Aviation Feature Departments

Soaring to New Heights: Careers in Aviation

There has never been a better time to begin a career in aviation. Many people dream of a career in aviation early in life, but give up on that dream as they get older. High profile bankruptcies and layoffs have likely left a lasting impression of an unstable industry and untenable lifestyle, yet the past fifteen years have seen a steady growth in demand for air travel. Aviation now offers a rich variety of stable career opportunities that can accommodate almost any lifestyle.

Pilots, flight attendants, and air traffic controllers are usually top of mind when people think of aviation careers, but there are many more. To name just a few: aircraft maintenance engineer (AME), maintenance technician, flight information specialist, flight dispatcher, and instrument procedures designer. While each of these careers is worthwhile and in high demand, this column will focus on two: AMEs and Pilots.

Characteristics of a future pilot:

  1. Passion for aviation
  2. Good spatial awareness and hand/eye coordination
  3. Strong sense of responsibility

Notably absent from that list are requirements to have perfect eyesight or savant-like math skills. While being quick at mental math is helpful for pilots as it is for everyone else, modern pilots rarely employ more than simple arithmetic in their day-to-day jobs. It’s also a myth that pilots require perfect eyesight. Many pilots wear glasses and corrective lenses for a wide variety of vision impairments.  In fact, there are far fewer disqualifying medical conditions in civil aviation than most people realize. Anyone who wants to become a pilot but isn’t sure if they qualify due to medical reasons should see a Transport Canada Civil Aviation Medical Examiner (CAME) rather than assume the worst.

Types of pilot jobs

While most people only see airline pilots pulling a suitcase through airport terminals, there are many more career choices for pilots. Other choices include flight instructors, medevac pilots, business and charter pilots, fire fighting and police pilots, wilderness tourism or “bush” pilots, helicopter, and military pilots. All of these offer rich careers with their own challenges and rewards. Some offer travel opportunities while others allow the pilot to stay close to home, making family life easier. Flight instructing can appeal to teachers as well as pilots, and offer a respectable income, flexible working hours, and a family-friendly lifestyle.

The following table offers a glimpse at different types of pilot jobs and their salary:

*Note that salary varies widely based on many factors not considered here, therefore these numbers should be considered approximate and used for general information only.

Career path

Flight instructing is a great entry point to any flying career, as well as a great career in itself. Newly licensed pilots typically have about 200 hours of flying experience, yet most employers require entry level pilots to have between 500 and 1000 hours before being considered for a job. Flagship airlines typically want at least 3000 hours or more depending on the current supply and demand for pilots, though their regional affiliates often hire with less. The most common way for new commercial pilots to gain experience is to become flight instructors.

In the current labour market, flight instructors who want to move on to medevac, business, or regional airline jobs can usually do so in about a year.

Becoming a Pilot

There are over a hundred flight training schools of varying sizes spread throughout most major cities and many rural areas in Canada. Flight training schools range in size from owner operated businesses with a few aircraft, to large schools with fleets of twenty or more. All share in Canada’s great legacy of being among the best in the world for flight training. Several independent flight schools have partnerships with universities to deliver concurrent academic degrees and flight training, and there are several colleges that operate their own academic and flight training programs, including Mount Royal College in Calgary, Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Sault College in Sault St. Marie, Seneca College in Toronto/Peterborough, and Centre québécois de formation aéronautique (CQFA) in Montreal. Colleges will have varying academic prerequisites for admission, but independent flight schools typically have none.

The process of obtaining a pilot license is regulated by Transport Canada, and consists of classroom instruction (“ground school”) and flight training with small aircraft and computerized flight training devices. Students advance in stages, earning licenses when they successfully complete the minimum training time and demonstrate proficiency. The minimum license required to work as a pilot in Canada is the commercial pilot license (CPL), for which obtaining a private pilot license (PPL) is also required. Most jobs will also require at least a multi-engine instrument rating (MIFR) and/or an instructor rating, so these can be considered practically necessary as well. The training takes about 18 months (longer if combined with a university or college program), and the cost varies, but $75,000 for PPL + CPL + MIFR is representative.

The Royal Canadian Air Cadets offers an excellent program for youth age 12-19 to experience aviation, including full scholarships for glider and power pilot licenses. Up to 240 air cadets across Canada receive a fully subsidized private pilot license every year through the Power Pilot Scholarship program—a value of about $12,000. Cadets are also taught the basics of aeronautical science, as well as leadership and other skills. This is an excellent basis for a career in civil or military aviation.

Characteristics of a future Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME):

  1. Passion for aviation
  2. Mechanical/electrical/electronic background
  3. Strong sense of responsibility
  4. Hands-on learner

Types of AME jobs:

While most AME jobs are similar in that they involve working on aircraft in a hangar, or parts of aircraft at a workbench, they differ in the type of work that a given AME specializes in and the type of aircraft worked on. Broadly speaking, AMEs are licensed to work on either aircraft structures (S license), avionics (E license), or general maintenance on small or large aircraft (M1 or M2 license respectively). AMEs keep the world’s aircraft flying by performing routine maintenance, and by finding and fixing problems before they become unsafe.

AMEs can work almost anywhere in Canada where aircraft are based, enabling the ability to find living and working conditions to suite any taste. Entry level positions typically earn around $40,000, while experienced AMEs can approach $200,000 annually.

Becoming an AME: Becoming an AME is typically a three to four-year process, depending on the license sought, and up to half of that time is spent doing hands-on work with an employer. Training can be obtained by completing a Transport Canada “approved” or “acceptable” training program. “Approved” training provides experience and exam credit, while “acceptable” training does not. Approved training organizations are too numerous to list here, however, the full list can be found at https://www.tc.gc.ca/en/services/aviation/licensing-aircraft-maintenance-engineers/approved-training-organizations/basic-training-approved-acceptable.html . Entrance requirements vary by program, but generally a high school diploma is sufficient.

By Darren Buss