What’s on the Mind of a Pilot During COVID-19

JF: In February of this year you left a decade-long career in higher-education to pursue your dream of becoming a pilot. I think many people would have a feeling of “oh s#%#” for you right now. How are you feeling?

Michael Schmidt: This is a funny and excellent question! When I finally decided to take the leap in February 2020 it was the best time in the past 50 years to be a pilot, due to huge shortages caused by the required baby boomer retirements and FAA training changes that significantly increased the cost and timing of pilot training. Basically a forthcoming need in demand and a major shortage in supply. In March 2020, that prognosis changed overnight with COVID-19. I honestly think it’ll be at least 2023 before the aviation industry fully recovers. Which leads me to the really interesting bubble I’m in.

It’s the absolute BEST time to be a student pilot because we have no other air traffic to be concerned about and fuel prices are at historic lows. But, I know that my career trajectory will be much longer and harder than I previously forecasted, and I’m cool with that. Things happen for a reason, so there’s not a moment in any day that I regret my decision to leave stability to take a well-researched and thoughtful risk.

"Although it may seem “late” in my career, I’ve got 60% of my working career remaining, so I better love it!"

JF: How did you decide to make such a radical shift into aviation at this stage of your career? 

MS: Every year I evaluate my current position and look at the position(s) I’d have five years from then. While I thoroughly appreciated my time at UNC Kenan-Flagler, I knew that for personal growth it was time to make a major change. I’ll have 30 more years of work and I could either spend that time in meetings and responding to emails, or I could be above the clouds. I opted for the latter. Although it may seem “late” in my career, in reality, I’ve got 60% of my working career remaining, so I better love it!

JF: I know you did an extensive amount of research and informational interviews before you made the final leap. If someone else was thinking about making a shift into aviation what would you tell them?

MS: Great question and I have to first start with what every single person during an informational interview told me within five minutes: “you cannot have a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) citation.” Sorry to start with something so tactical, but it’s an absolute deal-breaker. So, Don’t Drive and Drive, kids! Other than that, it’s important to understand a couple things:

  1. t is a very, very long road to a great job. While you see the airline pilots cruising around the airport and skipping the security line, they put in 7-10 years flying short-haul flights from unremarkable airports in bad weather. What you “see” is a great gig, but you’re seeing the best pilot jobs, not the thousands of others.
  2. You need to be geographically mobile. Everyone wants to work in the major hubs (ATL, NYC, LA, etc.). When you’re starting out, you may have to fly pipeline patrol (that’s an actual job) in lower Louisiana because that’s the only company that will hire you with such few pilot hours. Make sure your family is on-board with that.
  3. Be patient. The training is rather short, but the early career years will feel slow and long. Don’t lose hope of your dream and have persistence.
  4. Aviation school is a blast!

JF: What was the most surprising thing you learned about aviation, and how did it affect you?

MS: Two things:

The positive is that pilots are extremely friendly and willing to help. I’ve had countless conversations with pilots I’ve found online that are willing to answer any questions I’ve considered. The “family” of pilots is tight and forms very close bonds.

But, the negative is that the testing is constant. Every year, every commercial pilot is given a flight exam from which he/she must pass. And the standards are high, which they should be. Every new plane you fly, you need to pass an exam. This explains why the senior aviation salaries are so high – if you have one bad day with a flight exam, you could be out of a job.

JF: What do you really think about when you’re up there flying in the clouds?

MS: This is my favorite question! I’m still very new to aviation, so I’m literally only thinking about flying the airplane and trying not to die. Typical thoughts include: “Is the engine making a strange noise?” “Does the wing seem to be vibrating?” “Do I have the right ATC frequency on the radio?”

JF: What do you miss and not miss about your former life in higher education at a Top 20 Business school?

MS: I miss my colleagues, the students, alumni, and employers. I miss the people. I do not miss emails nor meetings. I will never, ever miss emails.

"You will have very few opportunities in your working career to take a break. COVID hiring will be minimal, so enjoy time with your friends and family and start looking for a job in September 2020. Don’t rush.

JF: Many people are feeling scared and anxious about their current employment prospects, as a former career management professional and as someone navigating uncertainty, what advice would you give them?

MS: No matter how bad it might be right now, do not leave your stable employment. I’m an exceptionally optimistic person, but I am very COVID-pessimistic. All of the economic data are dramatically worse than the financial crisis of 2008-2009. While you are employed (if you still are), this is an excellent time to spend hours and hours conducting informational interviews and researching your potential new career. I spent more than one year talking to people, taking intro flight rides, and financial modeling before I made my final decision. If you do lose your employment, don’t worry. Take some time off and relax. You will have very few opportunities in your working career to take a break. COVID hiring will be minimal, so enjoy time with your friends and family and start looking for a job in September 2020. Don’t rush.

JF: Do you believe in having a backup plan? If so, what’s yours?

MS: Absolutely, and I think this should be a requirement for someone making a highly risky career transition. I have four back-up plans, and a concurrent work plan (which I would recommend). Rather than quitting everything, I’m a part-time consultant for a training company, which helps keep my corporate skills fresh. Other back-ups include virtual teaching and instructional design.  

JF: At FinkDev, we define an authentic career as one that reflects your strengths, values, and interests. What makes aviation an authentic career path for you?

MS: My dad was fascinated by flight, so I’ve been around airplanes my entire life. A funny story is that he took me on a small airplane ride when I was a little kid and it scared the heck out of me! So I literally put that idea on hold for three decades. But I still loved airplanes, travel, and the engineering of flight. Aviators need to be planned, precise, but take very calculated risks because situations always change. I think that aligns very closely with my strengths, and also makes a good metaphor for this major transition.

Contributor Bio

Mike Schmidt is an aviator, consultant, and is always striving for the next best thing.