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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Should I quit College to Fly?

I received the following question from a future pilot who has passion, a love of aviation, but is facing a difficult decision on which path he shall travel:

My name is Lethukuthula Blessing Vilakazi

I'm 19 years old and I'm from South Africa. I grew up in a small town called Pietermaritzburg but I now study and live in Cape Town. Basically I'm writing to you because I need your advice.

My love affair with aviation started a few years ago when I took my first flight in a Jetstream 41 out of FAPM. Back then I obviously knew very little about aviation, all I did know is that I loved being in the air, it felt surreal, I felt as if I had left earth. It wasn't until a few months later that my love for aviation really grew.

While bored on youtube I stumbled across videos of Microsoft's Flight Simulator X, I was fascinated. I'd never seen anything like it, a few days later having never purchased a computer game before (because I had never owned a computer before my first year at University) I went out and got it. Needless to say I sucked at first, really badly but as the months went on I got better and my love for aviation grew stronger.

I'd like to think of myself now as a highly experienced and skilled simulator pilot with a great love for the 737NG.

When I first came across your blog months ago I noticed that you hold two masters degrees and that really stuck out at me because it came at a time when I was seriously considering dropping out of the best university in Africa to try and pursue a career in aviation.

I thought maybe it is possible to do both, get a degree and become a pilot. Lately though, it has become harder and harder to in a sense ignore my love for aviation. I get lost in it, I spend hours on sites such as, hours watching videos on youtube and JustPlanes DVDs, I spend even more time on my sim flying for the various virtual airlines.

Nothing quite calms like a ten minute JustPlanes teaser, I've watched my favourites hundreds of times and I keep watching them because I ALWAYS pick up something new, something that I hadn't noticed before, something that gives me more information about the DVDs I am yet to acquire.

What I would basically like to know is: How important is it to have a college degree as a pilot?

Today I changed faculties, I moved from commerce to humanities. I am now a Politics, Sociology and Social Anthropology Major. Proud to say that but as I walked out today having made the tough choice and given up my bursary to study what I enjoyed I couldn't help but feel that there was something missing, something that would make me even happier and that is simply aviation.

Lethukuthula, in the United States a college degree is essential for a career as an airline pilot. Supply and demand may vary that one day, but today ... if a pilot doesn't have a degree, they won't get hired by a major airline.

Must you have a degree to fly a plane? Of course not.

But an education will give you skills in how to learn, think outside the box, communicate, and will broaden your horizons.

When you're interviewing, and there is another pilot with the same flying experience as you, the other pilot with a college degree will get the job.

Piloting is more than stick-and-rudder these days. Leadership. Management. Communication. Understanding weather. Systems knowledge. Teaching. Computer programming. Reading. Writing. There are many skills you will learn in college that will carry over into your piloting career.

Airlines don't hire pilots... they hire captains. They hire leaders. They hire future instructors. Anyone can learn to fly a plane, but the associated skills are what will make you a great pilot, a safe pilot, an aviator that our future industry needs.

At 19, you have a long life ahead of you to fly. You can take flying lessons while attending college pursuing your studies.

The success and future of our industry and our world needs educated people. If you have the means... stay in school! One day you will thank me for this advice.

Does anyone else have any comments for Lethukuthula? I'm sure he would love to hear them.

Enjoy the Journey!

~ Karlene


  1. I completely agree with karlene. Although I was lucky enough to get a degree in aviation (complete with commercial and ifr), I am still gearing up for a second degree, after 4 years as a commercial pilot. Education is paramount to a varied portfolio of skills and knowledge. It will empower you to do do much more than "simply" fly an airplane from point A to B for the rest of your career. Go for it and finish your degree, no hesitation! Cheers :)

  2. Completely agree with you. If nothing else, having a degree offers career flexibility and options if the flying doesn't pan out according to plan. More than that, college isn't necessarily training to do a task, but (hopefully) training to think critically. And we need SO much more of that in this world!

  3. Yes, I have!
    I'm 25 and only a year ago, I could start my Pilot Course!
    Like Lethukuthula, I spent and still spend hours watching videos en seeing pics on!
    Nowadays, I work with software development(programmer), and I left the technology College to start aviation college this year.
    I'm balancing the College with my job(outside aviation area) and the Pilot course, even that, I need my job to pay the course.

    A month ago was my Private pilot checkride and now, I'm on a journey to be a Comercial Pilot!

    Things that I consider very important in aviation are, maturity, self argue and dedication.

    I always say to my collegues at work. "Here, I we do one thing wrong, we are able to roll back and use the data backup. When flying, we MUST do the right thing."

    Never, ever, give up of your dream! Fly, is a grace that god gave to the birds and allow some people very dedicated and worthy to do it.

    P.S.: Sorry about any english mistake.

  4. Staying in college if you possibly can is your best choice! Once you have that degree and the growth that comes with getting it, no one can take that away from you. Sometimes it seems like that may mean nothing, but as Karlene points out, you must have a college degree to compete for the great aviation jobs. And most importantly, when you're 19 you truly do have plenty of time to do both. No matter how frustrating it is to delay your gratification of becoming a pilot for a little while, just do it! (Nike is on to something, there.) Finish college. And many congratulations for choosing the field of academic study that is most important to you.

  5. I am doing a little different path, but I think every individual has to find something that suits him/her.

    I finished high school in 2010, and started flying later that year. I got my private license and instrument rating rather quick, but before I continue with my Commercial license, I am going to get a bachelors degree. I feel that is an educational path that suits me, and that is what is the most important. :)

  6. Jean, a degree in aviation is the way to go. If you can combine your passions... that makes education all the better! Thanks for your comment.

  7. Thanks for your comment bluemuse. Yes... we need more critical thinking in the world. And the flexibility could be such if something happens to the flying... like losing a medical certificate... you have a backup plan.

    Pilots need backup plans!

  8. Pedro, what a wonderful comment. You are working so hard to follow your dreams. You're right...Pilots must do the right thing. I'm so glad you found an aviation college. Keep the dream alive. Keep working hard. And keep me updated on your progress.

  9. Linda, Thank you for the great advice! I'm thinking you and I are sounding like mothers. Oh wait... we are.

    Delayed gratification is like building a solid foundation for your home before you put up the walls. The house will weather all the storms if there is substance below.

  10. Cecilie, Thank you for the great comment! You are so right, everyone must follow their path. I'm glad you're going back to school too. :) Perhaps I'm an education junkie, and mother in me. lol.

    Dedication. Discipline. And making yourself the best you can be, for the job you have planned, is essential. Especially if you plan on having thousands of lives in your hands.

    Thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate it!

  11. Hello Lethukuthula, one thing I always tell people who have asked me the same question of whether they should continue in their studies at university is that even though it is difficult to get a college degree, once you have that degree it is yours forever. No one can take it away from you. It is one of the most important things a person can do in life. When I was 19, i dropped out of university because I wanted to do other things in life. But after two years, I talked to a friend who recommended I go back and get my degree now. I took his advice and ended up getting a Master of Arts degree in English. It helped me get a wonderful career in the tech industry (of all places). I know it is difficult to make a decision, especially for you and your love of aviation. But as Karlene said, a career in aviation is much more than flying a plane. I wish you the best in your decisions. Kind regards. Dean Lappi

  12. I would like to add that, while waiting to finish your education, think about putting all those hours on to use! Produce something.

    Whether it be a blog, a magazine article, or a relationship with local pilots or airport managers, you should definitely find an outlet for your research. Who knows, you may become an expert in something like Human Factors or Safety Culture before you ever get your private license!

    That's the way to start your career and will award you more opportunities and personal connections to use when you do begin flying.

    Best of luck!

  13. Dean, Thank you for the excellent advice! I think the key statement is "They can never take it away from you." I'm sure you thanked your friend. He gave great advice. Thanks for your comment!

  14. C.Dublin, what excellent advice. He should put all his research to use. And, he can use it for school.
    When I worked on my MBA, ALL my classes were designed on the airline industry. I researched many different airlines with IT, marketing, leadership... it was fun to learn the behind the scenes stuff.

  15. Hi Lethukuthula,

    I really do not intend to contradict Karlene, but I did drop my university studies and just got hired to fly the Boeing 737 NG for a major European airline. I was a tow pilot and Kingair safety pilot up until now.

    The university studies (I spent three years in a college studying Aerospace Engineering) gave me a background, leadership and team skills, and above all: a life experience. I lived a year abroad, I started to build up a network with friends flying for various airlines, and I got a fallback job.
    Still, I do not have the degree as I dropped out of university one year before Graduation.

    I got the place as a tow pilot and later as a Kingair safety pilot because I had some real life experience as well as some decent flying experience.
    The airline that just hired me looked at this a lot more than my studies and the degree I do not have. Of course I have been asked questions on this, I gave a true answer and they felt like I indeed took the right step in my specific case.

    What would the reasons be to drop out of university?
    Well, like you, I felt tired of learning irrelevant stuff with almost no relation to my desired job (i.e. airline pilot), and the industry was starting to pick up, probably the best time to start a pilot training.

    Do I regret it now? Well I just got a job, so not so much, however it is too late for me to go back to studies and get that degree. Should I apply to an airline that requires a degree (not all do), well ... that won't be looking too good for me.

    A great friend of mine is flying for Delta and he doesn't have any kind of degree nor does he have any university education. He got hired for his flying experience. He didn't choose the easy path (is there any easy path in Aviation?) but managed to do it.

    I'd say, and that's just what I think, I am not saying this is universally true, that every pilot has its own path, its own career, each one being different. When joining a Major, one will have 1 or 2 degree(s), another will be a military pilot with 1000 hrs flying the B2, another one will have 5000 hrs on turboprops with little airline experience, etc ...

    Best of luck anyway,


  16. Thanks for your comment Mark.

    And, congratulations on the "good luck" scenario. You are one of the few. Your friend who got hired by Delta, without an education, must be an old time hire.

    Today, he would not get hired. I did a bit of research on the subject. Here are the links to that research. Get hired by Delta How to get hired by Delta 2 Get hired by Delta day 1

    There was a time when you didn't need an education, but that has changed.

    It looks like you had three solid years of an education behind you... it's a shame you just didn't finish. Especially when you were so close. But each person creates their own flight plan, and you're doing well.

    Lethukuthula you will not get hired by Delta or any of their commuter connections without a college degree. That's the current reality. And, I'm not sure with the foreign carriers, but life is a journey and growth means to continue learning. I still say... build the solid foundation first. You'll go far.

  17. I do want to point out to all that there is no "one size fits all" answer here. In the US and Canada, and I think in the UK, a degree is almost essential just to get an interview. In the US and Canada, airlines hire well qualified applicants who already have some appropriate flying under their belts, because the military and the flight schools generate enough qualified candidates. In other countries with less robust general aviation, the airlines hire people with the right attributes, and train them from 1st flight all the way to line pilot, there aren't enough CFI's at the schools (or aren't enough schools period)or ex-military pilots to hire.

    I don't know the situation is S.A., but I suspect it is closer to the second type. Contact South African Airlines and ask them how they hire pilots, and how they should be qualified. But I agree 100% with the other people who tell you to stay in university - having a degree might well be a requirement, while not having one could well be a dis-qualification. Is there an aviation course you can take?

  18. Having recently completed a Bsc (Aviation) and seen the doors that have opened up to me simply from having a degree I strongly recommend that you do complete a degree of some sort.

  19. Thank you Mike!! Amazing as it is, but companies know that you can manage any training program if you can navigate college and achieve a degree. Excellent comment! Thanks.

  20. As far as I know,not only airline companies but also many companies(in Japan) recruit the person who graduated from university.This means if you have a degree,you have more opportunity to work for company:)

    Please don't give up an university degree,because you got chance to study in university:))
    Good luck to you,Lethukuthula!!!! and always take care of yourself!!!have a great day!!

  21. Hi DB Thank you for the comment. You are so right, each situation is different. This brings up a great point also. Okay... in my mind. Should we always just focus on the minimum? I'm thinking we should focus on making ourselves the best we can be. Then we can do anything. Thanks again for your support!

  22. Thank you so much Jun! I would have suspected no less from Japan! Excellent advice!!! You have a great day too!

  23. I completely agree. "Simply flying" won't get you anywhere. You need as much education as you can get to be successful in life. And even if you've already gotten that degree, you still can't stop learning as everything in this world is constantly changing.

  24. Erin, Thank you for the comment! You are so right... keep learning. Whatever you do in your life, you will go far.


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