By Jason Depew, TPN staff writer
It seems like once a week someone asks me a version of this question: “Most of my hours are turboprop time. Will that hurt my chances of getting hired by a major airline?”
This subject is a can of worms. I’m writing this in the hopes of simplifying all our lives. I want to open it once here, dig around a bit, seal it back up, and just send a link when I’m asked this question in the future.
(Disclaimer: I wish I knew exactly how each hiring department looks at this question, but I don’t. Your best bet is always to get as much valuable experience as you can and be a great pilot wherever you are.)
So, let’s start with nomenclature. This is the first place where we confuse ourselves and get into trouble. In some cases, it may be that your aviation knowledge is rusty or underdeveloped. (We’ll fix that now.) Most of the time when I screw this up though, it’s just because I’m being lazy. Let’s agree to fix that ourselves, okay? (You may not need this refresher. I’m not presenting it to insult your intelligence. Please bear with those of us who will benefit from the education.) There are five terms we need to straighten out:
If you’re talking professional/Part 121/airline aviation, you should probably stop using the term “Turbo” altogether. This term identifies a piston engine with a turbocharger. The turbocharger uses engine exhaust to spin a small, single-stage turbine. This turbine is mechanically connected to a separate turbine that compresses intake air, allowing the engine to burn a richer mixture than would normally be allowed for a given temperature/altitude. It’s a cool technology that has done a lot for our world. If you want to read more about it, I recommend starting with the Wikipedia article.
There aren’t many airline jobs flying piston airplanes anymore, turbocharged or otherwise. (Though this one does look like fun. My seaplane CFI flew for them for a while and she seemed to love it!) If you own GA aircraft, you may find yourself using this term more. Otherwise, using “turbo” as an abbreviation to describe anything related to a turbine-based engine will only confuse you and cause you to make mistakes. I don’t love piston engines. Lots of moving parts, exhaust valves like to get sticky, limited power to weight ratio…it’s the same technology you have in your car and it’s been around for more than a century. The only way to make use of the energy output of this engine is to attach it to a propeller. Thankfully, there’s a better alternative!
A turbine engine uses what are essentially a series of fans to compress air before injecting fuel and setting the mixture on fire. Usually the resulting exhaust gasses are spewed out the back of the engine, resulting in thrust (and plenty of glorious noise!) In most cases, we add an extra turbine or two near the exhaust end of this setup to capture some of the energy and use it to turn other things. (We’ll get to those variants in a moment.)
A turbine engine is great for many reasons. It has fewer moving parts than a piston engine, and since they’re generally all spinning in the same direction all the time they don’t wear as much. The reliability of turbine engines is by far better than that of pistons. Turbine engines compress the air, like a turbocharged piston but better, so they perform well in hot/high situations. Best of all, the technology scales up better than piston engines do. That’s why 777 engines, each producing more than 100,000 pounds of thrust and having a diameter as large as my 717’s fuselage (Uh, huh huh!), are turbine engines, rather than giant radial pistons like we saw on WWII bombers. Almost all of airline/military aviation abandoned pistons in favor of turbines years ago.
There are three types of turbine engines worth covering here. The first is:
This is the original turbine engine. It’s old technology and actually not widely used all by itself today. (Even most fighters go for some type of turbofan, see below.) All of a turbojet’s thrust comes from the hot exhaust being expelled out the back of the motor. It was great when it was all we had available; however, it has some drawbacks. These motors consume a lot of fuel per pound of thrust, compared to newer alternatives. Older designs tend to have a long spool-up time when transitioning from low to high power settings. (Like on a go-around when you really need it…right…NOW!) They weren’t as reliable as modern turbine engines, but that may have just been because the technology was younger. They’re also very loud, which causes trouble for airports and operators. One of the better options is:
This is a turbine engine. However, it doesn’t use much of the exhaust gas directly for thrust. Instead, it puts a power turbine or two in that exhaust stream. The exhaust spins this power turbine and that energy is used to spin a propeller, usually at the front of the engine. This propeller has advantages and disadvantages. It’s generally more fuel efficient than a straight turbojet engine. The propeller makes descending and stopping a lot easier. It’s also a quieter setup overall. Unfortunately, propellers lose efficiency quickly above the high 20s and they come with a bunch of expensive moving parts that can easily break. Propellers also tend to limit your top speed. Turboprops show up in commuter airlines and cargo operations that aren’t as worried about flying far or flying fast. They’re also great for backcountry flying in places like Alaska and Siberia. They’re powerful, reliable engines that do a lot of serious aviation. However, if you want speed, altitude, or range, your best bet right now is:
Snobs don’t like to acknowledge this, but a turbofan is nothing more than a turboprop. A turbofan generally takes advantage of some of the direct thrust from exhaust gasses. However, it uses much of the exhaust to spin a power turbine, which spins a rotating collection of airfoils at the front of the engine. The only differences are that there tend to be more airfoil blades in this fan than most propellers, and that they’re shrouded or ducted…meaning that there is a ring of metal around the outside diameter of the fan. That ring seeks to eliminate the wingtip vortex/induced drag you get at the tip of a traditional propeller, increasing efficiency and giving other benefits.
Yes, a turbofan is probably less complex overall than a turboprop, and yes, it gets a lot more thrust directly from hot gasses than a turboprop. However, there’s a funny thing here. Originally, we added fans to turbojet engines and found them to be better in almost every way: quieter, more efficient, more reliable. Upon experimentation, we found that the thrust coming from the fan was more valuable than that coming from the tail pipe. Today, we usually fly with “high bypass ratio” turbofans. This means that our engines get at least 3-4 times as much thrust from this ducted propeller (aka fan) as they get from the hot gasses spewing from the tailpipe. The most efficient (and profitable) engines in the world go to much higher bypass ratios, and get much greater benefits.
Let’s think about that for a moment in a big-picture, not entirely scientific way. Say you have a turbofan with a 4:1 bypass ratio that produces 50,000 pounds of thrust. The bypass ratio means that 40,000 pounds of your thrust, a full 80% of the total engine output, comes from the fan—the propeller. We only get a puny 10,000 pounds of thrust from the tailpipe itself.
Not only are high bypass ratio turbofans very efficient, they’re much quieter than straight turbojets. They’re the best we have for commercial aviation right now.
So, why is everyone so worked up about turbine time, and even worse, about turbofan vs turboprop time?
We’ve already established the fact that a turbofan is just a fancy turboprop on a fundamental, big-picture level. So, my first answer is that you have better things to worry about than whether the turbine hours in your logbook are associated with a shrouded or unshrouded propeller.
What’s most important is that you have Turbine time. In my opinion, airlines want this because there is a vast difference between most turbine flying and most piston flying. We all start out flying piston aircraft because they’re more affordable at the low-performance end of the spectrum. Unless you fly a warbird or an experimental kit aircraft, you’ll probably never fly piston airplane faster than about 200 knots, higher than about 18,000 feet, or longer than a few hours at a time. These airplanes tend to be relatively simple to operate, even with one pilot.
Turbine aircraft fly faster, higher, and further. You need to have a decision-making process adapted to those speeds. You need high-altitude physiology training. You need to be able to plan for and adapt to weather and atmospheric conditions that change at both the altitudes and distances you’re likely to cover on a given flight.
These aircraft are usually more complex and require greater systems knowledge to effectively operate. This level of knowledge is significantly beyond anything involved with most piston airplanes. They’re heavier aircraft, meaning they handle differently. This all usually results in needing a crew to fly them. Crew Resource Management (CRM) is a science and an art unto itself. It can trip up even experienced professional pilots, so operators want you have to as much experience at it as possible.
I’d say the different levels of care and effort required between piston and turbine flying are like middle school vs college. Our industry is used to helping pilots make this transition, but a manager hiring for a turbine job would always rather have a pilot with turbine experience.
While turboprops and turbofans are very similar mechanically, there are some important differences in how we operate them. I assert that the difference between turbofan and turboprop operations is about like grad school vs undergrad. However, for some people that’s a big leap.
Turboprops operate in the 20s, around 200-300 KIAS, and have relatively slow approach speeds. Unless you’re doing military flying, these aircraft generally gross-out at weights well under 100,000 pounds. A lot of their flying is measured in the hundreds, rather than multiple thousands of miles.
Turbofans, on the other hand, fly in the 30s or even 40s. They read Mach speeds, rather than indicated airspeed, at altitude. They regularly fly at ground speeds above 500 kts. They are much larger/heavier planes with associated higher approach speeds. All of these speed profiles mean that we pilots must adapt very quickly to changes. These aircraft are increasingly complex and can fly for thousands of miles. This introduces us to challenges in weather, CRM, and personal physiology that young pilots probably haven’t experienced before. Knowing this, put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager. It’s suddenly easy to see why they’d rather have people with turbofan time.
So, what if you’ve only ever flown Saabs for Silver, Q400s for Horizon, or C-2s/P- 3s/C-130s/C- 12s/U-28s/T- 34s/T-6s for the military? Are you screwed?
I say no.
First and foremost: the airlines need pilots. A pilot with nothing but single-pilot piston time is not ready to fly big turbofans. However, an experienced turboprop pilot is more likely to have the chops to successfully make that leap. Deep down even the snobs realize that your turboprop time is valuable and they’ll take that into account. Even if your particular company is hesitant to take turboprop-only pilots now, they won’t have the luxury of being so choosy for long.
Next: my airline (and I suspect all of the others) are big-picture on pilot hiring. They want pilots with valuable training and experience…anyone can sit in a right seat and raise the gear for thousands of hours. The value of your flying and background can make a difference for you. I wrote a post about some of the “other” stuff you can do to make yourself more attractive (Getting your Airline App Noticed, Part 2).
Marc Himelhoch from Cockpit2Cockpit LLC just started writing a series of articles on the same subject (Your Leadership Profile…How to Enhance Your Airline Application).
Beyond that stuff, you can choose to pursue flying that will gain you the experience you need to impress your future airline. While you can dust crops in a turboprop Air Tractor or fly jumpers in a twin-turboprop King Air, those are essentially piston flying jobs that won’t impress a turbofan-operating airline as much as others. If you’re “stuck” flying turboprops, here are some other considerations:
Fly the most advanced turboprops you can. When I made a case for Horizon Air, I noted that their Q400 turboprops all have Heads Up Displays and are certified to fly RNP 0.1 approaches. Those are both big deals. Most of our larger/faster/more expensive/turbofan aircraft at my airline lack those capabilities. Having experience in those types of operations would be hugely valuable.
Seek out flying in challenging places and weather. If you’ve “only” flown turboprops, hopefully you got to log a lot of instrument and night time. You should be able to explain in your interview how you’ve flown in a lot of adverse weather and landed at challenging, short airfields. This may mean that flying winters for Horizon or Wisconsin may be more valuable than flying in the eternal sunshine of Florida with Silver. If you have the opportunity to do international turboprop flying, that will be worth more than just doing the DFW-SHV run four times a day, every day, for years.
Your hiring board knows the industry. They’ll be able to take one look at your past employers and your logbook and have an idea of the flying you’ve done. You should hope they capitalize on this knowledge in your interview to ask questions that you will want to answer…ones that give you the opportunity to highlight your experience.
If you’re a military pilot, this means you need to pursue any kind of special/advanced qualification you can get. Instructor and Evaluator are no-brainers. If your aircraft does airdrop, you need to be airdrop qualified. The same goes for semi-prepared surface or assault landings. You need to go out of your way to make sure you fly your aircraft both in challenging conditions and in challenging places. You need to cross oceans and international borders. Any time you can land at an airport you didn’t depart from is more valuable to you. (Sorry ISR pilots!) Beyond the basics, you should pursue things like Safety School, Advanced Instrument School, and Air Force Weapons School. These things show a depth of experience and dedication to your craft of being a pilot.
Speaking of our craft, you need to fly! There seems to be an upper limit of useful flight hours on an airline application…it’s somewhere around 10,000. No military pilot has any hope of hitting that in an average career right now. So…until you hit that number, go fly! If you’re in the military, this means you should avoid staff and school assignments if you’re sure you’re getting out. If you’re near the end of your career, don’t spend your last year or three not flying! see…(What Will a Year Cost Me?)
Even during flying assignments, you’ll be tempted with jobs as the wing commander’s executive officer, a drone in the wing plans office, or commanding a maintenance squadron. These can be wonderful, rewarding, fulfilling experiences. If your personal definition of success includes that kind of fulfillment, then go for it! However, if your primary mission is getting a job flying airplanes at an airline, then you should be spending all your energy demonstrating commitment to our craft as pilots. Leadership is great—it even gives you bonus points on your app. However, I personally don’t believe that it’s worth giving up even a few hundred flying hours to pursue a 100% non-flying leadership job.
If you want to get some prop-free time anyway, I’d definitely recommend pursuing an assignment teaching pilot training…try to get a T-1, T-38, or T-45 if you can. These are turbojet/turbofan aircraft and their operations fit more closely with what your hiring board wants. It can be tougher to get these assignments because there is always a T-6 bill to fill. Work with your commander to tactfully explain what you want and why. A good commander will help you pursue what’s best for your family. A bad commander…well…there’s a reason that the USAF is short 2000 pilots and counting. Sorry. Do your best. Flying the T-6 would not be the end of the world. Instructor time in a T-6 is valuable. It’s still a turbine, it’s aerobatic, and it’s very demanding flying. I’m surprised at how many captains I fly with who spent time instructing in Tweets. Chances are actually decent that someone on your hiring board knows your pain. If that’s the case, you can almost count on a moment of shared pilot training instructor nostalgia in your interview. Score!
Beyond teaching pilot training, there are a few other limited opportunities for special duty turbofan flying. You could try to get a job flying C-21s, or doing other DV airlift gigs in Gulfstreams. The US flies some larger Boeing aircraft for DV airlift as well. There’s also still a deployment flying the E-11A BACN, aka the Bombardier Global Express. It’s a great way to rack up a lot of hours in a short time. You’re stuck at a pretty terrible location away from your family, but that tends to breed a great squadron environment. As long as you can deploy with good people, it’s a great time! The U-2 also needs good pilots, and it’s one of the coolest aircraft on (and far, far above) the planet. Your military boss will probably advise you that these opportunities are “career killers.” That’s only because he or she doesn’t understand the nature of your long-term career. You don’t owe anything beyond what you’ve signed up for. You are under no obligation to sacrifice your family’s long-term well-being for the “needs of the Air Force” (Navy, Army, etc.) Plus, the Needs of the Air Force include staffing these special duty flying squadrons. There will always be someone more interested in climbing the chain of command than setting up their family for post-military life. (And if that’s what they truly desire out of life, I won’t knock it…too much.)
Help your boss identify those people and make sure they get the job in the Commander’s Action Group so you can go fly airplanes instead. If you’re willing to consider career killer assignments to get some turbofan time, I’d consider trying to leave active duty as soon as possible. (Early-out options like Palace Chase are going to be tough to find since the USAF is now 2000 pilots short, but it’s worth applying anyway.) One decent option is to go find a guard or reserve unit flying KC-135s, C-17s, C-5s, etc., or even fighters. Many units need pilots and the guard/reserves give you the option of living in a great location and being part of a great squadron. You’ll probably have to deploy with them, but that’s just an opportunity to build the turbofan hours you need anyway.
I’ll temper this by saying that Pilot in Command time is also important. (See PIC definition/discussion here.) What’s more valuable? PIC (or IP or EP) time in a turboprop, or SIC time in a turbofan? That question involves calculus too complex for this post. I may never even have a good answer for it. Personally, I’d want to make sure I had a bare minimum of 1000 PIC hours in some type of turbine airplane before leaving active duty in the military. 2000 would be even better.
If you’re willing to give up active duty to accumulate some turbofan time, I feel like the regional airlines are an even better option than the guard/reserves for most people right now. You can choose where you apply to ensure that you won’t get “stuck” with another turboprop. Bottom line: you’ll make great money and be able to upgrade to captain of a turbofan aircraft very quickly. I feel like the major airlines view an experienced military pilot achieving qualification as a regional airline pilot as a strong positive signal. I believe that this will accelerate your hiring at a major airline. This path also sets you up for an early captain upgrade at your major airline…and hundreds of thousands of dollars of extra pay in your first few years. I wrote a 4-part series about this Regional Airline Touch & Go idea. Here are the links:
- Part 1 – Why Not do a Regional Airline Touch & Go?
- Part 2 – Regional T&G Pay Comparison
- Part 3 – I’ll Just Go Fly a Cessna to Build Time
- Part 4 – Why Not Bid Captain Now? (Available exclusively in the Summer 2017 edition of TPNQ.)
Finally, here’s some personal perspective: I went directly from the military to a legacy airline. Although I had about 4500 hours at the time, only about 900 of those were in turbojet/turbofan aircraft, and about half of those were only Second in Command or student hours. The bulk of my flight time (about 3000 hours) was in single-engine turboprops (T-6 and U-28.) The rest of my time was in piston singles and even gliders. I’ll admit, I was sweating things a bit. I think it helped that I did the E-11 deployment. That was 600 hours of mostly PIC and/or Instructor time in a multi-engine turbofan, gained in just 6 months. I was also very well-rounded on everything else. Lots of flying qualifications, lots of flying-related leadership, meaningful community service, master’s degree, etc. (I also know for a fact that having a couple hundred hours of tailwheel time helped because one of the pilots on my interview panel told me so on the spot.)
So, where does this leave us? If you have mostly turboprop time is it going to screw you? I say no. Make sure you know what you’re talking about. Make sure you’re attractive to a big-picture organization, but also that you spend your time flying airplanes rather than desks. Make sure that you pursue the most challenging flying possible. If you do all this, I think you’ll be fine.
However, if you still feel like you need turbofan time, military pilots have the opportunity to pursue some special duty assignments. Otherwise, both military and civilian pilots should strongly consider spending some time at a regional airline. It might not be where you want to be forever, but a touch & go can have some major payoffs in the near- and long-term.
If I could land my dream job despite being so heavy on turboprop time, I believe that you can too. Now, go enjoy some flying! Feel free to hit me up on the TPN FB Group or AviationBull anytime with questions.