I Want to be a Pilot, But I Need Cash Now – Part 2

By: Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer

Welcome back TPN! In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how you can earn a Glider CFI rating with just 25 total hours of flight time. <https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-1> By using that rating to start earning money to teach early in your professional aviation career, you can save tens of thousands of dollars while earning your other ratings.

Unfortunately, not everyone lives close to a glider operation compatible with making this work. If I was in your shoes and serious about an aviation career, I would actually consider moving to the right glider operation for a couple years to put this strategy into practice. However, this isn’t the only path to getting a start in aviation without breaking the bank. Today, we’re going to look at how you can become a CFI in Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) with as few as 150 hours, and start earning money to fly immediately thereafter.

Until about a decade ago, becoming a CFIG was about the only way to get around the requirement to have a Commercial ASEL rating (and 250 hours of total flight time) before making money as a pilot. Then, the FAA came up with the Sport Pilot rating. Designed to make aviation more accessible again, this rating allowed a person to become a rated pilot capable of carrying passengers in simple aircraft (specifically: LSAs) with as few as 20 hours of total flight time. Thankfully, they figured that if they could allow an SP Rating with as few as 20 hours, they could also create a Sport Pilot CFI (We’ll call this SPI, for Sport Pilot Instructor, from here on out) with just 150 flight hours. Although a regular Sport Pilot isn’t generally allowed to fly for money, an SPI is.

For some reason, the FAA wrote the regulations for Sport Pilot Ratings in a style completely different from all other pilot ratings. It’s confusing at first, but if we look at 14 CFR Part 61.411(a) we see that a SPI for single-engine airplanes only needs 150 total flight hours. (Two other potentially limiting requirements are that you need: 100 PIC hours in powered aircraft, and 50 hours in single-engine airplanes.)

Once you have an SPI, you’re allowed to teach pedestrians working on their Sport Pilot Rating, as well as do flight reviews, insurance check-outs, and training in new categories or classes of LSAs for current Sport Pilots. Most importantly, you’re allowed to get paid to do all of this!

There are more than 90 models of LSA on the market. I teach in the Icon A5 and I absolutely love it! (https://www.iconaircraft.com/home) Some LSAs are old and inexpensive, while others have better avionics than most jets. (You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not.)

(The Flight Design CT LS sports synthetic vision and TCAS displayed on its PFD and MFD, full digital engine monitoring, and an independent backup instrument with redundancy on all attitude and navigation functions. From: http://flightdesignusa.com/aircraft/ctls/)

If I were going to pursue this path, I’d find a full-time operation that gives flight instruction in Light Sport Aircraft. I’d look for one that has several aircraft of the same model. This would give me backups if one went down for maintenance, and it’d make my life simpler by only having to learn one type of airplane for a while. I’d beg, borrow, and steal whatever it took to fund a Sport Pilot rating and immediately continue working toward the 150 hours needed for an SPI. (Okay, please don’t steal to get your ratings. We’ll look at ways to legally fund all this in Part 3.) LSAs have a regulatory limited top speed, so they don’t need huge engines. This means they burn very little fuel and can be cheaper than other training aircraft to fly. If you have to pay full price, it could still cost well in excess of $15,000 to earn an SPI, but that’s cheaper than the full-price equivalent of $25,000+ needed to earn conventional Commercial ASEL and CFI ratings.

Since you can only do so much flying in a day, I’d make sure I had a day job to help support my living expenses and cover the costs of this flying. Since Sport Pilots aren’t allowed to fly at night, I might have a night job instead…leaving me free to fly while the sun is up. (Think how much studying you could get done as a night clerk at a Hilton Garden Inn….)

With a Sport Pilot Certificate in hand, I’d take the plane out on my own and just do long cross-country flights to build time. However, I’d pay the additional $20-40/hr to hire a CFI and use some of those hours to accomplish training toward some other ratings too. You can complete most or all of the requirements for a Private Pilot Certificate flying an LSA. Although LSAs aren’t allowed to fly IFR, you could also do much or all of the training required for an Instrument Rating in an LSA too. The SPI requirements are generous enough that you could even count time flying a Normal Category airplane (like a C-172) to meet the requirements for Private and Commercial ratings, probably including your check rides, toward the time required for your SPI. My overall strategy here would be:

  1. Get SP Rating at 20-ish hours
  2. Get Private Pilot Rating at 40-ish hours
  3. Get Instrument Rating ASAP
  4. Get SPI Rating at 150 hours.

Ideally, I’d have picked this flight school because they need instructors and I could start teaching as soon as I have my SPI. They’d have done my training, so there’s no additional cost for them to check me out as a company instructor. I’d also have picked this flight school because they had strong demand from students. From this point it could be a matter of just a few months before I had the 250 hours needed for a Commercial Pilot Certificate. The difference is that I’d be getting paid ~$20/hr for those last 100 flight hours, while every other aspiring pilot would have paid at least an additional $10,000 for those hours. Since I already have my instrument rating, I could probably finish preparing for the Commercial Pilot checkride with the 3 hours of flight training required right before the exam. Ideally, I’d knock out my full CFI shortly thereafter.

I’d also try to choose an operation that flies Normal Category airplanes in addition to LSAs. Then, I’d continue teaching the school’s Sport Pilot trainees while also starting to instruct in bigger airplanes. From there, it’s off to the races just like every other pilot out there.

In a less-than-ideal situation, I might have to train at a flight school that doesn’t need more instructors, doesn’t have strong student demand, or doesn’t offer the chance to teach in bigger aircraft. This is okay. It’s better to train somewhere that can get everything done for a reasonable price without any delays for maintenance or weather. I’d rather work full-time for a couple years teaching in fun, new LSAs than 40-year old spam-cans. I’d also be okay moving on from there to another operation.

If you read Part 1 of this series, you may be wondering if you could use glider and LSA flying to combine these two strategies. The answer is yes and no. It turns out that the becoming a Glider SPI requires 25 hours of total flight time…the same amount of time required for a Commercial Glider Rating and CFIG. So, a Glider SPI rating has no real benefits over a full Glider flight instructor (CFIG.) However, you could combine these two strategies by starting this whole path as a Glider CFI.

You could follow all the steps in Part 1 of this series and start earning money as a CFIG with just 25 hours of flight time. You could teach gliders and continue to accrue flight time in them while also pursuing your Airplane SP and SPI ratings. The way I read the regulations, you should be able to count 50 Glider hours, including 25 hours of Glider Cross-Country time, toward your SPI. This has the potential to significantly reduce the costs of getting this rating.

Having an SPI gives you a lot of options for work in the US. The training and experience you’d get during that process would contribute meaningfully toward helping you complete your other ratings. By helping bridge the gap between 150 and 250 total hours, the SPI rating has the potential to save you at least $10,000 while probably earning $2,000 or more.

I don’t see much downside here, but unfortunately, I don’t think everyone will be as enthusiastic or open-minded. If you ask around a lot of people will tell you not to pursue this path. They’ll tell you that it could never work, and they’ll give you all kinds of reasons why. Don’t listen to them.

In aviation, good habit patterns save lives. This is good for us in many ways, but it also means that we tend to get stuck in ruts. The average professional pilot today did all of his or her flight training decades before the Sport Pilot rule even existed. Most professional pilots I know think of flying something smaller than a King Air as a terrible idea and have very little familiarity with anything related to General Aviation. They’ll look down on LSAs because they’re simpler and slower than other aircraft. They’ll look down on the Sport Pilot Rating because it they think it detracts from the training, experience, and sacrifice they endured to earn a Private Pilot Rating decades ago. They’re wrong, but they’ll have a hard time ever realizing it.

Don’t let naysayers deter you from these paths. If you’re serious about aviation as a career and you don’t have money to burn, you can absolutely use these strategies to help reduce costs and start earning money from flying sooner than your peers. Look around the country if you have to, and find the operations that do a lot of glider and/or LSA flying. They’ll be much more open to this strategy because they understand the benefits of these types of aviation.

Don’t just show up unannounced and expect them to hook you up. You’ll need to research each operation on the internet, then call until you can get a chief pilot on the phone. Have an honest conversation about your plan, your long-term objectives, the organization’s needs, and the potential for you to get a job there. Approach with the attitude that you’re entitled to nothing, but you’re willing to work hard and excited to fly and instruct. I have noticed a constant stream of flight instructor jobs on the internet. I am confident that you can find a flight school that can fit well with this plan.

LSAs can be very fun to fly and teaching in them could be a very meaningful experience. It could certainly be more enjoyable than spending an extra $10,000 chasing $100 hamburgers in a beat-up old Piper Warrior.

If I’ve sold you on these strategies, Part 3 of this series will look at some other ways to subsidize the cost of this training. If I haven’t sold you yet, we’ll also be looking at why you might (or might not) want to be a flight instructor in the first place.