Flying Out Our Dreams
Text and photos James Quentin
A jet-set life filled with adventures, foreign beaches and mysterious strangers all wrapped up into a fantasy of flying airplanes around the world are the stuff of schoolboy dreams. The golden age of air of the 1950’s and 1960’s brought respect and admiration to all men daring to put on a pressed uniform with a wing buttoned on the breast pocket. Choosing a career as a pilot meant carrying a suitcase in one hand and the safety of passengers in the other. Nowadays, for many pilots, all this has become a myth and turned into a routine job of roundtrip flights between Chicago and Denver six days a week, with a two hour turnaround time. On the seventh day, the pilot stands at his neighborhood potluck, and lacking a thriller story to share, listens as his neighbor boasts about a recently purchased lawnmower.
Peace Out Over Nevada
Sitting in a Moscow Starbucks on the opposite side of the world, Kurt Jackson is hunched over a laptop and exam books, studying for his European pilot’s license exams. He’s tall, tan with broad shoulders and shaggy, Californiablond hair. Passing girls smile at him, easily spotting an American with their finely tuned foreign-dars. Kurt smiles back, politely.
“This place is like a little piece of home,” acknowledges Jackson, over cheesecake and cappuccino, referring to an American chain coffee shop with the mid-November Christmas decorations and sounds of holiday muzak. Kurt has not lived in his home town Seattle for over three years since crossing the ocean to work as a full time private pilot in Europe.
In a collision of two worlds vastly different from the environment in which they originated, Russia’s business elite and private pilots have come to enjoy the resulting perks of working together. American private pilots come to Europe, specifically Moscow, knowing that their experience is worth a salary twice that of a veteran commercial airline pilot in the States. Kurt is one of four US-trained pilots working for a single client with a two on, two off monthly rotation cycle. In the slumping world’s economy, no one’s job is safe, even his, but Jackson does not seem to be worried. “As long as there are private charter planes, people will want to fly them.” It is a simple philosophy that has been proven valid to him for the better part of a decade through clients in U.S., England, India and now Russia. Kurt is full of unique views on life and work, all of which attribute to his personality, and make him a perfect candidate for a career of little certainty.
Fifteen years ago, Jackson seemingly fell into getting a pilot’s license. Out of college, he worked as a programmer helping design new airport terminals. “It was a way for me to support my real passion, skydiving.” Working on a project in Phoenix for two months, Kurt decided to take flight lessons to learn how to fly jumper planes for skydivers. Aft er the project ended, he followed his then girlfriend to Florida. Quickly finding himself skydiving and flying small turbo jets full time, Kurt became a more experienced pilot passing consequential flight exams to fly larger airplanes at higher altitudes.
Convinced by a good friend, and boss, Jackson enrolled in flight school and was hired by a major airline. He moved away from Florida for a four month training session to become a licensed commercial pilot. Two weeks after graduating, Kurt’s professional world was turned upside down by the events of September 11th, 2001. In a quick lesson of “your job is never secure here” the airline fired Jackson along with hundreds of other fresh pilots to try and collect government aid for employees of tragedyaff ected airlines.
On an idle Tuesday night, Kurt and I find ourselves in a Moscow strip club, Déjà Vu, aff ectionately referred to simply as the Vu. We are there to meet his flat-mate and copilot, Frank, who’s somewhat enthusiastic about Moscow’s club scene. With a lot of downtime, each pilot must find their own way to pass the time in a city and country that is unfamiliar in every way. This is a difficult adjustment to make for anyone who’s used to being on a set schedule and likes some form of stability in life. For large portions of time, private pilots must sit and wait until their client is ready to travel. Flights may come with an advanced notice or a mid-day phone call about a take off that very evening. “I can pack in ten minutes flat,” Kurt proclaims proudly. “If a call comes in to leave and you say you’re too busy, you will not last very long at this job. There are no sick days.” In return, the private-pilot profession allows plenty of time to do anything one desires in places other people only dream of visiting. Th e only guarantee this kind of pilot has are holidays away from family. Not exactly a job sealer an employer can print on an application form.
In flight schools, being a private pilot is not viewed as a viable job option. At most, students look at it as a stepping stone for getting more cockpit hours in the air before being allowed to fly bigger, commercial airplanes. “I defy you to go into a class room and find me one guy who wants to fly business charters full time. Ninety nine percent of pilots only dream of one thing, flying the big planes,” said Kurt.
Commercial airline and private business charter pilots are as different as they come. In fact, sharing the skies appears to be their only common bond. In recent years, the once guaranteed job security of an airline pilot has disappeared. Even senior flight captains working their entire careers for a single company are losing their jobs. The ones not being laid off suffer severe pension cuts and prefer to stay longer in the work force with recent pilot retirement ages increased from 60 to 65. When hired, pilots are given a number which places them on an employment ladder. As people above retire, a person moves up. The more people below, the more job security an employee has. An airline pilot may be the worst industry position to be let go from because the rank achieved with one company does not carry over to the next. A laid-off flight captain will have to start at the bottom of the ladder; most likely as a co-pilot or an assistant.
The private sector does not offer any more job security than its counterpart, but it makes up for it in other ways. Once a pilot is a flight captain, he remains a flight captain no matter the employer or a job’s location. “My annual pay equals approximately that of a fifteen-year airline veteran. There are flight captains who earn more than I do, but they spend more time getting up to that level and less time earning a significant salary while I stay leveled for most of my career,” Jackson says about pay differences between pilots.
Added to his current monthly pay, Kurt’s clients cover all his living arrangements and expenses including a daily meal allowance, cell phone bills and traveling costs if the job requires him to stay with the plane in a different location. It’s a standard contract requirement.
Conceivably, a pilot with a lot of experience let go by a commercial airline can switch to the private sector, although it is a lot easier to go from smaller to bigger jets.
The switch is equally difficult mentally and technically for pilots downgrading from a large aircraft . Modern technology has practically computerized big planes into self-guiding machines. The flights are preset to the extent that in an emergency, a plane can land itself. It is this exact reason Kurt loves to fly smaller, private jets. “In the air, I actually feel in control of an airplane as opposed to sitting in the cockpit of a jumbo jet pre-programmed to get you from point A to point B on its own.” Private pilots tend to do too much once inside a major aircraft , commercial pilots don’t do enough at the controls of a smaller plane.
But no job, especially a highly alluring one, is without its pasty white underbelly. The price of working with the wealthiest is a necessity to maintain privacy and looming possibilities of an attack on the life of a client. Kurt has the same policy towards all his employers to never discuss their names, dates or other information regarding travel plans with anyone, including his girlfriend. It is no secret that Jackson’s client in Moscow is under constant security surveillance. His client’s jet does not sit in a hangar at a public or even private airport. Instead it is located at an army base under the watchful eye of a personal security guard twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Prior to take off, the crew checks the entire plane for any suspicious items.
Some of Kurt’s past clients have traveled to Iraq, Yemen and other Middle East hotspots for terrorist attacks. Even flying to India proved to be unsettling. As the planes come in from the north, flying below the clouds, pilots are advised to turn off their lights at night because of terrorist training camps located below in North Pakistan. “You never know when they can decide to use you as a practice target,” says Kurt only half-jokingly. About ten years ago, a fellow private pilot was hired to fly a high ranking, Middle East official to and from Somalia. Returning home, twenty minutes aft er their plane took off from the African country, an identical plane left from the same airstrip. Enemy militia mistook the later aircraft for the one carrying their intended high profi le target and shot down the second plane, killing everyone on board.
After shutting the door on a brief stint as an airline pilot, Jackson returned to Florida. With good contacts and experience of flying larger aircraft, he started to fly private jets. Never being a person to settle on one thing, Kurt took off for Europe the following summer to “see what’s on the other side of the pond.” He found a few steady jobs, but realized that he would have to be here more permanently if he wanted contracts with a longer shelf life. Returning to Florida to pick up his van, along with some skydiving equipment, Kurt went back to England where his pilot’s license has more validity than in other European countries. After answering a few “wanted” ads, Jackson stumbled onto a client with a more long term plan – in India.
Surfing tricks in South Africa
This time he lived in a house with a maid and a personal chef, they both felt somewhat enclosed by the environment outside the home’s gates. With no driver available, the couple had to rely on taxi to get them around. This proved to be problematic. “We were rarely taken to the places we actually wanted to go because the drivers claimed to not understand us,” they both complain to me simultaneously. The client also proved to be somewhat unreliable in terms of fulfilling all contract agreements. A month after starting the job, Kurt was not thrilled with the new arrangements, but in his field, you have to take the good with the bad or find a new job. Jackson chose the later.
“I was sitting in Delhi, bored out of my mind, researching a new private jet model when a broker from Switzerland contacted me, saying he just sold one to a client in Moscow. Would I be interested in being a flight captain?” Kurt’s current gig came to him that simple.
The unique nature of this profession takes its toll on anyone not made of stone. Constant failings of relationships and lack of a steady place to call home is hardly a healthy lifestyle. Kurt, too, knows that this is not a job he can handle for a great length of time. “I love flying, but soon enough I’ll want to settle down somewhere and only fly out of one place. That’s why I’m taking my European pilots exams, so I can pick a place anywhere in Europe or U.S. to fly from regularly.”
This is sobering talk from a man who’s lived and worked in more countries than most tourists’ visit, a pilot who’s flown more different types of aircraft s than people drive cars. It is hard to let go of a dream so many have chased but never found.
“When a call comes in and you find out you’re going to a place you’ve never been to before, that’s the coolest thing in the world.”