I Want to be a Pilot, But I Need Cash Now (Part 4)

By Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer

Welcome back TPN. This is Part 4 in our ongoing series outlining some ways that a low-time pilot could fund his or her early flying without breaking the bank. (See the preceding editions of this series here: https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-1, here: https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-2, and here:https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-3. Today we’re taking a look at one of the most obvious side hustles for a flight instructor: giving ground instruction.

While ground instruction is part of the job description for every CFI, it’s possible for an outgoing and imaginative pilot to drum extra business with a little extra effort. I want to focus on one particular case, namely: teaching Part 107 drone pilots.

In case you haven’t noticed, drones went mainstream a couple Christmases ago. Modern technology has made them cheap, capable, and relatively easy to fly. It was only a matter of time before the civilian world figured out that there are all kinds of ways to make money by strapping a GoPro to a drone and selling the pictures or video they shot while flying.

Thankfully, the FAA realized that drone operations also pose some enormous risks to other air traffic and published 14 CFR Part 107 – the regulation governing drone operations conducted for compensation or hire. (https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=e331c2fe611df1717386d29eee38b000&mc=true&node=pt14.2.107&rgn=div5) This regulation defines the Remote Pilot certificate, the pilot’s license that a drone pilot must have to act as “Remote Pilot in Command” for any money-making drone operation. The regulation also specifies the knowledge that a RPIC must possess to earn that rating, and the exam he or she must pass to demonstrate that knowledge.

If you read through Part 107 (it’s short, even an Army pilot can do it) you’ll probably think that the requirements make a lot of sense. They need to understand the basics of how airspace works, some aerodynamics, aviation regulations, and some other safety-centric stuff. If you’re already a pilot, it’s all second-nature to you by now. (In fact, the FAA acknowledges that. They made an allowance in the regulation for a pilot already licensed under Part 61 to take a different knowledge test. Not only can you knock this test out online in about 15 minutes, it’s completely free…unlike the test that a non-pilot has to take. You might as well go take it right now. Here are the instructions: https://www.faa.gov/uas/commercial_operators/become_a_drone_pilot/#ech)

Although this is a cake-walk for us, the body of knowledge required by Part 107 is simply daunting for the average pedestrian. They don’t even know where to start. They can use Google to find online courses that will get them through the exam, but they won’t actually understand that much when they’re done. That’s where you come in!

It doesn’t take much effort to put together a course covering everything a Part 107 drone pilot needs to know. You could probably write the course material from memory…the hard part will be finding references to support what you already know. Aspiring professional drone pilots will pay dearly for you to teach them this knowledge. I know because I’ve gone through this exact process. I’ll tell you my story a little later.

First, let’s discuss the size of this market. It’s no secret that regular ground school instruction doesn’t pay that well. There just aren’t that many aspiring pilots in the world and most of them are just as cheap as you and I are…they don’t want to pay you $20/hr to give them ground instruction.

Regular ground instruction is a slow business, but consider that there are only about 600,000 licensed pilots in the United States. Then, consider the fact that the US drone market probably sells more aircraft than that in one holiday season. The population of potential Part 107 drone pilots is orders of magnitude larger than the total population of crewed aircraft pilots.

I almost can’t think of an industry that doesn’t want to incorporate drones in some way. Here are just a few groups that could or do use drones for business:

  • Small-time photographers and videographers (wedding, family portraits, Instagram stars)
  • Law enforcement
  • Fire departments and other emergency services
  • Real estate sales
  • Agriculture
  • Delivery services
  • Pipeline, tower, power, and other infrastructure inspection services
  • Communications companies
  • Almost any kind of marketing

How many police and fire departments are there in the country? Each one needs at least one person trained as a Part 107 drone pilot. That market alone is probably bigger than the entire flight training market for crewed aircraft. As large as these markets may be, there’s yet another aspect of this rule that drives a truly insatiable need for Part 107 Remote Pilot certificates.

Any kid with $50 can go buy a drone, fly it around a park, and posts the videos on YouTube. Any kid with that much technological savvy can also sign up to have YouTube attach commercials or banner ads to those videos and make a few bucks. The moment that happens, this kid is a commercial drone operator and obligated to adhere to Part 107. This means that kid is required to have a Remote Pilot certificate. This is truly a gold mine.

Setting up and teaching Part 107 ground school is the perfect side-job for a CFI. The best part is that you don’t even need to hold a flight instructor certificate to teach it though. Anyone with this knowledge is welcome to pass it on to others…and if you have a Sport Pilot or higher rating, you probably have all the knowledge you need. (That said, I’d recommend you at least take the test for Basic, Advanced, and Instrument Ground Instructor before you start doing this. Log the training in logbooks for these students. Log it as ground training given in your own. It’s beneficial for your personal development and gives you a little bit more liability protection, just in case.)

This type of training fits perfectly into the schedule of a flight instructor…especially one pursuing the strategies we cover in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. Neither glider pilots nor sport pilots can fly at night (in most cases) so you can schedule your drone classes in the evenings. In many cases, you’ll be teaching hobbyists and freelancers who have day jobs anyway. Is your area known for terrible flying weather in the winter? That’s the perfect time to schedule extra drone pilot ground school sessions. You can work this job in around your flying, and use it to make money without impeding your accrual of flying hours.

While you could potentially make money charging students upwards of $20/hr for this instruction, just like your regular flight training students, that isn’t where the real money is. To explore the mind-blowing economic potential of this industry, let me tell you the story of how I tested all this out.

When I first read about the Part 107 rules, I quickly went and took the test and got my Remote Pilot certificate. It was truly easy. Realizing that it would be easy to teach this material, I spend a weekend (while sitting reserve for my airline) putting together a powerpoint presentation that covered most of the knowledge required on the test.

I was in a crashpad in Atlanta, GA, at the time, so I hopped on Facebook and identified a couple local groups of recreational drone pilots. I sent messages to this effect to the admins:

“Hi. I’m an Air Force and airline pilot who does flight instruction on the side. You’re probably familiar with the new Part 107 rules for commercial drone operations. I’ve put together a training course and I want to try it out. Would you be interested in helping me gather people to attend some Saturday and give me feedback on my material.”

Calling the response enthusiastic would be an understatement. I stopped by Centennial Aviation Academy at Peachtree-Dekalb Airport and asked if they had a conference room. Ihttp://www.centennialaviationacademy.com/) Of course they have one. Would they be willing to let me use the room for free one Saturday to test out a Part 107 drone course? As a bonus, Centennial has an official FAA testing center…the kind that most drone pilots have to use to take their Part 107 exam. In exchange for free use of the conference room, I’d encourage all my students to take their exam at Centennial. The manager of Centennial loved the idea.

Within a couple of days I had 30 volunteers and had to turn people away because I was out of chair space in my conference room. Centennial lent me a projector and I taught my lesson to a room full of drone pilots. As much as we “real” pilots want to think of drone pilots as lesser beings, they’re actually a lot like us. They love aviation. This particular group builds all their aircraft from scratch and flies them First Person View (FPV) wearing special goggles. I was impressed to see videos of their maneuvers. I was amazed to hear that their aircraft have thrust-to-weight ratios in the 10:1 range. (For reference, the best fighter aircraft that humanity has ever produced have ratios in the 1:1 range, when they’re lightly loaded. 10:1 offers the potential for some impressive performance.)

The class went very well and I got great feedback. I used surveymonkey.com to get some more structured responses from them (for free.) One of the questions was: how much would you pay for a course like this? Based on their replies, I feel that I could easily charge $150 for a full-day or weekend course covering the Part 107 knowledge requirements.

One-on-one instruction at $20/hr is a rough way to make a living. Let’s do this math instead: 30 students x $150 each = $4500 for one weekend of work. Even if that takes up all of Saturday and Sunday, that’s great money. It’s competitive with airline pilot pay and it’s far better than anyone will ever make giving basic flight instruction. If you filled all your weekends for a couple of months, you could cover the costs of all your pilot ratings from zero to CFI. Even if you could only fill 10 seats, you’re looking at $1500 for 1-2 days work. That’s still better money that you’re likely to make flight instructing.

Now, let’s be realistic here. Are you going to be able to fill 30 seats every weekend? Maybe not. I think it would help to focus your efforts in major metropolitan areas. The larger the population, the better the chance of finding large numbers of drone pilot students. I think a little advertising could go a long way here too. I only tried contacting two drone groups on Facebook and only heard back from one. I wasn’t even able to cover all the students from that group. In my searching, I found several similar groups that I didn’t even try to contact. Just digging through Facebook could potentially produce a lot of students.

Once you’ve picked that low-hanging fruit, the I’d start looking for groups of people who probably need Part 107 training, but don’t even know it. It’d look for Facebook groups, professional organizations, and clubs for real estate agents, wedding photographers, YouTubers, farmers, and videographers. I’d contact every law enforcement, fire protection, and emergency services department within a 4-hour drive of my house. Sometimes, people in those professions can get pay raises by attaining additional qualifications (like Remote Pilot) and the price of your course would be a no-brainer.

I’m pretty confident that in any given major metropolitan area, I could book a month worth of weekends without getting very far in this search. Then I’d start marketing to the parents of middle- and high-school students who have kids posting videos on YouTube. “You don’t want your kid to have a fine from the FAA on his or her record when it comes time to apply for college scholarships, do you?”

Even with everything I’ve mentioned here, I’ve only scratched the surface of my ideas for finding business. Your earning potential here is limited only by your creativity and worth ethic.

Although I feel like this marketing plan would be easier to implement in a big city, I think there’s potential to use it effectively in smaller towns too. Small towns still have police departments. They still have people who want wedding videos or pictures of real estate listings. The more rural the area, the more farmers who can increase productivity with agricultural drones.

I think that for an aspiring professional pilot, the biggest problem with this business model could be that it’s so easy to book drone classes that teaching might get in the way of going flying. I don’t know about you, but if I were facing the cost of college + $60-100K for flight training, this is a problem I’d like to have.

I’ll take a moment to admit that part of me feels like this whole thing is a little exploitative. These people are in a bind and I would potentially be profiting from that. However, I didn’t create the problem for them. The FAA put the rules in place, and, honestly, the requirements for Part 107 are the bare minimum required for drone pilots to operate safely in the same airspace as crewed, passenger-carrying aircraft.

Drone pilots are going to fly no matter what, and it’s a sad truth that the FAA is wholly incapable of identifying or punishing bad actors. I’d rather work to educate as many people as I can, and foster a culture of responsible drone operations in this country. Most professional-grade drones cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. A one-time course at a cost of $150 isn’t a huge burden for them. If they’re willing to spend that much money on an aircraft, they can recoup the cost of my class pretty quickly. I will never feel bad about earning money to provide a valuable service to others.

So there you have it. If you aspire to be a professional pilot, but need help covering the costs of your training, this could be a fantastic side-hustle. Even if it took you a month of hard work to put your courseware together, it’d be worth it. Once the courseware exists, it only requires minimal effort to keep it up-to-date. In the meantime, that courseware can generate at least $100 per weekend per student. There are so many potential customers in this market that you could easily run out of time before you run out of people.

This business is ideal for an aspiring pilot. The knowledge areas you’re covering are things that you had to learn to earn your own pilot ratings. As long as you’re comfortable speaking to other human beings, it’s easy to teach this knowledge to others. Since these courses can be as short as a day or two, you have ultimate flexibility to schedule them when it makes sense for you. It’s possible to hold classes at times when you can’t otherwise be flying, allowing you to use all this money to build your flight time and work toward your ultimate aviation goals.

Forget JG Wentworth. If you want to be a pilot and you need cash now, you should consider putting together a Part 107 drone pilot course of your own.

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