Five Myths About Aviation Life – Diverted

It never fails. As soon as I mention that my husband is a pilot, one of several typical responses/questions will immediately follow. It’s truly not the asker’s fault, as there is no way for them to have an insider scoop unless they are, well, an insider, and aviation truly is a vast and fascinating career and lifestyle. There is a certain mystery and romanticism that has always surrounded aviation life. And honestly, I kind of like it like that. The way I see little girls’ and boys’ eyes light up, their hearts beating with excitement and wonder when my pilot walks confidently into the room with his uniform on…

Yes, please! Yeah, I love it. Guess what? I know exactly how they feel, because that guy in uniform? He makes my eyes light up and my heart flutter too!

However, there is a largely misunderstood stereotype of aviation life (living the dream!) stoked by a culmination of media, Hollywood, and assumptions. Thank you, no thank you, Tom Cruise. Though…now that I think on it a moment, I do believe there’s a better than average chance that a few of our fly guys do fantasize that they epitomize the quintessence of Maverick.

Eh, who am I kidding? He is and always will be my very own Maverick…or is that Goose? (Take me to bed or lose me forever, you big stud!).

The truth of our aviation existence, however, is actually much less exciting and much less romantic than the stereotypicalized Hollywood versions of our lives. Sorry, guys. Though I will be the first to admit that there are perhaps threads of vague truth woven somewhere into the tapestry of fantastical lore (after all, the best satire is only funny because it’s based on a grain of truth), our reality is much different than most imagine and the films depict it to be.

There are not a whole lot of sexy, spontaneous meet-ups in exotic locales (though I’m not saying it doesn’t happen every now and again), but neither are we constantly sitting at home wallowing in melodramatic misery in his absence (though I’m not saying it doesn’t happen either). What there is, however, are more than a few lonely nights, a community of very strong and capable women who have learned to make it work (and to fix everything from flat tires to air condensers), and a deep, insatiable desire to seek and own joy and fight for our marriages in the constant fluidity of schedule changes, missed holidays, and the general craziness that is aviation life.

And there is pride. We are so incredibly proud of our pilots – their deep passion for flight, their talents and skills, their determination to love us well, their ability to balance a demanding career and family. We are so proud of our children – their never-ending flexibility, their enduring love, their strength, their understanding in the chaos. We are proud of ourselves – the way we hold it all together, our unfailing tenacity, our deep faith, our independence, our uncanny ability to handle whatever it is that life throws our way when he’s gone.

We may not really be movie stars, but we are bright and shining supernovas in our own universe, each and every one!

So yeah. The pilot wife life may not be all that Top Gun makes it out to be. But perhaps it’s even better. We may not have steamy rendezvous with our beloved pilots in Paris every week or enough money to gift wrap using unwanted thousand dollar bills, but what we do have is something real, magical, beautiful. We have amazing families, amazing communities, and amazing (though admittedly chaotic) lives.

However, try as we might, aviation carries with it a certain stigma, and there are more than a few myths revolving around pilots, their families, and life on the road (and at home). So without ado, here are five common myths about the aviation life, diverted, to share with those who aren’t in the ‘know’…but want to be.

1. Something is wrong with our marriages because we don’t know where our spouses are every minute of every day. The conversation usually goes something like this. Person: Where is your husband right now? Me (looking utterly confused and racking my brain for a socially acceptable answer): Ummmm….I don’t know. Person: What do you mean, you don’t know? Me: I mean…I don’t know? Person (looking at me with knowing concern): Is everything all right between you?

On any given day, my husband can and does fly several legs (which are what we call the short, airport-to-airport segments of his overall trip for that day). This means he just might be in Houston, Charleston, New Orleans, and Mexico…all in one day. And at any given moment, he is probably 30,000 feet in the air somewhere in between those places flying at over 600 mph. I literally do not know where he is when you ask. What I do know, however, is where he lays his head at night. What I do know is that he is safe. What I do know is that I have a copy of his flight schedule and necessary numbers available to me in case I do need to find and speak to him. And the rest is, well, up in the air, as they say! I don’t know why people find this so flabbergasting. It’s not like he knows if I am at Target, a friend’s house, Kroger, the park, or somewhere in between at any given time of the day. He does know where I lay my head, that I am safe, and how to contact me. It’s not really that much different when you think on it, just on a much larger scale!

2. It is wonderful to fly anywhere we want for free, anytime we want to go. This is a multifaceted answer. Firstly, not all aviation is created equal. The term ‘pilot’ could refer to a private pilot, a corporate pilot, a pipeline pilot, a cargo pilot, a commercial airline pilot, a crop duster pilot, a military pilot, a helicopter pilot, a hot air balloon pilot, or even the very first episode of a new television series. So first you have to establish the type of pilot’s wife you are speaking to. Many aviation families do not have flight benefits at all, and so in this case the question is entirely moot. However, for some of us in commercial airline aviation (which I think is what most people presume when they hear ‘pilot’), we do sometimes have what we call flight benefits, i.e. we can travel in economy for no charge if the travel gods happen to smile down upon us. However, seats are limited and oftentimes difficult to come by (more so in recent years), and many of us have resorted to simply buying our own tickets regardless (raises hand sheepishly). We also generally pay for any upgrades we make to first class. We do not get to ‘kick paying passengers’ off the plane so that we can travel instead. We take absolutely no precedence over a paying customer. In fact, we are quite literally the bottom of the barrel, the cold dregs in the cup, aviation scourge. Once everyone else has been seated, if there is a seat left over, one of the 15 of us on the standby list gets the golden Wonka ticket.

The second part of the answer is that, just because we have flight benefits, doesn’t mean we can use them anytime we want. I have my own job, children who are in school, a working farm, pets, a home that needs tending, responsibilities…none of which can just be up and left on the spur of the moment. While I am very, very thankful for our benefits and the handful of times that I have actually been able to use them to get on a plane, not all of us have benefits, and if we do, using them is oftentimes challenging to just plain impossible. The saying in the aviation circles goes, “Never use your flight benefits to try to get to a funeral or a wedding, because you won’t get there at all.”

Of course, then there’s the fact that our husbands do nothing but fly day in and day out for their jobs, and the last thing they want to do on their downtime is…well, fly. So we don’t. But that’s another discussion altogether.

3. We must be rolling in the dough! Rolling in the Ramen Noodles, more like. Though I will admit that things have become a little more balanced in the world of aviation pay scales over the last few years, you would probably be shocked to know what some of the gals and guys of the skies are actually getting paid. My husband’s first year as a commercial airline pilot, his pay was a whopping (get ready for it) $18,000. No, I didn’t forget a zero at the end of that number. We were a family of four living well under the poverty line. Pilots on Food Stamps – now that should be the name of an aviation sitcom. I’d totally watch it. Thankfully pay has began to increase to match their skill levels in the last half decade or so, but first year regional airline pilots are still making a barely livable wage, especially if they have families.

Another distinctly defining factor is that an aviation career costs a pretty penny (and a few nickles too!) to train and prepare for, and for whatever reason, the government does not recognize ‘pilot’ as a career worth subsidizing. You can get an aviation degree, but not a pilot degree. The pilot training is on you. Therefore, education loans to become a pilot must be paid for out of pocket or with high-interest, no-collateral loans. It’s a recipe for anything but dough rolling. It takes most of us 10-15 years of peanut butter and jelly glory to pay off those loans and finally see the dividends of a lot of hard work and a lot of time apart.

The third factor is that, the hourly wage you see on paper or hear in the media sounds pretty darn fancy (and yes, it can be a high number). Fifty-seven dollars an hour? Woah, Nelly! Where do I sign up? The problem is that they are actually paid for what is called a flight hour, not a worked hour. It’s an important (bank-breaking) distinction. Essentially, pilots are only getting paid from the moment they push off that gate to the moment they make it back to the next one. Everything else is a pilot freebie. When you average it all out, they are oftentimes making no more than min-wage, especially in the regional years, and might only get paid for 10-20 hours out of the 96 they are away from home. Ouch! Waiting for you to board, hotel time, airport shuttle time, weather delays, maintenance delays, layovers in cities far away from home…they are doing that all on their own sweet, unpaid time. Kind of works against the popular belief that they are making folks sit there at the gate and wait just so they can line their pockets a little more, doesn’t it? Believe me, they just want to get in the air, do their jobs, and go home. Just like you.

4. He always flies the same route with the same crew. Though this can occasionally be true of certain sectors of aviation (such as corporate), it is not true for the vast majority of pilots (also adding to our inability to know where they are every moment of every day). Their crew, which consists of the pilots and flight attendants, are randomly assigned to one another for one ‘trip’ via bid. The truth is that he may never work with the same people twice in his life. This is quite useful if you don’t like someone on the team! It also means that their lives are a constant march of complete strangers with no real social connections. It’s a lonely existence, to be sure.

The routes, likewise, are different every single trip. Aviation scheduling is a complex beast with many moving components and contributing factors. However, to simplify it as much as I can, each month, all of the available schedules are posted online. The schedules are generally computer generated based on scheduled flights, loads, and passenger needs. Pilots then have an opportunity to bid upon those schedules in what we call ‘open time,’ basically numbering the trips that are available from most desirable (1) to oblivion (whatever number that is). At the close of bid, the computer starts with the top seniority pilot in the company and gives him/her the trip he/she most desired (it’s good to be that guy or gal!). Then onto the second seniority pilot who wins the highest leftover trip that he desires, etc. The low guys on the totem pole get the unwanted junk trips that no one else bids. It’s the dues you pay to play.

You can, therefore, imagine how very important seniority is in the world of aviation and why a potential job change or merger is a huge deal to us. You move; you start at the bottom.

5. It’s hard being married to a pilot. Yes…and no. It’s hard being married to a banker or a mechanic or a librarian or an attorney or a retail manager or a…well, you name it! Marriage is just plain hard! It’s a dance between two imperfect and selfish partners with different backgrounds, different dreams, different hopes – trying to do life together and do it well. Sometimes we glide…and sometimes we step on each other’s toes! Aviation marriage is no more or less difficult than any other marriage, it’s just different. There are good days and bad, sure. There are nuances of the career that we must learn to negotiate and overcome, yes. There are a lot of lonely nights for both myself and my pilot, no doubt. But there are also so many wonderful benefits too – like being married to a hardworking man who loves his family and loves his job. Like knowing that he is living his lifelong dream. Like having time to do my favorite ‘me’ stuff while he is on the road. And you know…flying anywhere I want for free, anytime I want to go there! (Insert maniacal laughter).

Here’s the truth. We can choose to focus on the hard stuff, or we can choose to embrace the good stuff. We don’t want constant reminders that it’s hard; we want to be reminded that it’s worth it!

Here’s what I know: I am married to a talented, passionate, adoring man who works hard to love me and provide for our family. He rocks my world! I can think of a lot harder things than that.

Aviation is surrounded by a cloud of mystique and stereotype. While some things you hear are vaguely true, most are crazily incorrect. The career is not who we are, it is simply the lifestyle we live. Who we are is a fantastic group of husbands and wives trying to make it work the best way we know how! Who we are is an amazing community of men and women who share a common love, the skies! Who we are is strong, proud, and downright amazing. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

This doesn’t even begin to cover all of the ins and outs of the fly world and the incredible lives that we live as aviation families. It is, by all accounts, an extraordinary and sometimes extraordinarily chaotic life, but it is ours. We love it. We love him.

We choose this life together, and we wouldn’t trade him or it for all the ‘normal’ in the world.


Angelia (a proud Pilot Wife)

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