I Want to be a Pilot, But I Need Cash Now (Part 5)

By Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer

My fellow TPNers! This is (possibly) the final installment in my series about how to work toward the goal of becoming a professional pilot without simultaneously entering bankruptcy. We talked about becoming a Glider CFI or Sport Pilot Instructor long before your peers are eligible for a Commercial Pilot certificate in Parts 1 and 2. (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-1 / https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-2) In Part 3 we looked at how good preparation for training, applying to scholarships, choosing the right training aircraft, and working on the side can help cover your costs. (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-3) Part 4 looked at a specific example of an aviation-related side-hustle, teaching ground school for aspiring Part 107 drone pilots, that could potentially pay for all of your flight training and more. (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-4) In this final look at how to get more flying for less money…we’re going to talk about the Civil Air Patrol. (https://www.gocivilairpatrol.com/)

As with all these other ideas, CAP isn’t for everyone. It’s potentially a source of fun and interesting flying for little or no money, but it has its own trade-offs. However, if you’re interested in providing some valuable service to your community and country, and/or you’d enjoy being part of a service-related aviation organization, CAP could be an awesome place for you to get some very affordable flying.

Officially, the CAP is an Auxiliary of the US Air Force. Practically speaking, this means it gets both funding and oversight from the USAF. However, you aren’t obligating yourself to military service by joining. CAP members wear Air Force-esque ranks and uniforms, and operate within a chain of command, but it’s a 100% volunteer civilian organization.

There is a National CAP Headquarters that governs a CAP Wing in each state. Most Wings have Squadrons throughout the state. They fly mostly Cessna C-172s and C-182s conducting missions related to Search and Rescue, disaster relief, government-sponsored scientific research, and some limited support of law enforcement agencies.

The CAP complements the flying side of these activities with ground teams who participate in Search and Rescue and other service efforts. CAP also has an educational arm for teenagers that looks like a cross between Boy Scouts and JROTC. They have some gliders for giving rides and flight instruction to those cadets. They have a few other interesting aircraft, but their Cessnas are the mainstay of their fleet.

Since CAP is an all-volunteer organization, you get to pick and choose the parts that you’re involved with. You could do nothing except work with cadets. My CAP involvement has been almost entirely limited to flying operations. Some units are less flexible on this than others, but we’ll look at how to deal with that a little later.

Since this is The Pilot Network and we’re talking about how to get access to affordable flying, let’s look at the flying that CAP offers.

First, the fleet of CAP aircraft is available to all adult members for flight training. If you have a membership card, you’re free to receive flight training from a CAP member CFI at a very low hourly cost. (I think the going rate for a new C-182 with Garmin’s all-glass G1000 flight deck is $51/hr dry. Their C-172s usually go for about $10/hr less. CAP member CFIs aren’t allowed to charge you for their time either. You will never match those rates anywhere else in the world. If nothing else, you could do some CAP flying to reclaim some of the tax dollars you’ve paid to subsidize those rates.) If you already hold a pilot rating, you’re allowed to just go out and fly these airplanes for personal proficiency, at that same hourly rate. That’s a cheap way to build flight hours. If nothing else, joining CAP and putting up with some non-flying duties might be worth it if you have reliable access to these aircraft.

Beyond just using these aircraft for your own personal reasons, the CAP does all those real-world flying missions I mentioned. If you want even cheaper flying, you can and should pursue qualification as a Mission Pilot.

The path to becoming a Mission Pilot is lengthy. You have to start out by getting qualified as a Spotter: the person sitting in the back seats of a Cessna bouncing around at low altitude while looking out the window trying to find the missing hikers on a SAR mission. Then, you have to get qualified as an Observer, the person riding in the front right seat managing mission systems like radios, direction-finding equipment, and assisting the pilot with navigation while also looking out the window to ID lost hikers. Only after you’ve gone through the painful qualification processes for these positions can you start working toward Mission Pilot qualification. The process is obnoxious and frustrating, but you’ll be glad when it’s all said and done.

Once you’re a qualified Mission Pilot, you have access to a lot of free flying. CAP loves to do exercises, so you might get sent out with a crew to fly practice search patterns for a couple hours. You’ll also be on call (at your convenience) for real-world flying missions. I’m not involved with CAP right now, but I have flown with units in Texas, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Florida. Here is some of the fun and interesting flying I got to do as a Mission Pilot:

  • I got to fly around the Black Hills looking for lost hikers.
  • One day, a field north of Ellsworth AFB caught on fire and threatened encroachment onto base. The Wing Commander’s Chief of Plans happened to be a fellow CAP pilot. He got the Wing Commander to order a photo reconnaissance mission for us. A couple friends and I spent two hours flying around the fire taking pictures and delivered the imagery directly to the Colonel. That Colonel also happened to be in the chain of command for my day job. If I hadn’t already fallen prey to the vile clutches of TAMI-21, missions like this might have helped my career in all kinds of ways.
  • A scientist from South Dakota State University tagged some foxes and got state funding to go out and track them every few months. As a young pilot hungry for hours, I got to spend 5 hours flying this guy around South Dakota using direction-finding equipment to locate the radio beacons on the foxes’ tags. It was a fun flight and an easy 5 hours.
  • I got handed the keys to a brand-new C-182 for an exercise operating out of Custer State Park, SD. When I landed at that airfield, my CAP Wing Commander introduced me to a pair of gentlemen from the State Fire Service. A bunch of real-world forest fires had just popped up and I was now their spotter aircraft. I spent the next few hours helping these Tactical Air Coordinators (TACs) talk fire bombers onto target and doing BDA after each run. At one point I was orbiting within 0.5 nm of the faces on Mt Rushmore…closer than any civilian pilot would ever be allowed to fly. It was a fun and exciting day of flying and it didn’t cost me a dime. It’s tough to beat the fulfillment of helping fight real-world forest fires threatening one of the most famous monuments in the country.

To be honest, I never even got that deep into the world of CAP Mission Flying. There were plenty of missions (aka: free flying) that I passed on because I was busy chasing a hot dentist I’d met on base. There were also a few other mission sets that I wasn’t even qualified on yet. They’re things I can’t describe here because they’re extra interesting…. If you think you’d enjoy some of these mission sets while getting your free flying in, CAP is definitely something to consider.

I also happened to be a CFI when I joined CAP and got a lot of free flying as a flight instructor. It’s worth mentioning here, though we’ll get more into the specifics on that a little later.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the flying I got to do as part of CAP. I got as much flying as I could handle and left plenty on the table. In less than a year I logged 50+ hours in brand new C-182s and several more hours in C-172s and CAP gliders. For someone working toward the 250 hours needed for a Commercial ASEL rating or the 750/1000/1250/1500 hours needed for an ATP, CAP could be a great source of hours.

Listening around the internet, I’m dismayed to hear that some people don’t get the types of positive experiences from CAP that I got. Although it wasn’t really an issue for me, let’s take a look at why this could potentially happen, and how to overcome it.

The bad and the ugly of CAP is that it only works because it expects a lot of its volunteers. Some people say CAP stands for “Come And Pay.” You buy your own uniforms. You spend your own time and gas to drive all over the place for meetings and exercises. You pay for your non-mission flying.

So who can afford to give CAP the time and money it needs? Older pilots who don’t have anything better to do. If you hang around CAP, you’ll notice that most of the leaders have grey hair and steadily expanding waistlines. They’ve completed careers elsewhere and this is a hobby or passion project that gives them something to do in retirement. In a way this is good…someone needs to deal with all the administrivia that keeps a flying unit operating. However, this can also cause headaches.

If a unit has a bunch of members who have been around for a decade or more, they’ll naturally form a clique or fiefdom that’s tough to break in to. They know each other, they’re set in their ways, and they signed up so they could get good deals for themselves. It’s not a stretch to understand how they’d be resistant to a newcomer showing up and threatening to usurp their fun flying.

I’ve heard reports that some of these baby CAP kingdoms will be upfront with you. They’ll tell you to your face that you won’t get within a wingspan of an aircraft for at least 2-3 years after joining the unit. While I can understand that they don’t want people showing up for free flying and nothing else, I have better things to do in life than deal with this kind of attitude. Faced with a unit like this, I’d turn around and walk away without another thought.

Most CAP Wings have units all over the state and in a case like this you may be able to find a different squadron with a better mindset within reasonable driving distance. If so, you’re all set.

No matter what, I’d spend some time getting to know a unit before I committed to joining it. Even if they’re jerks, they probably won’t refuse to let you attend a few meetings before you join. Take that time to watch how people interact and what attitudes prevail. Talk with everyone, and you should be able to figure out if they’ll be welcoming to an aspiring pilot or not. If they’re truly bad, just leave.

I’m glad that in working with CAP Wings in four different states, I never encountered a unit that bad. (I admit, it may have helped that I was a winged Air Force pilot who probably received some professional courtesy despite my youth and relative inexperience.) Even if you find a unit that isn’t so blatantly stupid, the average CAP squadron tends to attract one or two individuals who aren’t as easy to work with. These are people who think that being a CAP Officer means something. (It doesn’t. The rank structure is useful for organizational purposes, but it’s neither competitive nor indicative of any particular level of skill or leadership ability.) If you want to be involved with CAP, you’ll probably have to figure out how to work with at least one person like this. Don’t worry though: it’s easier than you think, and once you break the code you’ll get good deals galore.

I feel like there are some relatively straightforward ways to ingratiate yourself with people in power by demonstrating your value as a member of their unit. If you can honestly get yourself in the mindset of doing these things for the good of the organization, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

First and foremost, if you want to take advantage of the good deals that CAP has to offer, then you have to show up and be involved. This means showing up for meetings that happen as often as every week. When you show up, make sure you’re wearing some type of authorized uniform so that you look like you’re part of the unit. CAP authorizes several types of Air Force uniforms, including a “uniform” of grey slacks and an official blue polo shirt. Find something you can feel comfortable wearing and wear it well. If you aren’t that picky about uniforms, wear the same thing as the people who are in charge. (Subliminal messaging for the next time they start thinking, “I want to send one of ‘us’ on this mission….”)

If there’s an exercise on a weekend, make sure you’re there. Volunteer to do a job that they have a tough time getting people for. If they’re at all open to you being involved in flying operations, try to get into Spotter training as soon as possible. At no time during that training program do you even consider implying that getting Spotter qualified is just a stepping stone toward Mission Pilot. You’re there to become the best Spotter possible. If pressed, sure, you’d like to continue in the pipeline of mission flying qualifications. Let’s focus on what’s at hand though.

Once you get qualified as a Spotter, make it known that you’re available for short-notice calls for real-world missions. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to get out of work if you tell your boss, “Hey, I just got called to go on a search and rescue mission to find a missing kid. Do you mind if I leave work right now?” You may not be surprised to hear how tough it can be to come up with a full mission crew on a workday. If you’re the Spotter who always comes through, you’ll be noticed and appreciated.

Once you’re qualified as a Spotter and you’ve done a few flights (exercise or real-world,) ask to start Observer training. Again, it’s not “observer-on-the-way-to-Mission-Pilot,” it’s just Observer. Once qualified, try to fly missions in both positions. Once you demonstrate that you’re competent in the training programs and real-world missions, you’ll be able to broach the subject of Mission Pilot upgrade. This whole process will take weeks…or even months. Don’t push too hard, the free flying down the line will be worth the wait.

This is The Pilot Network, and we’re trying to get access to more flying, but if you need to find a way to contribute to a CAP unit, helping out with the cadet side of the program could be a good way to provide value. If nothing else, you can herd kittens while trying to teach their lessons about aerodynamics, survival skills, military marching, etc. It may not be the most exciting stuff if your ultimate goal is to become a professional pilot, but it’s very easy to teach. An enthusiastic leader who keeps cadets corralled, involved, happy will absolutely get noticed as someone adding value to a squadron.

As an enterprising young pilot, you could potentially make this a great program for the cadets by going above and beyond for them. If you’re already a licensed pilot, it should be pretty easy to teach what they’ll consider some fairly advanced flying topics. If you hold a CFI (or even a Sport PIlot Instructor or Basic Ground Instructor certificate) you could teach them full-up ground school lessons toward earning a real pilot’s license. As a CFI, SPI, or even BGI, you can log all of this instruction in their logbooks. Anyone familiar with aviation can place a specific dollar value on the ground instruction you’re giving them. Major bonus points for you!

You might even know someone who’d be an interesting guest speaker. Do you know an air traffic controller, engineer, police officer, local business owner, firefighter, paramedic, or anyone in the military who’d be willing to spend 30-45 minutes talking to your cadets some evening? They eat that stuff up, and teaching them about future career possibilities is absolutely within the goals and values of CAP’s cadet program. If you book a guest speaker, you’ll usually find that the adult CAP members want to attend the lecture as well. All the better for you.

Do you not know anyone who would make a great guest speaker? Why not start learning the skill of real-world networking. Start identifying potential speakers in your local area and introducing yourself. Learning to present a pitch and form a relationship with a stranger is a life skill that will pay enormous dividends. You’d also be surprised at the flying or other business opportunities that arise when you start networking with people in your community.

While we’re talking about you adding value to your CAP squadron by educating your cadets, let’s think about the side-hustle I suggested in Part 4 of this series. If you’re already building a curriculum to train Part 107 drone pilots, why not teach your course to your cadets for free? I’ll bet that at least 50% of the cadets in any given CAP squadron already fly drones.

First off, it’s an opportunity to practice and refine your delivery so that you can be even more engaging for your next set of paying customers. Once you finish, your cadets will be fully capable of taking the FAA exam and earning their Remote Pilot sUAS certificates. You’ve just dumped a truckload of aviation knowledge on them, helped them obtain an official FAA pilot rating…a physical plastic card they can pull out of their wallet and show their friends, and opened up a world of money-making opportunities for them. If all the cadets in your squadron go out and obtain their Remote Pilot sUAS certificates, word will get around. That’s very good for you.

As long as you’re teaching this course at CAP meetings, why not invite the adult members to attend as well? I promise they’ll be interested in the possibility of adding a new FAA certificate to their wallets. You could add a slide at the end of your presentation that prompts a group discussion of how drones could be useful for CAP operations…and what measures would need to be in place to ensure it’s all done safely and legally. If you can get the cadets to drive the majority of this discussion, they’ll learn a lot from it.

Adding value, sparking insightful conversation, showing the adults in the unit that you can teach cadets to think big-picture while keeping safety in mind. Guess who is at the top of the list when CAP Colonel Desktop is picking the next person to start training as a Mission Pilot?

Let’s even take this a step or two further: You’ve discussed how drones could be useful in CAP operations and you’ve helped at least a few cadet and adult members of your unit earn their Remote Pilot certificates. Why not organize a practical exercise where you all test out some methods of using drones to aid in search and rescue? If there’s a big exercise on an upcoming weekend, this could be what you and the cadets spend part of that Saturday doing. At the conclusion of the exercise, have the squadron gather on the airport ramp in front of the unit’s Cessnas and use the drone to take a some unit photos. Have the cadets run the drone operations so they can practice getting permission to fly at the airport and operate legally in that environment. Now your squadron has some really impressive pictures to post on their website and show off to other units.

Your unit’s activities will probably instill enough jealousy that some of the other squadrons in your state will want you to come out and teach your course to them. Chances are, they’re far enough away that the best method of travel is flying a CAP Cessna. You can log it as proficiency flying for cheap, or maybe even accomplish some Mission Pilot training enroute and get the bill covered by the Air Force.

If your unit aspires to CAP greatness, you could help some eager beavers put together a presentation about their theories for integrating drones into real-world CAP missions. There are regional and national gatherings of CAP leadership where the people from your unit could present their briefing. You don’t have to go to all that trouble yourself. As long as you’re the person who started the process and mentored the presenters you’ll be noticed for providing value.

“Hold your horses, Emet! I’m fully capable of teaching the pilot knowledge required by Part 107, but I don’t own or know how to fly a drone.”

Good point, but there’s no reason to let that stop you. As ubiquitous as drones have become in our society, you can probably find someone in a CAP squadron full of aviation nuts who owns a drone and would love an excuse to bring it in and show it off. If not, hop on Facebook and find a group of drone enthusiasts in your area, you know, the ones to whom you’re marketing your Part 107 course anyway. Find someone interested in helping you out. Trade a free seat in your next course for his or her services as a drone provider for your little exercise and photo session. I guarantee you can find someone who will take that deal. (An interesting quirk of Part 107 is that the Remote PIC doesn’t have to be the person manipulating the flight controls of the drone. As long as there is an RPIC directly overseeing the actual drone pilot, your operation is legal. If you have your RP sUAS certificate, you could fill that role yourself until you get some other people trained.)

Since we’re talking about real-world networking, this presents an interesting scenario. You have a CAP squadron and you have a drone flying club. If you start prompting interaction between the two, they may both benefit from gaining additional members and resources. If your drone SAR tactics prove effective, maybe the members of the drone club volunteer to be regular helpers. Maybe they realize that they like the CAP unit enough to join up. Maybe some of your CAP drone enthusiasts decide to join the drone club and have a great experience.

And who is the person who facilitated all of this?

Though I never had to get this creative to work my way into a CAP unit, I can’t imagine a scenario where an enthusiastic, dedicated, and effective leader in the cadet program wouldn’t end up getting noticed and appreciated. We’re still not done though.

If you want to contribute to a CAP unit, being a CFI is one of the best things you can do. You’d be surprised at how many fair-weather private and commercial pilots there are in the world. There are also tons of pilots who held a CFI years ago, but let it lapse because it was a pain to keep up with. Most CAP units need active young CFIs to help train their people and even just keep them current with BFRs, IPCs, and annual CAP checkrides. If you walk into a CAP squadron holding a flight instructor certificate, even the crustiest greybeards should warm up to you pretty quickly.

Aside from regular instructing, being a CFI also makes you eligible to give orientation rides. CAP provides funding for every single CAP cadet to go for several rides in airplanes, and gliders if available. If you’re the kind of instructor who can give a fun, safe, inspiring orientation ride, you should also find yourself very welcome. If you read Part 1 of this series, you know that you can get a Glider CFI with just 25 hours and 100 total glider flights. (CAP may have higher hour requirements for their pilots to instruct in CAP aircraft. I don’t remember, so research that before you make big plans.) If you can find a CAP unit with at least one glider, you’ll be eligible to give instruction and do orientation rides for them, and they’ll love you for it.

If you really enjoy teaching and you want to get a lot of flying in a short time, you should be excited to hear that many CAP Wings hold cadet flying “encampments” in the summer. These are usually week-long events, and as an instructor you spend the entire time flying. I’ve done glider instruction at two of them and got 70-80 flights in a week. They’ll usually cover your transportation, room, and board for these events. The cadets and your fellow instructors are all happy to be there. It’s a great environment and a lot of free flying.

It’s worth mentioning that although CAP can cover the costs of your mission flying, they can’t pay you directly for your time. This means everything you do for them counts as volunteer work. It turns out that volunteer hours look great on an airline application. The more involved you are with CAP, the better your airline apps will look.

Even if you aren’t interested in airline flying, the experience you gain as a CAP pilot can help make you competitive for other flying jobs too. Many types of government-funded flying look a lot like what the CAP does. Law enforcement, fire fighting, border patrol, etc. are all jobs where a CAP pilot will have a better looking resume than someone who has only ever worked as a CFI at a flight school. Your CAP service may even introduce you to people from those agencies. You can’t beat that type of networking.

As you can see, this isn’t a quick or easy path to getting discounted and free flying. Becoming a Mission Pilot is a lot of work. In a difficult squadron, it’ll be a lot of work to just be accepted before you even get to start the Mission Pilot check-out process. Joining CAP means becoming a meaningful part of an organization. It’s actually giving service to your country. There’s nothing quick or easy about it.

However, if you value things like service or inspiring future generations, then CAP might be a great match for you. Once you’ve proven that you’re a valuable member of an organization, you will get access to all kinds of cheap and free flying. You’ll get to rent impeccably-maintained aircraft for outrageously low prices. You’ll get to fly for free while conducting fun, interesting, and potentially even important real-world missions. If you’re a CFI, you’ll have all kinds of opportunities to give flight instruction.

If you’re trying to build flight time toward a professional career in aviation and you don’t have the money to just spend your way into the airlines, flying with CAP might be a great option. The service you give may be an even trade for all the flying you could potentially get to do.