Today, I want to answer a question I get asked all the time. Sometimes people switch careers later in life in hopes of chasing a dream that they’ve held since childhood all along. Some people never chase their dream thinking that by the time they are willing to do it, it’s too late because they didn’t start out early enough.
While an early start in any career is helpful, and sometimes essential (model or dancer), it is possible to make a career switch later on in life. How later on depends on many factors, and there are never any guarantees, but if you have a good plan and do your research, you will have a good shot.
With a mandatory retirement age of 65 in the US, Part 121 companies (airlines) that employ pilots want to make sure that when they hire someone, they will get someone who is going to be around for a good amount of years. How many years depends on the supply and demand for pilots at the time – becoming a pilot for the airlines depends a lot on timing.
However, there are other operations that don’t have a mandatory retirement age, but these are rarely advertised and mostly obtained through word of mouth. For example, some corporate flight departments operating under Part 91 may choose not to retire their pilots at age 65, but they would do this on a case-by-case basis.
The key in becoming a professional pilot when you’re starting out later in life is to get your pilot ratings and flight time as soon and as fast as possible. Unfortunately, this is extremely difficult because you are probably dealing with many responsibilities that your typical 18 year old student pilot doesn’t have to – a family, a mortgage, a full time job in another industry, etc.
My advice to someone in this position is to seriously consider flying internationally. There are some pilot programs in foreign airlines that will take applicants with little to no flight time and train them to start flying as Second Officers in Boeing and Airbus airplanes in about two to three years. These programs are extremely competitive and challenging, but if you think you’ve got what it takes, they are worth a shot. The catch is that after training you, you owe them a certain amount of years of employment, 6-8 years is typical but vary by airline. The goal, of course, is to be upgraded to Captain within that timeframe.
To find these opportunities, you have to do quite a bit of digging, but as an example, check out the Cathay Pacific pilot program.
These programs would most likely require you to move, as their flight training takes place internationally. Since English is the official language in aviation, I wouldn’t worry about having problems due to language. Moving to a foreign country is a big decision, however, and if you have a spouse and/or family, the decision is not yours alone.
If foreign airlines aren’t your cup of tea, then you will just have to take your chances here in the US, where most people slowly build up flight time by working in low-paying jobs, such as flight instructing, banner towing, or flying traffic watch flights for your local news station. In this situation, you should really hone in on your networking skills and try to get rides with ferry pilots or corporate pilots. You will need to capitalize on the one advantage you have over a younger pilot trying to build up time, and that is your network of people that you have built up over the years.
Ask friends and family to put you in touch with anyone they might know who works in a flight department that is of interest to you. If you’re coming from another profession, pay particular attention to corporate aviation. Some corporate flight departments are so small, they are made up of a 2 or 3 pilots who might be willing to take you on flights as a right seat safety pilot. You wouldn’t get paid much, but you’d be able to build up time in twin turbine or twin jet airplanes.
I know a few pilots who started their flying careers later in life and have succeeded in finding a full time flying job after making a switch in careers. In future blog posts, I plan on interviewing some of them and will be asking them to share their inspirational stories with you.
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