While my childhood dream was always to fly helicopters I had at times thought about flying airplanes instead. But to be honest it never got me as excited. A career flying a large airliner back and forth across the country just didn’t seem like fun and I imagined the reality of these jobs had little to do with actual flying. After all, today’s modern airliners are more akin to computers and the pilots are managing workloads and monitoring performance. One statistic I read claimed that on a typical jet flight the pilot has her hands on the controls for less than 5 minutes. My perspective on what it meant to fly fixed-wing changed in 2012 thanks to my talks with the pilots at WAIS Divide. This was when I learned about the possibilities flying small planes.
Air taxi work, more commonly known as bush flying, involves using small planes in remote areas to provide transportation and cargo movement. In the United States Alaska is the epicenter of air taxi work. Outside of the States air taxis are used in Canada, Africa, South America, Asia, and many other parts of the world. With these career options in mind I started to look at what it might take to become a fixed-wing pilot.
When I first looked at helicopter programs I saw prices around $100,000 and the cost was too much to stomach. In 2012 when I started looking at fixed-wing programs I found a somewhat better situation with costs around $65,000. At first I was still uncertain. I had saved enough to pay for over half my training, but was I comfortable with borrowing the money it would take to finish? Once again I fell back on my family for support and guidance. I was amazed, but not surprised, by the level of encouragement I received. My father felt that spending $65,000 for a chance at a new career was not outrageous at all. Don’t people spend at least that much for a degree that they may never use? He was happy to loan me whatever money it would take to complete my training.
And so I spent most of 2013 preparing myself for a career in the fixed-wing world, one that would ultimately take me to Alaska and out into the world. I looked at schools, talked to pilots, explored employment, and spent time studying groundschool books. I came up with a rough plan to get my certificates and then go straight to Alaska where I could use my Antarctic connections to break into the world of air taxi work. I decided to work one last season as an electrician in Antarctica before starting my new career and in August of 2013 I deployed south for the fourth time.
Having my plan to start flight school the summer of 2014 in place I was eager to share my thoughts and intentions with the Antarctic community. I had learned that networking and seeking help from those either in the industry or with connections to it was going to be my way in. The first pilots I met during the 2013 season worked for PHI, the helicopter contractor. As I told them about my plans to start a fixed-wing career they were encouraging but also questioned why I was not going for a career flying helicopters. Hadn’t that been my original passion? When I voiced my concerns about the cost of training and job opportunities they countered with the reality that neither path is inexpensive and it would be impossible to predict which career would prove more fruitful in the future job market.
Pilots, like all people, have their individual opinions. I was pleased that each pilot I talked to wanted to tout the benefits of flying helicopters, a sign that they must be pleased with their own choices. Interestingly many of the pilots had started with fixed-wing training and moved, through one avenue or another, to helicopters. I felt I was getting very honest opinions from people who actually had experience with both sides of aviation. All of these things forced me to seriously reconsider my compromise of going the fixed-wing route. I started my research about helicopter programs once again and I also took every opportunity, at the risk of being a nuisance, to ask the pilots questions. I called schools and asked more questions about job paths and career opportunities. In the end I came to these personal conclusions.
First, flying helicopters, not airplanes, was my true dream. If I wanted to take a risk pursuing my aviation dream shouldn’t I stay true to it? Second, a helicopter pilot’s lifestyle would be quite different, and preferable, to that of a fixed-wing pilot. In fact, I realized that I was searching for a nonconventional niche market job in the fixed-wing industry in an attempt to make a satisfying career. In the helicopter world the traditional, or conventional, job paths have always been appealing. And what of the increased cost of training and concern over the future of jobs? As my father insightfully pointed out, the extra $30,000 spent on career training would be insignificant when spread over 25 years of work. And the job market, as I mentioned before, is impossible to predict.
Some of the best advice I received came from one of the pilots in Antarctica. He said that it came down to one simple fact; the challenges of both career paths are equal. The large amount of money required and the time invested, figuring out how to bridge the gap between training and the first real job, facing a career change at an older age, and a job market that is never certain; these difficulties would be present regardless of whether I chose fixed-wing or helicopters. And if all challenges are equal in fixed-wing and helicopter careers the most important thing would be confidence that I had the energy to overcome them. I believe that energy will come from following my true passion.