Good time to be a Pilot

A few weeks’ ago, I sent a young man off on his first solo at Lanseria. Despite all the years of instructing, it still is a moment that captures one’s full attention – both instructor and student.

So far this year, I have sent five nervous students off into the blue yonder for their first taste of those all-important Pilot In Command (PIC) hours, and I try as much as my busy airline roster will let me, to be involved at this level with the students at my little flight school.

This particular fledgling pilot had been battling with the last few moments prior to touchdown, and lacked the consistency I require before kicking a newbie out the nest. This meant our dual session had been fairly lengthy, and I seemed to have found his problem. The approach needed more drag, a lower speed and the correct use of trim once the approach was stabilised. This did the trick by reducing the time spent after the flare in the hold-off, with a consistent transition of nose-up input to touch down.

Three landings like that, and I was happy that I would see my aeroplane back again in one piece, so I hopped out and went to join the folks in the control tower at Lanseria, while dry-mouth taxied out for his solo.

As I do, I wondered where this may end up – both this particular flight, and the career I was launching.

World wide, it’s a great time to be a pilot. More specifically, a great time to be an experienced pilot with loads of Airbus time and specifically command time. Contracts abound, some of which most certainly have my attention at present.

Despite the floundering of this country in general, I remain optimistic for the long term. The medium term however, might well see me for a few years elsewhere, taking advantage of some of those $ 25 to $ 30 thousand a month jaunts that regularly arrive in my computer’s inbox.

The good ol’ US-of-A has gone from famine to feast in the blink of an eye. Airlines are actually considered viable investment material, and pilots are in demand with an improvement of the entry-level starvation-grade salaries that were previously on offer.

Previously furloughed US pilots are going home again, as demand has soared. This, in turn, puts pressure on other carriers – specifically the ME 3 – to find fodder for their now empty flight decks.

A big issue, clearly highlighted in the US (as they actually have a regulatory body that is capable of analysis), is that the appeal of flying for a career, has faded dramatically. There are simply not the numbers there used to be from civvie street or the military to flood the smaller carriers with desperate, keen young aviators willing to work for food – or less.
“That is one of the things in my job I get to worry about every day and when I go to bed at night,” said Greg Muccio, a senior manager at Southwest Airlines. “The biggest problem is a general lack of interest in folks pursuing this as a career anymore. That’s what puts us in the most jeopardy.”

Southwest is officially the world’s largest low cost carrier, with over 700 Boeing 737s and 8200 pilots. Each aircraft flies an average of six sectors a day, and the airline total employee count is around 46 000.

And they can’t find enough pilots. This has been exacerbated by the US Congress’ un-thought-out policy of changing the requirements for the issue of an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) licence. After the Colgan crash of 2009, congress was under pressure to do something – anything – to appease the general public’s concern of pilots doing stupid things in the cockpit.

After raising the entry bar to the co-pilot seat of a commuter aircraft to the point that only the most utterly determined individuals will get there, aircraft have been standing on the ground instead of flying. At least one airline – with 65 Bombardier CRJs – has filed bankruptcy as a result of this new requirement.

An old joke about the sudden disappearance of all the pizza delivery drivers in Norfolk, Virginia when this commuter airline moved its home base actually turned out to not be a joke at all….

Unsurprisingly, pilots still do stupid things in the cockpit, although an unintended consequence of this legislation is the rapid increase in pay scales for new entry First Officers – and a general increase in the availability of burger-flipping positions as the average FO no longer needs to moonlight to survive.

Ironically, I received a request for a reference on a young man I taught to fly a few years ago who then worked as an instructor for me, from a US commuter airline. A sure sign of their continuing desperation, as he was dismissed for reasons best not stated here, from my flight school. I duly supplied the information, and they must make their own decision on that one.

The global pilot village is a small place….seemingly too small at the moment.

So what of the two to three thousand hour ATPs here in South Africa who lament the lack of pilot jobs, as they find themselves ‘stuck’ flying Cessna Caravans on contract, with apparently zero chance of progression?

I have an opinion on that, but I‘ll describe a good-news career progression story instead.

Around three years ago, a young man (around 18 years old) joined us at Lanseria with about ten hours of dual flight in his logbook. He completed PPL and CPL in rapid succession, closely followed by his instructor’s rating. Around 14 months after joining us, his cash-flow had turned positive for him, and he went on to complete his Grade Two upgrade, along with the Multi-Engine Instructor’s endorsement.

As he had been in our ‘system’ for a while, I had determined that he had the personality and work ethic to be our Chief Flight Instructor, which he duly did for about a year. He left us with around 800 hours in his logbook, and about 200 hours of multi-engine time.

Right next door to our offices, he started flying survey, operating piston-twins. This he did for about another year. As I write this, he has just been accepted by Cathay Pacific as a direct-entry Second Officer (boy-pilot in my language).

Zero to observer’s seat in a B777, all with less than 1500 hours and three-odd years in the industry.

Not only does this illustrate that it can be done, but that the major operators out there are acutely aware of the sorry state of the global pilot training industry, and that serious trouble is looming over the next three to five years in terms of the suitable pilot-pool, that we are not developing.

In 2015, research published by the Wall Street Journal, indicated that the average age of airline pilots world wide is 50. Holy smokes, Batman, FIFTY years old! That means, with my most primitive analysis, that half the active pilots are below this age, and scaringly enough, the other half is above it.

In 1993, the average was 44 years old.

Thus, in less than 15 year’s time, half of the entire industry’s personnel will be out to pasture, out of circulation, and generally lost to all intents and purpose.

This is in addition to the figure of 448 000 new commercial pilots that has been bandied about by Boeing and Airbus. These individuals are supposed to fly the current backlog of orders – not to replace those moving to Shady Pines.

More scary statistics: In 1980, in the US, there were a total of 610 490 licenced pilots (certificated, as the Yanks say). Of this figure, an amazing 557 312 were Student (SPL) and Private pilots (PPL), leaving one to make the assumption that the balance, being 53 178 held CPL or ATP licences.

Fast forward to 2014, and the stats paint a bleak picture. Total licenced pilots were 432 138, with the SPL/PPL brigade numbering less than 240 000. Around half the numbers of 1980, while we now have a lot more commercial aircraft out there. This means that the base of the supply-pyramid is dwindling, and at a significant rate.

In a nutshell, the industry is screwed.

Not right now, but in the next ten to fifteen years. I have 18 years to go to 65, and when (and if) I make it to retirement, I wonder what the pilot-career landscape will look like, and if I will still be sending youngsters off on their first solo flights. My fleet of old Cessna 172s will be seriously long in the tooth by then, but probably still flying….

Getting back to that – how did it go? Well, due to the nature of Lanseria, he was asked to orbit on downwind due to a green 737 on final approach and an orange one waiting to depart, which he took in his stride due to his exposure of operating at South Africa’s largest General Aviation airport.

I observed the approach and landing through the tower controller’s binoculars, and with the slightest of bounces, he was safely down, while the 737 waited patiently for him. As he taxied in, I heard the Boeing’s crew compliment him on his first solo, and wished him well for the rest of his training. It was somewhat symbolic – the commercial aircraft being held up by the student pilot.

I think, going forward, we are all going to need the best of luck to keep the world’s aircraft competently crewed. Interesting times, indeed.

By | 2017-04-18T12:07:55+00:00 April 18th, 2017|Mike's Articles|0 Comments