It is pretty much accepted and realized now that a college degree is required if you want to make it in aviation. But should you get an aviation degree? Specifically, should you spend a lot of money to go to an aviation-centric school such as Embry-Riddle?
I come at this from a different angle than most, but I believe my advice to be sound nevertheless. I grew up wearing hearing aids, and in high school, I had corrective surgery on both of my kidneys. I have also had a number of other normal kid maladies that give me a medical file a football player would be proud of. Because of the hearing aids, my success in aviation was very much in doubt, and even though I was fascinated by all things aviation, I had to hedge my bets. I started off pre-med, and when I realized that wasn’t going to pan out, I became an economics major. I did all of my flight training at the local FBO, paying as I went.
In hindsight, I’m glad I did this. The problems with pursuing such a tailored degree as aviation are threefold. First, it may not do much good outside of aviation, especially if the degree is essentially the acquisition of pilot certificates or in something as narrow as air traffic control. Getting an A&P is different, as there are some options for other types of maintenance work that is applicable (cars, boats, et cetera). Flying airplanes is flying airplanes. You can’t use that training to go into, say, advertising.
The second problem is the issue of not liking your job. Flying airplanes is not for everyone. I love it, and I don’t regret it. I may never fly for a major airline, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. But the truth is there are those who come to realize that they don’t like living out of a suitcase; or they don’t like the low pay that may dog them for years; or they may not like having to start over in terms of seniority or pay to change jobs; or they don’t like the crazy hours; or they may not like being away from their kids for days at a time; or they don’t like waking and not knowing where they are.
For women (and a few men), a decision may need to be made to give up flying for the opportunity to have a family. Such stress is even worse when a pregnancy is unplanned, and too often one love must be given up for another. There are any number of reasons why people choose to opt out of aviation, and having a degree that is so specific can severely limit your options for entering other fields. It doesn’t mean it will, but it can. There is little worse than feeling trapped and slowly coming to hate your job.
The third reason–and perhaps the most important to consider when it comes to choosing an education track–is the possibility that you may lose your medical or that you may have a condition that makes companies gun-shy about hiring you. That was the reality that I was facing, and so my degree was intended to be a fallback. In my 15 years of airline flying, I have known two pilots who lost their careers to diabetes, at least two to heart attacks (including one in flight), one to HIV, and several to injuries suffered in car accidents. Several more have been grounded for long periods of time because of illnesses or medical treatment plans that the FAA has strict guidelines on, or even something as simple as broken bones or knee injuries that require extensive rehab. Back and shoulder injuries are also very common because of the weight of our flight bags and the confines of the cockpits. While the smart pilots have insurance policies (usually available through the airline and/or their union) to help them through lean times, not all do, and even the insurance can leave you struggling to make ends meet. Many need to work, and some do so to stave off boredom while they recover.
I have nothing against an aviation-specific degree, but for my money, the smart way to go is to get a degree in something that you enjoy and that has some career potential while flying on the side–either as a minor, or at the local FBO, as I did. You will have more options, better marketability, and a sound fallback if your flying career does not meet your expectations.–By Chip Wright