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The Air Up There Podcast

How to Become a Pilot

Season 3, Episode 3
Published: Friday, September 3, 2021

Welcome to our third installment of the summer career series! In this episode, we're learning about pilots, and the work they do to maintain safety while flying. Pilots can be found in a variety of different locations and roles: flight decks, at controls, transporting passengers and cargo, or even flying drones. Interested? Aviation might be the career for you! You'll hear from: Jacqueline Camacho Ruiz, the author of Latinas in Aviation; Dawne Barrett, the leader of the operations supervisor workshop for FAA; and Captain Jill Mills, the Assistant Chief Pilot of United Airlines.

For more information about aviation careers, visit our careers page. Or, if you're curious about other types of careers at FAA, visit our jobs page.

How to Become a Pilot

How to Become a Pilot

Transcript

Liz Cory:
Welcome to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation and aerospace. I'm Liz Cory.

Chris Troxell:
And I'm Chris Troxell. Today's episode is the third in our career series. We hope you listened to our first two on how to become a controller and an airways technician. And now we're ready for takeoff.

Liz Cory:
That's right, Chris. We're going to take you into the air up there, where many people are working hard right now as we speak. Thousands of pilots are in the flight deck, at the controls, transporting passengers, Argo, and more. Plus, don't forget, if you fly a drone, you're a pilot too.

Chris Troxell:
Pilots are essential to sustaining aviation safety and our economy. And right now there's a pilot shortage. COVID-19 worsened this preexisting problem and we really need more pilots now that air travel is returning to pre-COVID levels.

Liz Cory:
Absolutely, Chris. I hope this episode piques some listeners' interest in this unique and rewarding career. I remember my days in ground school at my little hometown airport. Let's talk to the others who shared their stories and career paths with us. Jacqueline Camacho Ruiz is the author of Latinas in Aviation. She's a sport pilot, and she got her taste in aviation by marketing a flight school.

Liz Cory:
If somebody came to you and said, how do I get started? What do I do? What would you tell them?

Jacquelyn Camacho Ruiz:
I would say to the young generation that is thinking, "Should I even consider flying?" It is life changing. It is the juxtaposition of the left and the right brain, with the passion of flying and the pragmatic, strategic, connection and monitoring of those controls. It is something that activates your brain a completely different way. It allows you to become objective as you zoom out of the earth and as you zoom in when you land. If you don't want to go into the Air Force, if you don't want to go into a career with aviation, then you need to find out what the ecosystem will provide. You need to find out where the airports are, what resources are available to you in that local area, because accessibility is going to be very, very important for you get to an airport that is close by so that you can fly on a regular basis so that you can keep up not only with regulations, but you can keep up with your proficiency as a pilot.

Jacquelyn Camacho Ruiz:
And then connect with other groups, connect with other aviation enthusiast, and people that love the industry so that you can find more reasons to love aviation, and then internalize why you're doing this. Because even as a sports pilot, I'm about to get my private license. You have to have a passion that is bigger than any of the obstacles that you'll find in the air. You have to find the discipline, the strategic, the pragmatic approach, to keep up with those controls, and to overcome those obstacles. So you need to find your why. Whatever route you decide to go, and then you need to find a resource to sustain it, and of course commit.

Liz Cory:
Your book. Latinas in Aviation, features inspiring stories from women in all areas of aviation, which is exciting to see. And what would you say is the most important tip, a common thread that they shared with you as you collected those stories?

Jacquelyn Camacho Ruiz:
Oftentimes what I find in the Latinx community, is oftentimes more difficulty than perhaps other groups. And that's why I wanted to create a pathway that was a little bit wider for those people, those young people that were thinking about getting into this incredible space. And they very commonly also share their support by their family and their loved ones. Once they've decided that they wanted to get into aviation, there was nothing that was going to stop.

Liz Cory:
Wow, powerful words of inspiration. I love hearing Jackie talk about creating a vision that is bigger than you. She's inspiring.

Chris Troxell:
I agree, Liz. When I was working on the episode about how to become a controller, I had the chance to interview Dawne Barrett, who leads the operations supervisor workshop for the FAA. Dawne fulfilled her dream of becoming a controller. But little did I know going into the interview that Dawne was flying planes well before she started working flights from the control room, it's a cool story.

Dawne Barrett:
I've always loved Aviation. You could say that the aviation bug bit me when I was really little. We moved to central Florida when I was about four years old and you could see the space shuttle from our front yard. And I was always outside watching for something to be going in the sky. When we moved to Georgia, when I was about seven, I continued to look for things in the sky, whether it was the space shuttle, which we couldn't see, but I could see the finals for Hartsfield. And I remember dreaming of where's that one coming from, or wondering what adventures that people have been in. Always chasing fireflies, whether it was a rocket ship or a jet aircraft. Chasing fireflies.

Chris Troxell:
How old were you when you first started flying?

Dawne Barrett:
So my first flight, I was 13. It was my 13th birthday at DeKalb-Peachtree. My grandfather took me out there and we had lunch at a restaurant right there on the airport, watching airplanes.

Dawne Barrett:
And I didn't know at that time we were actually going to go fly. And after lunch, he took me over to the FBO and I met up with a flight instructor and we took a Piper Cherokee up. And it was a beautiful March day in Atlanta. You could see the mountains and yeah, I was bitten at that point. Went off to school at 18 and pursued a degree in aeronautical science. There, I got all my flight certificates and continued. Was a flight instructor for a while, while in college. And then after school, out of Atlanta. And then became a corporate pilot for a while.

Chris Troxell:
Wow. Can you talk a little bit about what did it take for you to get your certifications? And then also a little bit about your experience as a flight instructor?

Dawne Barrett:
As far as the certifications, it was part of my degree program. So it was a matter of just following through the classes and pushing through. So I was a flight instructor, my junior and senior year in college. It's kind of crazy to think I was 21 years old or so teaching people how to fly. After I graduated, I continued to work as a flight instructor out of McCollum, on the north side of Atlanta. And did that full-time for about nine months when I had the opportunity to start flying some light-twins and doing some corporate flying. And so I did that while I was waiting for the FAA to call, to become a controller. It was my plan B.

Chris Troxell:
How many hours do you have to put in to get these certifications?

Dawne Barrett:
The FAA has minimum hours. I think the minimum hours for the private pilot now is 40. And at the time the commercial pilot was 250. If you went through special training, that could be waived. But it was about 300 hours of total flight training I had done when I had my CFI AA.

Chris Troxell:
Wow. Wow. And as we all know, safety is the FAA's priority.

Dawne Barrett:
Absolutely.

Chris Troxell:
So I wanted to ask, what do you do before you fly, and when you fly to be safe?

Dawne Barrett:
There's a lot to do before you fly while you're flying, after you fly, as far as the safe. There's different, I'm Safe checklists where you do kind of a self-assessment on, am I in a good place to fly mentally, physically? Have I gotten my rest? Am I on any medicines? Am I fatigued? Those types of things. So, there's a self-assessment that needs to happen before you ever consider even getting in an airplane.

Dawne Barrett:
And then of course, the safety aspects that are directly involved in the aircraft, doing the walk around and the preflight, making sure that the weather's in good conditions for the flight that you're going to be taking. And an overall assessment there, in the aircraft. Flying is fun, and it should be. But there's also a level of seriousness that needs to go with it and an alertness of your surroundings and making sure that you're aware of how is the airplane performing? What are air traffic? What's going on, on the radios, if you're talking to them. Or keeping your eyes just outside the cockpit, enjoying the view, but looking for other airplanes.

Chris Troxell:
Do you have a best memory of flying?

Dawne Barrett:
Gosh, I have a ton of best memories of flying, but the one that comes to mind initially, I was actually with a student, teaching down in Florida, we were coming on the east coast, northbound back from across country to the south. And I knew the space shuttle was going to be landing. And so we were about three miles west of the space shuttle landing strip when it landed. And it was back before the age of digital cameras. And I didn't have a camera with me. And after that point, I always did. But that was probably one of the coolest things that I'd ever had the opportunity to witness, was a spatial landing, at about three miles away and 1000 feet in the air. It was just, it was awesome.

Chris Troxell:
That's so cool. And last but not least, what do you love most about flying and being a pilot?

Dawne Barrett:
The freedom. When you in the air, there's a sense of freedom that you get. You've escaped the earthly bounds. I know that's kind of a cliché, but all the little things that are not so pretty on the surface tend to disappear as it gets smaller and the sky and the power and the energy that it has is just amazing.

Liz Cory:
Flying at 13 years old. That's amazing.

Chris Troxell:
Yeah, Liz. Talk about a memorable birthday. And to think of flying a plane before driving a car. I don't even know what to say, but she's braver than I am.

Liz Cory:
Our next guest has taken her passion all the way to her current position of assistant chief pilot at United Airlines. Captain Jill Mills has a great story. But more importantly, some great tips on how you can follow her path. Our colleague, Dominique, interviewed Jill recently, and here's a little bit of their conversation.

Dominique:
Assistant chief pilot is an incredible title. And we're so happy that you, as a woman, have that title. Can you tell us a little bit about how you started in aviation and your journey?

Jill Mills:
I'm going to give my brother credit. He's a little bit older than me. And he came to me one day and said, Jill, there's this thing called general aviation. And you can still be an airline pilot, if you go through general aviation. And I was like, "Come on, there's no way." There's no such thing, cause I had never done anything outside the military at that point. And my dad helped us go to the nearby FBO, which is a fixed base operator, one of the smaller airports. And we took just one flight up with a flight instructor. I think they call them discovery flights now, which are really exciting. There's a lot of different ways now that you can even get those flights for free, if you go through certain organizations. They really encourage people to go try that first flight, because it can be life-changing.

Jill Mills:
And it definitely was for me, I did the general aviation route. I graduated and got my four year degree also along the way. Then I went into flight instructing. And really, the whole process is you fly small planes, you're learning on that plane. Say, it's a two-seater, then you can move into a four-seater and you learn on that plane. And then you instruct on that plane and you go to a six-seater, and you learn on that plane. Or you go to a single engine to a multi-engine.

Jill Mills:
You get out of school, if you go to flight school with certificates, your private license, your instrument, commercial. You can get your CFI, which is certified flight instructor. You can get your multi-engine instructor. This is a lot of pieces of paper that you have to work to get. But honestly, with all of those pieces of paper, you can't just go, "All right, well, I have multi-engine, I'm going to go get hired by United Airlines." Really the part about aviation is it's all about experience. You can flight instruct, you could tow banners, you can fly cargo. You can pick and choose the type of thing that really interests you. But no matter what you do, you have to gain experience, which is in the form of hours.

Dominique:
What would you say are some of the challenges facing the airlines when it comes to recruitment?

Jill Mills:
Right now, in this industry, they've said for a long time that we're going to have a shortage. There was a massive hiring of folks that will hit the age of 65 in the next five years. We hire in groups. And then unfortunately that means we retire in groups. That group is retiring from every airline in the next five years. You could say there's a competition amongst the major carriers to find the best and the brightest. And we're determined to find the best and the brightest and continue to hold our high, high standard all at the same time. So it's not one of those industries that you can just go out and hire anybody you want. They have to have the experience. You have to have gotten those hours that we talked about earlier. You have to have different types of airplanes that you fly.

Jill Mills:
You can't just go and fly, 2000 hours in a single engine, two seat airplane. That doesn't mean enough. That is the beginning, and it need to show that you're, you're moving with larger and larger aircraft and then flying turbine engines and multi-engine, and having, either the military experience, that background, or the general aviation experience background, what we call 121 or 135. Actual operations with passengers or cargo or something like that. That experience all counts towards what we're looking for. All the numbers are on the website, on Airline Apps. All the hiring goes through airlineapps.com now, and that's just our first process. And it allows you to put all your information in. It's very detailed. And when you think about all that time, I've been talking about, you actually document every minute of it. By the 0.1, 0.2 and all of it counts, and you have to keep it categorized and very organized to be able to apply to any of these positions.

Jill Mills:
We are working very hard to have a pipeline into our company. And our pipeline is called AvA. AvA is an amazing program. It's taking into consideration so many different factors, and it's allowing multiple avenues to get into United. Multiple universities, flight schools. If you're already flying for a part 135 operation, there's several of those. There's several 121 operators that are partnered with us. And so once you get into the AvA pipeline, you are already guaranteed that, if you check the boxes, if you stay safe, if you do all the things correctly that you have interviewed already for your United Airlines, pilot job. You can get into AvA as soon as you have a private pilot's license, right?

Dominique:
That's awesome.

Jill Mills:
Yeah. So that's new. We never did that before. There's not enough diversity in our field, for sure in order to continue this growth and the potential for people to go much, much higher than where I am. Then we have to bring those people into the field, A. Give them an avenue that is reasonable and realistic that they can achieve. And then still having all of that, meet that high standard of the best, the brightest and the safest. Because nothing's ever going to change with our standards, but when you train someone and you take responsibility for a path you're producing the end product, and that's the goal throughout what we're trying to do.

Liz Cory:
Captain Mills has a lot of good information for people interested in working for the airlines. Chris, I think the common thread through all these interviews is passion. If you have a passion for aviation, this may be a career for you.

Chris Troxell:
That's right, Liz. And of course, remember, the first thing for any career in aviation is safety, safety, safety. That's what we're all about.

Liz Cory:
That's our show for today. For more information, please search our Become a Pilot page at faa.gov. If you want to learn more about becoming a drone pilot, type "UAS" in that search box. And please, be sure to tune in for our next episode, The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you like today's episode, remember to subscribe, and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media. We're @FAA on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. And @FAANews on Twitter and YouTube.

Chris Troxell:
Thanks for listening.