Although I don’t go out of my way to mention it, I’m not shy to talk about my job when people ask. Because, uh, in case you haven’t heard: I’m a pilot.
Airline flying is common enough that most people seem to have experienced it, yet still mystical enough that I field a lot of questions. I frequently get asked: “Is it fun? It seems like it could get boring sitting up there for hours and hours.”
I also lurk a lot of places online where I hear the same question from hobbyist pilots thinking about pursuing a career in the airlines. Many young people look at the time, money, and effort required to reach a major airline and wonder whether it’s worth the investment. I also see this question from people established in a non-flying career, who frequently have a family. Some like their current job, and some don’t, but they’ve heard rumors about green grass on the airport side of the fence.
The most simple answer I can give you is: Yes, this job is fun!
That doesn’t necessarily mean every one of you should pursue it.
I aspire to write an article discussing whether you should become an airline pilot in the near future. I’m unhappy with drafts #1 and #2 right now, so it might be a while. In the meantime, here’s a little more discussion on what’s fun about flying at a major airline.
My wife jokes that when it comes to airplanes, size actually does matter. I suspect that she married me in part because I was flying the B-1B at the time…the sexiest crate of thunder ever fashioned by human minds, grossing out at a healthy 477,000 pounds.
I haven’t met many airplanes that I haven’t enjoyed flying, but there’s something special about flying a big jet. As I walk through the airport, I constantly see parents pointing my aircraft out as their kids smear cheetos dust on the windows. It’s cool to line up on a big runway and blast off with the lives of 180+ people in my hands.
Not that I don’t love flying dinky little airplanes, but it’s fun to fly big jets.
As we’ll cover more shortly, there isn’t as much fancy stick-and-rudder flying in the airlines. However, when circumstances call for that stuff, it’s fun to do.
It’s awesome to hand-fly down the Potomac River with don’t-enter-or-we’ll-acutally-shoot-you-down zones just across both shorelines, then do a moderately large last-minute turn to plant your jet on a relatively short runway at Reagan National in Washington, DC.
I flew an MD-88 into Tallahassee, FL, one dark night with rain and thunderstorms all around us. Their north/south runway was closed, so naturally the wind was out of the south and gusting up to 30 knots. The pouring rain reduced visibility to minimums. I was a brand new FO, but I must have impressed my Captain on that trip because he let me land. I did a gorgeous (IMHO) crosswind landing on a dark, wet Runway 09 and kept the jet on centerline despite the maddog’s mediocre brakes and a terrible thrust reverser system that didn’t even attempt to sync output between the two engines.
Another night, I flew the ILS to minimums at Chicago O’Hare. When we broke out I didn’t actually see the runway because it was covered in packed snow with a river of white powder blowing across the surface in a strong crosswind. I only knew where to land because of the runway lights. Again, a kind Captain courageously masked his pucker factor while allowing me to land.
This kind of flying checks the boxes for any pilot: fun, thrilling, sometimes even a little daunting.
Both the FAA and airline managers think you can finish a night like this, then arrive at a hotel with exactly 8.0 hours until your show time the next day, and that this constitutes an “uninterrupted 8-hour sleep opportunity.” Anyone holding that opinion is a moron who should not have any authority, whatsoever, over aviation operations. Any adrenaline junky would be satisfied with the fix they get on a night like this, and would need some time to wind down before they’re able to sleep.
Yes, I’ve only described three out of the thousands of landings I’ve done as an airline pilot. There are plenty of other cool stories I’d love to tell you over a frosty beverage, but the honest truth is that this kind of excitement isn’t particularly common.
And that’s a good thing!
In my opinion, professional aviation, done correctly, should be incredibly boring.
Exciting vs Engaging
One way I describe airline flying is that it’s engaging, rather than exciting. I want this flying to be boring because I’m carrying passengers. Nothing that I consider exciting improves their customer experience. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not busy and fulfilled.
When I fly, I constantly work to avoid turbulence and get my people where they need to go more efficiently. Part of the reason I upgraded to captain so early in my airline career is that I like being the kind of person who pushes the rope to fix problems as soon as possible. I don’t like spamming my passengers with noise on the public address system; however, if things aren’t flowing smoothly I like to at least keep them informed.
While there are some particularly colorful flight attendants in the world, most of them are fun and interesting people trying to do a good job. I believe in the military’s idea of a flight crew and try to honor that mindset with my airline crews, instead of simply regarding them as a bunch of co-located employees. I pay attention to my crew’s mindset, fatigue level, and needs. I’m frequently able to use small interventions to improve the lives of my crew, and my passengers’ experience.
At my airline, we take pride in the level of service we provide. As such, we stand in the flight deck door and bid farewell to our passengers as they deplane. I take pride in looking them in the eye, being a good steward of the company that’s treating my family so well, and even taking the heat for a mediocre landing or late arrival. I love it when parents bring their kids up for pictures. I plop the future aviators directly into my seat, put my hat on their heads, and tell them that they can be pilots too. I believe that’s important, and find it fun.
(If this stuff isn’t part of your company’s culture, and you wish it was, then maybe you should come over to Delta. We need good people. If this sounds terrible to you, I recommend you fly boxes for a living.)
These little things all make this job engaging, and sometimes fun. I’m not constantly busy with this stuff, but there is enough of it to break up the monotony. If you’re worried about airline flying being boring, I think there’s enough of this to keep any classy aviator happy.
(Although I generally say that “people vs boxes” is a bullshit discussion, there is a lot less opportunity for this kind of engagement in cargo flying. I think I’d probably still enjoy flying freight for reasons we’ll discuss later, but I would miss these aspects of carrying passengers. It’s worth discussing this with friends at a variety of airlines, and considering your preferences when picking airlines to apply with.)
Fun vs Military
When fellow aviators ask me whether airline flying is “fun,” context is critical.
Many military pilots have a unique perspective on fun flying. They do aerobatics, formation, and low-level. They try to kill fighters that are simultaneously trying to kill them, they rain steel and fire from on high, they fly fast and low, they land very big aircraft on shockingly small and very dark landing zones, sometimes while taking fire. This kind of flying is fun and thrilling in ways that nothing else can ever be.
I miss it. Terribly.
Airline flying will (hopefully) never be that exciting. If that’s your only definition of “fun” then you’re out of luck because you won’t get it anywhere outside the military or some unique types of contract aviation.
And yet, that kind of flying is definitely a young person’s game. No matter what, you will reach an age where military flying demands enough of your body, your time, and your attention that you simply must give it up. At that point, you’ll probably need to find a way to enjoy airline flying anyway.
Let’s be honest with each other though: how much of your time in the military is actually spent doing this awesome flying?
I once did the math and found that I spent at least seven hours on non-flying queep for every hour I flew in the Air Force, and that was as a crew dawg who ditched active duty the moment my ADSC was up. If you spend time rotting on the staff, go to school, or take a command job, your ratio is probably worse.
I flew the T-6A at Laughlin AFB, TX, at a time when we had a rash of issues with rudder binding. That aircraft has a powerful engine swinging a giant propeller, so the rudder is a critical flight control surface. This was a particularly vexing problem that Beechcraft couldn’t seem to figure out.
I experienced rudder binding with a student onboard. Then, a few days later, I overheard that same student declare an emergency because he’d just gotten the same thing in the practice area. (I escorted him back to base – a fun and rewarding IP moment for me.) Then, less than a week later, I got the same issue again while flying with a newly arrived instructor.
I’d had enough, so I called down to the operations desk and told them to get some FCF pilots and Beechcraft on the line. I had at least an hour of fuel to play with and we were going to try to figure out what was happening.
We isolated the problem, which was cool, but the point of this story is that my Squadron Commander spent that hour reporting on the situation to the Operations Group Commander (who was probably reporting to the Wing Commander.) I later happened to see part of that communication trail, and one of the first things my boss mentioned to the OG was that I was a very experienced pilot with more than 3,200 total (military) flight hours.
The all-civilian pilots reading this are probably laughing because 3,200 hours is nothing. Until recently, a civilian pilot needed at least twice that before a major airline would even sniff at their application. The sad truth is that military pilots don’t get to fly nearly as much as they’d like. I was lucky to get that many hours, in part because nearly 2000 of them were combat hours in high-demand aircraft.
In most cases, an F-22 pilot is lucky to get 100 hours per year. I’ve spoken to military pilots about to leave active duty after 10 years of flying without enough hours to hold an unrestricted ATP.
First off, this is a gross strategic weakness that our military should fix. However, it drives home the point that it’s not realistic or fair to your family to poo-poo airline flying due to lack of fun if you’re not actually getting that much fun flying in the military.
And for military pilots, I cannot emphasize enough the point that you can keep that fun flying for as long as you can stand it, while also being an airline pilot, by joining the Guard or Reserves!
Fun vs Civilian
Context is important for all-civilian pilots too. Granted, there are some extremely fun and exciting types of civilian aviation. If you fly aerobatics, dust crops, fly warbirds, race gliders, compete in STOL events (or actually go out and fly the bush), fly seaplanes in any capacity, or enjoy a lot of other parts of aviation, you may also concede that I’m right to say that airline flying tends toward boring.
However, most of the people who ask me whether airline flying is fun don’t do any of this stuff.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: what does the average hobby pilot do?
They rent a clapped-out C-172 or PA28 from the local FBO a few times a month at most. They’d love to fly more, but it’s so expensive that they can’t afford it. They probably bring a friend and spend some time doing lazy circles over said friend’s house to enable some iPhone photography. They might head to an EAA pancake breakfast or stop by a nearby airport restaurant for the quintessential “$100 hamburger.” If flying solo, or the passenger is game, the flight probably ends with a few patterns for proficiency. If they want to get really crazy, they might try a soft- or short-field landing, or a simulated power-out 180.
Is that kind of flying fun? Sure. It’s why we all do it as much as we can. Is it particularly thrilling though? If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is: “No.” Is this flying any more exciting than a nice, boring day at the airlines? Not really.
This is not to mention the more affluent hobbyists who go out and spend $1,000,000 on a new SR22 (barf!) or something similar. That airplane is designed to operate almost exclusively on autopilot while the pilot stares blankly at enormous computer screens. There’s no way that’s more exciting than airline flying. Worst case: my company is paying me $1,000,000 to do the same thing, but I’m not in charge of maintenance.
I think Hollywood and social media do us constant disservice. We’re taught to use starving models, airbrushed and photoshopped, as our standard of human beauty, that our vacations are failures because they don’t look as pristine as contrived social media posts, and that all fun flying will look like Maverick and Rooster weaving through canyons and killing 5th Gen MiGs in a Tomcat.
Hollywood is mostly fake and Social Media is 99% bullshit.
Chances are that airline flying is at least as much fun as what most hobby aviators do on the weekends.
What’s Your Day Job?
I frequently hear this “Is airline flying fun?” question from people who don’t fly at all for a living. I have to wonder: what’s your alternative?
I believe that most people don’t particularly love their jobs, and that many jobs are truly terrible. I can’t imagine sitting in a cubicle at Innitech all day writing TPS reports. I would hate to manage a bunch of brain-dead teenagers at a fast food joint. You couldn’t pay me enough to fill some kind of customer service role that primarily involves dealing with angry people.
My wife is a dentist who works for a friend, let’s call him Stu, who loves aviation. He owns a Baron and the walls of his office are completely covered in paintings of airplanes. His dad and brother (the latter also a dentist) also love aviation. Every time I see Stu, he wants to talk about flying. His office is in Lakeland, FL, and he’s reportedly much less productive during the week of Sun ‘n Fun every year because he’s always at the window trying to see the aircraft that everyone can hear flying nearby.
I feel bad for Stu. He makes amazing money, and I think he likes his job well enough. However, it’s obvious that his passion is for aviation, rather than dentistry. I think he’s eternally trapped by the golden handcuffs, but you don’t have to be.
Do you really love your job? If so, stay there! It’s rare for a human being to find fulfilling work that gets them out of bed in the morning.
However, unless you’re passionate about what you do for a living, there’s a good chance that you couldn’t do much worse in aviation.
This isn’t universally true. Some people will never be happy, no matter what they do. Others won’t enjoy the long hours or time away from home and family. If you think any of those might apply to you then stay away!
If you love flying so much that you spend many hours of your time and hundreds (or thousands) of your dollars renting airplanes to chase burgers and facilitate “there’s my house!” selfies for your friends, then a career as an airline pilot is worth considering.
Like we mentioned, Hollywood is guilty of making us think that the only fun part of flying is witty banter as we showcase our dogfighting skills with a GoPro jammed in our face. As much fun as the stick-and-rudder parts of flying can be, they’re far from the only fun part of aviation.
Good coworkers make flying great. When you go to work, or church, or your kid’s soccer game, you’re stuck with whatever random people you run into. Ideally, you’ll encounter some interesting human beings worth spending time around and make some friends. That hasn’t always been the case for me.
Our neighborhood threw a block party a few years ago, and I found myself sitting in a group of middle-aged men trying to find things to talk about. None of them have jobs interesting enough to chat about (see “What’s Your Day Job?” above.) However, between those jobs and having families, none of the other guys had anything else particularly interesting to discuss in any part of their lives. I finally had to walk away when the most riveting part of their discourse turned to the NFL schedule for the year. My neighbors are all nice people, but sometimes their interests get a little mundane for my tastes.
Contrast that with flying a crewed aircraft. At the very least, I know that the person in the other seat likes aviation enough to have invested at least a decade of their life to get where we are now. I’m disappointed at how few of the airline pilots I fly with enjoy General Aviation, but we still have common ground to start from.
Most of these aviators have enough drive that they enjoy other interests more compelling than sitting in front of a television. I love the discussions I get into on the flight deck and on layovers, and they’re always different. I’ll spend one trip discussing our various entrepreneurial pursuits, then the next discussing music from 90s Grunge to Viking Metal. I’ve learned about homeschooling and woodworking. I love flying with women and hearing their first-hand impressions of aviation culture. (I hope we can all do better.) I find that most airline pilots (and their families) enjoy travel, and discussing that topic has prompted several great trips for my family. I’ve even had fascinating discussions of religion and politics that were simultaneously contentious, friendly, unresolved, and mutually edifying.
If you’re not a pilot, you might waste some of your time at work chatting with your colleagues. Don’t let the boss catch you around the water cooler though. They might yell at you for being off-task.
As an airline pilot, you’re locked on the flight deck for hours at a time with your new best friend. You’re obligated to keep each other awake and alert, and the FAA doesn’t officially allow naps, books, or movies. When you reach your layover for the evening, you might as well get dinner together and continue your conversations over good food and drink. A big part of the fun of airline flying is getting to have interesting conversations with interesting people who live interesting lives.
(One of the reasons these people have such unique and provoking lives is that airlines give them the time and the means to pursue them. More on that shortly.)
Speaking of layovers, that’s another very important part of what makes airline life fun.
If you hate travel, don’t be an airline pilot. For the rest of us, being an airline pilot is a dream come true, right? Every time you go to work, it’s an all-expenses paid trip to somewhere interesting. Better yet: they pay us absurd amounts of money to go to these places.
Understand here that I’m talking about major airlines. The regionals, and some of the ULCCs treat their people poorly. They stay in nasty hotels nowhere near good parts of town. That life would suck, and it’s part of the reason every pilot should aspire to move up to one of the Big 6 majors.
My company always puts us up in very nice places, in part because our union is a powerful watchdog in that process. We mostly stay at Hiltons, Marriotts, Hyatts, or nicer. For short layovers, we’re frequently closer to the airport in places with food options that aren’t stunning. However, for anything over 12 hours, we’re downtown.
I’ve found that just about every city in the country has a great local brewery and tons of great food. Even for cities that I’ve visited many times, there’s either something new to try or somewhere I liked enough that I’m excited to go back. There are only a couple cities in our entire system that I honestly don’t like. (Flint, MI, is useless.)
In the age of modern technology, I’m pretty happy as long as my layover location has some good food and drink, and I can get a workout. If nothing else, at that point I can watch, read, or listen to pretty much the entire creative work of the human race from anywhere.
That said, most layover locations also have interesting things to do or see. Many layovers allow a bite-sized opportunity to play tourist in a new spot. If you like it, you can always bring your family back later. I have more than once.
This kind of travel also brings opportunities to meet up with friends and family. I particularly love these kinds of layovers.
Again, if none of this sounds fun to you, then airline pilot life may not be your bag, baby. There are some companies like Silver and Allegiant that try specifically to get almost every pilot home at night. I know some aviators who are happy with that arrangement, despite worse than average pay and work rules.
However, if you enjoy travel, I think you will find that aspect of this job to be very fun.
(Let’s add here that it’s critical to consider the Scope of your target airline’s operations when considering where to apply. If you’d like part of your career to include regular trips to Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, or Africa, then don’t bother with companies like Southwest. Most of America’s ULCCs do a little flying in the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, and Hawaii, but that’s about as good as you’ll get.
JetBlue is trying to break into the European market with A321neos. We’ll see whether that’s more successful than the overflowing graveyard of defunct airlines that have repeatedly failed to make money selling $99 transatlantic tickets.
If you want meaningful international travel, pick an airline that flies widebodies.)
Time To Be Interesting
One of the biggest reasons I write Pilot Math Treasure Bath content is because I think too many humans waste too much of their lives working in unfulfilling jobs. One of the reasons I have trouble relating to many neighbors is they spend 40-80 hours a week in jobs that nobody would love. Many of them will do this from their mid-twenties to age 65 or later. When do they have time to pursue interesting activities in life?
In my first year at my major airline, I worked an average of 12 days per month. Over the next few years that average dropped to 10, then 8 days per month. I’m probably closer to 12 or 14 right now, just because my company dumps such ridiculous piles of money into my bathtub every time I put on my hat and horse blanket. However, that’s at least 6-8 fewer days spent at work per month than the average human being.
When the average American gets home from work, they’re worn out and probably extremely unmotivated. It’s time to make dinner and take care of the kids or things around the house. Before they know what happened, it’s time to go to bed so they can start all over again the next day.
I go for days or weeks at a time without working. If I’m feeling overworked, I can drop work and just spend more time at home. Yes, I give up some pay, but major airline pay is so ridiculously generous that I can afford to give a little up. (Also, my Treasure Bath has already reached critical mass. At this point, the extra money is as unnecessary as it is nice.)
This gives me time to do things that a person with a full-time job can’t even fathom. My wife and I bought an income property, then spent nearly a year fixing it up. The results are gorgeous. We didn’t need to give up all that time (and literally blood, sweat, and tears). We could have hired out all the work. However, it was fun learning and doing all of the work. We can take far more pride in this house than someone who just hired contractors to do everything for them.
We also recently bought a Pipistrel Sinus, a 2-place aircraft officially classified as an S-LSA Glider. It turns out that when the FAA thought up the Light Sport Aircraft category and made the Sport Pilot rating to go with it, they created a similar mechanic rating called Light Sport Repairman – Maintenance. An LSRM can legally do all of the work and inspections on an LSA, without needing to wait on an A&P or IA’s schedule, or pay exorbitant shop rates.
The LSRM course is 15 days long (plus two more for gliders), and I decided I really wanted to take it. I just completed the first 15 days at Rainbow Aviation Services near Kansas City. It was awesome – seriously one of the best things I’ve ever done in aviation. I don’t know how I’ve been involved in flying for more than 25 years, and especially how I managed to own and operate my own aircraft, without the knowledge I gained in this course.
Now, for the average person, taking 15-17 days off from work at one time is simply unrealistic. That’s more than half of a military aviator’s leave for the year. Few civilians get anything close to that many days or hours off. For me, it was no big deal.
Next month, my daughter and I are flying to Pennsylvania to catch a rock concert…over a couple school days. I don’t know many average Americans who could tear themselves away from deadlines and staff meetings for such a frivolous pursuit. For an airline pilot though, it’s standard ops.
I’ve used my scheduling flexibility to allow customers to pay me hundreds of dollars a day to fly Icon A5s all over the US. I’ve used my time to attend ground school to become a Stearman demo pilot for the CAF. If I can manage to log a few more Stearman hours this spring (I’ll pay your full hourly rate!), I’ll use more of my free time to give rides all over the country.
Being a major airline pilot gives you far more time and flexibility than you’ve ever had before. The non-pilots in your life will start asking you if you’re unemployed because it will seem like you’re never at work. This enables you to find and do interesting things that are simply inaccessible to most humans. For me, this part of airline flying is nothing but fun.
The Means to Enjoy It All
Free time is nice, but many of the activities I mentioned aren’t as accessible without disposable income to fuel them.
One of the reasons people waste most of their lives working is that they’re brainwashed into spending every dime they earn, and frequently more. They get trapped in a spending rat race that has them stressed out and looking at retirement savings of less than $25,000 on average.
It is truly a blessing that major airline pay is so high that only very foolish spenders can’t rapidly reach full Financial Independence (FI). To be fair, it helps for a pilot to know the Shockingly Simple (Pilot) Math behind FI, and feel nothing but disdain for the social media influencers who waste their money portraying fake lives. However, major airline pilots make so much money that even a clumsy attempt at saving has a good chance of success.
Tuition for my LSRM course was $4500. That doesn’t include lodging (free for me, thanks to 90K Chase points converted to Hyatt hotel points), travel (free for me, thanks to airline pilot jumpseat privileges), local travel ($600 covered a Turo for 2 weeks), and food. There’s also the opportunity cost of lost income. If I could have flown two 4-day trips during those 15 days, then I lost $16K in pay while taking the time to do this trip. (In truth, I had assigned vacation over parts of the course, so I probably didn’t lose quite that much.)
Like I said though: once your Treasure Bath is completely full and you know your family is taken care of forever, the incredibly high pay rates at a major airline pilot job allow opportunities that you could never have otherwise considered.
The Sum of the Parts
So, is airline flying fun?
Sometimes, I can say that: yes, it’s both fun and exciting. I believe that it’s generally at least as exciting as what the average hobby pilot is doing.
The rest of the time the stick-and-rudder part itself isn’t thrilling, but it’s still engaging and fulfilling.
Most of the time, hanging out with interesting people is fun.
I almost always find travel fun.
I only end up flying for 8-14 days per month. For the rest of my life, I’m at home or free to travel wherever I want. I get to spend that time with my family and friends. I get to pursue whatever the hell I want, and I choose things that I find fun.
Underlying all of that: I’m blessed to work for a great company that offers outstanding pay and benefits. Those resources help enable me to do more of the things that I find fun than I’d be able to enjoy on a lesser income. Many of these things would be simply out of reach for most people.
So yes, being an airline pilot is fun and engaging. It gives me the time and the means to have fun while not slaving away at the office.
I know it was a long answer, but you need all that context to understand what I mean when I answer that, “Yes, this is fun!”
Does it sound fun to you?