This is probably one of the most popular topics among pilot wives – why the HELL does everyone think that we are rolling in it? What perpetuates the myth that pilots are rich, or at least in the upper ranks of earning capability? We are looked at like a rare breed of wife; the type that marries professional athletes or surgeons. And we are immediately thereafter given the up-and-down to see what designer clothes or bags we may be hiding. As we shift awkwardly in our decidedly non-designer clothes (does Target count as designer?), we attempt to explain that, well, it’s not exactly what you think.
But surely you don’t have to work, right? Why on earth would you if your husband makes so much money?? It’s time we had a sit-down chat and lovingly explain why it is not so. But first – what is it that makes people believe this in the first place? What keeps this myth going despite years and years (can I get an amen from the regional sisters?) and years of the aviation industry being in the pits? I have a few ideas…
You can’t help but notice when pilots are on shows or in movies – because it’s corny as hell. Every pilot I know cringes watching anything aviation related these days. Or laughs hysterically, usually while crying on the inside.
Even when you Google “airline pilot”, a slew of pictures come up that are ridiculous. I mean look at this guy:
First of all, he’s seriously good looking and has probably never flown a plane in his life. They probably had the head caterer of the photo shoot throw on a jacket and pretend to be a pilot. Wipe that grin off your face and get the walk around, Baker. Moving on.
Ahh, yes. Movies. The glorification of pilots in the movies is probably our biggest pet peeve. Take Top Gun, for instance. I happen to love this movie, but it did nothing for the image. Except make everyone think that the best pilots are also the best looking. I could be wrong about that, though.
Or how about my personal favorite, the always charming Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can? Swag money, baby.
And how about on TV? Let’s not forget about the most hated real-life airline pilot in history, the douche-tastic Jake Pavelka of Bachelor legend. If you don’t know who he is, consider yourself lucky. Although he would be sad for you.
I can’t really blame the media completely. After all, what’s interesting about normal family men who go to work in a uniform after kissing their families goodbye and then stay in a hotel for 4 days? Of course interesting things happen along the way, but most of the time it’s just not that dramatic. Or glamorous. Especially when they are sweaty on an airplane with a broken APU, or tired as hell from doing a red-eye the night before, or *gasp* sleeping on the airplane during a 3 1/2 hour “camp out” because the company didn’t “have” to pay for a hotel. Super glamorous. But the myth continues.
Pilots You Know Who ARE Rich
Everyone knows at least one. He’s an uncle, a father-in-law, your best friend’s dad, (and let’s not discriminate against the ladies) your college roommate’s aunt, a neighbor. The captain pulling in $250k-$300k a year who barely flies and is on a perpetual vacation. These are the “ghost captains”, the legendary top-of-the-seniority-list guys who everyone talks about but rarely meet. They own 3 houses, a rental in Aspen, and a sailboat in San Diego. They are the dream. The “one day” dream that every pilot has in the back of their mind as they trudge through the icy wind to their hotel in Podunk Nowheresville to eat a cold, sad sandwich for dinner. It’s the dream that was in the back of their mind right before they almost lost their life in the hotel van ride back to the airport the next morning, and while they try to catch leg one of their two-leg commute back home to enjoy their 1 and 3/4 days off. These captains walk among their peers, but they are far removed from the situation that the majority of their peers are facing.
So what is the situation? Here comes the good part – the part you want to show your unbelieving friends and family, or maybe some inquisitive acquaintances.
It takes a lot of money to be a pilot. Unless you join the military (which is a whole different animal) you’re looking at spending anywhere from $50-$100k to get through training. Ok, understandable.
And then, the real kicker. First year pilots average $15k-$22k a year . Read that again. First year pilots, who have undergone serious training and rigorous testing, medical analysis, and interviewing, make less than most teachers, who we all know are also underpaid. (source)
The struggle is real. And the climb to a survivable wage is slower than a heavy 747 takeoff. Even though we all know movement is supposed to be happening due to the projected pilot shortage, those of us in the industry are seeing a slow trickle as opposed to the flow we were promised.
This is why jokes are rampant about pilots taking juice and drinks off airplanes, stealing toilet paper, and applying for food stamps. How much is joking and how much is true is anyone’s guess.
As little as a decade ago, pilots could join a regional, climb the ranks and upgrade in 1-3 years, get a crap ton of PIC and then hop onto a major. That’s how it worked. That’s how it was supposed to work. Then the economy tanked during the Great Recession, fuel prices soared, and airlines cut back big time.
Furloughs ran high into seniority lists, putting pilots on the street and planting senior captains into reserve positions they hadn’t seen in years. Now it’s not unheard of for pilots to spend 5-10 years at regionals, which was never what any pilot intended to do.
My own husband spent 9 years at his regional before finally getting hired onto a major. And he’s one of the lucky ones. Nine long, crazy ass, dirt poor years. Maybe not dirt poor, but close. He never did get furloughed, like many did, including friends of ours. When his airline did furlough and the pilot group was cut in half, half his pay went right along with it. With a brand new mortgage and brand new baby, stress was inevitable.
There were months where we didn’t know if we could pay our house payment. And I know plenty of other couples who were in the same boat. Those were the toughest years of our marriage, and there were many times we questioned if we could hold off killing each other long enough to make it. Looking back, I’m glad we stuck it out, even if it was awful. We survived.
So when you’re in the thick of it, in the trenches of despair and your bank account is emptier than a church on Super Bowl Sunday, you really don’t want to hear, “Oh, it must be so glamorous being married to a pilot!” Because really, I would like to slap you so hard right now but I would probably injure myself instead and my insurance wouldn’t cover it.
Getting back on track – once a pilot manages to escape the prison that is the regionals, he can then take another pay cut and get onto a major if he’s “lucky”. First year at a major airline averages around $35k. But from there, if you can survive that first year eating ramen and living like a vagrant, your chances at reaching that dream gets better.
After 3 years at a major, we are breathing again. We bought a great house with a pretty yard and a pool, and we don’t even have to eat ramen anymore. My husband can even pay someone to get his hair cut! It’s amazing what you come to appreciate. We are nowhere near rich, not even close, but we have enough, and that’s all you can ask for, really.
(Most) pilots aren’t rich. But if they’re lucky, they’ll have enough, which should be good enough for any pilot wife, too. If you’re going through it right now, if you’re feeling the pinch and feel like there’s no way out, take heart, because you are not alone. The aviation industry is looking up, and there’s hope. Almost every day I hear of someone’s husband (or wife) getting hired, and I get so happy for their family, because I know that’s one less thing they will have to worry about on this crazy ride. I hope that if it hasn’t already, it happens for you, too.
Until then, show this to your friends and say dinner’s on them. You deserve it.
The Flight Wife