Plane Answers: Follow up questions to ‘So you want to be a pilot.’

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

We’ve received a lot of follow up questions to the Plane Answers post from last week, “So you want to be a pilot. Here’s how.” The following questions were chosen from those who wrote in asking about a career change:

Rick asks:

I read your article last week about pilot training and careers “So you want to be a pilot?” on Gadling. I am 55 years old. Is it too late for some one my age to consider a career in commercial aviation? I am in excellent health and train daily (running, swimming and cycling).

Hi Rick,

The mandatory retirement age is 65 for airlines, but there isn’t a retirement age for corporate flying, instructing or ‘Part 135‘ charters.

If an airline hired you at 59 or 60, you may find it impossible to recoup your investment in the years of flight training you’d have to accomplish.

But there’s usually pretty good demand for flight instructors who are willing to stay with a company, as opposed to those who are building time with their sights set on the first charter or airline job that comes along. If you really enjoy flying, and you think you might be a good teacher, that could be your best bet. And you can often continue working somewhere else while you instruct on the weekends, for example, especially since the pay for instructors is so low, you’ll likely need a second job anyway.
And who knows, you may find some charter work to do after a few years of instructing.

There was a time when major airlines wouldn’t hire anyone who wasn’t young enough to eventually make it to the left seat. At my airline, the unwritten age limit in 1998 was 47. The retirement age back then was 60. I would imagine airlines may start using 50 as a cutoff. Since most airlines aren’t hiring pilots right now, it’s hard to know for sure.

Good luck. And even if you decide not to fly commercially, give some thought to getting a private pilot license. You’ll likely enjoy the process.

And Carl asks a similar question:

In your article you stated that the mandatory retirement age was 65. Does that mean that you can’t fly commercially after 65 or just for the major airlines. I’m looking at early retirement at 55 and would like to do charters to hunting and fishing sites and small to medium groups to special destinations.

Flying charters to fishing or hunting locations often involves flying a floatplane for a guide service. There is no retirement age for those operators, but the experience requirements are steep. Insurance companies dictate the minimum flight time for these pilots, and most require experience in that particular location.

Having grown up in Alaska, I can tell you that there are thousands of high-time pilots who are thinking along the same lines as you. If you do decide to pursue this goal, you might be better off learning to fly from one of the flight schools in the area where you’re hoping to work, so your experience can be considered local. And you may end up getting to know some of the operators there as well which will help in the networking department.

You can find a list of flight schools in your area here.

Jeromy asks:

Hi Kent,

I’m approaching 30 and I’ve been considering a career change lately due to my lack of desire to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life. I was a wildland firefighter for several seasons while working my way through engineering school. I loved the job and I remember looking up at the lead plane pilots flying low guiding the heavy tankers, showing them where to drop the fire retardant. I always thought that would be a thrilling position, dangerous though it may be. Now I feel like I’m at a crossroads, and my dream of living that adventure could lie down one of those roads.

The requirements seem to be around a minimum of 1300 hrs to get your foot in the door. How would you recommend achieving this dream expediently, while trying to feed a family at the same time?

Hi Jeromy,

I agree. Flying in a firefighting support role has been a dream of mine since I first saw the movie “Always.”

Your first step is to get your Private Pilot License as I explained last week. Since you have a family and a job, I would recommend going the Part 61 route, since it’s usually easier to set your own pace, and the hourly rates are often less expensive. Hopefully you can finish up your commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings with them (you’ll need all three) and move along to a part time instructing job to build time.

While you’re doing that, try to get in touch with some of the pilots who do the job. Networking is the best way to land any flying job, and you may discover just what requirements you’ll need. I have to think that your firefighting experience might appeal to an employer, though.

There were so many good comments from last week’s column, I’m hopeful someone who flies tankers will respond here with some more detailed advice for you.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr