Realistic Expectations: Telling the Truth About Aviation as a Profession

January 2nd, 2014 by Martin Rottler


As of this writing, I find myself in the lull between semesters. Grades have been submitted, courses closed out, and my students have all gone to their respective homes until Spring Semester 2014 comes calling in a week. In the life of faculty, there’s lots of catching up to do: on projects that were pushed back, on thank you notes for guest speakers, and (most importantly, to me) sleep. On the day after grades are due, the university releases our Student Evaluations of Instruction, or as we lovingly call them here, SEIs. The SEIs are supposed to give us (and our department chairs) a better idea of where we are in our teaching and courses via the generic 5-point scale we see everywhere (1 equals bad, 5 equals excellent). There is also space for students to leave comments anonymously.

In all reality, the five point scale has very little use to me in the management of my classes. The real part worth diving into is the space for student comments. Students have shared many things in this section…suggestions for exam changes, requests for less work, and even their favorite joke from the semester. One of the more opinionated comments I received this past semester from my Introduction to Aviation class was from a student who self-identified as an Aviation major about the negative light placed on the airline industry by several guest speakers in the class.

The Introduction to Aviation class at OSU is what I like to refer to as our program’s “gateway,” in that it is a prerequisite for further classes, and has also been a very successful “gateway drug” to the aviation field for previously unaware students. Depending on the semester, 50%-60% of the students  in the class are not aviation majors. They sign up as freshmen, exploring the opportunity for a major or a minor or as seniors looking for elective credit that is a bit different than a normal class. The class is my baby, and I do my best to recognize that this could be a make-or-break introduction to the aviation world.

There are segments of the course devoted to history, aerodynamics, pilots licensure, airports and the airlines. The best part of the class (and of being in a program in a major aviation city) is the fact that the university and myself as the teacher have access to a cadre of fantastic aviation professionals from around the US that will take time out of their day to share their experience and wisdom with a class of beginning aviation students. These students bring expectations about the various professions that visit to the table, especially when the professional pilots visit. As part of their visit, I encourage everyone, and especially the regional airline pilots to be as truthful and realistic as possible about their careers, in light of the bad press regional airlines have received (and continue to receive) over the past four years. None of the stories told so far in class have been particularly awful, but each pilot does an excellent job of sharing the struggles of living lives on reserve and with (all considering) very little pay alongside the awesome benefits of a life in the cockpit.

I consider this exposure to the industry for my students to be of utmost importance in helping them set standards and goals for the future. As aviation supporters and professionals, we do our prospective future professionals a disservice by painting the aviation field as excessively rosy or excessively gray. In dealing with our student pilots, we should be sharing our experiences and encouraging the next generation to start building their professional network now. The student mentioned at the outset of the article had a particularly rosy view of the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, as it is for every career, there are downsides that one must be made aware of. Perhaps if we are more forthcoming about the challenges we face, our success rate in things like pilot starts will improve.

Martin Rottler

Martin Rottler is a lecturer at the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies, in Columbus, Ohio and a Partner at First Segment. He is a commercial pilot and certificated flight instructor and has worked in general aviation, the airline industry, and international aviation. An avowed "avgeek" from a very early age, Martin maintains academic and personal interests in aviation education, outreach, flight training, and international aviation. He can be found via Twitter at @martinrottler. The views presented on this blog are Martin's and do not represent those of The Ohio State University, the OSU Center for Aviation Studies, or any other organization.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Anonymous


    Thanks for the article. Topic is very interesting although I would have appreciated more substance. This article is really just an extrapolation of a comment made by a student of yours. You didn’t offer any additional information nor does it appear you did any research on the subject. I don’t enjoy being critical but I just wasted 15 minutes of my very busy day and thought I should save someone else from the same mistake.

    • sigh

      If your day is so busy, why are you spending time reading opinion pieces?

    • Lk2FlyVFR

      If you don’t like being critical, don’t be. This was a fine article. Also, if your day is so busy, why did you “waste” time to write about a opinion piece that “wasted” your time? Get over yourself.

      • Jon

        Typically when i get to the comments I have already “wasted” my my time.

        Thanks for writing about your experience Mr. Rottler. I entered the aviation industry as a second career, I ran into alot of negativity, mostly from “underpaid” mechanics who are too young and inexperienced to know that you actually have to earn experience to earn higher pay. My goal is to make money doing what I love, and Im almost there. What could be passed on to students in any content area is that the need to decide what it is they want. To make tons of money, or be happy when they head home from work. If they are agressive at their love they will make enough money as well. The grass is only greener where you water it!!!

    • Larry

      It took you 15 minutes to read this article??? Since it takes you that long to get things done, no wonder your day is so busy.

    • Diego Flores

      I thought that I was going to read something with substance, but instead gained nothing from this article. Waste of time.

  • S. Engelman

    I wonder if sometime you could go further in depth with some of the commentary from your students as well as with some of the most common positive and negative perceptions of the business. I for one would be interested in seeing these, as from what I gather they resemble some of my experiences outside of aviation.

    In a former life, I was what my buddies in aviation jokingly called an “Overland Freight Transport Pilot”, more commonly known as a long-haul truck driver. I’ve done most aspects of that job, including training new drivers & evaluating new equipment for potential addition to a fleet (test pilot).

    As a driver trainer, I noticed my new students would have an abundance of enthusiasm for the job and it’s possibilities in the beginning. They would be fresh from the initial company orientation/information class where they were told how big the paychecks were, how new the equipment was, and how much fun they’d have criss-crossing the continent as a professional tourist.

    About 10 days into the ride along over-the-road training, they’d ask to be sent home & I’d lose them & the business would lose another potential driver. Because it was about the 2nd or 3rd week (out of a 6 week training tour) where they’d finally realize that all the glamorous things they were told about the business were outnumbered 8 to one by the not so glamorous things. Long work days, longer work nights, no sleep, impossible schedules, missed deadlines (which meant no pay), days, weeks or even months away from home, bad weather, bad traffic overzealous traffic cops, being mugged, being broken down for 12 hours on the side of a road (which meant no pay), driving junk equipment…the list goes on. In fact, I had an average dropout rate of about 70%. Of the 30% who made it through training, half of those wouldn’t last a year in a truck. Some of the large national truck companies routinely see driver turnover rates of 125%. Then they continue to paint a picture full of roses, omitting the thorns and wonder why their turnover isn’t improving.

    In the trucking business, there are few people who will give it to prospective drivers like it really is. Either they follow the company lead and paint a super rosy picture of the job, or they are old grizzled beat down drivers who have nothing good to say about the business. Like you, I believe it important to be very truthful and frank with the students about the job they are getting into. Exposure to the business and accurate information about the business is the only way a prospective driver will be able to make an informed and educated decision about his career path.

    In fact, those who end up being the most successful in the trucking business are those who enjoy the job for what it is and do not let themselves get overly influenced by the negative aspects. Those who have realistic expectations in the business and in themselves. They would tell you that they like to drive trucks and they like to work, and those two qualities will get them far. Usually they are right.

    From some of the stories about the airline business I’ve heard, it seems there are many similar issues and problems to those faced by the trucking biz. As aviation is generally seen in a better light than trucking (from my perspective), I’m interested in those issues that turn off a potential pilot to a flying career.

    • Jon

      MR. S. Engelman,
      I agreeee!! In aviation mantenace, I try to train our indocs in reality, although they are already employees.I will have my commercial license soon and it won’t be the airlines im flying for!!! When I started as an Apprentice Mechanic for a regional I was paid more annually than our first officers. And I got to go home at night. Our rooky pilots are paying too big a price to do what they love, and when you consider that lives are in their hands, its too bad they arent taken better care of. The simple fact that the government wont give federal student loan money for flight schools because they know what the bleek repayment ability will be with new pilots is proof. That would be like paying a first year doctor that spent 200k on school, 50k a year. That doesnt happen in that industry however.

    • Martin Rottler

      Thanks for the comment, Mr. Engelman. There isn’t much published out there with regard to the number of starts/finishes in the university aviation environment. From an empirical standpoint, I think that you can make some inference based on the number of students who start/finish degrees in four years and the number of starts/successful finishes of pilot certificates. This method probably doesn’t paint a very good picture.

      I would argue, however, that a university aviation education does do a good job of training people to serve in non-flying roles within the industry and keeping them there. I consider myself to be part of that group–made it through most of my airline pilot degree at a major university and not flying for an airline. Unlike truckers who leave and find other employment outside of trucking, we seem to do a better job of keeping people in operations, management, or any number of other careers.

  • Chris Pfaff

    Make sure to inform students that regional airlines & commuters almost always load their fuel such that they can take as many paying passengers as possible, even if you are forced to land with only 45-minutes of fuel left, dispersed across all tanks. There is little fuel-related safety in these professional positions, and as First Officers, they will be required to do the fuel calculations and report to their captains, often pressured to “fudge” (outright lie) about the safety of so little sloshing fuel. Charters are far safer, generally, and in particular regarding fuel.

  • phil g

    Flying with an airline in the US doesn’t sound that attractive. Low pay, long hours, loosing benefits when you change employers. Basic bit of research would tell you the future for pilots in the US isn’t good.

  • Ed P

    What was the point of this article anyway?

  • http://AOPA A Fellow

    Aviation programs at universities are there for one primary reason, to make the university money. There ARE other avenues for learning and advancement in this profession outside of “academia”.

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  • Robert J. Fennell

    i salute for your passion and dedication to teach students to become the next leaders in the aviation world! only a few people have got that commitment as most prefer to earn and forgot the sake of teaching. additionally, i love the way you count your student’s opinion and point of views. Aviation is not a so-so field, it is very wide and complex. maybe, you could get additional info here and share some of it to your students. i have read several blogs regarding aviation and i would admit, this is one of the write-ups that i will enlist in my favorites! great job!

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  • Mary Bloom

    The aviation industry is a joke. Everything is great and exciting as long as schools and universities take your money. When it comes time to find work the pay and hours are about the worst of any industry. Pilots can expect to spend nearly 6 figures getting their commercial license and many many hours of flight time. Then for at least the first seven years one is flying regional out of places like Windy Plains North Dakota. The mechanic side of things gets even worse. $15-$21 to start at best and the graveyard shift for the first 10 years. You’ll never make more than upper 5 figures even after 20 years, unless you want to go sit behind a desk and shuffle papers. ATC’s don’t have it much better. Passing the test to get there is one thing. Then you get to be stressed for the rest of your life and on your way to an early grave. If you are over 40 and thinking of a career change look somewhere else. If you are a woman, don’t even think about it. The industry is dominated by men who pay lip service to “diversity.”
    When all the cheering and encouragement and excitement fades, you’ll wish you had gone into tech.