Cosidering a career in the charter business
ONE MAN’S EXPERIENCE WITH PART 135 FLYING, AND OBSERVATIONS ABOUT FELLOW TRAVELERS
Walking into the FBO in Charlottesville, Virginia, I hear, “I don’t like your stuff. I used to like you, but I don’t anymore. You are drinking way too much Kool-aid.” I am a little taken aback by this tirade. I look up to see a Netjets captain. “You make this sound way better than it is,” he tells me.
In retrospect, he may have had a point. At the time, I was a giddy new first officer in the Part 135 charter world. I had been hired by a company with the right vibe and the right ingredients; it had good airplanes, good maintenance, a cool callsign and, most important, a schedule. I’d been breathlessly recounting my initial experiences in these pages with pride and a sense of wonder.
The man in the FBO had been doing this longer, perhaps a lot longer, and was working in a Part 91K (fractional) company. He definitely had a different perspective. In time, I came to understand what he was talking about.
I cannot lay claim to a career in aviation. I flew full time professionally for just three years, starting at age 68. Before being hired full time, I had limited contract experience on a Learjet 31 with a local Part 135 outfit in Florida. That flying was intoxicating — my first jet. A first jet can’t be anything but intoxicating. Even in that short time I could see how a full-time career could be challenging, but I wasn’t full time and was able to cherry-pick the good stuff without having to endure some of the more unpleasant aspects of full-time employment.
If you are the type who likes to take a piece of lined yellow legal paper and make two columns, one labeled “Pros” and another under the heading “Cons,” this aviation-career analysis may be helpful. I will warn you that the pros outweigh the cons in this calculus.
Oh, the Places You’ll See and the Meals You Will Eat
If you’ve never been to Tillamook, Oregon, or Currituck, North Carolina, this is the job for you. Ironically, both of these destinations are beautiful, and although the support for jet aircraft is modest, it is adequate, and the people manning the FBOS in both locations are beyond helpful. Charlevoix, Michigan, is happy to loan you the crew car — a 1970s monster with questionable floorboards on the passenger side.
The culinary attractions are primary satisfactions in this life. On overnights, elaborate dinners sometimes come your way. Our company policy was 10 hours from last alcohol to duty — on time — so many evenings were great celebrations. Others were regrettably dry. Barbecue in Louisville, Kentucky; all-included resort dinners in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; and fresh salmon at that place down the hill by Paine Field near Seattle all make you want to take out your phone and take a photo to make your earthbound friends and family jealous.
Even if you’re only in these locations for an hour or two, there’s lots to explore. You will get lobster
rolls in Bar Harbor, Maine, and beef on weck in Buffalo, New York. I can’t remember one time when a crew car wasn’t available.
There are other places you will see, and other restaurants you will frequent so often, the servers know what to pour for you before you sit at the bar. You will see just a little bit more of Teterboro, New Jersey, than you thought possible. The Embassy Suites in nearby Secaucus is loaded with crews and has several chain restaurants nearby; they are chains, however, and you’ll get tired of even the nicest of them.
You will fly into airports you’ve dreamed about. On your first trips, you will be surprised to find Kennedy remarkably easy to negotiate and O’hare remarkably difficult. Atlanta ground control will give you a chance to change frequencies. At LAX you will understand the importance of landing on Runway 25L instead of Runway 24R. The FBOS are on the south side, and an extra 25 minutes can get tacked onto a trip if you end up on the north side of the field. You get to see a lot of huge Airbus A380s and Boeing 747s, though.
Oh, the People You’ll Meet
You will fly the rich and famous. You will soon learn that 90 percent of the wealthy are considerate and kind. And 80 percent will actually be very nice. As for the 10 percent, you learn to accept their indifference or diffidence as part of the job, and if you are wise you won’t take it personally. You will love the passengers who appreciate how lucky they are to be flying in a private jet. When somebody asks you to take a picture of her group outside of the airplane, you will find it immensely satisfying. These passengers are aware of the privilege.
The famous passengers are remarkably approachable. A few just want to be left alone. Many are pleasantly interactive. This isn’t their first rodeo, but they have learned that people are interested in them. It is considered bad form to ask for a picture with the famous one, but sometimes one of the crew just can’t help it. Surprisingly, almost all famous people agree to the picture.
Oh, the Friends You Will Make
There’s nothing like an eight-day rotation with another pilot to get to know somebody. If the chemistry is right, you don’t want that rotation to end. Humor is a key crew ingredient, and many pilots are hilarious. In our group, there were only about 60 pilots or so, so we got to know each other — either by flying together or by a crew dinner at Teterboro. Though I am no longer slugging it out in the 135 world and several of my compatriots have moved on to the big iron, I am still friends with many. They still make me laugh.
Oh, the Money You Will Make
The pay is not bad — starting Part 135 FOS typically make more than those working for regionals. The top pay is different. Most private/charter jet captains can make six figures. But if money is important to you, you’d better apply to Delta or Southwest. The most senior folks there will make more than you ever will. On the other hand, you will get tips, and they won’t. It is not uncommon to have a hundred-dollar bill laid on you for a 30-minute easy flight. In 40 years as a surgeon, nobody ever gave me a C-note.
OK, the Bad and the Ugly
The hours can be long, up to 14 hours of duty time. You can get up at 3 a.m. for a 4 a.m. show and two days later set the brakes at 4 a.m. Most outfits are religious about rest requirements, but you can still get exhausted.
The hotels can be variable. Most crews end up at reasonable places, but if it is graduation weekend or the
ALL SAID, FLYING PRIVATE JETS, BURNING SOMEBODY ELSE’S JET-A AND GETTING PAID FOR IT IS JUST ABOUT THE COOLEST THING I CAN IMAGINE. ESPECIALLY IF YOU KEEP IT IN PERSPECTIVE.
Super Bowl, other paying folks have made those prime reservations and you may be far out of town with no transportation and nothing but a Denny’s for chow. These events don’t happen often, but when they do it is memorable.
Airport standby. The theory is this: You’ve just landed in Van Nuys, California, and you have six duty hours left. You’ve flown two legs already — about 4½ hours. You’d like to get to the hotel, but the company is hoping for a pop-up trip. These don’t occur often, but the management reasons that they are paying you and they don’t want to leave money on the table. I found this to be the most maddening thing about Part 135 flying.
You’ve got to be flexible. Just when you think you are taking an airliner home from Texas to Tampa, Florida, in the morning, you are told you are flying to Cabo, picking up two and a dog, and flying to Van Nuys. If predictability is a big thing with you, a nice schedule with Delta is probably a better fit.
All said, though, flying private jets, burning somebody else’s jet-a and getting paid for it is just about the coolest thing I can imagine. Especially, if you keep it in perspective.