What is so special about 30,000 hours?

I recently finished an interesting book, Cities by John Reader. In it there is a chapter describing the steady population growth of various cities throughout the world—Sumer, Mesopotamia, China, Paris, etc.—and how they grew to be so large. He quotes Greek poet Alcaeus from 2,500 BC: "Not houses finely roofed nor the stones of walls well built nor canals nor dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity" (Reader, 74).

Still, not until the 19th century did any city in the world eclipse 1 million inhabitants. Prior to the vertical development possible in the industrial revolution, for thousands of years there was some natural barrier to the size of cities. They just couldn't break through it.

This got me thinking of an aviation barrier broken only by men and women able to use their opportunity, yet limited by some very structural constraints: career flight hours. 

You read about it in vignettes of any very old or not-as-old but retiring airline pilot: “he is an airline captain with type ratings in [insert type certificates here] and over 30,000 flight hours.”

It’s always 30,000 hours. But why?

I think that 30,000 is the natural barrier that is nearly impossible to break through in ones flying life. Unlike the advent of the skyscraper, it's not one that technology can overcome. Like a record-setting rushing or passing milestone, it is only one that can happen after an exceptionally long career and an exceptionally long time after one's first career is over as well. There are several reasons for this.

The first is just semantic. After a milestone like 30,000 comes 35,000 but saying "over thirty-five thousand hours" just doesn't roll off the tongue quite like "thirty thousand." As we'll see, hitting 40,000 hours is probably just not possible for all but the .01% of pilots. The round numbers win.

Then there are the practical barriers: such a pilot is highly unlikely even to know how many hours he has anymore, having stopped logging every single flight or day many years ago. After all, when you're a 787 captain, how many hours do you really need to log for that next rating? None. Zero. Zilch.

Then there are the legal: because arguably the best way to accumulate flight time over the long term is as a Part 121 airline pilot, the statutory maximum 1,000 hours a year puts a very top limit on reaching that 40k mark. Let's break it down: assume a pilot graduates from an aviation school with 500 hours at age 22. They bust their tail flight instructing for two years before getting hired with a regional airline at age 24. In theory, this pilot could log 40,000 hours in his or her lifetime, but there are still more barriers to this.

What's more, in the 121 world pilots are incentivized for flying as little as possible while trying to maximize pay. When I got hired at my airline they told us a wide body captain earned $700,000 last year. That is only possible by 1) seniority and 2) maximizing "soft" time: deadheads, premium pay, over guarantee, IMAX, and the like. I still don't know how that pilot got paid for over 2,000 hours of time in one year (and I sure would like to find out), but we can be sure that he or she only sat in the left seat for 1,000 of them.

Furthermore, the likelihood of a pilot flying in a seat for a full 1,000 hours every year until age 65 is extraordinarily unlikely. That is over 83 hours of logged flight time per month for nearly forty years. There are again more barriers to this kind of schedule:
- the human body can't do that for four decades! I need a week off after 40-50 hours in two weeks and I'm not even 40
- one must take one's vacation time at some point, which of course increases in quantity as the years go by
- every nine months we have 4-5 days taken out of the schedule to attend recurrent training
- sitting reserve faces every pilot at various points, and those years are simply not 1,000 hour years

Still there are those weirdos like me who may tire after a long week of flying for work but are nevertheless able to flip the switch at the end of the week and go fly for fun. It will always baffle my wife how this is even possible, but even though all flying is pleasurable, there is a difference between flying for work and flying for fun. There is ample room in my life for both, and I know that is one way in which many folks steadily tick up that logbook toward 40,000 hours.

One of the most famous of the 40,000-hour club is well-known aviatrix Margaret Ringenberg, a former Women's Airforce Service Pilot (WASP), air racer, and earthrounder. Her bio catalogues 40,000 hours over a fifty-three year flying career, culminating with an around-the-world air race at the fresh young age of 72. Setting aside what a hoot it must be to Cannonball around the world in an air race, that's an average of two hours of flying every day for fifty-three years. Stunning, really.

So, with major kudos to the late Ms. Ringenberg, I just don't think 40,000 hours is an attainable goal for most of us humdrum pilots to break through to achieve. It doesn't mean I won't try!


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