Contracting as a pilot is as much about lifestyle choice as career choice. I have sat on both sides of the fence, as an employee on a permanent contract and as an employee with a rolling three month contract. This has allowed me to conclude that the grass is greener on both sides of the proverbial fence!
Contracting, as a concept is almost a necessity as opposed to an option, as these days the only routes open to the majority of pilots; whether being their first job or simply their ‘next’ job and also regardless of their experience, qualifications and backgrounds, is contracting. There are very few opportunities to join major or ‘minor’ airlines that do not involve a third party agency. I have dealt with many over the last ten years of my thirty in the industry, both good and bad ones.
I have often been asked why I have left large reputable airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic and TUI to take up life as a contract pilot, well there is no short answer to that; but let me try to explain.
When I first started in this industry, as a newly qualified commercial pilot back in 1983, there were few opportunities for employment. The search for that first job was a task made harder by not having e-mails or fax machines, concepts equivalent to alchemy and teleporters, to assist in my applications. All enquiries had to be written by hand and entrusted to the postal service, activities which my eleven year old daughter told me that she had seen in one of her on-line history books!
However, I learnt very quickly that it is not necessary what you know, but who you know. After having written dozens upon dozens of letters to every aviation/aeronautical company I could trace. Using telephone books and back copies of Flight International magazines, no split second Google searches available, my enquiries, when replied to, came up empty. It was my uncle, a carpet fitter who came to my rescue, whilst laying carpets for the then Chief Pilot of a since deceased airline Dan Air and having explained his nephew’s plight, secured me an interview with this company.
So at age 19 and the proud owner of a shiny blue CPL, I was offered a position with Dan Air as a second officer on the HS 748 turboprop, my career was launched and as they say. “The rest is history!” I was now an employee of an established and well respected airline, and the last line of the company seniority list backed up this claim.
After six years with Dan Air flying as a co-pilot on the HS748 and the Boeing 727, I was offered a position with Virgin Atlantic Airways as a Boeing 747-200 co-pilot; I was both thrilled at this opportunity and saddened to leave Dan Air. Flights in and out of wintery Shetland Islands and up and down the now defunct Berlin corridors were to be replaced by long-haul operations to the United States and Japan. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and so started my twenty plus years love affair with Boeing’s ‘Jumbo Jet.’ Again I was the last entry on another company’s seniority list and now I was also bonded.
Bonding was a new concept to me; as it meant that I now owed the company several thousand pounds that would be reduced by a fixed amount each month, until repaid in full after two years. A fair concept which I readily agreed to and still do to this day, the cost to the company for my training would be repaid by my loyalty.
After eleven years flying for this fabulous airline, I decided it was time for a change. Even though I was on the first page of the seniority list at number 35 and a Boeing 747-400 Captain, it was time to broaden my horizons and take a gamble, a huge gamble.
I dipped my toe into the murky waters of the contract pilot world, decided that it was worth the plunge, and signed a contract with an Antipodean recruitment agency as a Boeing 747-400 contract captain with Korean Airlines. No seniority list to protect me, no company pension plan to look forward to, just an adventure to undertake and enjoy.
Now that is the attitude that I would encourage anyone deciding on life as a contract pilot to take. There is no job security; you are at the mercy of your benevolent employer’s employer, and you must remember that you are now some way down the food chain. You are employed not by the airline but by the agency which you have chosen. There are good one’s out there, one’s which will do all they can to look after you, and there are some that see you as a commodity, one which can be treated like an unwanted puppy at Christmas when the going gets tough.
My recommendation is to choose an agency that your colleagues personally recommend, not because of a glossy website or impressive online advertisements. For example, the best agency, in my opinion for Korean Airlines, would be CCL, a small almost bespoke agency that looks after its clients, no large multi-page website, just a well respected reputation.
I have been told by various agencies at different times such things as, “Oh, a contract is not a binding document….you must be flexible!” But with these agencies flexibility is a one way street. Or it has been suggested to me, “Don’t worry that you are not receiving your contracted days off, it’s best not to rock the boat!” These agencies are only interested in their monthly fee; you are literally a piece of meat to them, and one which has an instantaneous ‘sell by date’ if you step out of line or raise your head above the parapet.
The golden rule with contract flying is to remember that you can be offered a six month, one year or ten year contract, but they are all of equal length, that length being the notice period.
In my opinion what you get out of contracting is the ability to be flexible, if you can afford it and have gained the required experience, to move around the world. I have found out that this world is actually a very small place and the aviation industry even smaller. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world; the departures lounge in Jeddah, a bar in Anchorage or a ferry boat in San Francisco you will eventually bump into one of your colleagues from a ‘previous life’.
This is one of the facets that I love about contracting, being involved with and meeting new people, new personalities. Okay, they are not always nice personalities, but crossing global cultures there are actually few stereotypes. Good and bad colleagues or employers exist whether in Baghdad or Seoul, London or Paris. Contracting allows you to meet them all!
I would never have operated tsunami relief flights in Indonesia with the Boeing 747 for Korean Airlines, civilian rescue flights out of Tripoli again on the Boeing 747 but for the Iraqi government, taken crew rest and slept amongst the frozen fishes between Entebbe and Paris in a Zimbabwe registered DC10, looked down with sadness on Darfur whilst flying between Eritrea and Chad in an Italian Boeing 737NG for Neos an Italian airline. There are many more adventures which I have had, too many to mention here and hopefully more to come.
This is the beauty of contracting; you just don’t know where you’ll be this time next year!
Try it, your wife or husband might disagree, and yes, your job security could be redefined as the sky marshall sat behind you on the upper deck as opposed to a final salary pension scheme. But whether you are starting out with that shiny new CPL and looking to gain invaluable experience in India or a seasoned veteran trying to keep up with the alimony payments; you’ll love it, I do!