February 26, 2006
An office with a view
Special to The Seattle Times
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
On a clear day, Sean O'Connor can sometimes see all of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier from his office.
"I love the flying, and up in this area a lot of the flying is really beautiful," says O'Connor, a captain for Horizon Air, the Seattle-based regional carrier that flies throughout the Northwest and California.
It's not uncommon for O'Connor to cross the Cascades several times a day, and sometimes if he gets permission and can still arrive on time, he may take a short detour to give his passengers a closer look at Mount Rainier.
O'Connor has flying in his blood; he is the son of a flight attendant. But it also took a lot of study and hundreds of hours of flying to get to the point where he could be a pilot on a commercial plane.
And it's a job in a field that's taking off again.
Want to become a pilot?
Pilots sought at aviation conference this weekend
Job fair: Horizon Air and other pilot employers will be at the NW Aviation Conference this weekend at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, Pavilion Hall. Information: www.washington- aviation.org/NAC&TS.html is in Booth 171 and will be accepting résumés. Or go to www.horizonair.com,scroll to the bottom of the page and click "Careers."
Flight instruction: There are a number of flight schools in the area. For a listing, check the FAA site: http://av-info.faa.gov/PilotSchool.asp, select "Washington" under "State" and hit "Search."
Despite high fuel prices and the financial problems buffeting some of the larger airlines, overall ridership is growing and the demand for pilots is increasing, according to aviation experts.
"We're definitely in a hiring mode," said Horizon Air spokeswoman Jen McSkimming.
Horizon will be recruiting pilots this weekend at the NW Aviation Conference in the Pavilion Hall at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.
Clear skies ahead?
Job openings for pilots are projected to increase about as fast as the average through the decade, although the demand may temporarily go up and down due to swings in the economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While a number of the major airlines have been forced to reduce schedules, lay off pilots and even declare bankruptcy, hiring has continued at regional and low-fare airlines.
Opportunities with air-cargo carriers also should be good because of increasing security requirements for shipping freight on passenger airlines and growth in e-commerce.
The pay for pilots varies greatly and depends on such factors as experience, the airline, the type and size of the plane and the number of hours flown.
The median annual pay of commercial pilots was $53,870 in 2004, with most making from about $37,000 to $110,000, according to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But entry-level flying jobs could start as low as about $20,000 a year.
The high-flying life
Most pilots have two types of flying life: on the schedule or on reserves (on call).
Sometimes a pilot may have an entire month of scheduled shifts; other times he or she may be on call, which means being available from 4:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. or 10:30 a.m. until midnight, four to five days a week.
As with a regular schedule, pilots on call cannot consume alcohol within 12 hours, or on the same calendar day, as a potential flight.
On-call pilots must also be within two hours of the airport at all times.
Some pilots dread those on-call days. O'Connor doesn't mind.
"It depends on your attitude, really," he says. "I have a lot of things I can do within two hours of the airport to take up my free time. I guess I figure every day on call is a potential day off.
"I've been mountain biking, I've been sailing. You just have to drive around with a suitcase in the back of your car, I guess."
On average, O'Connor flies 80 hours a month. That averages out to about four days a week.
A typical day could look like this: He could start out with a round-trip to Portland, a round-trip to Redmond/Bend, Ore., followed by a leg to Victoria, B.C., where he'll spend the night, known in the industry as an overnight. No sooner than nine hours later, he'll have a report time for his next day of flying.
In addition to those potential days off, O'Connor likes the predictability of his job.
"When I come back, nothing has piled up," the pilot says.
"There's no e-mail, there's no voice-mail, I just start right back as if I never missed a day. So, your free time is really your own free time."
Of course, pilots may need to work weekends and holidays, too, when passenger travel can be the heaviest.
For O'Connor, a newlywed, the hardest parts of the job are being away from home and the inconsistency of the schedule.
"You know, if I want to have a standing event — say go out with the guys every Monday night — that's really hard to do."
Building up the hours
While it takes a minimum of 40 hours of flying time to get a private license, pilot hopefuls should plan to build 250 to 300 hours to receive all of the ratings they will need to have their first job, which is typically flight instruction, said McSkimming.
From there, pilots on average will teach or fly cargo for 1,000 to 1,500 more hours before becoming eligible for that first airline job, she said.
One can learn to fly at private flying schools, where renting a plane can cost more than $100 an hour, or through some four-year colleges. Central Washington University in Ellensburg offers degrees in flight technology.
O'Connor logged his hours by earning a degree in commercial aviation at the University of North Dakota, and then by working as a flight instructor.
O'Connor thinks of college as an ideal way to get a commercial license and the flight hours needed.
"Most airlines prefer to see a four-year degree on the résumé," said McSkimming, adding that potential pilots should see a college education as an investment. "It pays off in the end."
Seattle Times Job Market editor Bill Kossen contributed to this report.
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