It’s one thing to read about the number of American pilots who have embraced the expat opportunities overseas, especially in Asia, but it’s something else to hear it on the radio. I recently flew a trip to Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Saigon, and along the way, I heard a large number of pilots flying for Korean Air, Emirates, Dragonair, Cathay Pacfic, Singapore Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air (a Philippine carrier), and Vietnam Airlines that were clearly from the United States (as well as Canada, Great Britain, and Australia). Korean, Emirates, and Cathay are very popular for American pilots because of the pay and the better living conditions in Seoul, Dubai, and Hong Kong, respectively (especially the pay).
I know many pilots who have pursued these opportunities, and many are having the time of their lives.
Americans are needed here because flight training in Asia is virtually nonexistent. There is no infrastructure (almost no general aviation airports, no GA airplanes , no 100LL fuel, no instructors), and the airspace system was not designed to accommodate flight training. The military owns the airspace and is not willing to share.
Most of the Asians learn to fly in the United States (including on Guam, U.S. territory in the Pacific) and Australia, then come home. However, they enter the work force very inexperienced and with a nearly pathological fear of hand-flying a big airplane. Americans are desired because of their experience. We’ve spent years learning how to fly, and we’ve flown in the most demanding airspace in the world. Further, Americans love to turn everything off and just fly. The Asian pilots have yet to embrace that concept, and they know they need to.
This is not to say that Americans are always welcomed. Sometimes they are viewed as a necessary evil. But many pilots go on to long, happy, productive careers living as ex-pats, taking advantage of the ability to move around to different countries every couple of years while seeing parts of the world they’d never get to see otherwise. Once you have this experience, it’s also easy to parlay it into a job as an instructor teaching the locals in the simulators.
There are also those who go abroad for a few years and then come home. In years past, pilots with international experience could just about pick out the airline they wanted to come home and work for. It remains to be seen if that holds with the new round of hiring. Also remaining to be seen, for that matter, is just how many pilots will even bother to come home. Foreign compensation packages have gotten so good that many will find such a move hard to justify.
Moving overseas to fly is a huge commitment, but if you are open-minded and can get past what you think “oughta be,” it can be an extremely rewarding, fun lifestyle—even if only on a temporary basis. After all, what better way to see the world than to get someone else to pay the bill?—Chip Wright