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Friday, April 1, 2011

Life After the Winged Badge

By Ernie Stephens

Much to my disappointment, I discovered that no matter how much you love flying a police helicopter, the day will come when you either have to stop, want to stop, or stopping becomes the lesser of other evils. (Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.)

Once I began keeping score, I discovered that law enforcement aviators were like all other police personnel contemplating retirement. The first group is tired, but has to wait for their pension plans to kick in. (You can spot them, because they have count-down clocks running on their computers.) The second group is waiting for the youngest child to finish school. (They use the same clock as the first group.) The third bunch is waiting for the financial fallout from their latest divorce to ease up. (I hear there’s no clock for that, yet.) And the final group, which I was in, is waiting for the fun to stop.

We had a 20-year retirement system at my place, but I stuck around longer because I enjoyed chasing bad guys in a helicopter. (Who wouldn’t?) I also used those extra years to grab a couple of degrees that I thought would serve me well if I ever got any bad news during a flight physical. But when the day arrived that I wasn’t having fun any more, it was time to see what else was out there, and if it would include a badge and a helicopter. (It ended up including a retirees badge and a helicopter magazine!)

Regardless of why someone has decided to retire, many will be looking for a second career. Pilots, of course, tend to be looking for something in aviation. The problem is many aren’t quite sure how to get that job, or are operating under some misconceptions about what they have to offer in the “real world.” So, over the past few years, I’ve done some poking around to see how someone can maximize success in the police aviation afterlife.

Many second-career hunters interested in flying for another police department seem to have an easy time meeting the qualifications. The problem is many agencies will not swear them in without first making them sit through another academy, and work the road for a period of time before being able to transfer into the aviation division. Those with the youth, stamina and patience for that have no problem. But by the time most of us are ready to leave our first agency, we’ve lost interest in sitting though another recruit class, or spending even a day running calls in a car with antlers.

There are, however, a few departments out there that will hire pilots as non-sworn members. They don’t always pay very well, but who cares when your original department is sending you a handsome pension check on the first of every month, anyway?

I took a civilian pilot position a few years after retiring from my first agency. I was hoping it would be just the right fit for me, but it wasn’t. Unrealistic expectations kill lots of second career plans, and mine were no exception. I had tried to take my meager instrument skills to an agency that was looking for pilots with much more talent under the hood than I had. I also found that it wasn’t such a great place to work for, at least not then. Moral of the story: Don’t overestimate your skills or the job!

For retiring officers who want to fly outside of the police world, the industry tends to welcome our kind of experience. Once again, the money usually isn’t what we’re used to, but it makes a nice second income. The problem with non-police flying is adjusting to work that may lack the excitement we’re accustomed to.

Now, if being a line pilot isn’t that big a deal anymore, but you still want to be in the rotorcraft industry, aircraft manufacturers and support providers like what we bring to the table. And if you used their products while you were still sworn—all the better! But understand that your pilot’s license and people skills may not be enough to get you past the interview. The companies with the best pay want to see a college degree stapled to your pilot license. A bachelor degree will do, but a graduate degree in management or business can be the secret handshake.

As for simple, all-encompassing advice for getting a great post-police job, the best piece of guidance I ever got came from one of my first sergeants. He said, “By the time you have 10 years left to serve, you need to be thinking about what you want to do when you retire. And by the time you’re down to five years left, you need to actively be doing something about it.”

So, if you just want to sleep in and watch sports on TV after you retire, you need to be squirreling away some money. If you want to be a line pilot, you need to fill-in any gaps you have in your ratings and experience. And if you want to join the pinstripe suit brigade, grabbing a degree before you turn in your badge is the smart move. The main thing is to implement your plan good and early.

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