6. IS FLYING FOR YOU?
“There’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot.”
— Chuck Yeager
Now you know about the benefits and downsides of a career as a pilot. You are also aware of some of the different career opportunities you will have as a commercial pilot. This know edge, however, is not enough for you to decide whether you actually can or should become a pilot.
Although I think almost anyone can become a pilot, that doesn’t mean everyone should. There are many social, medical, and other factors that can make a career as a pilot the wrong choice for you.
Before you spend your hard-earned (or borrowed) money on flight training, you need to make sure a flight career is what you really want to dedicate your professional life to.
ARE YOU MALE OR FEMALE?
First of all, your gender makes zero difference when it comes to becoming a pilot. Gender shouldn’t even be a consideration in this regard. Still, I think it needs to be discussed in order to clarify any misconceptions.
There are still some people in the world who seem to think that being a pilot is a profession for men only. Even your parents or other people close to you might think so. And that may discourage you from pursuing your dreams.
While flying is a male-dominated industry, there are many female aviators as well. One of the most famous aviators in the world, Amelia Earhart, was a woman who flew in the 1920s and 30s!
When I learned to fly, my first instructor was a woman. And when I was an instructor myself, some of my best students were young women. Currently, there are women working in virtually every field in aviation—as airline pilots, corporate pilots, flight instructors, and every other job you can think of.
However, still, only about 5% of all pilots worldwide are female. This is mostly because not many women are interested in aviation, but many airlines are trying to change this. EasyJet in the UK, for example, has set a target for 20% of new pilots to joining the airline to be women by 2020. They even offer £100,000 training loans for ten women each year to help with the process. SpiceJet in India has set a similar target to have 33% female pilots in the next few years, and Air New Zealand is looking to have 40% female pilots by 2020.
Most airlines have not set such targets, though. Instead, they recruit whoever is the most qualified for the job, regardless of the gender – which is fair for everyone. But because of the push for more female pilots, the opportunities for women are out there, and it’s a good time for women to get into aviation. The only way to really reduce the gender gap is to get more women interested in working as pilots. Now it’s up to the ladies to apply for flight training!
A word of caution, though, as a female pilot, you may face discrimination based on your gender in terms of pay and benefits. Based on a study by Glassdoor, the pay gap between male and female pilots is larger than in any other profession.
Based on the study, discrimination certainly happens, but it’s difficult to say how much is actually based on gender. In my company, for example, the pay depends on the type of aircraft you fly, and years of service — in general, the bigger the plane, the more you make even if you work the same amount of hours.
Also, in the United States, for example, the airline pilot groups are unionized, and their collective bargaining agreement dictates their pay, meaning gender should not make any difference. In other countries, this might not be the case, though.
If you’re interested in learning more about women’s role in aviation, you can visit the website of an organization called Women in Aviation International.
Understanding the medical requirements that come with a career as a pilot is very important. You should determine whether you can pass the pilot medical examination before you commit to flight training. This way, you can avoid any unnecessary setbacks later on.
There are some conditions that can disqualify you from becoming a commercial pilot. But luckily, you can work around many of them; aviation medical examiners
are allowed to place limitations on your medical certificate, which means you can still fly (even commercially)— just with certain restrictions that vary based on your particular medical condition. You can find a list of medical conditions considered disqualifying from the FAA website.
Different Medical Classes
In general, there are three different classes of medical certifications for pilots: 1st Class, 2nd Class and 3rd Class.
You only need a 3rd Class medical certificate to conduct your flight training or fly as a private pilot. A 3rd Class certificate is valid for up to five years if you’re under 40 years old. Otherwise, it’s only valid for two years.
A 2nd Class certificate is required to work as a commercial pilot. It’s valid for one year for commercial pilot privileges, but it’s also valid for five years for private pilot privileges.
The 1st Class certificate is the toughest to attain and is required for airline pilots. If you’re planning a career as a full-time pilot, you should first make sure you can pass all the medical requirements for a 1st Class certificate —even though you won’t need it in the beginning.
1st Class medical certificates are valid for 12 months for airline pilot privileges if you’re under 40 years old. If you’re 40 or older, they’re only valid for six months. In either case, you still get five years of private piloting privileges.
Get the 1st Class Medical Initially
You should definitely try to get the first-class medical certificate on your first medical examination, even if you are not going to fly as an airline pilot anytime soon. The point is to find out if you can pass the exam and make flying your career.
The interesting thing is that working as a flight instructor only requires a 3rd Class medical certificate. If you just want to complete your flight training and go straight into working as a flight instructor, you won’t have to undergo another medical check for five years.
Easy, right? But get a job with the airlines and turn 40, and then you’ll be under a microscope every six months!
You can find more details about the duration of different medical certificates here: FAR 61.23 Medical Certificates – Requirements and Duration.
Where can I undergo the necessary medical examination?
You can’t just go to any medical clinic or hospital for an aviation medical examination. You will need to schedule an appointment with an FAA-certified aviation medical examiner.
The FAA has a tool that can help you locate an aviation medical examiner (AME)9 near you. Not all the certified examiners are listed there, however. A simple Google search can be useful you if you can’t find one in the FAA’s database.
If you live near an airport with a flight school, you might want to just drop by or call them and ask for a recommendation for a medical examiner.
Most flight schools send all their instructors and students to a particular medical clinic or medical examiner for their medical checks. They can easily help you book a time, and can tell you what to expect from the examiner.
What if there is no FAA AME in my country?
Internationally, it may be difficult to locate an FAA medical examiner. As I live in Hangzhou, China, my closest FAA medical examiners are in Beijing or Hong Kong—meaning that I have to travel to one of those cities the day before my checkup and spend a night there.
It’s not worth traveling that far just to see if you can pass the exam. You can just do a medical examination in your home country that covers the same requirements as the FAA exam; unless you discover some medical problems, then you should be OK. You will still have to undergo the actual FAA examination before you start your training, though.
Create a FAA MedXPress Account Before the Appointment
Before scheduling an appointment, you should create a free FAA MedXPress account. Then fill out an initial application form and print it. The form asks you for some personal information, and it helps you determine in advance whether you have any disqualifying conditions.
As long as you don’t have any of the conditions mentioned on the form, you should be able to pass the actual exam.
How is your eyesight?
One thing people always say when they learn that I’m a pilot is, “Oh, you must have very good eyesight!” Well, yes—having normal eyesight is important for pilots. But even if you use corrective lenses, you can still get a 1st Class medical certificate.
An unfortunate exception to this are the requirements for perceiving different colors. Glasses that correct a pilot’s color vision deficiencies (i.e., their color blindness) are not currently accepted by aviation authorities.
Red-green deficiency is the most common color vision abnormality among people with some form of color blindness, and the FAA states that you need to have the “ability to perceive those colors necessary for the safe performance of airman duties.”
In other words, it’s necessary for pilots to be able to recognize light-gun signals, position lights, airport beacons, approach-slope indicators, and chart symbols that mainly use red and green. This is especially true at night. If you have a color blindness, you can still get a medical certification, but it will have a restriction that reads “valid for daytime flying only.”
It will be difficult to have a career in passenger transportation with this limitation, it, but you could still work as a commercial pilot in many general aviation jobs that are mostly conducted during the day.
Take a Free Colorblindness Test Online
Many hopeful pilots may not even be aware of their color vision deficiencies. Before you schedule a medical examination, it’s a good idea to take a free color blindness test online. You can take one at colormax.org.
If you pass the test with a 100 percent score, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. But if you can’t recognize some of the numbers inside the circles, it’s good to contact an aviation medical examiner beforehand and discuss what your options are. There are three different ways of testing color blindness, and you would only have to pass one of them.
Read Through FAR Part 67
The eyesight standards for different medical classes are the first eligibility requirement under the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations PART 6712. Those regulations describe all the medical requirements for each of the three classes of medical certificates.
You should read through the regulations to get an idea about possible disqualifying medical conditions you might have. Do this especially if you suspect you might have trouble meeting some of the medical standards.
Overall, the FAA medical exams are very easy. I rarely hear about people failing them. As long as you don’t have a history of severe medical problems, you should be OK. But it’s still better to make sure you can pass the 1st Class examination before you commit to expensive flight training.
If you have any doubts about your health, you might also want to check the latest medical requirements and find answers to your possible questions from the FAA Medical Certification website.
AGE LIMITS FOR PILOTS
You need to be at least 16 years old to obtain a student pilot certificate, which is required for solo flight training. If you start your flight training when you’re 16, the earliest age at which you can apply for a private pilot license is 17. Pretty young, right?
It only takes about a month or two to get your private pilot license if you commit to it full-time. That means you could send your 17-year-old son or daughter to flight school over summer break, and he or she would be an FAA-certified private pilot by the next school year!
With a private pilot license, you can rent small planes and fly around for fun with friends and family. And while doing this recreational flying, you would be gaining valuable flight experience to apply towards a commercial pilot certificate.
To get a commercial pilot certificate, you only need to be 18 years old. That means you can work as a professional pilot and fly for a living even at that early age. You would be free to apply to just about any pilot job that doesn’t require an airline pilot license.
The minimum age to obtain a flight instructor license is also 18. Getting the flight instructor license usually helps you find your first pilot job, as there always seems to be a demand for instructors.
To get an unrestricted airline transport pilot (ATP) license, you need to be at least 23 years old.
I got my airline transport pilot license when I was 37 years old, so there is really no hurry. If you’ve set a fast- track goal to work for airlines, then it’s good to obtain it early on. You can actually obtain an ATP with restricted privileges already at the age of 21. But if you’re like me and plan to stay in general aviation for a while, then there’s no rush.
What about the retirement age for pilots?
There is really no set retirement age for private and commercial pilots, as long as you can pass the regular medical checkups. But there is a mandatory retirement age for airline pilots.