LPF 5 | Becoming An Airplane Pilot

Becoming An Airplane Pilot With Seth Kolasinski

LPF 5 | Becoming An Airplane Pilot

 

If you dream of becoming an airplane pilot, you will have to go through a lot of schooling and training, and you will need dedication. In this episode, host David Yu talks with Delta Air Lines pilot Seth Kolasinski about his love for aviation and the challenges he faced through the 2001 and 2008 recessions. Seth also talks about his career in aviation under Delta, his early years in school hustling to become an airline pilot, and his experiences as a flight instructor.

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Becoming An Airplane Pilot With Seth Kolasinski

I interviewed Seth Kolasinski. He’s a Captain of Delta Airlines and through his career, has flown the Boeing 727, 757, 767, 717, 737 and the MD-80. Join us as he talks about his love for aviation and the challenges he faced through the 2001 and 2008 recessions. To find out more about my aviation-related things, please check out www.TheLevelPlaneField.com. If you have any financial questions, consult your attorney, accountant or financial advisor. If you’re interested in how I help airline pilots as a certified financial planner practitioner, please visit www.PacUnited.com.

We have Seth Kolasinski. He’s a Captain over at Delta Airlines. He’s been flying with Delta since 2001 and he flies Boeing 737. He started his career doing flight instruction and flew a little bit for Ameriflight, eventually for SkyWest and then for Delta. Welcome, Seth, to the show. I’m glad to have you here.

Thanks for having me.

Let’s talk about your experience a little bit. Who is Seth Kolasinski and tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was the kid that loves to fly. Ever since I can remember, I loved airplanes and I loved flying. In my teenage years, I realized that I could make a living flying airplanes. I figured, “I’ve got to have a job when I’m older. That’s what I’m going to do.” I didn’t know any airline pilots growing up. I didn’t understand how to get in the business, how to go about doing it. I figured it out for myself for better or for worse. My analogy is I was standing at the base of a mountain looking at the top thinking, “I want to stand on top of that mountain. How do I get there?” As most people probably know, maybe they don’t. There’s no one way to get to that top of the mountain. There’s no single path up there. There are a lot of different routes you can take, military, civilian or whatever.

I’ll tell you my story when I am just a civilian guy, but this isn’t the only path to that goal. When I was a kid, I wanted to fly airlines. How do I do it? My parents recognize that flying was my thing. I used to build model airplanes. As a matter of fact, I started out building these little remote balsa wood airplanes with the little engines that you stick in front of them. I figured out how to build those things, take them out to the schoolyard and I taught myself how to fly. I go out there the first day and throw it out about ten feet and it crashes in a bunch of little pieces. I take it home and rebuilt it. After a while, I’m flying this thing. I was determined. I definitely wanted to do it.

You are very persistent.

It didn’t matter what you do, persistence pays off. When I was a senior in high school, my parents are like, “You have to go check out how to become a pilot.” I was like, “I should.” I went down to Orange County Airport. They took a little demo ride as they call it. You probably are familiar with those. You may go for half an hour assessment and check it out.

Was that John Wayne Airport or another airport in Orange County?

It was at John Wayne Airport.

Did they have airline operations over there at that time?

Yes.

That’s a pretty crazy place to train with a bunch of airlines and the traffic.

Here’s the deal at old Orange County Airport or John Wayne. If you fly out to Chino or wherever your track is. In Orange County, it’s not going to happen. You’re not just learning how to fly the airplane around the pattern. You’re learning how to talk and deal with all kinds of jet traffic and airspace. You’re learning a lot more by the time you are solo than you would be if you’re out with a crew. The downside is it takes you longer and it cost you more. The upside is when I got my private pilot out of Orange County, if I wanted to go and fly to Brackett Field, it’s a piece of cake. There’s a guy out at Brackett thinking to go to Orange County and he goes, “I don’t think I want to go there.” If you don’t know what to do, it can be scary.

I took a demo ride and I fell in love with it. I remember everything about that ride. I was eighteen years old and I was blown away. I was like, “How do I fund it?” I was fortunate to get a little help from my parents and I worked a ton of jobs. As far as the training goes, I slow roll that through college. I got through all my ratings so that by the time I graduated from college, I had my CFI. I started instructing for the flight school that I learned through. That was my path. I got into my first paycheck as a pilot. It’s pretty similar. A lot of people go to these universities like Embry-Riddle or the University in North Dakota. You go to their program and then part of the deal is they usually hire you as a flight instructor afterward. You have a job to start with and start building your time. That’s the goal of flight instructing. You’re not going to get rich off of that hour. You’re probably eating Top Ramen and living on a couch.

How much would you say you made, the average, as a flight instructor? I guess it depends on the school how many hours you can get.

There are all kinds of variables. I’ll tell you about my experience. Once I got my flight instructor certificate and I got hired, I showed up to the office and sat on the couch and waited for people to walk in whoever wants to take a demo ride. I’m the demo guy. A guy walked in and I mentioned flying, I talked him up and he asks for a demo ride.

Persistence always pays off. Click To Tweet

Did you guys get a lot of foot traffic? Did that happen frequently? Do people come in and be like, “I’m looking into flying?”

Absolutely, that’s pretty much all my clients. I have couch time, as we call it. You sit on the couch, you wait for someone to walk in and they come up for a demo flight. You try not to scare them. You try to make it fun. If it all works out, you got a student. It takes a while to build your clientele. It took me several months. In the first couple of months, I was hardly doing anything but just to memorize. After a while, I had a pretty full book. I was working six days a week. I wanted to build time, so I was working sunup and sundown, sometimes after, as much as I could. I probably flew about 1,000 hours a year.

This is in the mid-‘90s, I probably made $20,000. Definitely, I wasn’t killing it. Honestly, I had no idea what these guys make now. I don’t know what their hourly rate is, how much they’re flying. They must be flying a fair amount. It seems to be a lot of activity going on. I’m trying to remember how much I got paid an hour back then. It is only for the flight times, I probably got paid between $15 to $20 an hour.

From what I’ve seen, it’s roughly $60 to $70 an hour now for flight instruction.

That’s what you’re paying, that’s not what the instructor is getting.

That’s true because the school takes the cut of that.

I think our school took about half and the longer you were there, you can get a percentage of that.

How many hours did you need to get to the airlines at that time? Was it 1,500 or was it lower?

By the time I get to SkyWest, I had 2,500. That wasn’t based on FAR limits at all. The rules have changed since back then. It was more of supply and demand. You have a certain amount of demand and then you had enough guys at SkyWest. They have always been one of the higher rank regional so they could be picky and choosy. If you didn’t have hours, we got another guy that’s got twice the amount of time. You have jet time. Nowadays, if you go through a certain program like Embry-Riddle, they have certain schools that are certified to allow you to get to a regional airline at lower amounts of hours. It’s typically 1,500 hours, that’s the standard, but they drop it down to 1,000 hours that you go through.

I’ve heard of that because of Part 141.

It’s even more than Part 141. My school was 141, but there are certain schools that have a certain higher certification. It’s Part 141 plus something else. It’s like $500 off of your time.

Going through all that stuff, there are people who go through Embry-Riddle. They go through the whole program. They probably end up with $60,000 to $70,000 debt to go through the program, however much or maybe even more. From your road to private pilots to CFI, did you have to take out any loans? How hard was it paying for the lessons?

I scrapped. I was doing flight school and college.

You are doing both.

This is the early ‘90s and things were a lot cheaper back then. College alone is ridiculous and you have tax price on top of that and it can get pretty pricey. I did have some student loans, but not a lot. I would work as many jobs as I could. There are a couple of times I had three jobs. I was hustling.

You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to achieve things.

I ended up with a little bit of debt but it wasn’t that bad. Once I got going, it was pretty easy to pay off.

LPF 5 | Becoming An Airplane Pilot
Becoming An Airplane Pilot: College alone is ridiculous, and you have tax price on top of that. Flight school can get pretty pricey that you may need to hustle with multiple jobs.

 

What’s your one scariest experience with the student?

I tell you because you’re about to get solo. Don’t do this. At Orange County Airport, back to the original comment of how it can be busy. You got a long runway where the jet land on and a short runway where we would traditionally do our pattern work on. The program was we’d go out, do some pattern work with the guy and make sure he or she is okay. As an instructor and you felt comfortable, you would have him stop and say, “I’m getting out of the airplane.” We didn’t have a handheld radio.

You’re just by yourself with the ATC.

I was standing by the runway watching him go around. He would come to me every time and I would say, “It’d be fine. You need to keep going.” He’s been solid all the way through. He goes around two times. It was a great couple of landings and getting a thumbs up. He goes around the third time and he lines up on the bigger runway. I have no radio so I have no idea what’s going on. I assume that the tower told him to land on the bigger runway, which they’ve done before. I’ve seen it happen before. He lands on the right runway. As he’s getting ready to land on it, I see a regional turboprop coming up right behind him and go around right on the top. I knew I was in trouble.

Did the tower say anything?

Yes, but I couldn’t hear a word because I didn’t have a radio. I get on the airplane and the tower starts lighting me up. I was like, “Sorry, I have to call them on the phone.” I get into the office and grovel. I tried to explain what happened. I asked the student, “What happened? I don’t understand.” There’s the left runway and the right runway and he said, “I landed on One Nine Left.” He thought he landed on and then when he turned off the runway, he realized that the runway was still in front of him. He didn’t even know he did it. He was so focused. He had no idea that in front of him was a runway. Those were fun. I had stories of people from stalls or trying to shove the airplane, but nothing too serious.

At least he didn’t land on the taxiway like Harrison Ford. At least it was a runway. We’ll give him credit for that. How did you get to Ameriflight then?

I taught for a couple of years. I probably ended up with 2,000 hours when I left instruction.

That’s plenty.

These days, that’s a lot. Back then, that was so-so. I had some friends that went there. It was a great place to go to break free of the instruction environment. When instructing, you’re going out of the practice area, back out of the pattern and back. You’re not flying. You are just watching it. It’s a good job, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it, but you weren’t much of a pilot. Ameriflight gave me the opportunity to go out and fly the airplane. If you show up in the morning, they will give you an airplane and say, “Here’s your airplane. Here’s your cargo. We need you to fly to these destinations. We don’t care how you do it if IFR or VFR. Just call us when you’re done.” It was great. This is what flying is all about.

That’s pretty cool. You had to follow your own flight plans and all that stuff, even though you didn’t have a dispatch or anything.

We did have a dispatcher. You could call them for weather or whatever assuming you’re within the radio range, which sometimes we weren’t. It’s Part 135 operation. It’s not quite like the Part 121 airline type of field, but it had some structure. For the regularly scheduled routes, they had what they call IFR flight plans. If you wanted to go fly that far, you could call off for your clearance and it was already in there. If you were doing something that was unusual, you would have to go and file it yourself, which is good. Basically, you learn how to work the system every angle, IFR, VFR, filing flight plans and getting all that stuff. It was a good workout. You are a single pilot usually with no autopilot, bad weather or good weather, you name it, you were doing it.

What was the typical length of flight? Was it an hour or two?

They weren’t very long. Sometimes there were multiple stops. Maybe your run is to go up the Owens Valley. You start out at Burbank, you hop over to Mojave up to Bishop and up to Mammoth Lakes and Tonopah. Maybe you’d go for another run that goes off to the Central Valley. You got a couple stops on the coasts. They had all kinds of stuff going on. A lot of times, it was more than one stop, which was fun too. You would start out in a little airplane like Piper Lance with a single-engine piston airplane, which wasn’t the ideal time. You want a multi-time if you’re trying to move on, but you only have that thing for a couple of months. I don’t even think they have those anymore. I think they got rid of the single-engine stuff. They moved onto the Piper Chieftain, which I felt pretty cool back then. It was the biggest airplane I have flown. Piston turbocharge, the Chieftain they call it. That thing was a handful and all kinds of levers, cowl flaps, boost pumps and all crazy stuff going on. You go back to a Beech 99, which is an unpressurized King Air and also a turbine airplane. You’re getting a turbine time which is cool. If you need a turbo time, that’s what you need if you want to move on. With King Air and I’m on the countryside. I’m doing 200 knots. That sounds pretty cool flying your 152.

That’s pretty fast compared to what we were talking about or what punting along like 90 to 100 miles per hour.

I’m doing 200 knots. It feels great. I was pretty happy at Ameriflight for a while. I thought, “I’m serving PIC time. What’s my next flight? Do I hang out here?”

What were your goals at that point in time then? Was it still to move on to the airlines? That was your ultimate goal.

It takes a while to build your clientele as a flight instructor. Click To Tweet

That was always the goal. The majors are like the regional time better than this cargo operations. I was making decent money. I was on the fence until my old friend started to call me one day and says he was a captain over the SkyWest. He said, “We’re about to hire a ton of people here. Do you want a job?” I was like, “Sure, I’ll go check it out.” I went and interviewed. They had just gotten this big contract to fly all of United Express out West. They need to hire as many people as they could. They hired me on the spot. I knew it was going to be a step up in a lot of ways, but I didn’t quite understand until I got there. I went from a Beech 99, which is a turboprop airplane to another turboprop, the Brasilia EMB 120. It was a big leap up. That airplane would do 300 knots. It had a pressure gauge there and would get autopilot. I had another guy to fly with. It wasn’t single-pilot anymore. My big joke is you’re sitting there in your nice air-conditioned cockpit, you push a button and a flight attendant comes to bring you Coke.

What more could you want?

I went from loading my own cargo in the middle of the desert heat and sweating all the way to my destination. It was definitely going from blue-collar to white-collar. It was fun.

Was it better pay at that time? Was it about the same pay from Ameriflight to SkyWest or a little better?

I was at Ameriflight for a year. I made $37,000 that year. This was in the mid-‘90s. It was enough to live on. I think I dropped down by $20,000 in my first year at SkyWest.

It was way better than the regionals.

Nowadays, it’s a totally different story. These guys are getting signing bonuses, their hourly rates are a lot better. It’s very competitive. The regionals paying a halfway decent wage to start.

I heard that at the regional, you get $60,000 to $80,000 signing bonus and then you start at $260,000 if I’m not mistaken.

I don’t know the exact numbers. I think if you add it all up, in your first year, you can make $60,000 to $80,000 and with all the signing bonuses. It’s competitive and it’s good.

It is a whole lot better than $20,000. You could live off of that, assuming that you’re good with your cashflow and expenses.

To get to that point now is a lot easier. You don’t have to go through two years of flight instruction probably. You can do a year or two of instruction and you could probably be going to move up pretty quick and things are moving fast. As with anything, especially in this industry, it’s all about timing. If the timing is good, who knows what it’s going to be like. I’d have no idea. It changes in an instant and it does sometimes, but things are good.

Were you married at that point when you got to SkyWest?

I married the month after I upgraded to Captain.

How was that transition from dating between Ameriflight and SkyWest? How was the lifestyle transition going from locally? SkyWest is still local, but you don’t have a lot of overnights.

My wife is very independent. She’s a good airline wife. There’s another airline friend of mine that says, “This household works because I go away.” It wasn’t too tough. She enjoyed her time away from me as well. If you got the right person, it could work. Some people don’t do okay with that because that could be an issue. It doesn’t matter where you’re laying over, it’s about the time gone. I could be gone for five days on the West Coast. It’s no different in five days on the East Coast, you’re still gone. Back then, it was all West. Thereafter, SkyWest. They didn’t have any East Coast operation, whereas now, they fly all over the country, probably most East Coast and West Coast. The transition was fine. We didn’t have kids. It was pretty nice because there are no complaints.

Throughout my whole career, I would say the hardest adjustments for us personally would be commuting. As an airline pilot, you can either live in the base or out of the base. Fortunately, I live in a base. I’m based in LA. I drive for work, which is big. I could live in Phoenix and would have to call to commute. I have to fly to work. I have to go to the airport, get on an airplane, fly to LA to start my trip and then get going. I eat up quite a bit of extra time at either end of your trip. You’re basically working a little bit for free. There were times when I first got hired by Delta, a little bit of SkyWest where I was commuting. That’s a little extra stress. It’s more time gone on the pilot. It’s a lot more stress. You got to worry about your flights getting there and back. Are they open? Can you get on? Did they get you there on time? Are they delayed? There is a lot of extra stress involved in commuting. I only did it when I had to. When I was looking for a major airline, I only picked LA-based because I wanted to live in Southern California and I knew that I did not want to commute. It narrowed it down a little bit. I was fortunate to get on with one that could have an LA-based and eventually got in.

How did you get hired on Delta?

LPF 5 | Becoming An Airplane Pilot
Becoming An Airplane Pilot: One of the hardest adjustments for an airline pilot’s family is commuting. You can either live in the base or out of the base.

 

Back in SkyWest. It is a good time for them to hire. They are growing quickly. I upgraded in fourteen months, which is pretty quick. I was getting captain for Turbo PIC Part 121 regional time. It’s about as good as you can get to get off to the majors. The equivalent would be an RJ captain at a regional. That’s the best that you can be besides maybe the military. There I was. I’m getting up my cases out and I was fortunate. It’s the typical deal on what you know and who you know. I was able to meet the right person. I had all the qualifications but so did other people. My wife’s uncle was a Delta captain. He was out in Park City and had a neighbor that was a former chief pilot at Delta. He called me one day and said, “You need to come out and meet someone.” I flew out there and we had dinner. It was a little bit of a mock interview and probably about six months to a year later, I got a call. I’m sure that had something to do with that. He put his stamp of approval on my application and streamlined it to the top of the pile in some way, shape or form.

For other people that are in similar shoes, there are all other means to get a similar deal. They have conventions that you can go to where recruiters from these airlines will go to you and get face time with them. If you think about it, if you’re a business wanting to hire somebody, if you look at a piece of paper versus meeting the person, it makes a big difference. I need face time with somebody that’s somewhat connected is huge. That was my story. I just happen to meet the right person. He wrote the letter of recommendation in some way, shape or form and it worked out so there I was.

What was the transition like then from being a captain at SkyWest to the first officer at Delta?

I didn’t even make the first officer.

When did you start off at then?

In February 2001, I got hired at Delta Airlines. I still had the 727, which is a three-man aircrew.

Was it like a flight engineer?

Yes, I was a flight engineer, which was cool. You get hired into this class and they stack you in seniority. Back then, it was done by age. I was the youngest guy in the class. I was one of the most junior. Sometimes they do it by the last number of your Social Security. It depends on the airline. Here I am this junior guy and they go to the class and say, “This is what we have available for you. We’ve got a 737. We’ve got MD-80. We have 727 here.” The engineer’s seat was the least desirable for a couple of reasons. One, because you’re not flying. Two, because it’s a hard class. They call it a hazing class. They made sure you knew how to build that airplane. It was definitely a subclass to anything that they offered.

Long story short, I got engineered, which I was completely happy. Originally, I got into 737 out of Orlando. I want to fly out to LA for a conversation. That’s not where I want to be. That’s a whole transcon commute. They said, “You’re going to be in 737, Orlando.” I was like, “I’ll do whatever I’ve got to do. I’ll get out of it as soon as I can.” Right before I went to class on that 737, they called me and a couple of the junior guys that said, “We’re sorry. We need to put some of you in the 727 that are based in Dallas.” I’m not sure what I was flying, but that cut my fuel in half.

That’s a lot closer.

I was fine with that and it was cool. Even back then, that airplane is old. I knew that when I was flying it that I’d be able to tell people, years ahead, “I flew the 727 as a junior.” The three-man crew is fun. Something that you’ll never see again. They’re all gone. I had a good time on the airplane, but I got hired in February of 2001. Unfortunately, not long after that 9/11 happened. The airline industry took a turn for the worst. This would be a segue into the pitfall of the aviation industry.

Let’s talk about that a little bit. The aviation industry historically has been very volatile. There are bankruptcies, there are mergers, there are furloughs, losing seniority and pay cuts. You name it. That’s good because you got there in 2001. There was a recession right after 2001. There was also a recession back in 2008, which we all remember very fondly and vividly. What was it like going through these? What were the challenges that you faced? What did you do to survive?

We all know what happened that 9/11 day. I woke up that morning. Fortunately, I wasn’t at work. A lot of people stuck for several days, but I was at home watching on TV. I didn’t get it to begin with. I didn’t understand nor did a lot of people on what was about to happen to our industry. After a couple of days, once the pieces all started to come together and we all started to understand what was going on. I figured being one of those junior guys in the airline that I might not have a job real soon. Sure enough, about three weeks later, I got a phone call from my chief pilot and said, “They had announced that they’re going to probably furlough people. They’ll make a decision here in a week.” That day came along and I got a phone call saying I was furloughed, I got laid off.

What month did you get hired in 2001?

In early February.

You had about six months or so.

I was gone by November 1st. October is my last month. I was there for eight months, which is ironic because when I got hired, I got these guys, I think they honestly meant what they said. All the people at Delta, they’re hiring me, “You are getting hired at a great time.” We just got out of the interview. We got hired, me and another guy. He was from JetBlue. We’re in the corridor talking, “It’s like we won the lottery. This will be the last job interview we’ll ever have.” Sure enough, little did we did know that eight months later, we will be gone. I only had a few hundred people below me. Everything was done by seniority. All the guys who get hired go underneath and you move up as they get hired. The first group of people that went out was the bottom 400. I was in the first group to go. Here’s the problem with furloughs, first, you’re out of a job. Second is you don’t know how long and nobody does. The airline doesn’t know.

If you got the right person, the relationship could work. Click To Tweet

They don’t give you time. They’re like, “We got to furlough you and there’s no set date. You are in limbo.

They were in outright panic mode. They were trying to survive. They were already losing money when I got hired. 9/11 happened and nobody is flying. I can imagine the board room meetings are chaotic and they were like, “What do we do?” I got it, it’s a business. I didn’t take it personally. I understand that that’s how it works. Off I went, but the problem is you don’t know how long. If they could say, “We are going to be gone for five years or a year,” I could plan accordingly. If things are going to be a few months, maybe I could go flip burgers for a few months and then I come back and I’m good. If it is going to be ten years, maybe I’d get another career. That was the problem initially. It was, “Nobody is flying because they’re scared of terrorists.” Then it was, “There’s a war in Iraq.” They snowball. There was SARS, fuel spike, bankruptcies and all kinds of stuff.

It’s like one after another.

I ended up being out for almost five years.

What did you do during that time?

I can’t remember how much notice they gave me a couple of weeks, but not long. In a roundabout way, I got kicked out of aviation. The military guys went back to the military because the military is wrapping up. They were about to start a war. They all had jobs. As for the Delta, as they kicked me out the door, they said, “If we get a letter of resignation from you, you will be erased from our seniority list.” It means that I have recall rights. I still had a name on the seniority list. Of course, the active guys were up, but as they start needing pilots, they’re going to go down that list and call you back eventually. The way it worked was I had corporate jobs, which would have been pretty good gigs, but they all wanted me to sign a letter of resignation because they didn’t want to pay me and have me bounce afterward. I get it. I understand where they’re coming from. I even told them, “I’ll be around for at least two years. I’m not going anywhere.” They’re not going to call me back anytime soon. I couldn’t find that letter. It feels like resigning your rights to get back to the Major League if you’re a baseball player. It’s stupid to do.

That’s something you worked for all these years and it’d be foolish to give up on that.

That wasn’t going to happen. One of the multiple jobs I had when I was in college trying to pay for flying, was remodeling houses. I have some uncles and friends that have a construction company. During that time, the early 2000s, construction was booming and they needed people to help them work. I went out and remodeled houses for almost five years. I was like, “That was good. I got a job. I get a decent paycheck. Let’s keep things going.” While I was out, I was like, “I don’t want to rely on flying.” I like to diversify. I was always busy. I thought maybe I’ll start a business. As a loan officer for all three days, the mortgage boom. I never had an office job before and didn’t know what I was in for.

Was it just cold calling?

I started doing some appraisals. I dabbled around. In August of 2006, Delta was in the middle of bankruptcy but they had a plan. They need a pilot to come back and fly for them. They called me back and I was like, “I’ll go.” Some people held out. They wanted to make sure that Delta can be stable. I had nothing to lose. I was like, “I’ll come back.” Once I got back there, I realized that it’s better. It was easier to focus on and maximize my area at Delta rather than trying to diversify and run a business on the side or have some of the side gigs. It’s less complications in my life. I had started a family so I ended up not having a side gig. A lot of people have enough free time to run a business. Some people, it works out for them, some people wish they didn’t do it.

You tend to see that a good amount too. Pilots are all over the place. You see pilots with all sorts of stuff, as far as side gigs and side income. It’s healthy if that’s something that you enjoy. It’s not something that stresses you out. There’s nothing wrong with just being a pilot. That’s a great career. It’s a great job.

If you hustle at this job, you can do it as well as far as your side gig, depending on what side gig you’re in. I decided to keep it simple. For better or for worse, I’m just a pilot.

I think that’s a good point that we can talk about too. If you hustle, you can make some good money too. Not that you guys don’t make good money, but you can make even better money. Tell us about that. How do you make extra income as a first officer, a captain or a major?

Every other airline has its own set of work rules, the way they pay and how they pay overtime. I’ll break it down for Delta. It’s pretty similar to other airlines. There are two types of pilots. There are a reserve pilot and a line holder. A reserve guy has to set a day that he’s on call and the company is expected to call. Whenever they need you, you go. A line holder has a set schedule. Every month you know what trips you have, what days you’re going to start, what days you’re going to finish. Where are you going to go? What legs? What layer? It is a lot more control and oversight.

Is that based on seniority?

It’s all based on seniority. That’s not to say that the senior guys don’t bid reserves. Sometimes they do. If you’re in a category overstaff and you don’t want to fly and you’re a senior, maybe you did reserve and you don’t fly that month. You still get a paycheck, maybe not as much as if you are a line holder, but you’re going to sit at home and get paid. Sometimes the reserve goes to seniors. Sometimes it goes to juniors. As a reserved guy, there are less options for maximizing your pay usually. Although there are little tricks you can do here and there. As a line guy, generally, it’s a little easier to manipulate your schedule and do things. It gets complicated. There are always little schemes that people come up with. Long story short, the key is to pick up over time. In our airline, it pays double time. If you are a line holder and you pick up trips on your days off over time, we call it a green slip. You get paid double time. You fly two days, you get paid for four. If you can figure out how to maximize those types of trips, you’ve definitely augmented quite a bit.

How easy is it to snag one of those overtime slots or flights? Are they readily available? Are they pretty easy?

LPF 5 | Becoming An Airplane Pilot
Becoming An Airplane Pilot: A lot of people have enough free time to run a business. For some people, it works out for them; some wish they didn’t do it.

 

It depends on a lot of things. It depends on your category. Sometimes your category is well-staffed and they’re not very available. Sometimes it’s short and they’re giving them out like candy. It depends on the time of year. Basically for summertime but not quite enough to cover it, they staff a little below in summertime assuming that pilots will pick up over time to cover that little extra gap. In those slow months, they don’t have a big surplus. Usually, summertime or maybe holidays coming up like Christmas, they’re literally short and you can snag over time trips that way too. In our case, in a lot of cases, it’s based on seniority. They’ll start on the top list and say, “Do you want to grab the trip?” “No.” It comes down the list and eventually, somebody will grab it. Seniority, staffing and the time of year are three key ingredients to snag some overtime.

Is there anything else besides the overtime as far as making some extra income? There’s a maximum number of hours that you can fly in a single year. What is the maximum?

I believe it’s 1,000 hours a year. I will never reach that amount. One thousand hours is not okay but it’s 1,000 hours of flight time.

Are there pilots who hit 1,000 hours in a year?

There probably are. The way to avoid that limit would be to bid trips that have credit. For example, I’ll use this trip. I used to fly with my old airplane, like the Guatemala trip. If I fly down to Guatemala, you layover for 24 hours and you fly back the next day. You were gone for two and a half days. You have only flown two legs, but you got paid for three whole days. The way their contract works, what I’m getting at is a lot of credit. You may fly for ten hours, but you got paid for fifteen hours. That ten hours are only what counts for 1,000 hours, not the fifteen. The goal would be to fly as little as possible to get paid as much as possible. Bid trips that have as much credit as possible. That’s one way to stay out of that 1,000 hours. Deadheading is another way. I used to have trips that would start with a deadhead from LA all the way to Tokyo. That’s twelve hours of pay. I’m not flying. I’m just sitting back, watching movies.

That’s not bad, except you’re stuck on a flight for twelve hours, but you’re getting paid.

I was getting paid. I was at first-class watching movies.

You were out for five years. It was in 2006 when you got back in and 2008 comes along. Were you the first officer at that time?

For most of the world, 2008 was a bad time, especially if you’re in the financial planning business. The only good news about 9/11 is that it forced airlines to get lean and mean prior to the big recessions. When it came along, they got hurt. They were definitely struggling, but not like they would have been had they not gone through 9/11. They were already pretty lean. Delta didn’t furlough. They were close. They thought about it, but they held on to a little bit of excess. It’s expensive to furlough and then call back and retrain. They thought, “We’re going to hold on and try to ride it out.” I think United Airlines furloughed, UPS, maybe a couple of airlines as well. For the most part, Delta and some of the airlines were already lean and mean. It wasn’t a big trauma for everybody else. I felt sorry for all these people in other industries losing their jobs and houses. In the back of my head, “I already went through this.”

It would be horrible if you got furloughed for however long after those five years. You finally got back. You went two years and then you’re back out another 2 to 3 years.

That happened. I had some friends who went to United Airlines at the same time that I went to Delta. By luck, I got furloughed once, they got furloughed twice. That would have been rough. That ten year was an exceptionally dark period. I’m not going to say the industry is immune to anything like that again, but it’s way in better position now than it was back then.

It’s a lot healthier as far as the airlines and the industry, in general, are concerned.

The new guys that are applying or are just getting hired, if you’re at the bottom, you are scared of furlough in the downturn.

That’s pretty scary if your family is relying on the pay. If you got furloughed, you don’t have a return time.

Those guys gave up a good job either in the military or the regionals to get decent pay. They keep those up. They can’t go back to them and they’re rolling the dice on this airline. It’s a bit of a risk, but I tell guys that things are a lot different than when I got hired. When I got hired in 2001, Delta was already losing money. I remember walking around watching the operation and thinking, “These jets sit around a lot. We would fly to one leg to Dallas or Amarillo. We’d sit for 2 or 3 hours with the jet.”

They are turning around all the time.

They figured out how to squeeze a lot more of this in the airline. That’s one small example. If we contrast that with the finances, Delta is making a healthy profit margin. It would take a pretty big financial setback for them to eat that up and start losing money again. It’s a lot bigger cushion this time than when I got hired.

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As far as to pay and benefits, in 2008, did they cut back on any of that stuff for you guys? The matching or the amount that they put into your retirement.

When I got hired, they had a defined benefit pension. I remember them explaining it to me thinking, “That’s great.” The only problem is, Delta remains solid my entire lifetime. I was 30 years old, this thing’s got to be solid for another 50 or whatever years. It’s an airline. What are the odds of that? A few years later, they’re bankrupt. Leading up to the bankruptcy, they took some pretty big paychecks. Ultimately, what ended up being Delta and most of the other airlines was we took about 43% pay cut. The defined benefit went away. They had switched to a defined contribution. For example, they’ll take whatever I make and multiply it times 16%.

You don’t even have to contribute. It’s not necessarily a match, but it’s a straight 16% contribution into it.

The upside of that is, it is all in my name. Whereas, before with defined benefit, the company has to remain solid for it to get paid out. It was as a promise. Whereas the defined contribution, Delta could go out and my bank account doesn’t change. That’s the upside of that. The downside is that it has to be invested properly. You don’t really know. There’s no set number that you can count on when you retire. In the defined benefit, there’s a formula to calculate as you go, “I know exactly what I’m going to get when I walk out the door. Whereas in your 410(k), who knows.” You probably know more.

Everyone’s always searching for the number. What’s the secret number to retirement? How much do you need for retirement? The answer is always, “It depends on lifestyle. It depends on your medical expenses when you get older. It depends on whether you need to get into long-term care.” You have to plan for it, especially airline pilots. You guys have all the stuff that other industries don’t even have to deal with. We talked about some of it, the furloughs and the bankruptcies. Some industries deal with it, but you guys are a little bit more volatile. Hopefully, you are on the right foot, but FAA medicals. You have your first-class medical that you have to pass and what if something happens and you don’t have a medical anymore? At the age of 65, in some other industries. It’s like, “Maybe I could work a few more years. Make a little bit more money, bring some more money away and then retire.” You don’t have that option there.

Not yet. I went and got my updated FAA medical. It’s one of the problems with the industry. You’re exposed to pitfalls like getting diabetes or some medical condition that prevents you from flying or the airline going out of business. It’s a very narrow field. Let’s say for whatever reason I couldn’t fly, what do I do?

You could fly if you could do a second class medical and pass that. You can do other stuff in the field.

It depends on the issue. There are other things. You can be an instructor of some sort.

It’s not the same for sure.

It depends on what’s your situation and how bad is it. It is a little worrisome. There is insurance. We have pretty good short-term disability insurance good for a year or two to do. You do jobs that you go to long-term, which basically pays you 50% until your retirement age, which is 65. You will have something, but it’s still definitely in the back of my mind, what happens if I can’t fly anymore?

You flew 727s at Delta. What did you fly after that?

When I got furloughed, I came back to the MD-80. That was the first jet that I ever flew because the engineers weren’t flying. We were watching others fly. I came back and I got the MD-80 in Salt Lake, which is still commuting, but not too bad. While I’m in training, they come out with what they call Advanced Entitlement where they post openings for other positions and I got awarded the 767 in LA. I made it. I’m back in LA, but I still had to finish training on the MD-80. I flew for three months on that airplane. I went right back to training. It is all worth it and I’m not complaining. It’s what they call a dual-type certificate. Mostly airplanes, you fly one airplane, Boeing 757 or 767. They made the cockpit similar enough to where the FAA said, “We’ll give you a license to fly both.” I can fly both airplanes for quite a few years.

You were able to fly the 757 and 767 then?

Yes.

Do you just do a mix of domestic short-hauls and long-hauls?

That ended up being probably one of the coolest categories in the airline industry.

It is because you have both. When you have both types, you have all the routes for those.

LPF 5 | Becoming An Airplane Pilot
Becoming An Airplane Pilot: If you wanted to go fly long-haul international and go see the world, you go fly the 767. If you got tired of that and want to do short-hauls domestic, you go with 757.

 

If you wanted to go fly long haul international and go see the world, you go fly the 767. We had trips all over Asia and Europe. If you got tired of that and you want to do short-hauls domestic, you go with 757 a little bit. You can mix for that. You never got tired of that same routine. We had many destinations and many different varieties. They have sports charters that fly the NBA. We fly sports teams around. There’s a lot of variety on the airplane. It was great. I did that for several years.

What’s your preference then? What are the advantages and disadvantages of short-haul versus long-haul in your experience?

For me, coming from the regionals, I love the long-haul. Initially, because it was new. I had never been to a lot of these places. It was like a paid vacation. I was going out to explore somewhere new. The type of flying was new. I was learning how to fly these over-water flights. I had a blast for a long time, I’m not going to lie to you but time zone and changes like that are tough.

I’m sure you got old quick. You are tired.

It was fun but it was fatiguing. I did that off and on for about several years, but I was able to mix it up so it wasn’t all international. A few years ago, I upgraded to the 717 which is an oddball.

That’s like the short-haul regional jet.

We call it the Heavy RJ. It’s a little short hop in that. It was based in LA. Most of my trips are based out of Orange County, which is where I live. It was awesome. I was doing short hop domestic stuff. It is the opposite of the long-haul stuff, but it was great. I’d seen the world, I had done a long-haul. It was nice to come back to my roots, this regional pipeline. I had a blast. To answer your question, it depends on what you’re in the mood for. For a while, the international, I was loving it, but I got burned out. I was ready to come back and fly some domestic. I’m enjoying it. I did that 717 for a couple of years. Unfortunately, they removed it from LA. Either I followed the airplane out back East or I had to find a new home. I ended up with 737. I’ve been on that for a couple of months. It’s a domestic airplane as well. For the most part, it has a bigger range. I will fly up to Alaska, Hawaii, Central America and the Caribbean, but still mostly domestic.

Those planes that we talked about, the 717, 727, 757, 767, MD-80, 737, what would you think is your aircraft out of all those?

I’m hands-down to 757.

Why the 757?

It looks good. It’s a sexy looking airplane. Do you know what it looks like?

It is like a pencil but it looks good.

That’s a good-looking jet. It flies nice. Our CEO called it onetime God’s airplane because it does everything. You can take off out of Orange County, which is a short runway, fully loaded and fly all the way across the country. There are not too many airplanes that can do that with that big of a load. You can do anything you want on that airplane. You can go fly over the water. The range is 7 to 8 hours. It will do European legs out of New York. It will do a long runway, short runway, you name it. From a pilot’s point of view, it’s really nice because first of all, it’s a comfortable cockpit. It’s sizeable with all one level of technology. A lot of the airplane, like my airplane is 737. I call it collage technology. The overhead panel is literally from the Apollo space program.

It has a nice glass display in front of you. I have a hood to look at. It’s got some modern stuff too. It’s like a collage. The 757 is one level. The whole thing was designed once and it was all integrated nicely. It works well. Performance-wise, it’s awesome. It will do anything you ask it to. It doesn’t complain. Some airplanes have been stretched too much, like the 737-900ER. It’s extremely long 737. It doesn’t like the climb. It needs a nice long runway and takes off. It will do the job, but it’s not a great performing airplane versus 757. If you have a short runway, then no problem.

What’s your least favorite aircraft?

Most people at Delta would say the MD-80. I have to go along with the crowd on that one. There’s a saying, “Boeing builds airplanes and McDonnell Douglas builds character.”

That’s a good way to put it.

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The engineers of Boeing went out of their way to design an airplane for the pilots. McDonnell Douglas, it’s almost like a challenge to see if they could do something in a certain way. Regardless of what the pilots thought about it. There are things that airplanes that are unusual and quirky but like any airplane, once you learned it, it works fine. It was a very durable airplane. It had a lot of interesting quirks.

You’re a Captain over at Delta, your flying 737. Obviously, you’ll stay on Delta, but are you going to stay in the 737? Are you going to move on to another type of rating? What are your plans after retirement? You’re still young, but I don’t know if you thought about a career after the airlines. What’s next for you?

I’m pretty happy where I am at. Unless something better came along, I’m going to stay put for a little bit. When you change airplanes, you basically go through about a month and a half of training, which I don’t want to do anytime soon. I’ve done that quite a bit. The airplane 737 is a decent jet. It does have some good layovers, good roots. I’m going to hang tight and enjoy on an airplane. Maybe I’ll go to the Airbus someday. I’ve never flown an Airbus yet. I’d like to try it out sometime. It’s a very different way of doing things. I wouldn’t mind trying that before my career is over. As far as my retirement goes, I don’t know. I’m one of those guys that don’t want to retire. I don’t want to sit around the house all day and figure out and go golfing. I wouldn’t mind some job or something to get out of the house.

Would you still try to fly? Maybe some GA flying in retirement?

I’ve got ways to go, but I could see maybe doing something like that. I like flying. I can see something outside of the airlines. I don’t want to do nothing.

Have you ever flown the Airbus in simulators?

No.

What is your thought of the eternal debate, Boeing or Airbus?

I know a fair amount about them. I will say that Airbuses are very comfortable, especially for the passengers. A320 is bigger than the 737. It’s much more comfortable too. It’s a newer jet, so they have a leg up in the level of technology and the cockpits of A320 are much more comfortable than the 737. On the narrow body side, the Airbus wins for sure. The 737 is a good jet. It does the job. It’s reliable, but it’s time for a remodel. On the wide body side, I heard the 787 and 777 are really nice. The Airbus A320 and A350 are great too. It’s probably a tie, maybe down to preference on that one. I haven’t flown yet and I can’t tell you who did win. I would like to try, though. I think that’d be cool.

That would be interesting. It’d be different and then you have the fly by wire and all those different technologies.

They have very different ways of doing things. The guys that I know that are flying the Airbus, they like them. The one drawback of Airbus is it does take the pilot out of the loop a little bit. It’s designed to be very simple. It requires maybe a little bit less skill level to fly. For the most part, that’s a good thing if that automation starts to go haywire. Some pilots are lulled into a sense of a lower state.

You don’t do something for a long period of time. It’s not like you want to, but you tend to not become as proficient at it.

Automation in a way can cause problems sometimes, but other than that, it seems like a very comfortable airplane.

Speaking of different aircraft types, I believe you get paid differently or there are different pay scales for different aircraft types. Is that how it works?

This varies widely by airlines. UPS is one extreme. They have a captain and co-pilot there. It doesn’t matter what airplane you’re flying. It’s the same pay rate, the captains and the same pay rate for co-pilot. The other extreme would be my airline, Delta. We’ve got different pay rates for 717, 737, Airbus, 767, 757. Some of them are bonded. The 777 and the 747 when we had it, paid the same. More or less, the bigger the airplane, the more you get paid. Generally, that’s how it works. The other big pay gap would be between a co-pilot and the captain. It’s about a 30% pay increase when you go from the right seat to the left seat, but just because you upgrade, does not necessarily mean that you’re going to get a 30% pay bump. As a senior co-pilot, you can do pretty well as a co-pilot, almost as good as a captain if you’re hustling. When you go to captain, you’re going to be on the junior side of the scale. You get as much of that overtime.

They have to work their way back up again.

Just because your hourly pay rate went up 30%, it doesn’t mean your paycheck necessarily is going to go up that much. You may be getting paid less hours per month as a captain as you were as a co-pilot. There are a lot of little things that come into play, but I remember me as a co-pilot, it is much easier to pick up overtime. Generally speaking, it’s much more available for the co-pilots. They keep them a little thinner staff because they’re cheaper than the captain. I would average probably over 100 hours of pay a month, not that I was flying that much. That how many hours I’ll get paid versus the captain. I’m probably under that. Even though my pay rate is more as a captain, it wasn’t a 30% pay bump is what I’m getting. It depends. If you’re not helping as a captain, then maybe you did.

LPF 5 | Becoming An Airplane Pilot
Becoming An Airplane Pilot: As a senior co-pilot, you can do pretty well as a co-pilot, almost as good as a captain if you’re hustling. When you go to captain, you’re going to be on the junior side of the scale.

 

Are there any interesting or funny aviation stories in general that you’d like to share with us? I’m sure you’ve got lots of those. Any ridiculous passenger stories?

I’ve been pretty lucky with passengers. I haven’t had to throw anybody off. Some drunks here and there, but they all settled themselves. I got a lot of medical issues. People getting sick on flights. A lot more on the long-haul flights. The people that are on the airplane for a long time get dehydrated, maybe low blood sugar and they pass out. Other terminal stress brings out some medical issues they have.

Are there any major equipment malfunctions while on a flight?

I have never had engine failure.

That’s good.

I’ve been pretty fortunate.

They’re reliable. You’ve got two engines anyway.

I’ve only had one engine stopped. It’s a little aerobatic airplane. My brother and I were out flying an aerobatic plane one day. We’re doing a spin. You have the power idle when you’re spinning and the prop stopped. Right over my landing fields, I’m looking straight down at about 5,000 feet in the air. I was like, “I’m going to try something.” I kick it out of a spin. I put it in a nosedive and get 130 knots thinking that props going to start turning. It didn’t move. I kicked it out of the dive and get the start right back up. My brother was back there the whole time. He didn’t say a word, but when the engine starts to back up, he starts calling me like, “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

I missed an engine failure by one leg. I flew an airplane back from Japan to Honolulu. The engine was acting up on that leg. We got the Honolulu and roll it all up. We made them look at it but they couldn’t find anything wrong with it so we signed it off. The next guys who took it and I happened to be on that plane. I was deadheading back to LA. I’m sitting there in first class. It took off. It got quiet. I’m like, “I don’t know what that is.” I dodge that bullet by one leg. I’ve been pretty fortunate. I’ve had minor stuff here and there, but nothing too major.

That’s good. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

If it does happen, I’ll call you up. We’ll do an episode.

Let’s say the first officer comes up to you and said, “Based on your experience, what is your best financial advice for me?” What would you tell him or her?

Get a financial advisor because pilots are historically pretty bad stock pickers.

It’s about stock or investment picking. It’s basic financial planning. There are a lot of variables that can come up in the future and you’ve got to make sure you’re prepared no matter what happens.

I think pilots fall into the pitfall. We do this job, it’s somewhat challenging, somewhat dangerous, but we succeed 99.99% of the time. We think we’re pretty cool sometimes. When you look at financing, all they say, “I can do that,” or whatever it is. You name the outside extracurricular activity. You have this overinflated sense that we can succeed all the time. It’s good to have a little ego segment. Get some advice, get some help and live within your means. Personally, real estate is good for me. It’s better lucky than good type of scenario. I think real estate is a good place to put some money.

That’s a big one. It sounds simple, but too many people live outside their means. Your income has to be more than your expenses. It is as simple as that, plus a little bit for savings. As long as you can do that, then your future self will thank you. Seth, it was great talking to you. Thanks for coming onto the show. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It was wonderful to learn all about you and learn all about what you have to say and everything. Thank you.

It is a nice chat with you. Thanks for having me on.

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About Seth Kolasinski

LPF 5 | Becoming An Airplane PilotHe’s currently a Captain at Delta Air Lines and through his career, has flown the Boeing 727, 757, 767, 717, 737, and the MD-80.

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