Flying High - OU Aviation Alums to Commercial Pilots

Flying High - OU Aviation Alums to Commercial Pilots

Kids say they are going to be all sorts of things when they grow up: astronaut, cowboy, ballerina, doctor, an airplane pilot. But James McDonald and Niki Bray made it a reality. The OU Aviation program graduates are now pilots for regional airlines. The pair, both graduates of the Professional Pilot program, recently spoke to current OU Aviation students to prepare them for life as professional pilots and informing them of what to expect. 

Niki, a 2013 graduate, and James, a 2011 graduate, are both first officers for two different regional airlines. Niki started at Skywest Airlines in June 2014 and James started at ExpressJet in 2013. Once they started searching for careers in the airline industry, they realized that their experiences at OU better prepared them for being professional pilots.

“OU Aviation students have an advantage over anyone who didn’t go to a university for training,” James said. “It’s a noticeable difference. This prepares you far beyond what you are going to see in regional carrier training.”

The Learning Curve

Niki and James learned much during their interview and training processes alone. The interview process for becoming a commercial airline pilot can vary greatly between airlines. James participated in a phone interview, took an aviation knowledge exam (requiring hours of studying) and a cognitive test, and finally landed an interview. Niki said he was persistent in talking to a recruiter for his airline and eventually garnered an interview, but he said it still took him nearly three weeks to get everything in order for his interview, including paperwork and tabbing his log book.

Upon being hired, Niki and James went through two months of training at their respective airline’s headquarters. While in training, they were both put into a paid hotel room but it ended up having that same college feel, because roommates are often a part of airline pilot training.

“You have to learn a lot outside of the classroom too…you have to find out where the closest grocery store is, who has a car to give you a ride,” Niki said. “But most everyone had a cool roommate. It can be fun and everyone is very excited to learn.”

Beyond training in the classroom, there is much to learn. Seniority is key in the world of commercial pilots and it can be a long road to the top. A pilot’s hiring date influences most everything in one’s day-to-day routine as a pilot, including home base city, pay scale, flight schedule, and even days off.

“Seniority drives the workforce and the way things work in terms of movement in the company, how you’re paid, what bases you can hold, and it’s all dependent on your hiring date,” Niki said.

A pilot’s base is an airline’s hub location, which the airline uses as a transfer point to get passengers to their intended destinations. James and Niki both agree that living in a base is the way to go but can be expensive because most bases are in major metropolitan areas. When a pilot can’t afford to live at a base location, he or she often live in less expensive cities, commuting by plane to get to an assigned base city for work. While James is lucky enough to live and be based in Dallas, Niki is commuting to his base in Chicago. Seniority also makes a difference for being on reserve, which is an on-call shift that can span 4-5 days, as well as having a “line,” which is more of an established schedule.

“When seniority starts moving, you get a line,” James said. “But in reserve, you are available from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. Think about a whole month where four days in a row, you have to be available to work. If you live in that particular city, it’s not too bad. But if you commute, you have to hang out in some city that is not your home just waiting to be called.”

In some places, pilots are able to stay in “crash pads” in their base city, which is an apartment with three or four bunk beds and the monthly rent is split by as many as a dozen pilots who need the sleeping quarters on a month-to-month basis. Crash pads are a benefit to a pilot on reserve for days at a time without his or her own place in the area. Occasionally pilots are put up in nice hotels. And sometimes the reserve schedule allows them time to explore the area in which they are staying, as well as visit with friends and family.

“On days off, we definitely rest, but we also take advantage of the opportunities of the job and go see things,” Niki said. “It’s one of the things that make the job worthwhile.”

Niki and James both say the wait to gain seniority at a regional airline is worth it if a pilot hopes to move to a major commercial airline. At present, the wait doesn’t seem to be terribly long. According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, more than 20,000 pilot seats will be open to up-and-coming pilots in the next seven years due to FAA mandated age-65 retirement requirements. As the major airline pilots retire, regional airline pilots can step up and fill those spots. But there is a shortage of regional pilots as well and for anyone currently considering a career in the airline industry, the hiring outlook couldn’t be better.

“Don’t lollygag,” James said. “Go and fly as much as you can right now. Things are moving really, really fast and everyone is hiring.”

The Perks

In spite of the challenges of learning the ropes as an airline pilot, James and Niki love their jobs and all the benefits that come with them. Starting at a regional airline instead of a major airline means more flying time and therefore more opportunities to make better money. Each also has a 401k, as well as medical and dental coverage and a union to take care of him. Niki and James still receive pay from their companies in the event of weather cancellations or plane malfunctions, which they say encourages a culture of safety among the pilots. And of course, the flight destinations themselves aren’t too bad.

“Even though it’s called a regional airline, both of our airlines fly in more than half of the country,” Niki said. “So the cool thing is you get to go to all these different places. You might be based in Atlanta and fly mostly in the southeast, but you occasionally make it up to Maine.”

In addition to exploring interesting areas of the United States, flights to Canada and Mexico happen on occasion and while they can be fun, they also provide challenges to new pilots. For example, Mexico airspace requires different speed limits and does not allow any fresh foods inside the borders, which James said cost him a couple days’ lunches on his first flight there. Pilots also have to be prepared to listen closely on their radios, as the control towers speak mostly Spanish until they are talking to a flight that originated in the States. But the exotic location makes up for any hassles, especially if they have time to explore the area for a couple of days.

Not only are the two able to explore cities while on reserve or between flights, Niki and James both love having the ability to “non-rev,” which allows them to hop on any flight as long as the room is available. This allows them the opportunity to travel at no cost, other than taxes, to places they might not get to visit otherwise. Niki traveled to Berlin in January and both of them enjoy using the non-rev flights to visit family and friends.  And, of course, another benefit of the job is knowing they are helping people.

“You really get to play a positive part in the lives of a lot of different people,” James said. “Getting people where they need to be and welcoming them home gives you a great feeling.”

"It's not like any other job."

The airline industry is a tough one to be in and certainly isn’t easy for incoming pilots. Niki and James indicate that they have heard grumbling among veteran pilots but they don’t let occasional negative comments cloud their skies. The pair cautions pilots-to-be to consider all their options when it’s time to make a career move into commercial flying. They encourage current students to read their contracts carefully, research each company, and make sure the airline’s needs align with what one wants to get out of being a pilot. They agree that attitude is everything and to take people’s opinions with a grain of salt. Their positive attitudes led to bright futures for both of them.

“In five years, I hope to be a captain and take on more responsibility within my airline,” James said. “In ten years, my goal is to be at American Airlines and would also like to start a scholarship at OU Aviation for students going through flight training. I want to help other aviation students as much as I can.”

Niki sees himself eventually transferring to a warmer base than Chicago and would like to be flying at a major airline within five years. And, of course, like every good pilot, he has a ten-year plan.

“I want to be based in SoCal and surfing every week in ten years!”

While Niki and James are both paying their dues and working toward their goals, they encourage current flight students to fly as much as possible on any aircraft they can and enjoy each part of their training for what it is, noting that if you always focus on the future, you’ll miss the fun of the present. Niki and James are both examples of exemplary alumni who demonstrate that hard work pays off, in more ways than one.

“You see a lot of cool things,” Niki said. “You see awesome sunrises and sunsets. It’s not like any other job.”

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Ashley Brand

Ashley Brand worked as a writer and editor for the college.