Surprise! You thought we were done talking about how to gain flight hours cheaply, but I needed just a little more space to discuss one glaring issue with the strategies I presented in Parts 1-5 of this series. (Start here to review those.) This lingering issue is:
A lot of pilots don’t want to give flight instruction.
If that’s how you feel, then please, for everyone’s sake, don’t become a flight instructor!
We’ve all dealt with bad instructors, right? The least offensive ones are just uninterested. They ride in the other seat, they mention some of the things we screw up, they might even offer occasional tips on how to do things right…and yet it’s painfully obvious that they couldn’t care less about our overall success in their training program. We’re nothing more or less than their ticket to a future airline job, and I hate flying with them.
There are also instructors who are just jerks. Every moment flying with them is so degrading and stressful that there’s almost zero chance of effective training happening. While some of these winners mistakenly believe that they enjoy teaching, I believe that they really don’t. I don’t think it’s possible to be such a toxic instructor unless you really don’t want to be there. Sadly, there are also some who just aren’t good at it. Maybe they don’t have the experience required to identify root causes of errors, or they just suck at communication. There’s no shame in the fact that it’s possible to be a great pilot, but not a great instructor.
None of these people do the world a service by working as a flight instructor. Even though our entire industry is hurting for instructors, I want these people to stay away!
If you’re in that group, you should be happy to hear this. Flight instruction usually isn’t a glamorous job anyway. It’s hard work, it can be repetitive, and it’s risky. Sadly, it traditionally hasn’t paid that well either.
We do need to admit that flight instruction is probably the most widespread, easily-accessible way to rapidly accumulate flight hours in our industry. We’ll look at that more shortly; however, let’s consider some alternatives.
First off, there are a very few ways in which you can get paid, or at least compensated, for flying before you have a commercial pilot certificate (aside from the ideas I mentioned earlier in this series.) Here’s a decent review of some of those opportunities.
When you’re just starting out, the 250 hours required for a Commercial Pilot certificate seem like an insurmountable obstacle. If you’re all-in on a career as a pilot, at some point you just have to grit your teeth and make this happen. The potential for total career upside far outweighs the costs of getting to that rating. Worst case, find four friends, buy an IFR-capable airplane, and take turns flying it all day long every day. (The details on how to effectively do that are another post for another day.)
Once you have 250 hours, you can officially start flying for hire. Woo hoo, right? Not so fast. While you are allowed to fly for pay, you can’t just start up a private charter service. If you so much as offer to take people flying any time they want, for a fee, the FAA considers you to be presenting yourself as an air carrier. They have a mountain of other regulations that accompany this and trying to do it without approval comes with severe consequences…like working at McDonalds instead of being a pilot for the rest of your life. Don’t try it.
You’re going to start out looking for jobs like:
- Glider tow pilot
- Banner tow pilot
- Pipeline Patrol
- Agriculture (Crop Dusting)
- Ferry Pilot
- Aerial tour pilot
- Jump plane pilot
- Sales demonstration pilot
There are good and bad examples of each of these jobs. Ask to talk to current or former pilots before you sign up to get an idea about how the company handles things like safety, scheduling, maintenance, pay, etc. Do not, under any circumstances, take a job at a company with bad safety or maintenance practices. However, don’t waste your time thinking that the pay, benefits, or schedule at any of these jobs is going to be amazing. The only reason they’ll hire someone with as little experience as you is that conditions there are undesirable enough that they can’t attract higher-time pilots. We’ve all done these or analogous jobs. You’re not enough of a special flower that you can expect a professional flying career without doing one or two of them yourself.
Instead of dreading the fact that these jobs won’t be easy, take advantage of and relish the opportunity. The experience you earn in these jobs is invaluable and will pay dividends throughout your flying career. Someday, you’ll wear these experiences like badges of honor, and you’ll tell your stories from the cushy seat of a brand-new A220 cruising at FL380 while you snack on first class food…earning $4/minute.
The first place I’d go to look for these jobs is a Facebook group called Corporate Aviation Job Listings. I joined it thinking I’d pick up some side-hustles, and I’ve stayed because I like the insight on what kinds of jobs are available out there. New jobs show up on this feed almost every day. While some of them require a lot of flight experience, there are also plenty of entry-level pilot jobs. Join up, be nice, and don’t bother introducing yourself.
If you want to try being a glider tow pilot, go to the SSA website and use their interactive maps to find a glider operation near you. Most soaring operations will happily welcome another tow pilot. Don’t waste their time though. If you plan on getting checked out, make sure you’ll be available regularly for at least a full soaring season. Also, most tow planes are tailwheel aircraft. Don’t show up unless you have that endorsement and at least a few hours in tailwheel aircraft. They don’t require this to be jerks. They require it because their (already expensive) insurance policy requires it.
If I were going to pursue banner towing, I’d look at Aerial Banners Inc. It appears that they’ll pay for your training and place you in a job with just a 12-month commitment. It’s tough to beat that. Depending on your market, you may be aware of a banner towing operation in your area. I’d definitely stop by and at least ask if they’re hiring.
I frequently see ads for pipeline patrol pilot jobs on the CAJL page on Facebook. However, a quick Google search shows that there are many opportunities out there right now.
In the past, there was a perception that crop dusting was an easy pilot job to get into. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Between economic forces, working to overcome a less-than-stellar safety record, and rapid technological advances, this has become a business for serious and dedicated pilots. There is absolutely enjoyable work for a pilot wanting to build hours in this business. However, it’ll require a significant investment in training. There are actually ag-specific flight academies now. If you’re interested in this path, I’d start with the National Agricultural Aviation Association website.
I’m shocked at how much work there is for ferry pilots. Just like bikers who hire companies to ship their Harleys to Sturgis, many aircraft owners will hire you to fly their airplanes across the country, or farther. This can be a fun way to log time in a variety of aircraft while building valuable cross country, IFR, and night hours. Icon Aircraft frequently uses National Pilot Services to deliver their factory-new A5s. I’ve heard a rumor that NPS is always hiring, and they’re just one of many aircraft ferry services out there. This is also a job you could do on your own. (I recommend at least doing a few jobs through an established company to learn the tricks of the trade before trying to branch out on your own.)
Giving aerial tours is a scheduled passenger flying activity, but the FAA allows some exceptions for lower-time pilots to fill these jobs. Many of these are helicopter jobs, but Google shows a lot of opportunities out there.
I once got offered a job as a jump plane pilot by walking down the flightline from my glider operation and introducing myself. If there’s a jump operation in your area, I’d recommend you start your job search by just saying, “Hi.” I see jump pilot listings quite frequently on the CAJL group. Google also showed me several websites listing multiple job openings. (Here are two: Dropzone.com, and skydiverdriver.com.) If you’re lucky, you can fly a turbine aircraft like a C-208 or King Air C90 doing these jobs.
Working as an aircraft salesperson could pay very well if you earn a commission for your success. Even if you don’t, a popular aircraft type could yield a lot of flight hours. Every aircraft manufacturer in the world hires pilots to demonstrate their aircraft. Be careful pursuing this type of job…it’s the closest thing on this list to giving flight instruction and may feel a lot like what you’re trying to avoid. You must be a good pilot to get this job, but equally important are your people skills. The best way to demonstrate those skills is also the best way to get one of these jobs: interacting with people. Go to EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, Sun ‘n Fun, and every other big airshow you can find. Talk to the people at every manufacturer’s booth, and be an interesting (but not obnoxious) person. After establishing some rapport, ask if they have demo pilot jobs available. (The rapport part might take all week, or happen over the course of many airshows.) If they find you to be an intriguing person, they might give you a shot. If not, you probably wouldn’t have done well in that job anyway. (If I were going to attempt this, I’d make sure I had a protective folder full of professionally-reviewed resumes and a stack of business cards with me at all times.)
You could also consider cold-calling each of these manufacturers from home. This will take a lot of time and it’ll be a lot of work to keep track of your contacts. (Use a spreadsheet. Record the name and position of every person you speak to, along with the date of each interaction, and some details on the conversation.) However, it’s January and Oshkosh isn’t until July. If you start now you may be able to lock down a job before everyone else starts trying to schmooze at the show.
This is nowhere near an exhaustive listing of jobs for low-time pilots. (If you know of any, please pretend you’re my children and point out my shortcomings in the comments.) You’ll notice that most of these jobs are local in nature. If you want to do professional flying that involves long distance trips, you’re probably looking at something that the FAA wants covered under a Part 135 certificate. (We’ll discuss those next.) You need to be flexible and willing to go where the work is. I have zero sympathy for someone who complains about being unable to find entry-level flying jobs if that person isn’t willing to relocate. Your move doesn’t have to be forever, and in fact many of these jobs are seasonal. If you’re serious about becoming a professional pilot, you should do whatever it takes to get your hours ASAP! If not, don’t bother with aviation in the first place.
If you follow Tim Ferriss or the online Financial Independence community, you’ve probably heard the term “Geographic Arbitrage.” This idea is frequently centered on choosing a place to live in order to reduce your housing and other living costs, but I think it’s a perfect framework for looking at a temporary move to pursue a good flying job. If you’re not familiar with this idea yet, go read or listen to all of the following:
- Tim Ferriss mentions Geo Arbitrage in The 4-Hour Workweek (https://www.amazon.com/4-Hour-Workweek-Expanded-Updated-Cutting-Edge-ebook/dp/B002WE46UW/), and has a section devoted to it on his website: https://tim.blog/category/geoarbitrage/.
- Episode 13 of the ChooseFI Podcast interviews a school teacher who achieved financial independence in part through deliberate application of Geo Arbitrage: https://www.choosefi.com/457b-free-money/
- ChooseFI Episode 50 also centers around this theme: https://www.choosefi.com/050-domestic-geoarbitrage-freedom-is-groovy/
- Episode 55 of the Bigger Pockets Money Podcast is an interview with a couple who has become somewhat famous for their stance on this concept: https://www.biggerpockets.com/blog/biggerpockets-money-podcast-55-quit-job-travel-world-millennial-revolution/
Use Geo Arbitrage to pursue a decent flying job that will get you lots of flight hours in a short period of time. Choose a location where the cost of living is low and take advantage of the opportunity to live as frugally as possible. You should only be here for the next 250-1,250 hours. If this job will give you enough flying to be worth moving for, you should be able to accumulate those hours in a few years at most. (I’d always be looking for a potential next job, just in case the one I’m at disappears. Look nationwide, or beyond. If you’ve already moved once, you can and should be prepared to move again for a good job with lots of flying.)
Although you could certainly stay in these types of jobs until you hit 1,500 hours and move on to a regional airline, once you’ve accumulated at least 500 total hours you’ll get access to another type of job: Part 135 operations. These are charter, corporate, and other professional operations that provide scheduled or on-demand service. They’re limited by the number of seats allowed in the aircraft, the conditions in which they can fly, and other criteria. Since they don’t involve as many passengers as regular Part 121 airlines, the FAA allows the risk of letting lower-time pilots fly for them…because what could go wrong?
14 CFR Part 135.243 states that a pilot can be PIC of a VFR-only Part 135 flight with just 500 hours of total time, 100 hours cross country, and 25 hours of night time. A pilot can also be PIC of an IFR operation under Part 135 with 1,200 total hours, 500 cross country, 100 at night, and 75 hours of actual or simulated IFR (of which 50 was actually in an aircraft.) While these limits aren’t as low as you think you want them to be, they’re pretty generous.
There are Part 135 operations for flying people and/or cargo. The fact that they went to the trouble of complying with the FAA’s regulations means that they have a lot of flying to be done. I’d expect to fly at least 300-500 hours per year in a job like this, though the limit is 1,000. You could potentially do just a year or two in one of these jobs before moving on to a regional airline.
You may have noticed that the requirements I just mentioned are for acting as the PIC of a Part 135 operation. It turns out that the requirements for being a Part 135 SIC are barely worth mentioning. You need a Commercial Pilot certificate and an Instrument Rating, and that’s about it. In theory, we could include Part 135 SIC in our list of low-time pilot jobs earlier in this post. However, many of the aircraft used for these operations are certified for single-pilot operations. There’s an aviation proverb that goes: “It’s easy to make a small fortune as a Part 135 operator. Just start with a large fortune.” These companies operate on razor-thin margins and they’re not going to splurge by paying two pilots if only one is required. Part 135 SIC jobs do exist. I see them regularly on CAJL, but I’d shop for other types of flying jobs while looking for one.
Before we conclude, let’s address a couple other ways of cheaply accruing flight hours – ways that must be handled with care:
There are some loopholes in the FAA regulations that allow two or more pilots to simultaneously log PIC time. This is appropriate in some circumstances, but don’t abuse it! One example is that you can log PIC time while flying as a safety pilot for someone else operating under simulated IFR conditions (while also logging PIC time.) Not only is there no shame in this, it’s an important safety function. However, be smart with this good deal.
You’re only allowed to log safety pilot PIC during the time that the other pilot is “under the hood.” The FAA expects that pilot to taxi the aircraft, takeoff, and land visually…meaning that you need to forego logging PIC time for at least a tenth or two at each end of the flight.
By splitting aircraft rentals with another pilot, you could theoretically cut the cost of aircraft rental or ownership in half by spending many hours smashing bugs while trading off safety pilot duties. While technically legal, your future employers may recognize what you’ve done and find themselves unimpressed. The FAA needed to incentive pilots to bring a safety observer but let’s be honest: you aren’t building that much skill by filling this position. If you have 1,250 hours of safety pilot time, your flying skills just won’t be on-par with someone who put in the same amount of hours flying as “sole manipulator of the controls.” If a potential employer can’t recognize this just by looking at your logbook, they’ll figure it out when they put you through training. Don’t waste your time or theirs. Make sure you’ve done enough hands-on flying to build the skills you need.
You can even stretch this loophole even further. A CFII could sit in the back seat of an aircraft giving flight instruction while one “student” flies under a hood and third person occupies the copilot seat as a safety observer. We even did stuff like this in the Air Force.
While this may provide decent training for the student pilot(s), you need to be very careful about what type of time you’re logging during these operations. If you’re in the back seat, I recommend logging it as Dual Instruction Given, but not PIC. Some airlines or other employers automatically convert all Dual Given to PIC on their application, but you should leave it to them to apply those conversions. It’s a stretch to say you were PIC while sitting in the back seat.
The world is full of miserly flightline lawyers who will contradict me and tell you that all of this is perfectly acceptable. You can probably get away with some of it. However, I suggest that you only do it as much as is absolutely necessary to get through a training program or get a Commercial Pilot certificate. After that, forget about loopholes and earn your hours the hard way. I’ve already made a case for why you’ll be glad you did.
Option #27 – Flight Instruct Anyway
I’ll take this opportunity to assert that if you’re desperate enough for cheap flight time that you’re considering creative logbook gymnastics, maybe you should consider flight instructing afterall. Although it’s hard work, it isn’t necessarily worse than many of the other jobs we’ve considered here. If you’ve never tried it, you may find out that you like it.
I don’t know that I could last forever giving full-time primary flight instruction to zero-time pilots, but there are lots of flight instructing jobs out there. I teach normal and water flying operations in the Icon A5. It’s unique, fun flying and the environment is far more laid-back than most teaching jobs. They’re willing to hire surprisingly low-time pilots and the pay is amazing compared to most of the industry.
I’ve also done a lot of freelance flight instruction for individual aircraft owners. I’ve gotten to fly a lot of unusual aircraft (Lancairs, Glasairs, RVs, a Scottish Aviation Bulldog, etc.) There aren’t many CFIs experienced in these types of aircraft and sometimes a new owner doesn’t want to (or can’t) travel to find one.
You need to be disciplined in your approach to teaching in an aircraft that you don’t have a lot of time in. However, if someone’s going to do it, it might as well be a conscientious instructor who will spend the time necessary to get the new owner up to speed…someone like you. This isn’t boring stalls and turns-around-a-point in an ancient C-150. These aircraft are fun and exciting, and the process of getting yourself ready to teach in them, and then getting the new owner ready, is very fulfilling. If you branch out and look for some less-common instructing jobs, you’ll be surprised what you can get.
Of course, you’ll be more qualified for these types of instruction jobs if you already have some instructing experience. I’d start at a regular flight school operation to earn my street cred, then start branching out. You could even treat your freelance stuff like a side-hustle at first.
The point here is: don’t give up on flight instructing out of hand. It’s a great way to build a lot of hours. It can be fun and rewarding as long as you’re the kind of person who makes a good teacher.
Whatever path you choose, you’ll be working hard for several hundred hours…before you start working hard for another couple thousand hours at a regional airline…before you finally get that coveted job as a major airline pilot (or that sweet corporate gig flying a Global 7500 or G700.) I promise it’s worth the effort. The Quality of Life and pay at the major airlines is unparalleled right now.
Knowing what I know today, I’d still choose this profession even if I had to go back and start all over as a zero-time pilot. This profession really is that great, and the pace of airline hiring for the next decade or more will offer an amazing career even if you’re just starting out now. So, stop reading this and go find some flying jobs to apply for. I want you to be my A220 First Officer…as we cruise at FL380 enjoying first class snacks. Instruct, or don’t, but be flexible and willing to move if you have to. The jobs are out there and you need to take advantage of them as soon as you can. Happy hunting!