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Headed up

Being a pilot is well-paying and glamorous. It also means being responsible for many lives. Vimal Chander Joshi reports

education Updated: Dec 10, 2009 10:06 IST
Vimal Chander Joshi

Few jobs are more glamorous than that of a pilot —unless one is a movie star, and even they look coolest when they have aviator glasses on.

A pilot’s pay packet is fat and the perks include a good life and foreign trips. However, a lot of work goes into becoming this elegant being who manoeuvres incredibly complex machines weighing hundreds of tons. And it is physically taxing, too. “Owing to the (crossing of) time zones and long flying hours, we are fatigued after landing,” says Captain Ashok Khadia, a senior pilot with a major airline. Sight-seeing in a foreign country can wait.

“The time between two flights is used to get some sleep, which is essential as we must recoup energy before flying again.”

Flying a plane with more than 200 people on it is fraught with risks and responsibilities. But this is offset by the prestige of the job. Such is the draw that Amitava Gupta, an engineer, spent $31,000 (Rs 15.5 lakh approx.) training in the US as a pilot.

Before this, Gupta, 29, was with Alliance Airways for three years as a technical instructor after studying production engineering.

Now back in India, he feels the “wholesome experience” of pilot training was worth every penny. “You learn all the technicalities, and have to take up tough challenges like landing on a ‘soft’ (not concrete) runway, or bringing the aircraft down safely after engine failure — all life-saving measures,” he says.

Social skills also come into play. Pawan Wagle (name changed), a pilot with Go Air, asserts the importance of a friendly equation with the crew. “A pilot must stay on good terms with everyone on board. It’s not only the pilot who flies, it’s the organisation that flies together. The pilot handles the control room (cockpit) while the crew do other jobs that are important in their own right,” he adds.

Of late, pilots have been facing turbulent weather as the economic downturn in the United States affected every country — commerce suffered a setback, and so did flying. But industry veterans are not losing too much sleep over this; after all, air travel will not stop altogether, and pilots will always be needed.

“Market slowdown hits the aviation industry every 8-10 years,” says Captain VK Kukar, vice-president, Federation of Indian Pilots, on the cyclical nature of economic ups and down. “There was a time a few years ago, when pilots were doing ground jobs.

But the market picked up and it spelled good fortune for the pilots. I hope for such a turnaround soon.”

You can apply for a commercial pilot licence (CPL), given by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), after 200 hours of flying at a training school. You have to clear five theory papers in aviation studies, including navigation and meteorology. You also have to clear an exam in radiotelephony, in which you learn ‘on air’ communication. Medical fitness is crucial, too.

The institute you choose should be approved by the DGCA.

Studying abroad is a viable option, but any training from the Philippines is regarded with suspicion because of the allegedly poor quality of aircraft used there.

Pratiksha Prasad, a licensed pilot, went to an academy in Canada, as she felt this would equip her better. “We were taught how to spin the aircraft and how to come out of turbulence. In India, they just teach you landing and take-off.”

As major Indian carriers struggle to limit losses, trained pilots are looking at general aviation, which includes charter airways and cargo airlines. “There’s not much difference in pay, but one gets a lot less flying experience there,” says Kukar. In charter airlines, a pilot flies for 100-150 hours a year, while in a full-fledged private airline, the figure is over 1,000 hours a year.

To gain experience, experts suggest one should work in a flying club until a better job comes along. Bhavika Shah, a counsellor with the Gujarat Flying Club, has done just that. After getting the licence in March, “I joined a flying club and now I’m training to become an instructor”, she says. Until it rains jobs again.

What's it about
A commercial pilot is an aviator who flies an aircraft — an aeroplane that can seat hundreds, a smaller chartered plane, a helicopter or a cargo plane — to ferry passengers or to deliver goods. A pilot must acquire a commercial licence before s/he flies

Clock Work
9 am: Check pre-flight schedules
9.30 am: Determine height, noise and weight levels and interpret the meteorological
10 am: Inspect instruments and equipment, estimate fuel requirement and supervise
loading and refilling
10.30 am: Brief the crew before take-off
11 am: Take off and fly, interpreting the information received from the ground staff
and air traffic control
2 pm: Give landing message to passengers

The Payoff
The starting salary is around Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh per month as a co-pilot. This increases with time and experience. Senior pilots earn Rs 2-3 lakh per month and the pay package can go up to Rs 5 lakh per month. However, such high salaries come only after one goes through a lot of training. In the beginning, one may get Rs 60,000-70,000

. Agility and physical fitness
. Ability to take split-second decisions
. Courage to face challenges — this could be anything from very bad weather to a
. Ability to stay focussed for long hours

How do i get there?
After Plus Two (English, maths and physics), you can undergo a pilot training course from a reputable DGCA-approved institute.

You must be medically fit to apply and must meet the criteria as per the Class I medical assessment rules of the DGCA. It is mandatory to complete 200 hours of flying and to clear theory papers to be eligible to apply for the commercial pilot licence (CPL).

You can also train at any reputable institute in the US or Australia, but clearing the DGCA exams are mandatory for the CPL. After you get the licence, you need to have multi-engine endorsement to apply for an airline job. Once in a job, you get further training on simulators to get the type endorsement (say, from Airbus or Boeing) to be able to work as a co-pilot. This training takes six months to one year after you get the CPL

Institutes & urls
Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udaan Academy, Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh
. Ahmedabad Aviation and Aeronautics
. Carver Aviation, Baramati, Maharashtra
. Chimes Aviation Academy, Sagar, Madhya Pradesh.
. Gujarat Flying club, Vadodara

Visit http://dgca.nic.in/licencing/fly-ind.htm to check the entire list of recognised flying academies

Pros & Cons
Handsome six-figure salary from an early stage
. Exciting job that takes you to new places almost every second day
. Exorbitant training cost, which can be Rs 15-20 lakh. The multi-engine
endorsement costs another Rs 3-4 lakh
. After a few years, one tends to develop partial deafness
. You get extra money for the flying hours, but at the cost of your family and social

Be realistic and you’ll do fine

A former DGCA head talks about the opportunities for commercial pilots in India

Would one recommend flying as a career when the civil aviation industry is going through a rough patch?
I see the possibility of a revival soon. In six months, things should start improving. After (Indian) airlines shed their foreign pilots, many new openings would be created. Students should learn flying but only from a reputable institute like the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udaan Academy.

Training at a premier institute can be equated to studying management from IIM Ahmedabad, after which job prospects are much higher.

In the current scenario, what can licensed pilots do?
Jobs do exist, but young pilots aim for a minimum salary of Rs 1.5 lakh per month right after getting a licence, which is not possible. This profession is different from a career in engineering, where you can work right after college.

A commercial pilot licence (CPL) holder cannot become a co-pilot immediately. For that, one needs further training (multi-engine training and type endorsement for a specific make, e.g. Boeing or Airbus). Till that happens, you should settle for Rs 60,000-70,000 a month.

Are there any misconceptions about this profession?
Young people go in for flying only because of the glamour. But, in fact, this is the study of science and technology, requiring dedication, perseverance and a lot of hard work.

Pilots don’t like flying helicopters, though it’s a good career option, because they see no glamour in it. Flying an aircraft is a job that calls for responsible people who have to manage an entire system. It’s not like driving a bus on Delhi roads.

What are the job options for CPL holders (besides airlines)?
They are encouraged to join the Coast Guard or Defence or paramilitary forces like BSF (check their websites for details). I also expect the demand for helicopter pilots to soar soon. Many corporate houses are setting up office in remote areas and find it convenient to travel by helicopter as it doesn’t require a runway (a rarity at company sites).

Kanu Gohain, former head of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation Interviewed by Vimal Chander Joshi