Spread Your Wings You earned your pilot certificate — now what?

by Mark Baker
AOPA President & CEO
Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2020 issue

AMERICAN AUTHOR MARK TWAIN ONCE SAID, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do.” From personal experience, I can tell you Twain was onto something.

I have spent a good portion of my life around the aviation community, and I’ve yet to meet a pilot who regrets learning to fly. More often, it’s “I wish I hadn’t waited so long.” Whether you pursued this skill to advance your career, learned to fly as a hobby, or have always dreamed of crossing it off your bucket list, I applaud you. Earning your wings is an accomplishment that should be celebrated, and it truly sets us apart from most of our co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances.

For me, learning to fly was one of the most thrilling, rewarding, and challenging experiences of my life. However, there are a lot of pilots caught in a gray area after getting their certificate. Like all things, the honeymoon phase of taking up your first few passengers dwindles, and many pilots begin asking themselves—now what?

Statistics show that many pilots let their skills lapse over time, partly because they don’t have a reason to venture out of the familiar traffic pattern at their local airports. But a multitude of opportunities exist—whether the goal is to build time, volunteer, or challenge yourself with a fun, new rating. Don’t let your logbook sit on the shelf collecting dust. Put your skills to good use and get airborne. Enjoy all the freedoms that come with being a pilot in a country where the sky truly is the limit.

If you want to make a career out of flying, now’s the time. Because of a growing number of retirees, a booming economy, and an increased thirst for air travel, pilots are in high demand. Aviation professionals are needed in legacy airlines, regionals, Part 91, and Part 135 operators. Boeing predicts a need for more than 800,000 new civil pilots to fly the global fleet over the next 20 years. Collegiate flight schools, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, have seen an increase in enrollment in the past year. Last fall’s incoming class at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus had 1,950 students—an increase of nearly 18 percent over the previous year.

Today, there are many opportunities to build coveted flight time without going down the traditional flight instructor route. In fact, many Part 135 operators are accepting pilots with fewer hours than previously demanded. Such positions are great opportunities to build time to qualify for the regional airlines. Some on-demand operators are recruiting first officers with as few as 300 hours total time. Aerial photography, air tour flying, pipeline patrol, and skydive operations are all great ways for low-time pilots to get more experience, up their confidence, and jump-start their careers. Plus, I can’t think of any entry-level job with better office views.

No matter your experience, ratings, or time logged, we are all pilots with a passion for aviation. We all dared to take the leap, sacrificed the hours, and sat shoulder to shoulder with our instructors on a weekly basis. Should you ever find yourself in a rut, just remember what a remarkable achievement it is to become a pilot. Life is bound to be filled with some regrets, but I assure you, learning to fly will never be one of them.

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