Every morning is the same routine. Clock in. Walk to the hangar. Check the logbook for any discrepancies. Walk to the plane. Run it up. Walk to the office. Grab the manifest. Fly the tour. You arrive to work just as the runway lights start dimming in sequence with the rising sun, and you leave just as they begin to turn back on.
“The hardest part is just consistent flying,” said Nicholas Boelter, line pilot for Grand Canyon Airlines (GCA). “It feels like taking a test all day long. Flying is not physical, it’s all mental. After a while, you’re just spent.”
Boelter, 25, lives in GCA company housing in Tusayan, just 15 minutes from the edge of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. His typical day revolves around getting to work before sunrise, getting the plane ready to fly, and flying different tourist groups in 40-minute circles over Grand Canyon National Park. Sometimes he will fly hour after hour during his usual 12 hour shift. Sometimes he will only fly once.
Boelter has flown over the Grand Canyon for almost four years. To him, the spectacular scenery is just routine, yet he acknowledges that he has enjoyed giving hundreds of people from around the world an opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest wonders from a spectacular bird’s-eye view.
Boelter’s passion for flying started in third grade. It was Career Day at Eaglecrest Elementary School in Lehi, Utah. He and his classmates were mainly looking forward to not having to do math that day. That is, until Jim Healey walked to the front of the room wearing a suit jacket over a white pilot shirt, black dress pants, and a hat with the SkyWest emblem patched on the front.
“He talked about how he flies planes during the year, and it was just a cool thing to me,” said Boelter. “I think that’s what sparked my interest. It was in my mind forever and I just developed what I wanted from there.”
After high school, Boelter went on to attend a flight academy in Cedar City, Utah in order to get his pilot’s license, as well as a degree in Aviation Administration. Accumulating almost $65,000 in student loan debt, Boelter discovered flight school to be more expensive than your average university.
“The biggest expense is paying for tuition, then on top of that you have to pay for your hours flying,” explained Boelter. “Most planes today, with an instructor, rents for $150-$170 an hour. Keep in mind that it takes 250 hours to become a commercial pilot.”
After obtaining his commercial license in 2008, Boelter went on to work for Indy Aero in Indiana. He’s bought and sold planes from California to Indianapolis, and everywhere in between. When he accrued enough hours he went on to work for Westwind Air Service in order to build more flight time. Now, Boelter has been employed with the commercial carrier GCA for a little over a year and a half in order to build twin engine flight time. He said he needs to learn how to fly a plane with two engines due to slight variances in flying procedures. Some airlines require that pilots have twin engine flight time for insurance purposes.
By November 2014 Boelter plans to move on to a regional airline called Mesa Airlines in Mesa, Arizona in hopes of flying a CRJ 900 (a small jet that carries approximately 85 passengers). Although he hopes to be based in the Phoenix area, he could be sent to Chicago or Washington, DC, depending on what the airline deems necessary. A regional carrier like Mesa Airlines is often contracted by a major airline, such as United, to funnel people from smaller airports to the larger ones. It is cost effective for these big commercial carriers to pay a company with smaller jets, like Mesa, to fly passengers to the hubs rather than spend money on flying their own jets, which hold up to 200 passengers or more.
Before Boelter can fly for a major airline, he needs to build flight time in a smaller jet. “A regional like Mesa is a great way to gain experience,” said Boelter. “They will pay for you to get all your ratings, and they will teach you the ropes to be able to fly a fast complex plane. Once you finish, you will have all the experience needed to fly at a major [airline].”
According to Boelter, the regional airlines are hiring new pilots in large numbers because many pilots are reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. As the long-time pilots for major carriers are forced to leave the work force, the senior ranking pilots at regional airlines are now being brought up to the majors, which in turn creates new jobs for pilots in the regional airlines. Despite the new job openings, Boelter said many pilots will be taking a pay cut when entering the regional world for their first year.
“The biggest misconception about being a pilot is definitely the lifestyle and pay,” said Boelter. “Low time guys are willing to fly for free and accept bad living conditions. This in turn drives down the quality of life for all fliers.” Boelter has witnessed pilots sleeping on mattresses in the middle of kitchen floors, desperate for flight time and hoping that their $12 an hour pay will cover their $80-$160,000 of college debt and living expenses.
Despite the challenges and sacrifices Boelter has had to make thus far, he believes that the best is still to come. He enjoys the thrill of taking off from the runway, and just being in a plane. He hopes to one day work for United Airlines. He wants to live a comfortable life with control over his work schedule.
“I have had to take out large student loans. I have had to move around the country to chase jobs,” said Boelter. “But I have met some of my best friends in this industry. It’s a long hard road. There are bumps, but in the end it’s going to be worth it.”