Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Flying Careers Part 2C: Doin' Time (or not)

Most of the jobs I've descibed so far require at least moderate previous experience. Most new commercial pilots, however, have less than 300 hours total time with perhaps a few hours of multi-engine time. A few continue to buy flight time to increase their experience; most, however, will get an entry-level flying job, sometimes called a "time building job." Often, a pilot's first job will be the hardest of their career and pay the least they'll make. Still, many experienced pilots look back at them fondly. Indeed, many of these jobs can be fun and rewarding for pilots with the right attitude. If you really enjoy the work, it's not neccessary to follow the herd to the airlines: some of these jobs can actually pay well for those who are committed to them.

Flight Instructing
I'm really sick and tired of the poor attitude many newer pilots have towards flight instructing. For whatever reason, many seem to think that the job is below them, a last resort in the quest to build flight hours. These prima donnas put in minimum effort and mistreat students whenever it results in more flight time, and they talk non-stop about how they can't wait to move on to bigger and better things. How horrible it must be to have a job that requires intelligence, patience, honesty, work ethic, and communication skills, when they merely want to fly! When I'm king, I'll require every pilot to instruct for 1000 hours before applying to the airlines, and all airline hiring will be done by interviewing the instructor's former students and employers.

There's no question that flight instructing is hard and sometimes frusterating work. With the right attitude, though, it can also be rewarding and fun. You'll learn a ton, not just about flying technique, but also about conflict and communication in the cockpit. If you're a good instructor, you'll get a reputation in the local flying community. That can pay off later on.

New instructors are typically paid pretty poorly. The good news is that you should be able to find an instructing job near where you currently live. There are small flight schools at just about every general aviation airport; you'll typically find bigger flight schools, "rating mills," and flying clubs in bigger cities. When finding a place to instruct, consider not only the pay rate, but how much you can expect to work. I made $10/hr as a new instructor, but took home more than a friend who earned $30/hr at a much less busy flying club. Does the flight school assign students to each instructor, or is the instructor expected to recruit their own students? Are there any multi-engine airplanes, and how many multi-engine students does the school attract? Are there opportunities to earn money during your downtime, such as office work or assisting mechanics?

As an instructor, your life will revolve around when students are able to fly, and what kind of flight time they need. At flight schools that cater to casual students, you'll do more flying on the weekends and after normal working hours. With full-time students, your weekdays should be much busier. At times, lunch will consist of a Snickers grabbed in the five minutes between students. Other times, you'll have a long enough break to go home and take a nap. If you have a lot of Private students, you'll be pretty idle during periods of poor weather. With Instrument students, you're guaranteed that the appearance of IFR weather will trigger every student wanting to go flying. In the summer, you can expect to stay up quite late for night cross-countries.

You can get hired almost anywhere with nothing more than freshly minted commercial and CFI certificates. If you want to do anything other than practice bounce-and-goes all day with student pilots, though, you'll need the CFII and MEI ratings on your CFI. My recommendation is to get them before you start instructing; once you're in the thick of it, finding the time and money to add on the ratings can be hard.

Everything I've said so far applies to low-time instructors, the guys and gals just building experience for the next gig. If you like the work, though, there's no reason to fly the coop right away. Experienced CFI's are a rare thing these days, and much in demand. Once you have enough experience that you could leave, you'll find that you'll command a much better wage, and have more control over your schedule. If you've build a good local client base, you could even move out into freelance instructing and become your own boss. Many freelance CFI's have a specialty, such as GPS training, instrument workshops, or type-specific training. There are even "celebrity CFI's," such as Rich Stowell, who commands top dollar for a world reknown aircraft upset recovery course. The point is, if you find that you really enjoy instructing, it is possible to make it a decent career if you get creative.

Banner Towing
Okay, despite my admittedly strong opinions expressed above, not everyone is cut out to be an instructor. There are other options for low-timers to build flight time. For those who live near a large city, particularly along the coast, banner towing can be a seasonal alternative. Other than actually picking up the banners, the work is fairly monotonous, but you'll build flight time quickly. Note that you will not be building any multi-engine time, nor will you be staying instrument current.

The one requirement for banner-towing is having a commercial certificate. A few operators require a certain number of hours; many want to see experience in tailwheel aircraft. Shy away from operations that require money upfront for your training.

Pipeline Flying, Fish Spotting, Fire Spotting
These are all jobs that may be available depending on whether you live in a oily, fishy, or treeish area. They all are typically done in smaller single-engine airplanes, but involve lengthy flight times that'll build your experience quickly. These jobs are often contracted out to small FBO's, so you may need to ask around to find where the jobs are. Of course, if you have your own airplane you can always bid for these contracts and make better money. I'd recommend having a highly placed friend in the Forest Service (or oil company, or fishing outfit). Note that fish spotters, particularly those flying from the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, may get a "cut" from the catch. During a good season, it can be quite lucrative.

Again, a commercial certificate is required; I'd imagine that strong swimming skills are a big plus for fish spotters.

Jump Pilot

There are lots of people all over that get a kick out of jumping from perfectly good aircraft, creating a need for pilots of said aircraft. As a "diver driver," your work will entail taking off, climbing to 10,000+ feet, dropping your skydivers, descending back down, and landing - as quickly as possible, so you can haul up the next batch of skydivers. On the weekends, you can rack up a lot of hours at a busy drop zone. At the same time, you get to hang out with a pretty cool bunch of people and possibly even take up skydiving yourself.

With so many takeoffs and landings, you'll get good at stick-and-rudder skills, but your instrument skills will suffer if you don't do anything other than jump piloting. The really good news is, pilots at bigger drop zones will have opportunities to get experience with turbine, multi-engine, or even multi turbine aircraft, as Caravans, Beech 45s, Twin Otters, and King Airs are all common jump planes. Those who like to fly pretty airplanes need not apply; some drop zone birds can be pretty ratty. There will be pressure to fly airplanes when they are not airworthy; pressure, also, to climb through clouds VFR and drop jumpers back through clouds. Find a quality drop zone, and these issues will crop up less.

Traffic Watch
Traffic watch is unique among low-timer jobs in that you will have a pretty set schedule: whenever it is rush hour. Most traffic watch pilots twice a day on M-F, from 6-9 in the morning and 3-6 in the evening. Some experienced traffic watch pilots both fly and broadcast on-air, but most operations that employ low-time pilots will have you carry along a broadcaster, or you'll simply relay road conditions to personnel at the radio/TV station. If you have a good voice, however, there could be later opportunities to do your thing on-air, with higher pay.

You'll build significant total time flying traffic, but very little instrument or multi-engine time. Excellent knowledge of airspace is required, as you'll be going around and through all of it. Fortunately, as you get to know the controllers along your route, you'll find ATC to be very accommodating.

Part 135 Freight Flying
Despite its inclusion here, part 135 freight flying is not really a low-timer job (neither is air taxi, for that matter). Under FAR 135 regulations, pilots operating IFR must have 1200 hours total time, 500 hours cross-country, 100 hours night time, and 75 hours instrument experience (hood or actual). VFR only requires 500 hours TT and 100 hrs X/C, but the only part 135 operations under VFR are typically in Alaska.

So why would anybody do it, then, if there are regional airlines hiring pilots with less time? For starters, some people don't want to go to the regionals. It is possible to bypass them altogether by getting turbine PIC at a freight operation; you'll typically start as pilot in command rather than wait for an upgrade. In some instances, the pay is better than starting pay at a regional, particularly if you're flying turbine aircraft. Another situation is the pilot who wants to work for a particular regional that has high minimums or competitive hiring. Airlines look very favorably on Part 135 experience.

As a "freight dog," you'll most often be carrying cancelled checks for banks (becoming less common) or small packages as a feeder to Fedex, UPS, DHL, etc (becoming more common). Most carriers are classified as "on demand," but only a few do primarily late-notice charters. At these carriers, pilots have rather unpredictable schedules. However, most larger carriers like Ameriflight or Airnet have pretty set schedules, and pilots usually know their routes some time in advance. Those flying cancelled checks can expect to fly M-F, with banking holidays off. Those hauling small packages may work some weekends. Although freight dogs are infamous for flying on the backside of the clock, most operators have at least some daytime routes. At Ameriflight, I worked M-F and was home every night. It can be a good gig for family life.

As a freight dog, you're pretty often on your own. You'll be your own dispatcher. You'll be responsible for keeping your plane safe at outstations, and flying it out of danger if neccessary. You'll be on the flight line at 4am in freezing weather, chiseling ice off the wings. Until you get into larger turbine equipment, you'll usually load and unload your own airplane. You'll work your own performance and W&B. Depending on where you're based, you'll find yourself shooting a whole lot of approaches in awful weather. You'll become one sharp instrument pilot.

Part 135 operations have a bit of a reputation for pushing their pilots to fly in unsafe or illegal weather, and for poor maintenance. These issues can largely be avoided by going to a larger, reputable carrier (Ameriflight or Airnet, for example). At these places, you'll typically start in piston powered aircraft but have opportunities for turbine equipment fairly early on. At 1200 hours TT, you're just as qualified for Ameriflight as you are for Joe Bob's Fly-By-Nite Express.

Most pilots seem to enjoy freight dogging; rather few do it for more than a couple years. Those who do stick around for extended periods can expect to make decent money flying larger turbine equipment or even small jets (Metroliner, Be1900, and Learjet 35 are all common freight haulers).

Part 135 Air Taxi
Not all Part 135 operators haul freight; there are small passenger-carrying operations around, too. Most regional airlines used to be Part 135 operators until about a decade ago, when a new rule forced them to become FAR 121 certified. Nowadays, the only airplanes that carry passengers under FAR 135 have a maximum of 9 passenger seats and 7500 lbs payload or less.

Air Taxi operations may provide scheduled service (Cape Air, for example), or they may be on-demand charter outfits. Charter flying was described in Part 2A of this series, but mostly in the context of corporate-type aircraft. There are, however, operators that use light twin aircraft for passenger charters. Lifestyle is similar to larger operators (unpredictable schedule) but pay is typically worse.

Flying for scheduled carriers like Cape Air is actually a pretty decent life, according to a friend who did it for a while. You're more likely to fly weekends, but are usually flying during the day and home at night. The pay can be decent for flying a light twin.

Again, the minimum qualifications are those prescribed by FAR 135, and it's realistic to apply as soon as you meet those qualifications. I should point out that the 500 hours cross-country required is point-to-point cross-country, ie the airports do not need to be 50 nm apart. Something to keep in mind when you apply.


Next post, I'll tie these jobs together to give you an idea of the various career progressions that are possible. For comments: What was your first flying job, and how long did you do it? What was good about it, and what was bad?


Dan said...

I have really enjoyed reading your career posts. As an old geezer who wanted to be a pilot when I was a kid and went a different route, it's really interesting to see how it might have been. These days I just dream of building a Kitfox, dusting off the neglected private ticket (with Lynn Helms' signature on it), and drilling some holes in a blue sky on a Saturday morning.

Aviatrix said...

Sigh. I've done three out of seven of the starter jobs on your list, turned down a fourth because one of the other duties of the job was unacceptable to me, and I'm working on a hot prospect to land a fifth. And I'd happily do the other two.

I've been doing entry level aviation jobs, as many as three different jobs at once, for about five years now.

SFND said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sam said...

Aviatrix, I would put Part 135 flying on a pretty equal footing with the regionals, so I wouldn't say you're in an entry-level position. Charter/freight flying kinda ended up in that post by default, although it's a job that requires experience (in the US, more experience than the regionals require, heh).

S - yup, I'm a 2002 UND grad. I didn't stick around at all afterwards, since I wanted to head back to the west coast.

Dave said...

Very interesting blog, thanks for your insight! Question: What about age? Some of us 'gray hairs' are thinking about second careers. From your experiance, what would you consider the 'cut off' point for the various careers you've mentioned?


Hamish said...

I have nothing serious to add or comment on here, I just wanted to say I'm really enjoying this series -- thanks! Something to point people at when they seem to think becoming a highly-paid airline pilot must be easy...

Sam said...

Hamish, glad to see you're enjoying the series. I really didn't mean for the posts to be this long winded, though!

Dave - check out my newest post (2 Nov), it addresses that very issue.

Anonymous said...

You have a good clear writing style and good information. I've made the jump from flight instructor to part 135 scheduled operator for a company in Bethel Alaska. I loved instructing but was "downsized" during the economic downturn. I then tutored at a local college where it was frustrating to have many students with 50+ hours sent to me for ground school when they had not even been allowed to solo fly - local FBO was flying them, milking them and doing 0 ground school. It was disturbing to me. I finally packed it up and headed North looking for flight time. I LOVE my new job - great people, lots of flying. It's hard work and the weather can be challenging but my skills are improving rapidly and there are lots of experienced pilots to talk flying with. I will look back on this time one day as one of the best of my life. One thing..... don't whine; if you choose to be a pilot your love of flying must outweigh the difficulties of being away from loved ones, being a bit "rootless", poor pay, long hours, pushing your limits. Know what your giving up to do what you love, make your decision after talking with experienced pilots - it's not an easy life, for myself I feel best when I'm up in the air and learning something new - so it works. I do miss my dogs and family though - I'm fortunate that my boyfriend is also a pilot and understands "the life".