An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a commercial pilot.
Rupert Schuld has dreamed of flying for almost as long as he can remember. Now that he’s working as a Captain with a major airline, that dream has finally become a reality. But the journey to the top hasn’t been an easy one. From moving across the nation at only 15 years old to flying in some of the choppiest regions in North America, Rupert has survived some serious turbulence in his career, to say the least.
But the challenges, he assures me, are just another reason he loves his job. “Every day is a different experience,” he says. “It’s never mundane.”
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you end up becoming a pilot?
I grew up with my mother in Vancouver. I knew I wanted to be a pilot at a very young age, as lots of pilots do. When I was fifteen, I ended up moving out with my dad, who lives in London, Ontario. They had an aviation program in one of the high schools there that I was interested in, so I decided to move over there. I graduated from high school and took a year off, just to work a bit, save some money. I got accepted into the Aviation Program at the University of Western Ontario and graduated with a degree in Business Administration with a specialization in Airline and Airport Operations. Then, in my second year (starting in 2006), I started flying.
As an aviation student, what do you get out of the program?
You basically get all the required pilot’s licenses that you need. There are different ones. It starts as a Private Pilot License, then there’s a Commercial Pilot License that lets you work for hire, and then, if you’re going to fly planes with multiple engines, you need to have a MultiEngine Rating. And obviously if you’re flying in poor weather conditions with no visual references to outside, you need to have another special rating called an Instrument Rating. So you basically graduate with a degree and a commercial, multiengine IFR, as we would call it, which gives you the bare bones of what you need to be employed as a pilot in the industry.
So as soon as you finish your training, you can start flying?
Unfortunately, due to safety and experience reasons, companies aren’t hiring pilots fresh out of flying school. So I built my time up and I was able to get on as a flight instructor with the school that I learned to fly from. I spent two years doing that. After I’d accumulated several hundred hours of flying experience, I was able to get that first coveted real flying job, which was for a commercial operator. It ended up being in Northern Ontario, a short stint flying aircrafts called Piper Navajos. Then I was able to get into a more reputable airline, where I spent two years flying a commuter aircraft. There I gained the necessary experience flying in quite adverse conditions with fairly competent pilots.
Pilots in this industry very much have to build up their time. Due to the nature of the geographic size of Canada, many pilots have to go up north to get their first job, either to work the ramp and get on as a first officer, or, in my case, with my experience as a flight instructor, I could get on as a pilot right away. Down south, and in cities in general, there tends to be a little more competition. I just didn’t have the experience to stay in the city, so to get a job, I had to move up north. That tends to be the nature of this industry in Canada—as a pilot, you’re guaranteed to have to move and work up North for a few years.
That tends to be the nature of this industry in Canada—as a pilot, you’re guaranteed to have to move and work up North for a few years.
So I was able to get out of the city, moved to Calgary, gained some experience, and was promoted to Captain, doing mainly charter work for oil companies. From there, I had enough experience to apply to a major airline, and was successful through the interview process. I’m at the point now where I’m a Captain for a major airline, flying regionally on smaller, shorter routes. I’ll work my way up to the bigger jets within the company, but I plan to stay here until I retire.
Why do you want to end up working with bigger jets?
Pilots tend to have some ego. The dream, for many pilots, is the next big machine that they can fly. You’re always going from the smaller plane to a bigger plane to a bigger plane. It kind of works in baby steps through the industry as you gain experience and qualifications. It’s very seniority based, once you get to the airlines; with more seniority, you’re able to bid on a larger aircraft.
The dream, for many pilots, is the next big machine that they can fly. You’re always going from the smaller plane to a bigger plane to a bigger plane.
So everyone wants to work their way up to a bigger airplane?
Some people don’t like doing that. Some people like maintaining their seniority on the plane. That usually guarantees guys with families to get Christmas off, holidays off. Whereas guys who are more driven, or who maybe don’t have families, will take a bigger plane, but then might not get Christmas off. It’s all dependent on what the individual wants in their life.
When you’re flying smaller airplanes you tend to be home more. For me, I have a growing family—a six month old daughter—so it’s about trying to balance a work and a home life. Because as a pilot, I don’t have your standard nine-to-five job—I can be away for up to five days at a time. I’ll start work on Monday and I won’t be home till Friday, and I’ll be overnighting for four nights in different cities across Canada. I very much live out of a hotel.
I’ll start work on Monday and I won’t be home till Friday, and I’ll be overnighting for four nights in different cities across Canada. I very much live out of a hotel.
Is it necessary to get a business degree to become a pilot, like you did? Or was that just a personal decision?
No, it’s not necessary to get a degree. Some guys will just get their pilot’s licenses. But, as a pilot, you always have to have a Plan B. As a pilot, you have to maintain a medical; every year, you have to get checked by a doctor to ensure that you’re healthy and fit to fly. Without a medical, your pilot’s license is not valid. So if something happens unexpectedly and you don’t pass your medical, you’ve essentially lost your job. For me, I got a degree so that if something like that were to happen, I would still be able to stay in aviation—maybe on the airline side of things, as a dispatcher, or in a higher level business position.
Without a medical, your pilot’s license is not valid. So if something happens unexpectedly and you don’t pass your medical, you’ve essentially lost your job.
I also wanted to set myself up for success. If you want to be a pilot with a big airline at this point in time, a degree is essentially a requirement. So I just went for a degree because I could get my pilot’s license at the same time. Granted, I had no life for four years, but I don’t regret that decision.
How far do you fly in a single shift?
It depends. If you’re flying a Boeing 777 from North America to China, you tend to be away from home for three days, you would do that three or four times a month, and that’s all you would do. Whereas I could fly up to seven, eight legs in a day; I could fly from Vancouver to Victoria to Kelowna to Edmonton to Calgary, and end up in Winnipeg. I could pretty much cover all of Western Canada.
How long is a typical shift, then? Do you get breaks during your shift?
It’s kind of funny. The rest regulations we have in Canada are kind of a sour point for us pilots. The Colgan air crash that happened in Buffalo a few years back really changed the requirements for pilots—how many hours a pilot needs before they can work in an airline flying public around. But it also addressed the lack of rest for some.
We can legally, in one day, work up to fourteen hours from the time we report for work to the time we stop work. And up to seventeen hours if there’s any unforeseen circumstances—weather or air traffic control delays or things like that. Fourteen hours is a lot for everyone, but usually that’s in extenuating circumstances; they tend not to schedule us for that. The higher end of what I usually see is about twelve hours. And we also have certain hour requirements in how much we can fly in a week, in a month, every three months, or a year. They constantly keep track of those things so we’re not exceeding the limits.
The changing sleep schedule doesn’t bother you? How do you manage it?
My airline is really good. They have fatigue management programs in effect that address normal human circadian cycles. They do a really good job of making our work schedule fairly good, and they give us more than enough rest in between flying days to make sure we are not fatigued. And, if I do feel tired—I didn’t get enough sleep or I’m just not feeling it—I can call in at any time and say, “Hey, sorry, guys, I’m just not feeling it today.” There are no questions, ifs, ands, or buts; they’ll take me off the line and find a pilot who’s fresh to fly.
If I do feel tired... I can call in at any time and say, “Hey, sorry, guys, I’m just not feeling it today.” There are no questions, ifs, ands, or buts; they’ll take me off the line and find a pilot who’s fresh to fly.
Tell me a little about your work life balance. How do you maintain a schedule that works well for you?
It’s pretty good. Most companies have a system involving what we call “bids.” We bid our months one month at a time. We have a ton of different bidding options, like where we want to overnight, how many days off we want to have between work, specific days we want off. It’s based on a point system, where a computer system tries to maximize your points. So whatever you feel is most important for you to have off, you put that as number one. The nice thing about it is I have the flexibility to make my own schedule; if I need a week off, I can bid for a week off. There are some perks to the system, for sure.
I have the flexibility to make my own schedule; if I need a week off, I can bid for a week off. There are some perks to the system, for sure.
For example, I don’t like to work five days in a row—an average of three days away from home is usually a good balance between my home and work life. So I usually bid to avoid working five day “pairings,” as they say. But some guys who are single, or are commuters, for instance, like working longer periods of time, so that they can have more days off in between. Of course, the simpler you can keep your bids, the better bids you’re going to get. You’re going to outbid yourself if you ask for too much or you get too greedy.
What are “commuters”?
I’m a Calgary-based pilot, but I have colleagues from, say, Vancouver. It’s on their own time to find a way to get to Calgary to start work—that’s not on company time. We have a lot of commuting pilots.
How do you pass your time during the long stretches away from home? Do you end up exploring the cities at all?
It really depends on how long you have between the days. Let’s say I finish my day at 9 o’clock at night, but our shuttle is picking us up from the hotel at 6 o’clock the next morning. We’re getting enough time to rest, but not really enough time to be able to explore the city. However, just the other week I was able to have a 30 hour layover. It was a really nice day; we spent it at the beach.
And what’s the social environment like? Who do you interact with during pairings?
I’m with the same people all the time—there’s myself, my first officer, and then two flight attendants. The four of us are a little family for however long the pairing is—anywhere from one day to up to five days. So flying is probably the easier part. As a captain, you really need to set a precedent with your crew from the beginning. First impressions are always lasting impressions. It’s really on the captain to be open, to be fun; I create the crew that I want to have. So if I’m being open and honest with the crew, if I value their input with the concerns that they bring up to me, we tend to have good synergy as a group.
As a captain, you really need to set a precedent with your crew from the beginning. First impressions are always lasting impressions.
But, you know, I’ve never really had a time when we aren’t clicking. My airline is really big on people. We’re really big on getting along with each other, and on passing that on to our guests. It’s very much a culture thing and it’s very important where I work. So everybody is really professional, and it’s usually a good time. At the end of the day, you hug, you say, “Great working with you,” and you’ve almost made a new friend.
What about being a pilot was so appealing to you? What drew you to the career?
My dad used to be a flight instructor, way back when, so I had some direct influence from him. Once I was around airplanes, though, it was just airplanes in general that I found very intriguing—the idea of all these different buttons and switches, leaving the bounds of the earth and being able to fly. And the fact that every day is a different experience with different challenges and a constantly changing environment—that it’s never mundane. That was really appealing.
Can you walk me through a typical day?
I check in for this four day pairing (this mean’s I’ll be away from home for four days with the same crew) in Calgary where my crew and I are all based. We are required to check in one hour prior to the scheduled departure time of the flight. We all meet at the gate. Once all there we take a few moments to get to know each other, as it’s often the very first time we have all worked together. I rarely fly with the same people ... ever! Then we review all the flight particulars with the crew—how long our flight is, how high we’ll be flying, how many guests we will have ... etc. We typically review an abnormal event that may occur, as well as safety items, and some other communication procedures. It’s a very detailed brief but also a very important one, as we’re all one dynamic team once aboard and operating the aircraft. I am only as good as the crew I fly with, so communication and building rapport is very important to me as the Captain.
Once we board, we do all of our own checks to make sure the aircraft is in order and safe to fly. As pilots, we do system checks and rehearsed emergency briefings, just in case. The guests board and we depart. Flights are about 1.5 hours long and we get an average of 1 hour between flights—enough to stretch our legs, use a real washroom, and eat. But sometimes there isn’t time to do all these things; it typically takes half an hour from when we arrive at the gate to fully load a plane (and that’s if everything works perfectly). Often we have to wait for late guests, air traffic control delays, or weather to calm down.
We only get paid from the time we release the brakes at the departure gate to the moment we set the brakes at our destination gate. So even though I am away for four straight days, I only get paid when I am operating the aircraft. We do get a per diem to cover such things as meals.
What would you say is your favourite thing about being a pilot? The experience of flying?
Yeah, that’s probably the best—being able to fly airplanes. For me it’s more the airplane than anything else. The plane, and the weather. There are lots of different challenges and decisions that you have to make while working with your crews.
For lots of guys it’s being able to travel and see destinations. And that’s really cool, too, but at the same time, as you become a pilot, airports and cities all start to look the same. Sometimes you wake up and you don’t even know what city you’re in until you gather your thoughts.
As you become a pilot, airports and cities all start to look the same. Sometimes you wake up and you don’t even know what city you’re in.
What’s the worst thing about your job?
It’s very expensive to become a pilot—especially in this day and age, with inflation and the rising costs of gas and of operating an airplane. To get my pilot’s license and a degree—which lots of airlines now require to even consider hiring you as a pilot—I spent between $60,000 to $80,000 of my and my family’s money. Just to have the right entry level qualifications to start my career.
Pilots love their jobs, and I feel like the industry exploits that. There’s a misunderstanding from the public that pilots make tons of money. It bugs us in the industry. As a flight instructor, I made under $25,000 a year, then I made, on average, just over $30,000 per year until I made captain four years ago. So the first six years of my career were spent making $30,000 a year while paying back a loan worth $50,000 to $60,000. I didn’t have the luxuries of life and I had to make sacrifices. I had to live in a northern community that was very small, very isolated. It didn’t have a McDonalds, or the kind of normal grocery store that people in the city take for granted.
Pilots love their jobs, and I feel like the industry exploits that.
I’m now finally making the kind of money that I think I should be making as a pilot, and I’m ten years in. So if you’re looking to make money, you’re definitely in it for the wrong reasons. You really, really have to have a passion to fly to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Because, to be honest, you’re not going to see that light until probably the first ten years after you get your license.
That’s insane! I had no idea it was so hard to earn a good living as a pilot.
Fortunately, a new trend seems to be starting. In the USA, especially, there’s a growing need for a lot more pilots. Some smaller companies are going bankrupt because they don’t have enough pilots to fly their planes. So the industry, I hope, is going to start making it more enticing for people to want to spend up to a hundred thousand dollars to get their pilot’s license. That’s good news for us.
So would you say that the job market is really opening up right now?
It’s opening up in the sense that, if you do want to be a pilot, the amount of time that you might have to spend just to get that first coveted airline job wouldn’t be as long as it was for me. All the majors—the major airlines, like Air Canada and WestJet—they’re all hiring right now.
Retirements and fleet expansion (that is, people buying more airlines) creates a demand for more pilots. They’re starting cadet programs, and some companies are making agreements with different aviation colleges. They’re saying, “Once you graduate, we’ll give you an interview,” or, “The top five graduates will get an interview.”
What makes you good at what you do?
I don’t like to say I’m “good” at what I do. But I’m passionate about it. Pilots are very passionate people. We take our job very seriously and we work so hard. Especially when you make it to the airlines, you’ve worked so hard and you’ve made so many sacrifices to get to where you are.
Pilots are very passionate people. We take our job very seriously and we work so hard. Especially when you make it to the airlines, you’ve worked so hard and you’ve made so many sacrifices to get to where you are.
I also constantly review and I study. I’m in the training department, so I train new pilots as they come on, and that keeps my level of knowledge up.
What kind of person would you recommend this career to?
You need skill, you need to have good interpersonal skills, you need to be passionate about it, you need to have drive. It’s definitely not for the, “I’ll give it a shot” kind of people. You don’t have to be a geophysicist or anything, but you need to be able to think fairly quickly, have basic math skills. And good interpersonal skills. For me, sometimes the most challenging part of the day is working with people. Customer service skills are very important, because if something goes wrong, something on the plane breaks, you have to be able to act professionally and deal with the problem, but also deal with frustrated guests.
There’s a lot more to flying than people think. As a flight instructor, when I was first teaching, a lot of people didn’t make it. When I did my own training, for example, I started in a class of fifty, and eleven of us finished. You need to learn very regimented procedures and practice certain manoeuvres and stalls and engine failures and emergencies. That requires a lot of skill and quick thinking, and making the right decisions. Some people just don’t have those qualities.
How often do those kind of emergency situations happen?
Almost never. Planes these days are so reliable, the technology is amazing, and we have so many tools available to us. Most of the accidents that do occur are the result of some sort of human error. Things like that haven’t happened to me, or to most pilots, ever. But we do train for these things. Every six months, I go in a simulator. It’s like a video game on big, hydraulic jacks and it moves exactly like a real plane would. I go through every sort of emergency you can think of, from engine fires and failures to smoke in the cabin to landing gear issues. You name it, we do it.
What piece of advice would you give to someone considering a career as a pilot?
I would say, do your research. Know the facts. If you want to make it a career, think about how long it’s going to take you before you’re going to make a decent wage; make sure you look into the financial sense of it.
And for someone who’s not sure and is thinking about it, I would say, go down to a flying school and ask for a fan ride. Some people think it’s really cool to be a pilot, but once they get in an airplane, it’s completely different. You start flying small airplanes, and that means bumpy air. I had a trainee once who just got sick constantly and realized, “I can’t do it. I just get sick every time I fly.” So do your research.
What do you wish that you had known before going into the career?
I really wish I’d know how little money you were going to make for how long I did. And just the amount of debt I’d accumulate. It was tough, making sacrifices.
I guess, too, the nature of the industry and some aspects of it: that it’s the most demanding when you’re the least experienced. I fly with a great company now who takes safety as a top priority and never questions decisions that I have to make with regards to safety. But starting your career, and you’re flying for smaller operators, you’re faced with different kinds of pressures as a pilot. What if the weather’s bad? People need their food. People need their supplies. Unfortunately sometimes safety and getting a job done don’t align and you’re faced with making unpopular decisions. So it’s almost harder being an inexperienced pilot, working your way up in your career, than it is when you get to the airlines.
As a junior pilot, you may have to challenge other pilots or other leaders in the company when you’re faced with situations that make you uncomfortable. So you have to have a strong will and a positive attitude. You have to be able to ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing the safest thing?” You’re constantly making these decisions. The hardest flying I did was when I was an inexperienced pilot.
It’s almost harder being an inexperienced pilot, working your way up in your career, than it is when you get to the airlines... The hardest flying I did was when I was an inexperienced pilot.
At the end of the day, what leaves you going home happy?
The reward of flying planes every day, and getting people to where they need to go. It’s a pretty cool feeling. I fly a plane that can carry 70 or 80 guests, and the fact that these people are willing to trust me with their lives is really rewarding. To have people say, “Thanks for a great flight,” or, “Excellent landing,” really does go a long way. It really makes us feel good about all of the hard work we’ve put in.