By Rod Machado
I remember a time when an airplane would fly over our house during dinner and I’d run outside shirtless—in my tiny pants and bare feet—and then point skyward and yell, “Airpwane! Airpwane! Airpwane!” I remember that because it happened last week. OK, I exaggerate. But I’ve always loved airplanes. As a youngster, I intuitively knew that aviation was the career choice for me.
Our family, however, didn’t have deep pockets, so I had to find an inexpensive way to earn my pilot certificates and a college degree. That’s exactly what I did. You can do the same if you consider the following strategy.
During high school, I got something called a “job.” Our president says he has created millions of these, so they should be easy pickings for anyone interested in having one. Except for teenagers, of course. Today’s teenagers, who typically don’t have skills that merit pay at the current minimum wage, often find employment nothing more than a pipe dream. So, they frequently pursue scholarships, instead. That’s fine. If you can get one. Unfortunately, you stand a better chance of getting hit by lightning than obtaining a scholarship. At least a lightning strike pays greater dividends because you can rent yourself out as a human flashlight for a week. In any case, even if you obtained a scholarship, most pay only a small percentage of flight training costs. It seems as though jobs and scholarships are both pipe dreams, only without the pipe.
Absent a “deep pocket daddy,” most teenagers are left with little choice but to generate their own “entrepreneurial” revenue stream. Any young person with more than a handful of neurons can do a Google search on the subject and find hundreds of ways to make money for flying lessons. That’s not a throw-away line, either. I’ve known many teenagers who’ve done this and paid for their own flight training.
Of course, you’ll need a college degree for employment with a major airline. So let me disabuse you of a galactic-sized misconception about college. The airlines couldn’t care less where you went to college as long as the college doesn’t have the word “Clown” in its name. They only care that you have a four-year degree. And, all except for one airline to my knowledge (Delta), most couldn't care less if it took you more than four years to earn it. After all, you might have had to take time away from college to help your family or earn a living--sometimes life gets in the way of our plans, no? Additionally, the airlines don't care what you studied in college, even if the word “Clown” is in your degree title.
My advice is to study what interests you. Period. Your objective in choosing an area of study is to give yourself a reason to finish school. If studying aviation makes you happy, then study aviation. If you want to make bad guys unhappy, study law enforcement. What you study doesn’t matter with respect to an aviation career. Just show up for class, don’t clown around, and graduate.
Wait! How do you get a four year degree if you can’t afford to go to a big-name aviation school? Simple. Go to a community college for two years, then transfer to a local, four-year state college. Not everyone can afford the $150–200K it takes to attend a big-name aviation school. Sure, you can ride the student loan train to graduation, but there’s always a price to pay as you disembark. I’m speaking of the fact that you’ll leave school owing more money than most young adults spend purchasing their first home. Is it really wise to begin an aviation career with such debt? I think not.
You can even transfer to an accredited, four year distance-learning institution to complete your bachelors degree at home. This gives you flexibility in your schedule to continue earning flight training money. Your objective should be to earn your CFI certificate in the least expensive way possible. This involves finding a good instructor and a not-too-fancy airplane to fly. Once you become a CFI, you can build flight time and earn money while completing college.
Finally, what about plopping down $60K to attend a mega-sized flight school that promises fast-track airline training? Please, do your homework and research the company first. If it’s reputable, then sign up. But always remember Rod’s Flight Training “What Happened to My Money?” Rule #1: Don’t give anyone more money than you care to lose at any one time. Period. Better yet, deposit your money into an escrow account that’s tapped by the flight school, but only under your supervision. The fact is companies tend to treat you better when you have money they want but have not yet obtained.
Want an aviation career? Go to local two- and four-year colleges, and use good instructors in non-fancy airplanes to pursue your flight instructor certificate. Yes, there are other ways to pursue a career in aviation, but this is one way to do it on a budget.
Note: If you'd like a comprehensive overview of what it takes to learn to fly or to go from Private Pilot to Airline Pilot, begin by reading my blog titled: Nine First Steps to Becoming a Pilot.