I think of flying as rather like being in a long-term relationship. There's the initial 'wow' factor of falling in love, followed by a honeymoon period where we regard our new passion with starry-eyed wonderment. This wears off as the costs and aggravations begin to mount, but the love - the reason we got into it in the first place - remains. For some people the downsides are simply too many and too great, and they end up walking away. For those who stick at it, the relationship tends to be permanent.
I got into flying because I had a very comfortable day job which paid the bills but bored me silly, coupled with three hours' commuting to and from London, which I found excruciating. The yen to do something new led me to a trial lesson and I promptly fell in love. Very early on I decided I wanted to fly as a career - the lure of being paid to do my hobby was irresistible.
The trials and tribulations were there from the outset, and are familiar to anyone with a PPL - weather cancellations, financial struggles, frustration at the sheer cost of it all, exams that seem like pointless hoop-jumping exercises. Later on came the stress of commercial training, and the pressure of knowing that simple mistakes could (and did) cost thousands of pounds. After the elation of passing the IR comes the realisation that you are just one of many, many 200hr CPLs, and the struggle to find your first job. It takes some people years - a few will never manage it.
Even when your dream comes true and you have made it to an airline, you'll find plenty of downsides to the job. Life is ruled by your roster, and weekends off are a rare treat. Social events and family gatherings are almost impossible unless arranged months in advance. Five days on and two off sounds alright until you realise that the last day finishes at 22:00 and the first day back starts at 06:00. Arriving at work you are subjected to petty and nonsensical 'security' - you'll be locked in a flightdeck with a crash axe and given control of a 500mph aeroplane, but you'll have to take your shoes off before you get there, and you won't be allowed a can of deodorant for your nightstop.
Every six months you'll be locked in the simulator and have every conceivable failure thrown at you. The man in the back is keeping score, and it's pot luck whether he's a great instructor or someone on an ego trip. The consequences of failure are serious. If you're really unlucky it will all happen at three in the morning, and you'll be expected to be just as sharp as you would be during the day. Get used to it, because it's every six months for the rest of your career.
Line flying is much more relaxed, but even then there's the unspoken and insidious pressure of knowing that a bad day in the office - a single mistake even - could lead to a career interruption or kill people. Potentially hundreds of people. You'll be flying in all kinds of horrible weather, trained and conditioned to do everything on the automatics, then expected to fly competently with a u/s autopilot. You might be flying four or even six sector days, with 25 minute turnrounds, struggling to find time to eat a sandwich or go to the loo. Talking of which, your 'office' is the size of a downstairs toilet, and you'll be locked in it with a colleague who may have nothing in common with you except for the uniform.
The job is unhealthy - sitting inactively for hours on end, eating poor quality food and with high stress levels. You'll get regular colds, and attempting to fly with one can lead to a perforated eardrum. You might be unfortunate enough to breathe in noxious fumes on a regular basis, but don't worry because the engineers wrote 'no fault found' and the airline industry says it's not a problem.
That's enough downsides - I'm starting to depress myself now. The obvious question - if the job is that bad, why do we all still do it? I fly with a couple of captain who are in their sixties and can't possibly need the money - why do they still put themselves through all the grief? For me (and them) it's a simple answer that goes back to the relationship theme. We're in love with flying. Hopelessly, head over heels in love. I love the challenge of a complex and technically demanding job that few others can do. I'm a perfectionist, but I'll never fly the perfect flight - how's that for a lifelong challenge? I've known the drudgery of commuting to a dull-as-dishwater nine to five job, and I hated it with a passion. Not anymore - I look forward to going to work. Hell, I even miss my job when I'm on holiday. No two days are the same, and the view from my office window is different each day, but unfailingly spectacular. Despite all the downsides (and there are many) I can't imagine doing anything else. Most of my colleagues feel the same way, and that includes those captains who got their PPLs while I was in nappies.
Recently I came home from a long and tiring day, switched on the TV and watched a documentary about flying, then fell asleep and dreamed of flying. Once it gets under your skin, you'll never get it out.