Friday, October 21, 2005

Flying Careers Part 2B: The Path Less Taken

My last post described some of the more common flying jobs from the regional airlines on up. I'm guessing that a good 90% of pilots end up at one of these jobs for the majority of their career. However, I think it'd be a mistake to restrict one's career to these . There are less traditional jobs out there that provide more variety and lots of interesting flying, and can be quite profitable as well. In addition, jobs often thought of as "time-building jobs" can be rewarding over the long run, as well. I'll write about those jobs in the next post; this post is about some of the interesting non-traditional jobs that require significant experience.

Contract Flying
There is a contingent of pilots out there that are the aviation world's version of migrant workers. They take contract jobs around the world that typically last between six months and a few years. Many of these are former corporate captains or airline furloughees/early retirees with significant experience in several types of jet aircraft. Some of the contracts, particularly in more specialized aircraft, can be very lucrative - monthly salaries of over $10,000 tax-free plus housing stipend are not uncommon for captains. Many of these take place in some of the more wild corners of the globe, naturally and/or politically speaking. That may or may not appeal to you.

These are not time building jobs. They often require thousands of hours of experience in specific types of aircraft. Keep them in mind for whenever in your career you get the dreaded pink slip. A class I medical and ATP are musts - the FAA ATP is accepted in many cases, but the JAA's ATPL (ie European ATP) seems to be preferred. Four year degree not required, fluency in foreign languages a huge plus (Spanish, Arabic, & Mandarin would be the most helpful right now).

Long-distance Ferrying
Back in general aviation's last heyday, the 1970s, a low-time pilot could rack up a lot of time very quickly by delivering light aircraft for the various manufacturers. These days, there aren't nearly as many new airplanes to deliver. However, every year there are lots of new and old airplanes that are sold across great distances and need a brave soul to bring them across the stormy ocean/frozen tundra/gator infested swamp. Or maybe from Peoria to El Paso.

Most ferry pilots work on a freelance basis, although many are registered with ferry companies that contract them for each job. There are some experienced ferry pilots out there that do nothing else, but for many it seems to be a part-time gig.

Back in the day, you could get hired to ferry a King Air if you had a multiengine rating. These days it's not quite so laissez faire, but you very well could end up flying a type with no more experience than a quick readthrough of the POH. I suspect that a little time in a lot of aircraft types would be beneficial. Of course, if you want to drum up the transatlantic PZL M18A business, then 5000 hours of M18A time will always help.

A small but infinitely interesting subset of ferry pilot is the Repo pilot. When aviation operators go broke - and they always do! - the bank's first move will be to retrieve the operator's most expensive asset that's not bolted down, ie the airplanes. It's like car repossession: In many cases the erstwhile owner will cooperate, but when they don't you get creative. I've heard a few stories of repo pilots sneaking onto foreign airports under cover of dark, breaking into secured airplanes of dubious airworthiness, and taking off with nary a word to air traffic control.

Job requirements include three years' service in paramilitary units (French Legionnaire preferred), excellent knowledge of martial arts, fluency in at least five languages, proven record of ability in aircraft theft, minimum weight 250 lbs, and a Nigerian passport. Opportunities do exist for female pilots who can field strip an M16 blindfolded and look good in a black catsuit (weight requirement waived). To apply, visit the Chukker Bar at 2121 Sixth Street, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Ask for Bruno.

Aerial Firefighting
If flying an aging transport category aircraft down valleys at low altitude in low visibility and heavy turbulence sounds dangerous, it is. Air tanker operations have suffered several highly publicized accidents the past few years, including several in-flight breakups. The heavy tankers were even grounded for a while last year, but they were back for this year's fire season. The search for increased safety goes on, but in the meantime the tankers play a key role in protecting lives and property throughout the western U.S. and Canada.

Airtanker pilots typically work during the six months of fire season only. During the season, you work a lot (one day off per week) but the amount of flying depends on fire activity, of course. While on standby, you could be dispatched to a fire with 15 minutes' notice and not return to your home base for many weeks. Airtanker pilots start as first officers or flight engineers, with typical pay around $35k-45k per season.

In the US, Forest Service regulations require a minimum of 800 hours PIC and 100 hours multi-engine for newhire first officers; the typical new hire has more. Experience in C-130 or P-3 aircraft is helpful, as is time in any radial-engined aircraft (DC-6's are common).

Bush Flying
Aviation is often the only means of transportation throughout Alaska and northern Canada, as well as many other remote corners of the globe. In any populated area, you'll find pilots operating from lakes or unimproved strips, often flying small single-engine aircraft in marginal weather over remote terrain. In Alaska, the accident rate has long been several times that of the Lower 48, although it's getting better.

Several Horizon pilots used to fly in Alaska. One captain describes it as being very tough work, but extremely rewarding at times. The scenery is often stunning; the challenging flying will turn you into a much better pilot. The weather in Alaska and northern Canada is some of the worst in the world; it accounts for a large percentage of the accidents. Pay for backcountry pilots is typically excellent for the type of aircraft they're flying, but cost of living tends to be very high as well.

Getting into the bush flying business is tough if you've never done any flying in that location. In Alaska, it's common to hire pilots with as few as 500 hours (for VFR-only operations), but they'd want several hundred hours of Alaska flight time. It's more common to hire flight instructors without Alaska time; after some time instructing in Alaska, it's easier to get on with a bush operator. Tailwheel experience is crucial, and a float rating is a near-must.


Next post: common timebuilding jobs, and why it's worthwhile to consider them for more than just timebuilding.

For comments: What is the most interesting flying job you've had?