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Advice for aerospace engineer considering a career change


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35 year old here considering a career change to rotor-wing aviation. Quick bit about me: I earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and have practiced as an aerospace engineer for NASA for over 10 years.

The pay and benefits are fantastic, but I dread sitting in front of a computer for 9 to 10 hrs each day. I dread the work 95% of the time and have lost nearly all motivation to put forth my best effort. This struggle has persisted for 4 years and I’ve done everything I can reasonably think of to find happiness in my career, but to no avail. Hating your job is a horrible way to live, and I’m simply ready for a change.

I think I understand the process of training then working low wage jobs for a few years (instructing and tours) before gaining enough hours to qualify for a position in EMS or fire, but I’m not deterred by it. Life experiences motivate me, not money. I don’t want for material things. I want a career that brings excitement to my day-to-day, gives meaning by helping others, and provides an environment in which I’m driven to excel and progress in. None of these exist along my current path.

My questions for the helicopter pilots and hiring managers out there:

  1. Would my professional background give me a significant leg on the competition when going for a job? As a hiring manager, how much value would my background provide? (Subjective and difficult to quantify, I know).
  2. Does your career provide any of the things I listed above (excitement, meaning, purpose)?
  3. Is there really a shortage of experienced pilots on the horizon, to the extent that insurance companies might actually reduce their minimum hourly requirements?
  4. Am I an idiot for considering giving up a six-figure salary and 4 weeks vacation to do this?

Thanks everyone -- I really appreciate any insights you folks have.

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Why not just pursue a Helicopter License/Hours in your free time?  Can you ask to be transferred to another role that is fresh and exciting at your work? 

Rationalize work = money, money = flying. At least mentally that may motivate you. Throwing away 3x an average American salary doesn't seem wise. You could even save up and purchase your own helicopter if this is something you really want to pursue... do you have any existing hours? The current civilian industry is extremely tough/competitive and you are definitely viewing it through rose colored glasses... There is a reason there is a shortage of high hour pilots.

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1.No

2.Yes

3.No

4.Yes

You're engineering experience will be useful to you for helping you understand the systems and how the helicopter operates and good help you progress quicker than your peers. But any help iy gives you would be hard to quantify as no one will look at your resume see engineer and say "hire that one!"

I love what I do and worked extremely hard to get where I'm at. It's still jard work though. Hanging out the window in bad visibility in a 200 foot hover with people hanging from your helicopter is stressful. I'm guessing if I don't advance to an easier job in five years or so I'm going to look for something else to do.

There us a shortage of experienced piloys but there is never a shortage of inexperienced pilots so bridging the flight school to career gap is the problem. This is a rough over simplification but I like to explain it as this... Your graduate flight school with about 200 flight hours and you need 1000ish to get your first non flight instructor job. That means you have to take the equivalent of four students from nothing to everything to move on. Now you've created four new pilots who will be competing for one open position. Will you be the most hirable of your four? And best pilot doesn't always equate to most hirable. Of course in practice though those 4 students will end up being more like 12 because some quit, change instructors, change schools etc but it illustrates a valid point.

Would you be an idiot to do this? Well most people who start fail. A number of my friends have been killed by this. If you're married it destroys relationships because of how often you move and travel. You will not live where you want to for about the first 5 years or maybe never. So I would say probably find to try meaning, excitement, and work satisfaction elsewhere. But if you need to do it give it everything you have because thays what its going to take.

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4 hours ago, Fred0311 said:

 

 

There us a shortage of experienced piloys but there is never a shortage of inexperienced pilots so bridging the flight school to career gap is the problem. This is a rough over simplification but I like to explain it as this... Your graduate flight school with about 200 flight hours and you need 1000ish to get your first non flight instructor job. That means you have to take the equivalent of four students from nothing to everything to move on. Now you've created four new pilots who will be competing for one open position. Will you be the most hirable of your four? And best pilot doesn't always equate to most hirable. Of course in practice though those 4 students will end up being more like 12 because some quit, change instructors, change schools etc but it illustrates a valid point.

 

You invalidated your point. 

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Aviation is such a mixed bag, and everyone has a different experience with the industry.  I started out 15 years ago with an intro flight in airplanes, followed by a few years of working on the flight line trying to pay for training trying to make my way into a seat at an airline.  After running out of money and giving up on that in 2008 I joined the Army to fly helicopters, which was a great job for a young guy like me.  9 years of that and I got out and jumped back into flying airplanes and finally got that airline seat.

I couldn't be happier with my career choices and path.  I love the job I have now and feel that my work has paid off.  Flying the airplane that I fly, for the company I fly for, is living up to the original dream I had when I began.

Here's the thing though, I've wanted to fly since I was 2 years old and could never see myself as fullfilled doing anything else.  There are many folks in the exact same position as me who took a different path and are very unhappy being "stuck" where they are.  There are folks whose timing was just slightly different, or they chose a different company, or a different type of flying, who have the entire spectrum of things to say about their jobs and lifestyles.

My point is that you have to be persistent and you have to really have a passion for this industry, but need to recognize it's a job and career, and won't always be fun or exciting.  You also need to be able to appreciate where you are at and not be constantly clawing for the "next thing."

You may have really good luck switching careers and find out that you're made for this.  Or you might dip your toes and realize it's not what you expected.  The unfortunate thing is that the investment is incredibly expensive just to find out you don't like it, and getting a feel for flying with a private pilot license doesn't really give you an idea if you are a good fit for the profession.  

If you're OK with spending money and time and a few years from now looking back and saying "well, that didn't work out but I'm glad I did it," then do it.  If that's too much of a gamble for you then stay away from the career and go fly for fun.  

Edited by SBuzzkill
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  • 2 months later...
On 8/18/2020 at 3:20 PM, wayofthedirt said:

35 year old here considering a career change to rotor-wing aviation....

I am in the same boat. Like I don't work for NASA but the rest is pretty much the same.

So no experienced advice here, sharing my thought process: my intent is to complete a private license, and then go for commercial/instrument/Flight instructor ratings.

This will take time for sure, but I am not planning on quitting my job right away. Not sure if I'll be able to get a part time flight instructor gig (week-ends) while I work full time during week days, but that's kind of what I hope for and in the mean time my full time job will help me pay for my own recreational flight hours over the years. If that works out, it could get me to a tour job that I could enjoy and make me quit my current career.

If that doesn't work out, than that will be a amazing hobby to have and IMO worth the money spent.

A cool thing that it brings is that starting flight school gives a purpose to your current job: pay for flying... and once your current job becomes purposeful, it gets easier to sit in front of your computer.

 

For what it is worth, I didn't woke up one day with the random thought of helicopter... I always wanted to do that but was lucky enough to get to college at 17 yo, and at the time the only option for me would have been to get into the military in my home country. I was a little too young for military and it was not guaranteed at all that I could get into an helicopter after entering the military (you only get to choose if you are one of the best and that your physical is top notch) - so with the option of getting into college for an engineering degree, you bet my parents (supportive of whatever I wanted tbh) were pleased to see me getting an education.

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I think the wise thing to do would at least be to start towards your rating while maintaining your very solid career. Reassess as you move through the process.

I joined the Guard after finishing grad school because I always wanted to fly. I’m just now wrapping up the first half of the training. I am really enjoying it, but it’s an ass-kicker and it’s not what pretty much anyone here pictured. I’m sure at least in the training phase, the civilian world is less stressful, but this is never going to be a job that is stress free. It’s just not in the nature of it.
 

Having worked in recruiting, you could always throw a Hail Mary at a couple Guard units. There are 36-37 year old students down here on waivers, though not many. Most were prior service. That said, every state Guard has their own policies on what waivers they will try for and for whom, and given your background someone might be interested. Given you work for a government agency, they are pretty much the most likely employer to place nice with the DOD. 

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In Rolling Stone Magazine, famous musician David Crosby (do I need to list the band he was in?) has an advice column called "Ask Croz."  In the latest issue, an 18 year-old kid asks him how to go about making a steady income from music?  Crosby pulls no punches: "The only reason you should become a musician right now is because you cannot do any other thing."

When I read that, I laughed and thought about how it was similar to the situation in aviation.  You can run numbers...you can make pro/con lists...you can ask for advice from now until doomsday.  None of that will likely matter - for there simply are *no* guarantees.  You'll make it...or perhaps you won't.  You might score a job at which you'll be able to make some money and repay your flight school loans...or perhaps you won't.  And so perhaps the best advice is what Crosby gave to the kid: The only reason to become a career pilot right now is if you cannot do anything else.

And by that we mean, because you simply cannot imagine yourself doing anything else that will be as enjoyable, rewarding and fulfilling.  If it's a toss-up...if there are "other" things you might do with your life...things you like to do and depending on the circumstances *could* do...  Then flying is probably not for you.  If flying is something you have to do, then go fly.  It will take all the determination you possess.  

For a lot of us (most of us?) there was never any question about what we wanted to do with our lives.  We doggedly pursued aviation as a career.  The ones who only made a half-hearted effort usually quit along the way.  Good luck in your decision-making!

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On 8/18/2020 at 1:20 PM, wayofthedirt said:

35 year old here considering a career change to rotor-wing aviation. Quick bit about me: I earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and have practiced as an aerospace engineer for NASA for over 10 years.

The pay and benefits are fantastic, but I dread sitting in front of a computer for 9 to 10 hrs each day. I dread the work 95% of the time and have lost nearly all motivation to put forth my best effort. This struggle has persisted for 4 years and I’ve done everything I can reasonably think of to find happiness in my career, but to no avail. Hating your job is a horrible way to live, and I’m simply ready for a change.

I think I understand the process of training then working low wage jobs for a few years (instructing and tours) before gaining enough hours to qualify for a position in EMS or fire, but I’m not deterred by it. Life experiences motivate me, not money. I don’t want for material things. I want a career that brings excitement to my day-to-day, gives meaning by helping others, and provides an environment in which I’m driven to excel and progress in. None of these exist along my current path.

My questions for the helicopter pilots and hiring managers out there:

  1. Would my professional background give me a significant leg on the competition when going for a job? As a hiring manager, how much value would my background provide? (Subjective and difficult to quantify, I know).
  2. Does your career provide any of the things I listed above (excitement, meaning, purpose)?
  3. Is there really a shortage of experienced pilots on the horizon, to the extent that insurance companies might actually reduce their minimum hourly requirements?
  4. Am I an idiot for considering giving up a six-figure salary and 4 weeks vacation to do this?

Thanks everyone -- I really appreciate any insights you folks have.

1.) For most jobs, it won’t be a huge leg up. Meeting all of the experience requirements, and knowing someone at the company is what will get you the job.

That being said, test pilot positions occasionally come up at the various helicopter manufacturers, and they do require an engineering degree. I have never done it myself, but it seems like a pretty cool job.

2.) Yes and no. Flying helicopters is my greatest passion in life so far, but doing it professionally can definitely be a grind.

Jobs like tours can be fun for the first year, but then quickly become monotonous. Most pilots can only stomach dealing with annoying tourists for a year or two. Aside from dealing with volatile weather, flying offshore oil and gas is not particularly exciting or rewarding. Utility requires you to be gone from home a lot... all of my friends doing it are bachelors. HAA is a lot of time standby, and may involve dealing with med crew drama. ENG is dominated by one company... pay and schedule is terrible. 

There is also the company culture to deal with. Unfortunately, there aren’t many great helicopter companies to work for. A lot of small operators that cut corners, and a lot of mega corporations run by executives who know nothing about operating helicopters and only care about share value. But I suppose that could be said of any industry....

3.) There will never be a pilot shortage. Technology is rapidly evolving; airlines operating with one pilot and unmanned helicopters are a very real possibility. Occasionally there is an increase in demand, and operators almost alway lower experience requirements rather than increasing pay to attract experienced candidates. So what we see is an industry filled with companies just looking for a cheap butt in a seat.

4.) No, I think it’s admirable that you are trying to find something that brings you fulfillment. In the ten years I have been flying, there have been some truly incredible moments. There have also been many times when I questioned this career path. I don’t regret doing this as a career, but I also recognize that sometimes what we’re passionate about is more enjoyable as a hobby then a career.

For example, I love cooking. But having previously worked in a restaurant, there is a snowballs chance in hell that I would do it professionally. I would much rather spend the time relaxing in my kitchen, going at my pace, cooking the things that I enjoy.

The same can be said with flying. You can use your career to get pilot training, join a flying club and even own your own aircraft. In this scenario, fixed wing makes more sense practically and financially. Lots of options though... could fly a bush plane in the backcountry, or a float plane out to an island somewhere, or even get into aerobatics.

My decision to start flying helicopters as a career was 100% based on passion. My love of helicopters propelled me through year after year of BS. That same passion would cause me to miss flying if I changed careers. But I am also very much looking forward to when I can just fly planes (helicopters are too expensive) for fun. No micro-managing executives, no unreasonably demanding customers, no crew member drama... just me and my plane. 
 

Whatever you decide, best of luck.

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