life, then you have to be willing to go all in. It’s an all or nothing lifestyle so the first thing you’ll have to do is change the perception of yourself. You have to believe that you can do it and you have to acknowledge that it will take years before you have a flying job that actually pays you enough so that you can pay back your loans. In the meantime, read about all the different ways to prepare Ramen Noodles.

2) Figure Out Your Finances. Learning to fly means learning how to squeeze every penny out of your bank account. Honestly, it is expensive, but you will find a way (see link below about Flight School Loans and Scholarships). This is an investment in your life, but be realistic. If the reality is that it will take you a year to get your private, then plan on a year. If you set goals outside of reality then you are setting yourself up to fail. If you have a tight budget, you will have to use even more self-discipline to put in the effort before getting to the airport. Study. Obsessively. Learn everything there is to know before your hands touch the yoke. This way, the hours you pay for will be used efficiently.

3)  Find a Really Good Flight/Ground Instructor. Don’t stop until you find one. The attitude of instructors can make or break a student. Don’t be embarrassed if an instructor isn’t inspiring you to learn, try another. What works for one pilot doesn’t work for all. It’s of vital importance and hours don’t always correlate to quality. You’ll know you’ve got the right one when you get done with a flight and you know that you have changed because you have truly learned something—and it was fun. Instructors are there to supplement and just add on to what you know. You are expected to do your homework before you get there. For every hour in the air, you better have already put in at least ten hours of ground study. However, if you are on your sixth instructor and they are telling you to go find someone else, you might want to rethink aviation.

4) Network. Be an airport geek. You will move your career ahead by leaps and bounds by getting a job at an airport. Not a large international airport, I’m talking about feeder airports that have charter and air ambulance services. Even if you’re tucked away in a back office pushing papers, make it your goal to meet the movers and shakers on the field. Learn the industry from every aspect. Make sure every pilot you meet knows that you are working on your ratings and you’re willing to offer your soul for some flight time. It’s not what you know in aviation, it’s who you know.

5) Attitude. This will make or break a pilot. After working both sides of aviation, I’ve seen what a good/bad attitude can do. This is the same for all industries, but the bad attitude here can kill. It also guides which aspect of aviation pilots should lean towards. There are choices in aviation and how each pilot views what flying means to them determines what they should strive for. For example, I know quite a few pilots who admittedly don’t have patience for people. These types of pilots probably shouldn’t be flying corporate C-Suite high demand (whining) 1%ers who think nothing of asking you to wash their car while they’re at a meeting (yes, someone asked for me to do it. I did.) These pilots soar while running their own show. International/cargo, overnight Fed Ex single engine Caravan pilots who see no one except line guys. These pilots are also great in the air ambulance field. They find their niche based on what their general attitude is. The aviation world needs these pilots. I know a lot of unhappy pilots who set their goals based on what they thought the world would think of them, rather than admitting what they thought of the aviation world. Many pilots wrongfully reason that the airlines are where they should be, only to find that they yearn for the days of calling Flight Service to get weather and file a flight plan.

6) Pick the Right Spouse. Probably didn’t think you’d see this on the checklist, but your spouse will ultimately decide your happiness. Crazy, but true. Make sure as you move through life that if you decide you want a spouse/partner, that they truly understand the bizarre demands of aviation. No, really. Make sure, before you have children, that everyone realizes that birthdays can be celebrated any time and that holidays are just dates on a Hallmark calendar. At 18 years old, your eyes will glaze over at these words, but remember them. They will haunt you if you don’t follow this advice.

7) Never Forget. Never forget the feeling you had while driving to the airport for your first lesson. Your first solo. Your long list of check rides. Your first paid flight. Your first Type Rating. Your first captain flight. Never forget that there are thousands of people who say they want to be pilots, but that you did it. If you have an ATP, only .04% of the U.S. population can say they have that rating. That’s amazing, and so is aviation.

Erika Armstrong has been in aviation for 25+ years. From the front desk of an FBO to the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner, she’s experienced everything in between. Her book, A Chick in the Cockpit was purchased by a publisher and can be preordered . It will be available nationwide in November. Erika can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Erika Armstrong



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