Enjoy The Ride: What I've Learned

By: Brady Hlebain

Making the jump from flying helicopters to the airlines can be an intimidating and overwhelming  endeavor. Those feelings are normal; it is a huge step in your career, but the good news is that this trail has already been blazed for you. I had about 700 rotorcraft hours when I made the jump, and I’ve been at a regional airline for about two years now. When I had doubts early on in the process, I kept telling myself, “If that guy can do, so can I.”
You probably know a few pilots that successfully made the transition that weren’t the most impressive rotary wing aviators too. Take it from me, it’s really not that hard. As a National Guard soldier that only possessed aviation experience from flying choppers in the Guard, I can tell you that its very doable and I hope these lessons that I learned throughout the process can help you on your journey. 

Go All In. Embrace the change and look forward to learning to fly planes. Honestly, planes are a lot easier to fly, and the “mission” of flying runway to runway is much less dynamic than most chopper flying. I tried out a part-time Part 61 school for a little while at first.  I found the long periods of time between flights caused the progress I made each week to fade between training flights. I also found it hard to make time to study and master the academic topics that you’ll have to learn. Eventually, I decided to switch to a full-time Part 141 school. The daily flying and studying proved to be much easier and more efficient at learning the maneuvers and understanding the academic topics. Keep in mind, you can go all in while simultaneously having a back-up plan. For me, that was staying in the National Guard. When the Covid-19 pandemic happened, I was fortunate enough to have Army flying to fall back on. Some of my peers who got out of the military completely ended up unemployed and driving Uber to make ends meet. I’m not a National Guard recruiter, but I would have an alternate in mind. 

Find the right route for you. Determine early whether you want to train full time or part time. There are obvious (and less obvious) pros and cons to each, so do your due diligence to figure out what works for you. Before you get all your time and ratings, have a destination. For me, it was a regional airline that had domiciles that I preferred. For you, an airline with a “flow program” may be preferred, or a cargo outfit might fit your lifestyle better. Get to know people who are where you want to be to get the inside scoop.             

Find a Mentor - or several. I was fortunate enough to know a handful of people who made the jump before I did. You should too at this point. Having these connections provided me the opportunity to ask questions and get honest responses. It also helped me to manage my expectations. Its easy to daydream about all the great stuff about airline life you’ve heard, but it is important to be prepared for the not-so-great parts. Thats where an honest insider can help you manage expectations. 

Make a plan. Ask yourself where you want to live. If possible, find an airline with a nearby domicile, or be prepared to commute. I would not recommend commuting if you can avoid it. If you spend 14-17 days a month flying, commuting could add another 3-6 days of unpaid travel to your schedule to get to and from work. This can negatively affect your quality of life. Commuting or not, prepare for the amount of time you’ll spend away from home. I was prepared for it, and I enjoy seeing new places, however you will need to prepare your loved ones too. They might say they understand the concept of you being away so much, but actually experiencing that lifestyle is an entirely different situation. 

Change your opinion on studying. You probably have a pretty solid foundational knowledge of what you’ve been doing/flying for years. This may have led to your studying habits slipping over the last few years. Be prepared to learn new concept, systems, regulations, and SOPs. This can feel like a bit of a burden - studying work stuff on your days off. I personally had to change the way I thought about studying altogether. I have learned to like studying because, as you may know, it feels good to know the important stuff when you need it, rather than the stress of second guessing your decisions and knowledge. Another trick I recommend is studying while you’re working. On some longer legs you have quite a bit of downtime. Chatting with the other pilot can be a good way to pass the time, sometimes. If you don’t have a lot to talk about, there’s no harm in looking up the little nuances to the complicated rules that you have to apply occasionally. Long overnights in small, boring, and/or cold cities is another great time to crack the books. Lastly, remind yourself why you need to know it. You have to know this stuff because it can keep you legal and safe, and your passengers expect you to be a knowledgable professional.  

Embrace the new lifestyle and have fun. A lot of people would love to be home with their friends and family every night. If that’s you, the travel industry might not be for you. Even if it is, make yourself excited to see new cities and make new friends. The people who seem to enjoy their airline lives the most are the ones who get out of the hotel and embrace the traveling lifestyle. 

Once you get to your first destination, start thinking about the next destination. The regionals are a great place to learn about the industry, get good at landing jets, and dodging thunderstorms, but keep in mind where you want to be in 10 years. For some, the regionals are a perfect fit for the long term. Others may aspire to be a check airman on wide body aircraft doing international flights. Keep up on your logbook, never stop learning, continue to network within the industry, and enjoy the ride. 

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RTAG is a Veteran run 501(c)(3) non profit organization designed to help all veterans, regardless of experience, jumpstart their post military career in the world of aviation.

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