A Chick In The Cockpit - An interview with Erika Armstrong

Erika Armstrong is an international corporate and airline pilot/captain, published author, editor and writer for seven national aviation magazines, Aviation Professor at MSU Denver, and Director of Instructional Design for Advanced Aircrew Academy.

During her twenty-five years in aviation, she’s worked in all aspects of the industry. From the friendly front desk CSR of a busy FBO to the captain's seat of a Boeing 727-200, she’s experienced everything in between. Passionate about the aviation industry, Erika shares her hugely experienced, honest and good-humoured perspective on the industry.

Meet The Chick in The Cockpit.

Where did your interest in flying come from?

I became a pilot by accident! I was working 2 jobs while I was at the University of Minnesota, but I was still struggling to pay tuition, rent and still feed myself so I was looking for a 3rd job. Since aviation is 24/7, I found an opening at a little airport called Flying Cloud and they had hours that fit my schedule. I started working in customer service and started learning about aviation and the business. I met a few lines guys that were taking flying lessons and discovered they were definitely not rocket scientists. I found the idea of flying fascinating so I took a few lessons and never looked back. My first job was with the Red Cross. I got about 600 with their help which was enough to get me in the right seat of a King Air flying charters. My career took off from there.

What are some of the wider issues in the industry?

Over the years, pilots have generally been overworked and underpaid, despite what you might think. The top tier of well-paid pilots is very small and it takes about 20 years to get there. Many pilots leave the industry. Many who stay have a very negative view of their job and that negativity gets handed down to the next generation. Toss in deregulation and then 9/11, combined with Congress deciding to raise the minimum hours to fly a regional airliner to 1500 hours at the same time thousands are retiring and you have a recipe for failure. Pilots know that work/life balance is a fallacy, it's the nature of the beast.

Being a pilot means being away from home. But most people don't realize that pilots then have to spend enormous amounts of time doing recurrent training, safety meetings, HR issues and medical exams besides flying. Then, when they do have time off, the company might try and catch you to fly a trip.

How is the industry changing with the proliferation of air travel and its accessibility to the masses?

Almost everyone can afford to fly! The business plan in now quantity versus quality. Fill every single seat and overbook flights. I think travel is extremely important to the human race. Sounds ominous, but truly, we can't have a higher level of peace unless we understand other cultures, environments and religions. I hope one of the peripheral benefits to the world because of aviation is a better understanding of each other by being able to travel.

The next big thing is supersonic travel, again. The Concorde was an extraordinary airplane and after its demise, the industry went to large haulers like the A380. There is a niche that can afford to go higher and faster and the industry is working on filling that void. Going past Mach is still an issue over the continental US because of the sonic boom, but they're working on being able to go faster and defraying the "boom" to higher speeds. It's an interesting science.

What needs to change?

The industry cannot continue putting the burden of earning 1500 hours on pilots. We might get rich pilots who just pay their way, but the demand can't keep up with supply at that ratio. Airlines and regional carriers have gotten used to a plethora of applications of qualified pilots. They still pay for type-specific aircraft, but primarily they get pre-trained pilots who have had to pay for all of their own training. It's been at the expense of the business aviation world, which is another whole story, but the industry is weak without a foundation of good pilots. We need to start catching kids in high school to steer them into aviation and then help them along the way.

Anything you would have done differently?

Everything and nothing! I'm so glad I ended up exactly where I am, despite all my mistakes. I can laugh about it now.

For you, what is it about this industry that you love?

There is a "pilot personality" which I love. It's a certain humble ego and view of life that is slightly different than everyone else. I love watching pilots interact with machines and people. And, locking people in a box for thousands of hours is a great social experiment. Make one of them female, and I can't help but have a few stories and I have a view very few get to see.

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