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.
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.