Little Boeing, Big Life.



There’s an ego thing between airline pilots; that’s just a fact of life among those who spend their lives flying jets. Within the pilot community, we virtually “are” the jets we fly and even more so, the position we fly: from the mega-hour first officer to the new guy; the newly minted captain to the veteran with more than twenty years wearing four stripes.

It doesn’t end there either: there’s the heavy metal, the widebody 777 and 787 flying longhaul, continent to continent–Europe, Asia, South America, 14 to 18 hours aloft. That’s the career apex in airline world–at least for some pilots.

And sure, I’d always seen it that way, coming up. But after three decades in an airline cockpit–most of that as captain (I think 24 of 30 years qualifies as “most”), I see it differently. Beyond the ego surfing of widebody captain flying, there’s the common sense of pay, plus the fleeting reality of family. It’s not what you think.


First, pay. With widebody seniority but bidding narrow trips, I’m two things: first, an underachiever in pilot world. That is, pilots say to me, “With your seniority, why aren’t you bidding 777 trips?” Second, there’s the reality of pay, allowing me to make more on the smaller jet than on the widebody.

Why? Because I can hold the most efficient, high-time narrowbody turn-arounds, meaning two important things: I can fly more hours in less days, and I’m home every night. The first factor is key: yes, the hourly captain rate on the 737 is less than the 777, but I can fly more hours (usually over 90) in less days (10-12) than the typical 777 schedule, which hovers around 75 monthly hours over 14-16 days. The end result is that my narrowbody captain W-2 is better than I could achieve on the larger jets.

But more important to me: home and family. Bidding and flying the 737, I’m home every night. I get to be dad, husband, father–all of which means more to me than being a captain or pilot. That’s because flying is what I do, but dad and husband signifies who I am. And what endures.image

A trusted friend and longtime aviation industry observer and pundit, Giulia De Rosa, characterized it this way: Little Boeing, Big Life. I agree: what endures in life is not the arcs I carve in the sky, nor the tonnage of metal I fly. We all walk away from the jets eventually. But we never leave the family we belong to, raise, marry and care for.

Not very much like typical jet jock rhetoric, is it? I guess that’s a matter of priorities, plus perspective: I’ve never flown a better jet than the 737 Neo series. I embrace the challenges of LGA, DCA, SFO, SEA, ORD and the many complicated airports we fly into and out of. That Boeing jet is my best, most trusted friend in the air.

BUt I’m glad to be home every night, as opposed to flying the transcontinental odysseys some of my peers endure: “You don’t use power tools the day after a trip,” one 777 pilot told me. That’s because they may fly a double all-nighter Deep South to Buenos Aires, followed by a circadian rhythm-buster trip to Asia. As one of my peers on the 777 said, you just about get rested, then it’s time to turn your body clock upside down again. Before I upgraded to captain, I did that flying with the airline and even before that, as an Air Force pilot all over Asia and the South Pacific. In two words: over it.

Plus, for me, there’s a world beyond Mach number, high altitude cruise and low-viz approaches. As I flew flew my monthly trips over the years, I invested the time in a longterm academic endeavor far removed from flying: academia, grad school, a doctorate and that’s part of my life now: literature, writing, and academia; since 2003,  university students letting me share that world of discovery with them. That’s something that endures beyond flight, at least for me.


So there you have it: a lifetime airline pilot sidesteps the heavy metal in favor of family, home, and academia. As Giulia said: little Boeing, big life. The latter part, life, family, literature, that’s what I’m betting on, what I believe matters and endures.

Thank the pilots flying your longhaul flights, because they deserve it. But don’t feel sorry for those flying the smaller jets, because many are exactly where they belong.


22 Responses to “Little Boeing, Big Life.”

  1. Makes total sense! I agree with your focus on family. While the international life sounds glamorous and exciting, I’m sure it gets old fast. Like you said, “been there, done that.” It seems to me that you have the best of both worlds. You get to fly for a living, but still spend much-needed time with your family. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Bill Brandt Says:

    I would imagine flying those international routes is hard on a family and I’ll bet there are divorce rates to prove it.

    • There’s a lot of family wreckage in the airline biz, plenty on the international side. One pilot I know hates his wife, another is cheating on his third wife. All are simply exhausted and look ten years older than they are.

  3. Thomas W. Davis Says:

    Very well stated/written, Chris. And I like that picture.

  4. peggywillenberg Says:

    I think you have it figured out. Good for you. 🙂

  5. Terry Harper Says:

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    From:”JetHead’s Blog” Date:Tue, Jun 9, 2015 at 12:02 pm Subject:[New post] Little Boeing, Big Life.

    Chris Manno posted: ”  There’s an ego thing between airline pilots; that’s just a fact of life among those who spend their lives flying jets. Within the pilot community, we virtually “are” the jets we fly and even more so, the position we fly: from the mega-hour f”

  6. Tim Perkins Says:

    I’m for anyone who commits to family, whatever the cost. Kudos. Didn’t know you had a doctorate…in what field?

    • I got my PhD in English (Rhetoric and Literature) in residence at Texas Christian University. Took seven years, the last two for the dissertation which is now part of the TCU Research Databases:

  7. Karsten Says:

    Very and truly true.
    I enjoy an inside engineering job. I earn a tad less than the field colleagues with their senator and double platinum miles and their mega-mile accounts with multiple airlines. But I am home every day. I sleep in the same bed and I am with the people I love and want to be with. I once have had a job like that in my younger years, but now, being 50, I enjoy a quieter life.

  8. I love hearing about people that value family and home life. When priorities are centered around the things that are the most important in life, such as family responsibilities, then everything else seems to fall in place.

  9. I know several people who’ve made similar decisions. Some have the seniority to upgrade to the left seat but don’t, primarily because they have the base, schedule, and — most importantly — time off that they want. Upgrading would come with reserve, commuting, and a lack of choice in destinations and schedules.

    I’m like that too, I suppose. My most important metric is sustainability. I could be earning more money doing something that is simply not sustainable for myself and my family over the long haul. It’s not worth it.

    • One of my favorite F/Os to fly with is senior enough to hold a good captain trip on our jet. As soon as her son graduates from high school next year, she’ll upgrade. But she’s been flying the turns as I do in order to be home for him. I think that’s great and though we’ll miss her, she’ll be a great captain.

  10. Randy Sohn Says:

    Chris, excellent and so eloquently expressed some of my thoughts also.

    It made me recall one of my quotes on my list here: “Flying international is a hard way to make an easy living”.

  11. Bill Bridges Says:

    Excellent as always Chris.

  12. Excellent comments. Great decision. Is there any truth to the rumor that pilot labor agreements at major legacy airlines after bankruptcies flattened the difference between the highest paid and lowest paid captains? If so, there would be less difference in hourly pay between 777 and 737 captains after bankruptcy, Little Boeing Big Life would be more applicable than ever.

    • No, and that’s an odd rumor. The 777 still pays the highest hourly rate, significantly higher than the 737. But there are a handful of 737 schedules that cram 90+ hours into 11-12 days. So only a handful of senior captains get those trips which actually pay more than the 70-ish hours that is the 777 monthly max that requires 14-15 days of work.

  13. A really well written article – thanks Chris! As a Dash 8 pilot in the UK, I often get asked about whether I want to fly big jets but I agree with your point that family has to come first and, like you, I quite like the fact I’m home most nights.

  14. Hugo Silva Says:

    This is without a shadow of doubts the best article I ever read in my entire aviation career!! Very well structured and with big sense what is most important for your mental stability and personal self development! ! Congrats!

  15. There are some pilots who are leaving big name airlines like Emirates and Etihad to go back and fly with their old airlines for the same reason; international flying can really beat you up and put a strain on family life, especially if you are doing a ton of red eye long hauls.

  16. I fully agree with the importance of a family in once life. And I admire your enthusiasm for academia, it´s great! Good luck!

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