Captain Ken Bradley's commute is no big deal: he just flies the 170 miles to Washington, D.C. in his own small jet. That's just the warmup for the long day's flight ahead. Bradley, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA, the pilots' union for United Airlines), has over 35 years of experience as a commercial airline pilot with United Airlines. It's a dream job, despite some occasional turbulence in the air.
At age 16, Bradley began flying small airplanes, and subsequently joined the U.S. Air Force. In 1965 he passed two new-hire class dates with United and started his long career, one year shy of his bachelor's degree. These days, pilots will have to work at many airlines making small salaries before they have a chance to be hired by an airline like United.
While working, Bradley finished his college education, then went to law school, working "on reserve" for four years, taking whatever flights came his way. In addition to being a United pilot, he worked on the side for an "old, stodgy law firm in California" doing aviation law. But he declined the senior partnership that was later offered, and became a full-time pilot. "Pilots are generally achievement- and success-oriented," Bradley said.
It takes serious talent and dedication to make it all the way to retirement as a pilot, not to mention outstanding physical health. Physicals are required at least once a year, depending on position, plane type, and the type of flight (international or domestic). International first officers have to have an ATP (Air Transport Certificate), which requires a first-class physical from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This happens every six months.
There are also annual company physicals. If a pilot should fail any of these for any reason, he is let go. Pilots' schedules require them to be on duty for hours, and sometimes days at a time. They are assigned to a specific flight plan that changes constantly.
If he were assigned to a simple domestic routine such as a D.C.-Denver flight, Bradley might complete the round trip five times in a week. But if he were on the international track, it would require perhaps a seven- or eight-day trip sequence between Washington, D.C., London, and Chicago. He would repeat this pattern twice a month, and would do an additional domestic flight.
Pilots fly for the love of it, not for money, Bradley said. Salaries are based on longevity, position (1st officer, 2nd officer, captain), type of plane, and personal flight pay credits (FPC), a measure of hours worked.
Bradley explained that pilots spend considerable time commuting and waiting between flights, so that a pilot can be gone for three days and only get 10 hours of FPC. According to the Air Line Pilots Association, pilots can expect to spend approximately $30,000 on pilot certification alone (pilots must receive 11 certifications/ratings). That's on top of receiving the now required college degree. Federal law requires pilots to retire at age 60.
So if you are are physically fit, unafraid of heights or long hours, and think you're born to fly, consider a career as an airline pilot...and dream on!