The minimum total hours required when I was hired at my last job was 10,000 hours and as soon as I took over, I lowered the threshold to 7,000 hours. Even back in 2008, it was becoming obvious that the number of future cockpits would soon outstrip the number of future qualified pilots. It took me another ten years to further reduce the minimums and we just hired our youngest pilot ever. He has just over 3,000 hours. He is also ten years younger than our next youngest pilot. While I was forced into this situation, I believe our new pilot will be our best hire ever.

— James Albright





Photo credit: Jirsak (Shutterstock)

How did we in business aviation come to this? The normal reaction is to blame the airlines and I will gladly whine away with my colleagues, for about a paragraph. Ten years ago, it took a pilot hired by a major airline about five years to exceed the salary we were willing to pay a new first officer. Now most airlines exceed our pay scale after the first year. We could brag that we upgrade to the left seat based on ability and not seniority; an airline new hire could expect five to ten years as the “not the captain” pilot. The bid results for the last class of new hires at United included several Boeing 737 captains. We could argue that we provided more time at home, but our unpredictable schedules made much of that time off seem useless to some. So now we are hemorrhaging highly experienced captains to the airlines. That is the world we find ourselves in.

With that grumbling aside, we need to realize the airlines are hurting too and have responded with their checkbooks, work rules, and other creative pilot recruiting innovations. Ab Initio programs shepherd pilots with very little (or no) pilot experience into eventually becoming airline pilots. The United Airlines “Aviate” program, for example, has levels for those “aspiring to fly,” “already training,” or “building experience.” The goal in each case is to fill an airline cockpit seat.

Most of us in smaller flight departments do not have the budget for grooming a pilot in the aspirational category to our ranks. The learning curve will be higher – we are flying aircraft that are orders of magnitude more advanced than what most airlines are operating – and we don’t have the necessary pilots to dedicate to the training. But in the face of a dwindling pilot pool, it may be time to invest in younger talent that we can help develop into a pilot who will stay with us for many years to come.

Fortunately, there are flight departments out there who have already proven the concept, and recruiting companies with a track record of success. I spoke with Sheryl Barden, President and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, and attended a session she led at last year’s NBAA BACE. A highlight of the session was her interview with two pilots at a global pharmaceutical company. Kimberly Kissh, their newest pilot, was hired with just under 750 hours and has successfully qualified as a Gulfstream G550 first officer. Kirk Mies, the company’s director of aviation, gave the perspective from the leadership end of the mentor-to-mentee spectrum. Together, they provided a recipe for success.

  • Expectations: everyone needs to start the process with a clear idea of “what’s in it for me?” The young pilot needs to understand that the company’s investment is not only with their time and money, but also with the workload of their existing pilot force. These pilots will be thrust into the roles of instructors and mentors. The company will expect a return on this investment, they expect the mentee to be a long-term investment, not someone who will sell off that experience to the next opportunity. The company, for its part, needs to understand the young pilot will be shaped by the experience and must be treated as a future captain and leader, not someone hired to raise the gear handle when told to.
  • Education: everyone needs to get into the books. Many pilots who find themselves as mentors for the first time may be surprised that they need to study even harder than the mentee. The “we’ve always done it that way” will not work as an answer, the mentor needs to not only know the answer, but where to find the answer. The mentee cannot look upon their new position as just a job, it is the gift of education that needs to be treated that way. Every flight is like a graduate level course and requires preparation. Both mentors and mentees become stronger pilots as a result.
  • Communications: everyone needs to realize there are no mind readers in corporate aviation. While Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should reduce the need to guess the other pilot’s intentions, a mix of experienced and inexperienced pilots can stress even the most well thought out SOPs. Young versus old personalities can also stress established Crew Resource Management (CRM) skills.
  • Humility: everyone needs to admit to themselves there is no such thing as perfection in aviation. Mentees need to accept instruction readily, not take criticism as personal attacks, and realize getting it wrong now and then is a part of the process of getting it right. Mentors need to admit to mistakes and demonstrate the ability to learn from those mistakes. Blaming one’s error on others or circumstance is a quick way to lose the credibility every mentor needs.

Finally, I need to say a few words about the quality of life in the world of flying business jets. If your flight department is lucky enough to find a young pilot who grew up in the local area, you are more likely to have found a “keeper.” Based in the New England area, I’ve hired a few pilots from warmer climates who only lasted one or two winters. A pilot with family in the local area is less likely to chase the next higher paying job. But if your flight department is filled with “empty nesters” who rarely say no to the schedule, you must realize that a young pilot raising a young family will require you rethink the family versus schedule equation.

With the right dose of good intentions and earnest effort, mentors and mentees will both profit from the exercise. Mentees, having received what must be acknowledged to be the gift of good training and experience, will become capable and seasoned pilots. While their peers at the airlines will become experts in the Point A to Point B exercise, these young pilots will learn more about the A to Z of aviation. Mentors, having invested the time and money on these younger pilots, will not only fill that empty cockpit seat, but should have an employee who will show more loyalty in return and will be less likely to jump ship when the next best offer comes.