Barely a week goes by without me being asked one of two questions.
1. I want to learn to fly and to become a commercial pilot. Can you help me?
2. I have a commercial pilot’s licence and can’t find work. Can you help me?
The answer to both questions is ‘YES!’ To the first question, I answer ‘consider another career, and look to flying as something you do for yourself. Never consider flying as a way of making money, but do consider learning to fly as a personal development goal. Flying is like driving a car, most people learn to drive for their own development, few learn to drive because they want to drive a bus for a living!’
Right now there appears to be a surplus of pilots in the world. Changes in regulations, economic pressures, misleading reports, etc. have created the situation where you have about a one in a hundred chance (from first lesson to commercial pilot placement) of getting a job. Considering the immense amount of money it takes to get a commercial pilot’s licence, it is probably best to seek to fly for pleasure (Ghana has a wonderful national licence that is relatively affordable, limiting flying to 2 seat aircraft, but providing the stepping stone to future licences), and to enjoy the amazing joy of flight. Perhaps, seek to expand your skills towards some humanitarian flying and wait and see what the industry does. At least if you have a basic licence you are attractive for sponsorship down the line, if the industry improves.
To the second question, I have to shake my head and put on my ‘you can’t be serious face’. In fact I do that a lot these days. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to get a commercial licence – close to $100,000 to obtain the ATPL (Air Transport Pilot Licence), and the chances of ever recuperating the amount you invested is tiny. Very few pilots ‘make it’ compared to those who start. You must only pursue this dream if a) you have the passion to take it on and b) you can afford to spend that amount of money and NOT get a job at the end! If you have the qualification, and you can’t find work, then consider another career and just keep to flying for fun, as you can afford. Oh, and don’t complain to me about the ‘repayment on your loans’, you should have done your research before borrowing that much money. This is a tough industry, and you should have gone into it with your eyes wide open. You demonstrate a lack of risk assessment (an essential skill in the cockpit) if you failed to consider ‘what do I do if I can’t get a job at the end’ before you embarked on the project. Do I sound harsh? Perhaps, but this is not a new phenomenon. Learn to fly, by all means, but do not get yourself – or your family - in a financial mess by doing so.
Now, if you seek to become a crop spraying pilot, then the numbers change. But so do the risks. Good aerial dispersal pilots are hard to come by. The risks are higher in other ways. In France I was told ‘a crop spraying pilot works six months of the year and spends six months of the year in hospital’! Thus reflecting the relatively high number of accidents – many of them fatal – recorded. Aerial dispersal is about getting up before dawn, working low level, carrying large quantities of potentially health damaging chemicals around you, and knowing that ‘if anything goes wrong’ you have little option but to take the trees in your face. All the same, it is a great career for those who want to fly, scrape a living (it is not well paid) and to help the agricultural and public health sectors. You must be exceptionally quick witted and have reactions as lightning fast as a green mamba striking a rat in the bush! If you are a trained aerial dispersal pilot, you just need to wait for the next accident, often a death, for a job opening! Oh, I sound harsh again!
Of course, if you are not interested in making money, but more interested in making a difference, then there is the ‘humanitarian pilot’. My chosen line of work. I love it. I get paid in smiles – miles of smiles – and love every minute of it. In fact, I love the potential it gives me to fly low and slow over communities, changing lives as I go. I love the training of young people aspect, the twenty four hours a day, seven days per week, three hundred and sixty five days of the year - aspects of maintenance, flying, materials development, community meetings, teaching and training. I love it. But it is not a ‘good return on investment’. It is not ‘attractive’ financially. But it satisfies (and satisflies) me.
Would I recommend others to do what I do? Only for those who are ready to take the sacrifices that accompany it. It is not easy. It is tiring. It is amazing. It has its risks. It does not pay the bills. You do not get a social life with it!
So, then I come to the pilots in Europe and the USA who contact me ‘wanting to come and gain some hours flying humanitarian missions’. No. That is not what we do. Our missions are flown by our locally trained young people. Those who are LONG term, committed and desirous of taking help to their own people. It takes a lot of training to be ready to go out on a drop mission (we work on four years). It is exhausting, and it draws on skills that are not generally taught (just like aerial dispersal). Experienced commercial pilots often insult me, coupled with their declaration ‘but I have a commercial licence and four hundred hours’ or even those who have ‘thousands of hours’. Such experience is of little use when you consider low-inertia, high revving engine, bush flying operations in areas where you do not let go of the stick and throttle for many hours in a row. It is like telling me that you have driven a bus all of your life so now you can drive a racing car. Fortunately, some of the pilots in Europe and the USA are ready to come to Ghana to share their experiences with our trainees. Ready to come to learn how we do what we do, and to help us to train our young people through sharing their experiences – they are ready to come out for a few weeks to a few months, paying their own way, covering all of their costs and their flight training, supporting the young people they teach; being a part of the development. To such pilots, I take my hat off and thank them from the bottom of my heart – and I enjoy flying with them too! Such pilots are few and far between – but treasures to behold!
So, I guess the answer to a career in aviation is that it is only for those who really want it, regardless of the sacrifice, regardless of the type of flying, regardless of the risks. If you want a salary, then take a desk job. If you want a life - and will not count the costs – financial, emotional and social, then fly!
Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics (www.waasps.com www.medicineonthemove.org e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org )