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From HEMS to the Airlines

By Keith Buczko

I grew up with a grandfather that worked in the airline industry since before I was born. Although he was a mechanic and not a pilot, his stories of times with the Thunderbirds imparted a love of aviation from as early as I can remember. We talked aviation constantly, until he passed away in 2016. He worked for 3 different airlines after retiring from the Air Force in 1974, finishing out with America West Airlines in Phoenix, AZ. My life’s goal was to eventually fly for America West. I guess in a way through American Airlines I can finally achieve that goal.

Post military, I worked for a great HEMS company. The money was not bad, especially when combined with VA and Retirement. I knew my schedule, unless a base manager decided to change it, for literally years to come. I was home every day/night once my shift was over. For clarification hitch= one week, shift = 1, 12 hour day. I was allowed, and even encouraged to sleep on duty, to ensure I remained properly rested. There was ZERO pressure to fly, and we had a myriad of reasons that we could turn down flights with no questions asked. At the end of each shift, and hitch, I put my phone away and didn’t think about work again until it was time to clock in. Each hitch would alternate between days and nights. For the most part it made maintaining a consistent rest cycle somewhat easy. Sounds like a nice break from military life, right? To be honest, it was a fantastic retirement job. I was allowed to be a pilot, and it was a MUCH slower pace. That is where the decision to transition to the airlines began. 

Although HEMS was great to me, and I would never personally discourage anyone from doing it, it did have its downsides. I was on 12 hour shifts. My base was 8-8. Yes, I was home after every shift, but it was either in time to come home and put the kids to bed, or catch them as they were waking up and getting ready to start their school day. I had no time during the week for household chores, and found myself taking a couple of days on each end of my hitch catching up on the honey-do list. I had plenty of opportunity to work overtime but that was less time off and at home. Sleeping on duty sounds great, but I was tied to a radio, and essentially to my office. We had a standard launch time that we needed to meet, so even being on the other side of the hospital was a risk of having to high tail it back to the helicopter, completing the paperwork required for launch, and still making our critical time. Having a week off did have its perks, but I still had to use part of that week to reverse out. I am over 40 now, and it isn’t as easy as it was in my 20s and 30s. I found it getting harder and harder to reverse out. I was at a low volume base, so there were times I would go as many as 5 hitches without a patient flight. It was common to go 2-3 hitches. At night you may get a tone for standby, but were stood down more times than not. Any military pilot that has been on QRF knows how you sit on edge subconsciously when trying to rest on shift. There is no REM sleep, so I still found myself needing to sleep most of the day when I was at home. 

My allure to the airlines started before I can remember. have always had a desire to fly for the airlines. I have loved helicopters and all of the opportunities provided to me through my years of flying them, both military and civilian, but have always had the itch to try my hand in the 121 world. That was my number one reason. My second reason, even though the image of an airline pilot has changed over the years, I still like what we represent. Children still look up to us, and even some adults. It is, although not as much as it used to be, still a somewhat glamorous profession. Third, the travel. The opportunity to fly anywhere in the world, whether for work, or traveling with the family, has always excited me. We are a homeschool family, so I plan to provide some of the most memorable field trips for my children, and even for us as parents. Cost has always been a major hindrance for us as a family of 5. For example, to fly from Charlotte to Phoenix, it would cost us approximately $2500. With our flexibility, that cost doesn’t exist anymore, unless we travel to another country. Even then, it is no more than the cost of a couple of nights in a hotel. Fourth is quality of life. Yes I am starting at the bottom again, but as my seniority builds, my ability to manipulate my schedule to the days I want to work gets better and better. At the current airline hiring rates, that quality of life will be attained much quicker than for the pilots of days gone by. The prospect of flying a 787 9-12 days a month internationally, is a pretty attractive opportunity. The fifth reason, and probably the one that most would expect to be at the top of my list, is pay. You cannot beat the paycheck. My first year at American Airlines will put me above approximately the year 10 pay with my old job. Second year AA pay does not even compare, especially when you look at the amount of time spent at work versus home. On top of that, the 401k contributions from the company, without you putting a dime in, beats just about anything in the helicopter market. As a matter of fact, I have not been able to find anything that even comes close. 

I walked into a job that pays just over half of my last job, but with some prior planning and temporary lifestyle adjustments, this transition will be worth it. For the record, yes, I am taking a pay cut, but I will upgrade within two years. Once that happens I will be back at my previous pay. There is risk involved, but it was risk that my family and I were willing to take. I hope this helps a little with some of your decision making process. If there are any questions, or you want to talk over the phone, contact me through the RTAG page, and I will be more than happy to discuss it more in depth. Good luck on your journey.

Keith Buczko
Board of Advisors, Rotary to Airline Group

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4 thoughts on “From HEMS to the Airlines”

  1. Avatar

    I Definitely concur with time zone changes get harder as you get older. I played with the regionals for a few months just as I turned 50. If I had started 10 years earlier, I may have stuck around longer…as it is, with the time spent on reserves, eventually moving to a major, etc…meant my seniority would always suck. I’d always be working weekends and holidays, and the pay would take a few years to catch up to where I had been before.
    I decided to go to work for another government organization (which pays more than a regional captain) just because of Quality of life. Living in base is a HUGE advantage.

  2. Avatar
    helicoptersarecool

    Until I am not forced to eat ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches for 2-3 years or more, the airlines will continue to be one less pilot.

    The quality of life is no better even if the pay was commensurate to the medevac world, constant travel, time zone shifts, broken up weeks to where you have no idea whether it is saturday or thursday. Dragging your overnight bag behind you, constantly in a crowded airport, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed… the sacrifice of your sanity is definitely not worth the pay either.

    The regionals need to pay pilots what they are worth, we all know they make money hand over fist, and this pilot shortage crisis is the time to make them start sharing the profits.

    I have turned down 2 offers from envoy and psa, because I can simply not afford to take the job.

    That is a huge problem for them, not for me. I am comfortable, making enough money, and am enjoying helicopters still, so why change?

    I am perplexed by the amount of recruiting going on, obviously the shortage is that bad… but is it bad enough?

    Not if they pay you at a rate that keeps you well below poverty level and gives you a terrible quality of life.

    We can make around 80k as HEMS pilots with a few overtime hitches here and there, and the odd contracting job that pops in AFG or IRQ will give you a year of 200+ to settle some bills or pay off the rest of the house. Done it twice, bought my toys, back to HEMS to pay the bills… How long again is it that you are making at least 80 when going to the regionals? 5 years at least is what envoys little brochure had forcasted. After that, not seeing 100 till 7-8 maybe?

    Most of the rotor transition guys who they are targeting are retired military like myself, who dont have that kinda time… so naaa, till they start sharing the profits, I’ll stay down here at 1500 AGL and below enjoying my final 10-15 years of flying…

  3. Avatar
    Michael Scherzberg

    The Regional I work for is producing 1000 pilots a year. Others are probably about the same. Even with that many coming thru, there will still be a shortage. I made this change late in life just to see if I can do it. Glad I did. Not sure if I will stick with it for reasons others have stated, but probably the biggest reason to go back is the joy of flying helicopters.

  4. Avatar

    I’m having a tough time getting any reliable information on what you can expect as starting pay, as well as expected future pay. Depending on who you ask, I’ve heard it is way less than HEMS pay for at least 6 yrs. However, I’ve also heard that you can make 100k after about 2 years in the regionals. If anyone can point me in the right direction, please do so!

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-Kelly Ward

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