In the latest in our ongoing series, Captain James McBride, a Boeing 737 captain for a major European airline, and aviation author, explains why commercial flying is still special.
There’s an old joke that goes something like: “How do you know when you’ve got an airline pilot at a dinner party? Don’t worry, he’ll tell you!” This incorrectly implies that all airline pilots are braggards, male and overconfident egotists. These days the reverse is true.
Our profession is not what it used to be: there was a time when strangers might have been suitably impressed, but now their reaction is a mixture of pity and diffidence. They know our industry is on life-support and those of us still working are doing so in much reduced circumstances.
So, we ask the question: what makes our occupation desirable even now to the younger generation? In the glory days, expat pilots working in the Middle East could rely on their pot of gold at the end of a 15-year stint. They could retire early on their return to Europe. At the legacy carriers of the EU, the situation was similar. At a youthful 55, a well-remunerated mainline captain would close his logbook and with generous pension provision, would hardly notice a difference in his income (indeed, sometimes it would be more than he was earning flying the line!). In Greece, the pilots of the great Olympic Airways used to say they could afford to buy a new car every month.
One of the advantages of having a long career is that you get to see a lot of changes, not all of which are for the better. For instance, the return on investment for new joiners is less sure than it used to be. Yet there is still a queue waiting to hand over the £100,000-plus required for initial training and type rating. That training takes 12 months or more, in most countries without any monetary support from the airline or the taxpayer. Even if the newbie aviator lands the job of their dreams, their salary expectations are minimal for years. There are even some carriers who operate ‘pay to fly’ schemes – where co-pilots pay their airline for the privilege of sitting in the right-hand seat.
All things considered, it cannot be the money that attracts us. My own story is like that of many others: I always wanted to fly, a passion from before the age of 10. Am I disappointed with my choice of career? Not a bit of it. Is there anything I would change if I had to do it all again? Nothing. You see, it is still a bit special. Not everyone can do what we do, granted, some wouldn’t want to, but there are many more who would love to. For whatever reason, it did not work out for them, although they wished it had. Those who fly for a living or who have done so are a little different. It is an odd choice of occupation and although not as glamorous as it was, it remains fascinating for others. So much so, that after a few decades you find ways of avoiding telling people what you do for a living. It is not elitism, trust me, it is just that I find it more interesting to learn about what strangers do; I prefer to listen than to transmit.
Which is why, now when asked by a stranger, my reply is often a vague “I’m in aluminium exports,” which usually results in a lack of further questions. But if they probe further, I answer, “Oh, aluminium tubing mostly…” before steering the conversation round to them.
A couple of years ago I met a stranger in a boatyard in Greece. He was a long way from home. An affable Australian with an easy manner who was happy to chat, he was waiting for his immaculate sailboat to be launched. Obviously retired, he was in his late 60s and dressed in scruffy shorts and raggedy tee-shirt. Clearly an experienced sailor, it was a delight to talk to him about his travels in the Mediterranean and beyond.
Not only that, but something else, he had a certain calmness… I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There came an appropriate moment. “You’re clearly enjoying retirement Steve, but what was your occupation?” I asked. He looked at me, smiled and said easily, “Ah well, I was moving equipment around… y’know,” as if he’d had the most boring job of all. Then we moved back to boats and sailing, a mutual interest. A while later, he asked me what I did, to which I grinned and said, “Well, I move equipment around… y’know.” He laughed, “Yer a pilot aren’t ya?!”
It may not be the best paid profession any more but, for some of us, it is still the best job in the world.
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