Career in Focus: Pilot

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Free as a bird, flying high, fly on high… the sky and those who can conquer it have always fascinated songwriters. Airplanes fascinate most of us. Many of us want to fly that airplane. Competition is always energetic for cockpit careers because of the high earnings and perceived glamour of a pilot´s job, especially those employed by national airlines.

The Lowdown

Pilots are highly trained professionals who fly airplanes and helicopters on a variety of tasks. Although most pilots transport passengers and cargo, others are involved in dusting crops, spreading seed for reforestation, testing aircraft, tracking criminals, monitoring traffic, and rescuing and evacuating injured people. Airline pilots usually start with small commuter and regional airlines to acquire the experience needed to qualify for higher paying jobs with national airlines.

Except on small aircraft, two pilots usually make up the cockpit crew. Usually, the most experienced pilot, the captain, is in command and supervises all other crew members. The pilot and co-pilot share flying and other duties, such as communicating with air traffic controllers and monitoring the instruments. Some large aircraft have a third pilot—the flight engineer—who assists the other pilots by monitoring and operating many of the instruments and systems, making minor inflight repairs, and watching for other aircraft. New technology can perform many flight tasks, however, and virtually all new aircraft now fly with only two pilots, who rely more heavily on computerized controls. As older, less technologically sophisticated aircraft continue to retire from airline fleets, flight engineer jobs will diminish.

A Busy Workload

Most airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours a month and work an additional 75 hours a month performing non-flying duties. About one-fifth of all pilots work more than 40 hours a week. Most spend a considerable amount of time away from home because the majority of flights involve overnight layovers.

The lot of the pilot is often an arduous one. Airline pilots, especially those on international routes, suffer jet lag-fatigue caused by many hours of flying through different time zones. The work of test pilots, who check the flight performance of new and experimental planes, can be dangerous. Pilots who are crop dusters may be exposed to toxic chemicals and seldom have the benefit of a regular landing strip. Helicopter pilots involved in police work may be subject to personal injury.
Of Irish full-time pilots, about 85 percent work for airlines.

Other Career Options

Others work as flight instructors at local airports or for large businesses that fly company cargo and executives in their own airplanes or helicopters. Some pilots fly small planes for companies operating between smaller airports not served by major airlines. Others work for a variety of businesses performing tasks such as inspecting pipelines, lifting forestry materials or providing sightseeing trips. The Government, through the Air Corps, also employs pilots.

All pilots who are paid to transport passengers or cargo must have a commercial pilot’s license. Helicopter pilots must also hold a commercial pilot’s certificate with a helicopter rating. To qualify for these licenses, applicants must be at least 18 years old and have a certain amount of flight experience. They also must pass a strict physical examination to make sure that they are in good health. Applicants must pass a written test that includes questions on the principles of safe flight, navigation techniques, and regulations.

Getting the Paperwork Right

Airline pilots must have an airline transport pilot’s license. Applicants for this license must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience, including night and instrument flying, and pass written and flight examinations. Because pilots must be able to make quick decisions and accurate judgments under pressure, many airline companies reject applicants who do not pass required psychological and aptitude tests.

The Defence Forces have always been an important source of trained pilots for civilian jobs. Military pilots gain valuable experience and much flying time on jet aircraft and helicopters, and persons with this experience are usually preferred for civilian pilot jobs. Those without defence forces training can also become pilots by attending flight schools, at home and abroad. Many Irish pilots train in the US, where the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) certifies about 600 civilian flying schools, including some colleges and universities that offer degree credit for pilot training.
Depending on the type of aircraft, new airline pilots start as first-officers or flight engineers. Although some airlines favour applicants who already have a flight engineer’s license, they may provide flight engineer training for those who have only the commercial license. Many pilots begin with smaller regional or commuter airlines where they obtain experience flying passengers on scheduled flights into busy airports in all weather conditions. These jobs often lead to higher paying jobs with bigger, national airlines.

Career Progression

Advancement for all pilots is limited to other flying jobs – many start as flight instructors, building up their flying hours while they earn money teaching. As they become more experienced, these pilots occasionally fly charter planes or perhaps get jobs with small air transportation firms, such as air taxi companies. Some advance to business flying jobs. A small number get flight engineer jobs with the airlines. In the airlines, advancement usually depends on seniority. After 1 to 5 years, flight engineers advance according to seniority to first officer and, after 5 to 15 years, to captain. Seniority also determines which pilots get the more desirable routes.
The expected growth in airline passenger and cargo traffic will obviously create demand for more airliners, pilots, and flight instructors. However, computerized flight management systems on new aircraft will reduce the need for flight engineers on those planes, thus restricting the growth of pilot employment. In addition, the trend toward using larger planes in the airline industry will increase pilot productivity. On the other hand, the number of helicopter pilots is expected to increase more rapidly as the demand expands for the type of services that helicopters can offer, such as police and rescue operations.


Employment of pilots is sensitive to cyclical swings in the economy. During recessions, when a decline in the demand for air travel forces airlines to curtail the number of flights, airlines may temporarily furlough some pilots. Commercial and corporate flying, flight instruction, and testing of new aircraft also decline during recession.

More than one-half of all aircraft pilots are members of unions. Most of the pilots who fly for the major airlines are members of the Airline Pilots Association. Some flight engineers are members of the Flight Engineers’ International Association.

By Mark Godfrey


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