A pilot’s advice for students considering a career in aviation – Job hunting and the Varsity Experience
Training Completed – Now What?
At this point, you’re officially a qualified Commercial pilot. But instead of soaring through the skies, you sit with only a few flying hours and little experience, and with very few companies wanting to hire you because of it. You ask yourself, “If no one hires me, where can I get the experience?” Not only this, but you’ve spent a few hundred thousand Rands to get there. It’s not a fun spot to be in. Many qualified pilots sit with this problem for what can be a few years.
In this case, one option is to seek jobs helping in charter companies, pushing papers as an operations manager. These jobs do provide you with a great insight into the inner workings of the industry. With some luck, you can even find flying opportunities this way. Having this kind of work on your CV puts you a cut above the rest, as companies can see that you’re willing to work hard and bite the bullet for what you want.
So, what will get you where you want to be?
If you are sitting with a fat loan from your pilot training and aren’t earning anything or not enough to start paying back, it can put you in a terribly demotivating space. Many people like the idea of wearing gold epaulettes on their shoulders and donning on a pair of Ray-Bans, but that dream is short-lived when the going gets tough, and the desire starts to fizzle out. Sadly, it drives many pilots to pursue other career paths, leaving a massive amount of money wasted of course.
For those that decide to stay, however, the most important force that keeps them going, despite the hardships they face, is PASSION. I cannot stress enough how important passion is to be a pilot. Those who push through, and ultimately grab themselves a job, are the ones who have this quality. If you have passion, you’re already halfway there.
You have now completed your training and are a qualified pilot. What’s next? I suggest looking at some of these:
- Look in SA
- Head to Namibia or Maun, Botswana
- Indonesia for Susi Air (email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
- Malawi for Ulendo Air
- Or alternatively you can search online for flying jobs all over the globe via a website called Pilot Career Center. It’s incredibly helpful, as it provides you with all the requirements for a specific job and the contact details for the company you wish to apply to.
It is worth mentioning that if you want a job outside of South Africa, it is worthwhile taking the time and effort to travel up to the company base and meet the chief pilot and operations manager. Sending an email with a CV attached is easy – they want to see you are interested and that you show initiative.
There are many job opportunities with various companies in Namibia and Maun for both experienced and freshly qualified pilots, flying a Cessna 210 or 206. There, you can gain the most incredible experience a young pilot can get, not only this, but flying in this type of environment as a ‘bush pilot’ allows you the opportunity to really enhance your flying skills and become better at making informed and safe decisions – an invaluable skill to have later on when you captain larger aircraft.
It is trickier to find a job in SA, but the opportunities are there. You can go for options like flying skydivers or bush charters in the Kruger. A few companies worth considering are:
- Air Link (Airlink are starting up a small Caravan operation there – follow this link to apply via email for a low-time position)
Airports like Wonderboom and Lanseria are good spots to wonder around, as there are plenty of smaller general aviation aircraft based there. If you don’t go out there and search for a job, you more than likely won’t find one.
If all else fails, try getting yourself a job working in operations for a charter company or even helping out in the hanger with the mechanics – not only does this provide great insight into the industry but also helps you make valuable contacts. Either way, you will be able to find yourself work within the industry.
Never forget: NETWORK, NETWORK, and NETWORK! Like many careers out there, it’s whom you know and not what you know!
But, What About the Varsity Experience?
Before drawing to a close, a point worth mentioning is the issue of a social life. I’m not suggesting that pilots don’t have a social life, but aviation does not have nearly as many high-spirited youngsters as universities do. You often find yourself working and socializing with people older than you.
Going straight from school into a very strict and ‘grown-up’ environment tends to deny young people the experience of living the free-spirited and ‘care-free’ student life. Rather, they need to learn the importance of responsibility right from the start (needless to say, this can be a very good thing). The good news is, you can compromise and complete a degree before flying (or during, with options like UNISA). However, doing a correspondence degree does not give you what a full-time varsity experience can offer you. Ultimately, I believe that studying is an invaluable experience to have.
Many big airlines out there either require you to have a degree or at least prefer their candidates to have one. In a job interview, many applicants have the same pilot qualifications. It’s their other experiences and qualifications that set them apart from each other, and what can put one person a step higher than another. Having a degree is undoubtedly a major asset.
One of my pilot colleagues went to Rhodes University and completed a Bcom degree. He told me it had been the ‘biggest jol’ he had ever had. He took the time to attend university, but now flies the same aircraft as me, for an Airline. He is in many ways the ‘cream of the crop,’ and has not fallen behind in flying because of his choice to get a degree.
Based on the decision to go to air school right after Matric, I knew from the start that I’d be missing out on the varsity experience. As a result, I was earning a salary and building my ‘future foundations’ way ahead of my friends. In many ways I do regret not having attended varsity, even just for a year. It wasn’t always great to watch how my friends attended varsity and made the most wonderful friends and memories there… But hindsight is, after all, 20/20, right?
Having said that, however, being young when starting out in this industry definitely has a great advantage – it gives you time. And time is an incredibly valuable thing to have. You don’t need to rush into this career. Use a good few years to test the ground (and air) before trying to pursue a full-time flying position somewhere. Use your youth while you can and make the most out of it, whether that means making the most out of a varsity experience, or soaring through the skies.
If you are interested in obtaining a degree and flying at the same time, you might also be interested in an organization called ‘The da Vinci Institute’ – these guys specialize specifically in aviation degrees and, of course, flying. It’s based on a correspondence-type learning platform to compensate for pilots working abroad.
To end, I want to emphasize that if your passion lies in aviation, it really is the best career you can end up in. I’m now 24 years old and currently fly an Embraer 120 aircraft – a 30-seater regional liner. It is so rewarding to fly, and you get paid for doing what you love. It can be a long road to the top of the ladder, but like with many careers, you have to start somewhere. I say, bite down hard and keep the dream going. This career will pay off in all possible ways. It might not happen overnight, but if you believe in it, it will happen.
Opinions from Current Pilots-to-Be:
“One of the most challenging parts of pilot training is the theoretical exams. But flying makes up for it – that’s the fun part.” – Achim Z (current pilot in training)
Many aspects come into play when choosing the right air school. For example, consider inquiring about the quality and experience of the instructors, the kind of equipment they use for training, and also their location (flying can be weather dependent, so the more bases they have, the better are your chances of flying often).