Monday, November 28, 2005

Flying Careers Part 6: Benefits & Retirement

Of course, take home pay forms only part of the compensation package. In this post, I'll explore some of the benefits associated with various flying jobs, as well as retirement considerations.

Medical Insurance

With the skyrocketing cost of health care these days, insurance coverage is an increasingly important consideration. As a pilot, there is the added motivation that keeping yourself healthy is a requirement of the job.

Unfortunately, coverage is pretty spotty for most entry-level flying jobs. Very few FBOs or small flight schools offer insurance to their instructors at any cost; the same goes for smaller freight or charter outfits. Some large schools and universities do offer medical insurance to their instructors, though, and bigger FAR 135 operators like Ameriflight and Airnet. With these programs the employee often pays part of the premiums via paycheck withholding.

In the corporate and airline world, comprehensive medical coverage is the norm, with medical, dental, vision, and sometimes long-term disability plans. Usually the employer pays the premiums on the employee's policy, with low-cost coverage available for spouse and children. The plans do vary, though; with some employers, particularly regional airlines, deductibles can be a little steep and coverage spotty. Note that the concessionary contracts in place at many major carriers included erosion of their insurance benefits.

Sick Pay

For most entry-level positions, getting sick means you don't get paid. At the freight dog level and up, though, sick pay is pretty standard. You'll typically accrue X number of sick hours for X hours worked, with a limit on the number of hours that roll over each year. Sick time can often be used towards short-term or even long-term disability benefits, as well as maternal leave for both sexes. As a side note, excessive use of sick time is a great way to get the unwanted attention of the chief pilot, particularly at smaller carriers. Calling in sick on Thanksgiving or Christmas is particularly frowned upon and won't make you any friends among your fellow pilots.

Vacation Pay & Time Off

Getting time off is probably the easiest when you're just starting out, which is ironic because it's when you can afford it the least. As a new instructor, I once went six weeks straight without a day off. Paid vacation is almost unheard of for instructors and other entry-level flying jobs.

If you do the freight or charter thing, scoring time off can be trickier, especially with smaller operations. They often have set schedules for their pilots, with few reserves to cover sickness, to say nothing of vacation. Even those who have paid vacation programs will be pretty restrictive about when you can use it. At Ameriflight, first year captains got one week of paid vacation per year plus two days off without pay per month. Both of these were subject to company approval, and were impossible to use during Peak (Thanksgiving to Christmas) or when the base was understaffed.

Most airlines do offer paid vacation benefits, with between two and four weeks of vacation accrued per year. Vacation weeks are usually bid on for the entire year; obviously, holiday weeks go fairly senior, as does much of the summer. Note that 7 days of vacation pay usually gets you more than a week of vacation, since it is used only for days on which you were originally scheduled to work. A week of vacation that drops only a 4-day trip will result in 4 days being deducted from your vacation pay account. Besides the weeks you bid for, vacation time can often be used for individual days off, staffing levels permitting. You could also elect to save your vacation by taking days off without pay, which may result in a reduction in your monthly minimum guarantee. This also requires approval from crew scheduling and/or the chief pilot's office, and is entirely dependent on how reserve coverage is looking.

One alternative for lengthy periods off is a leave of absence. These are typically awarded for military service, long-term sickness, maternity, or family care, but personal LOA's from one month to a year may be awarded on a case-by-case basis. At most airlines, seniority continues to accrue during a LOA, although longevity (for pay purposes) may not. When airlines are overstaffed and about to furlough pilots, they will offer personal LOA's first. It's a good way to keep your seniority and have fun trying your hand at something else.

Travel Benefits

One of the big draws that airlines have over other flying jobs is the ability to offer free or nearly free air travel to employees and their families (spouse, kids, parents). Most airlines have "interline agreements," so not only can you fly on your airline, you can get cheap transportation on over a hundred carriers around the world.

The catch? You only ride if there is room. These days the planes are absolutely packed with folks flying on $99 coast-to-coast fares, with little room left over for the non-revs. Many airline employees just buy cheap tickets off the internet rather than risk being bumped. Of course, as a pilot you may be able to jumpseat on an otherwise full flight, but this doesn't help if anyone is traveling with you. It's also unavailable on international flights.

In a non-airline job, you probably won't have travel benefits. You may get a discounted aircraft rental rate as a flight instructor. A few airlines do allow FAR 135 pilots to jumpseat.

Profit Sharing

Yes, there are profitable aviation companies out there. Some of them have profit sharing benefits so employees can share in the bounty. Usually something like 10% of the net income goes to the employees, divided up according to longevity and hours worked. At consistently profitable companies like Southwest, profit sharing can form a sizeable part of the compensation package.


This is another area that has taken a severe beating at the major airlines the past few years. United and USAirways terminated their pilot pensions while in bankruptcy court, and Northwest and Delta are looking to do the same. Their pension plans are underfunded by $6 billion and $10 billion, respectively. It seems unlikely that retirement pensions will be standard for professional pilots anytime soon. In any case, it would be prudent to plan for retirement as though you will not have a pension, by starting in early with a 401(k) or IRA.

Most airlines and many fractionals, charter, and freight companies offer their employees a 401(k) plan with company matching. The generousness of the match varies quite a bit, and it may or may not include company issued stock.My company's 401(k) is one of the best I've seen. The company will match 100% of employee contributions up to 10% of pretax income; 50% of the company match is in our parent company's stock, but this can be sold after the employee is fully vested (5 years' service).

Many companies allow their employees to buy company stock at a significant discount, or issue them stock options as part of the retirement package. I generally shy away from airline stock, and would try to keep it under 10% of my portfolio, but that's just my opinion. SWA stock has certainly worked out well for many Southwest pilots.

If you do end up retiring with a pension system in place, consider yourself lucky. Most pensions will take the highest-grossing year of your last 3-5 years and pay you a certain percentage (say, 60%) of that. Some plans allow for a lump-sum payout; others have the option of a survivor (spouse) benefit for after your death.

Most flight schools and many smaller freight and charter operators do not provide retirement benefits. The same goes for most jobs in bush flying, traffic watch, aerial firefighting, etc. If you find yourself in one of these jobs for the long term, it goes without saying that you'll be on your own for retirement planning and saving.


My next post will be regarding lifestyle expectations for various flying jobs.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Flying Careers Part 5: Making Bank (or not)

Nothing gets a good debate going like a discussion on pilot pay. In the red corner: Your average Joe working his butt off for $40k/year, thinks pilots are grossly overpaid for the work they do. In the blue corner: Your average airline pilot - worked hard for years at low pay, furloughed twice, just took a 30% paycut - is livid that anybody would begrudge him his $120k/year. Let the brawl begin.

Although I personally think pilots are worth every penny they can negotiate, that's an argument for another post. Today, the focus is on how much pilots actually make, not what the public thinks they make. Really, a detailed post could go on for many pages, so I'll try to keep this simple. I'll start off with an explanation of how pilots are paid, and then move on to typical pay rates for various jobs.

In a broad sense, pilots are either salaried employees or they are paid based on work performed, usually by the hour. As we'll see, minimum guarantees and complicated pay rigs make "hourly" wages anything but.

Rather few pilots are paid an annual salary; the majority are corporate or fractional pilots. A few flight schools and aviation universities salary their employees; so do some Part 135 freight and charter operators. Although a few airlines used to salary their pilots (including Horizon), there aren't any left in the US that I'm aware of. A salary is good in that it provides for stable income when the flying drops off. Of course, the exact opposite is true: you may end up doing a lot of extra flying essentially for free. Some operators like Ameriflight salary their employees, but pay more for extra flying.

Most flying jobs are technically paid by the hour, but at only some of these does one hour's work equal one hour's pay, and even here the definition of "hour" varies. At most flight instructing jobs, you will be paid the number of hours of ground and flight instruction you bill to students. Some freight and charter operators pay you based solely on block or flight time. A few jobs are paid based on hours on duty. These distinctions are important and must be considered when looking at pay rates.

As a general rule, airline pilots are paid by the block hour (ie departure to destination, including taxi time). That's a rule with many exceptions, which pilots have negotiated for over the years:
  • Minimum guarantee is an important pay rule that provides the chief advantage of a salary, income stablity. It is usually expressed in a number of hours per month. If an airline has a 80 hour min guarantee, every pilot will receive a minimum of 80 hours' pay for that month, no matter how much flying they actually do. If they fly more than the minimum guarantee, they are paid for what they actually do. Min guarantee tends to be around 75 hrs/mo at regional airlines and 60-70 hrs/mo at the majors.
  • Pay Rigs ensure that pilots still get paid when schedule inefficiencies result in an inordinate amount of time on duty or on a trip while not flying. An example pay rig (mine) awards a pilot the greater of block time flown, or 1/2 the time on duty, or 1/4 the time away from base, on a trip-by-trip basis. Today I spent 8 hours on airport reserve but did not fly, so I was paid 4 credit hours (1/2 of 8 hours' duty). In airline pilot lingo, our contract has a 2:1 duty rig and a 4:1 trip rig.
  • Override Pay can dramatically increase your payrate under certain conditions. You may be paid 150% or 200% your normal payrate for flying on a day off; a few contracts also include override pay for working a holiday like Christmas. At jetBlue, every hour over the 70-hr guarantee is paid at 150%.
  • Per diem is an extra stipend to help cover expenses while away from home, such as the additional cost of eating at restaurants. It is paid on time away from base, and is usually $1.50-$2/hr.
Pay rules merit close examination not only for pay but also for lifestyle. As an example, my comany's 4:1 trip rig means that it's fairly cheap for the company to build long trips with lots of time sitting in hotels; many of our pilots are away from home for 350+ hours each month. A better trip rig (3.5:1, perhaps) would force the company to build more efficient trips that'd provide our pilots with more days off per month.

Sick time, vacation time, etc, will also affect pay but they belong more in my next post on benefits.

So how much do pilots actually make? Probably less than you think. Regionals and most stepping-stone jobs have always been fairly low-paid. Major airline payrates have taken a major beating over the past 4 years, with no sign of relief. That said, captain's pay at the majors still puts them in the top 5% of earners in the US, so it's not quite poverty wages yet. Really, what it comes down to for a potential career pilot is whether your "dream job" pays enough to make the training costs and years of lower pay worth it. I've posted a number of typical payrates below, starting with traditional time building jobs, to help you crunch the numbers.

Flight Instructor - major aviation college - $9/hr*
Flight Instructor - large flight school - $10/hr*
Flight Instructor - freelance/self employed - $30/hr*
Banner Towing - Southern CA - $400/week
Ameriflight (cargo)- Piston Twin captain - $24k/yr salary
Ameriflight (cargo) - Metroliner captain - $55k/yr salary

*Per instruction hour billed.

Note: To get income range for airline jobs posted below, multiply rate by minimum guarantee for lower end; use 95 hrs/mo as top end for regionals and 85 hrs/mo for LCC/Legacy airlines.

Regional First Officer:**

Great Lakes - Be1900 (19 seat turboprop):
1 year FO: $15/hr
Mesaba - SF-340 (34 seat turboprop):
3 year FO: $31/hr
ExpressJet ERJ-145 (50 seat jet):
3 year FO: $34/hr

Regional Captain:**

Mesaba SF-340:
5 year CA: $50/hr
Horizon Q400 (74 seat turboprop):
8 year CA: $81/hr
Skywest CRJ-700 (70 seat jet):
6 year CA: $65/hr
Mesa CRJ-900 (90 seat jet):
6 year CA: $69/hr

**75-76 hr/mo minimum guarantee - per diem not included.

Low Cost Carriers:+
Airtran B737
2 year FO: $56/hr
5 year CA: $120/hr

jetBlue A320
2 year FO: $56/hr
5 year CA: $121/hr

+ 70 hr/mo min guarantee - per diem not included.

Legacy Carriers: ++

American MD80
8 year FO: $97/hr
16 year CA: $154/hr

American B777
12 year FO: $133/hr
12 year CA: $196/hr

Northwest A320
8 year FO: $86/hr
12 year CA: $137/hr

United B737
6 year FO: $79/hr
10 year CA: $126/hr

++ 64-65 hr/mo min guarantee. Payscales top out at 12 years. NWA rates reflect Nov 14 interim agreement including new 24% cut.

Freight Carriers:

FedEx B727 - 74 hr/mo min guarantee.
5 year FO: $104/hr
8 year CA: $168/hr

Kitty Hawk B727 - 43 hr/mo min guarantee
5 year FO: $89/hr
8 year CA: $133/hr

UPS - All aircraft types - 81 hr/mo min guarantee
5 year FO: $97/hr
10 year CA: $184/hr

Corporate/Fractional Operations:

FlightOptions Midsize Jet
3 year FO: $4333/mo salaried
7 year CA: $6126/mo salaried

NetJets - All Types
3 year FO: $2470/mo salaried
7 year CA: $5630/mo salaried

Intel Corporation Flight Department
4 yr FO: $51,000/yr salaried


I would suggest going back & looking at the career progression post, reviewing how long you could expect to stay in each type of job, and how long you'd be at FO payscales vs. CA payscales. As a beginning instructor, you could be making $15k/yr or less. You will probably be a regional captain or fairly senior at a FAR 135 operation before breaking $50k/yr. And you may well upgrade at a major/national airline before exceeding the $100k/yr mark, which could easily be 10-15 years after you start out. When counting the cost, keep in mind that you will incur $20k-80k in training costs before your first instructing job (more on this in another post). If you are a potential career changer, subtract this amount from the money you could expect to earn over the next 15 years and compare it to your earnings expectations for that time period in your current job.

Of course, pay isn't everything. There are a lot of other factors in play, some of which we'll explore in the next few posts. Next post: benefits and retirement expectations.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Flying Careers Update

Egh, it's been a while since I've posted. I've just been pretty busy out here. I got sick during a trip, then my little brother drove out from MN for the weekend (!), I got flown into my day off on Monday, and now my friend Lori is here from Texas (she's the twin sister to our roommate, Kelly the airplane mechanic). We're heading to Cannon Beach today. Brr.

I'm not finished with the Flying Careers series. With the first posts, I pretty much covered the different jobs out there and the time & effort involved in working your way to the top. Any decision to start on that road should consider what awaits at the end, so my next few posts will be about pay, benefits, retirement, and lifestyle for various jobs in the field. I'll also discuss the pay and lifestyle one can expect in the various beginning and intermediate jobs, since one can expect to spend significant time in those positions, especially these days. After that, I'll discuss the training process and attendant costs, and conclude the series with a few words of advise (I mean, other than the many words of advise written so far!).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Winter Wonderland

While I've been concentrating on the Flying Careers series, a few things have happened out here. First, I got a new digital camera, an Olympus D595. I'll try not to lose this one. Secondly, I'm back on reserve this bid. The only reason I got a regular line the past two bids is because a few senior guys bid reserve. So I'm once again crew scheduling's whipping boy for the next month.

And, most importantly, winter has come to the Pacific Northwest! The past two weeks have seen a number of storms from the Gulf of Alaska dump quite a bit of snow on the Cascades & northern Rockies. A good early ski season is very good news for all the ski areas that got hammered by last year's mild winter. Timberline, Mt. Baker, and Crystal Mountain are already open; Mt. Hood Meadows, Snoqualmie, and Steven's Pass are all opening this weekend.

Above: Rocky Mountains northwest of Missoula, MT.
Below: Snow-covered peaks surrounding Lake Chelan in the northern Washington Cascades.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Flying Careers Part 4: Details

In the last post, I wrote about building the flight time required to compete for major airline job, or any other flying job that requires turbine PIC time. Getting hired by the majors, though, is about more than just flight time. The ideal candidate would have these additional qualifications:
  • Clean Criminal Record, Good Driving Record
  • No aviation accidents or FAA violations
  • 4-year College Degree
  • Letters of Recommendation from line pilots
Criminal & Driving Record
As a convicted felon, you may get a job flying freight in an old Beech 45 in, say, Nigeria. You will not be hired by any Part 121 or 135 operator in the U.S. Misdemeanors may not be disqualifying, but could present problems depending on the offense (alcohol & drug convictions are particularly problematic, this includes a Minor in Possession); you'll need to be upfront with any such issues during all job interviews. Basically, if you have a checkered past, flying is one career in which it will follow you.

Your driving record is somewhat less crucial. The only thing that's really problematic is a DWI or DUI. It is possible to get hired for some jobs with one on your record, but it rarely happens at the major airline level. Two convictions would be disqualifying for a FAA medical, much less a flying job. Other than alcohol-related driving offenses, a ticket or two probably won't harm you, but a long string of them will. You usually only have to answer for the most recent 5 years or so. Therefore, if you have a history of speeding tickets, change your driving habits now, before you even begin flight training.

Aviation Accidents
I won't say that it's impossible to get hired by a major after wrecking an airplane, but it's definately more difficult. The pilots you'll be competing against for the job don't have accidents on their records, so why should the airline pick you? Note that many companies' definition of "accident" goes beyond that of the NTSB. One of my former employers required an applicant to report "any accident or incident resulting in more than $500 damage to the aircraft."

Of course it's simplistic for me to say "don't have an accident." Nobody plans on having one. But, the knowledge that an accident could end your career should serve as motivation to exercise good judgement. When you're looking at a howling crosswind at a narrow runway and it's looking pretty marginal, it's something to keep in mind as you decide whether to go for it or not.

FAA Violations
Again, nobody plans on running afoul of the FAA, but it happens. And it can be very damaging to your career aspirations. You'll probably not be hired by any reputable operator with a revocation on your record. A suspension is also serious business, although a thirty-day "hand slapping" isn't neccessarily career-ending if you're honest about it on applications and in interviews. A letter of counsel in your file shouldn't be a problem, but again, it could come up in an interview.

For many years now, NASA has administered a program called Aviation Safety Reporting System, or ASRS. Under this program, pilots who realize they've violated a regulation can submit a report to NASA detailing what went wrong. They'll keep it confidential. If the FAA should subsequently take action against you for the violation, your receipt of the ASRS form serves as a "get out of jail" card, and in many cases the revocation or suspension cannot be carried out. Here's the problem: while you keep your certificates, the FAA action still goes on your record, for all prospective employers to see. So while ASRS is a good thing, it will not protect your career if the FAA catches you breaking regs. Again, this should provide additional motivation for you to do the right thing and follow the rules. Somebody's always watching.

College Degree
There are always those who will disagree with me that a 4-year degree is a neccessity. Yes, United hired guys without degrees in the 60's. No, jetBlue doesn't require one now. But the reality is that most airlines still require a 4-year degree, and you can be assured that you'll be competing for jobs against people who have them. So why give them a leg up on you? Besides, it won't kill you to get some education.

An aviation degree is not neccessary; in fact, I don't think it'll really help you. The airlines like to hire well-rounded individuals, and a degree in something outside aviation helps paint that picture. This is one area in which mid-life career changers have a leg up on the young pups: they'll typically already have a BS/BA degree, if not a master's or doctorate to boot.

Those without a degree, though, will have to make a choice: aviation, or something else? Aviation degrees do have advantages. You'll be hitting two birds with one stone, so to speak, and the quality of flight training is usually excellent. On the other hand, it would be nice to be qualified for another career if aviation doesn't work out, and many people go through flight training at the same time they're studying another subject in school.

A friend of mine did two years at a community college and got his A.S. degree. After getting hired at my company, he enrolled with Embry-Riddle's distance learning program for the additional coursework towards his four year degree. He did most of the studying while on airport reserve - getting paid to get his BS degree!

Whether an airline requires letters of recommendation or not, knowing somebody "inside" is crucial. Besides the letter, they can walk in your resumé to the right people, put a bug in someone's ear, and give you "gouge" for the interview. In my own case, I send my company resumés for nine fruitless months before my buddy Brad gave me a tour of the Ops Center and introduced me to one of the assistant chief pilots. I had an interview within the week.

The good news is that this is something you can start on right now, even before you begin flight training. If you have family friends or aquaintances that are professional pilots, seek them out and ask their advice. They'll be happy to offer it - pilots like to act like we have the answers! - and will potentially help you out in other ways down the road. The Internet offers other networking opportunities, through chatrooms & forums as well as blogs like this one.

Networking should begin long before you're ready to send out resumés. Past flight instructors are excellent contacts; keep in contact with them after you're done flying with them. The same goes for fellow students, particularly those you fly with while time building. Try to leave employers on good terms and keep in contact with old bosses. They will be excellent references down the road. Don't burn bridges if you can help it. Aviation is a small world, and you may be very surprised to see who's conducting your interview someday. Do everything you can to help others in their careers - they may well eventually be in a position to help you.


Hopefully by now you have a pretty good idea of the process of moving up in an aviation career, and a rough picture of the timeline involved. So what kind of pay and lifestyle can you expect while you're working towards your career goals? How about once you get there? Anybody considering an aviation career needs to be asking these questions. I'll provide some answers in my next post.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Flying Careers Part 3: Climbing the Ladder

So if, after reading my last posts, you decided that you want to become a career flight instructor, kudos, and I have some good news: You will begin your dream job shortly after completing flight training. No other experience is required, so you don't have to time-build. Enjoy your career!

Now for the rest of you, I suspect my posts did nothing to stop you from lusting after the left seat of a 747. Okay, there's nothing wrong with that, but you have a long, hard road ahead of you. This post is about the various paths you can take to get there. Although I'll be writing about becoming qualified for the major airlines, most of the process is the same for the best charter, corporate, fractional, and heavy freight jobs.

The Ideal Candidate
The major airlines have always been picky about who they hire; these days, with little hiring and many qualified candidates, they can afford to be as finicky as they want. To even be considered for an interview, much less hired, you must meet the airline's published minimums. For example, here are the minimum qualifications for Southwest Airlines:
  • Air Transport Pilot certificate
  • Class I medical
  • 2500 hours total time
  • 1000 hours turbine Pilot-in-Command
  • B-737 Type Rating
Most airlines do not require a type rating (although many corporate jobs do); in other respects, these are typical minimums for a major or national airline. Most interviewees will far exceed these minimums. The "ideal candidate" profile is something like this:
  • 5000+ hours total time
  • Several thousand hours as pilot in command of turbine aircraft, particularly under FAR 121, 135, or military
  • Four year college degree
  • Clean criminal record, good driving record
  • Several pilot recommendations
That's a pretty daunting resumé from the perspective of someone who has yet to begin flight training. I'll discuss the college degree, criminal/driving record, and recommendations in the next post; right now I want to examine the various ways of getting the required flight time. Unless you're close friends with, say, John Travolta, you'll be getting a flying job while the ink is still wet on your commercial certificate. I've looked at most of them in the last few posts, and you'll probably do several, including at least one to get that critical turbine PIC time. Let's look at a few possibilities.

The Regional Route
One rather popular option is to flight instruct only until you're able to get hired with a regional airline. You'll start in turbine equipment, but as a first officer (SIC). The turbine PIC time won't start until you upgrade to captain, which could take anywhere from a year to 5+ years. So, you should go where the upgrade time is shortest, right? Heh, not so quick. Upgrade time can change very quickly. I'd recommend you go somewhere that you'll be happy if things do slow down and the upgrade takes longer than planned. Case in point: Not long ago, Pinnacle Airlines' upgrade time was well under two years. Recently they parked 15 airplanes and a lot of FO's are facing a long stay in the right seat flying for substandard wages and work rules.

I'm going to mount my soap box for just this paragraph. As I'll discuss in future posts, the piloting profession has really taken a beating the past few years. Pay, retirement, and lifestyle have all suffered - first at the majors, and now at the regionals. Pilots willing to whore themselves for turbine PIC time are part of the problem. Ridiculously low labor costs encourages the major airlines to shift flying to bottomfeeder regionals, both from mainline and other regionals. The result: less flying at better-paid carriers, resulting in job losses as well as downward pressure on pay and work rules. These pilots are destroying the very major airline jobs that they are pursuing. If you concerned with building turbine PIC quickly, there are ways to do it that do not make airline pilots compete with you for their job (read on!). Look, if you decide to go the regional route, consider it as sacrificing quick turbine PIC for better pay and lifestyle. And choose an airline accordingly. Sermon over.

Freight Doggy Dogg - Turbine Style
As a FAR135 freight dog, your problem at the beginning is the opposite of the regionals: you'll usually start as PIC, but most likely in piston equipment. That's okay, because PIC piston twin time is more valuable than SIC turbine time. Get hired by someone who operates a lot of turbine aircraft, and you'll be logging turbine PIC much quicker than if you went to a regional. Most large Pt. 135 freight outfits fly turbine airplanes like Beech 99s and 1900s, Cessna Caravans, SA227 Metroliners, or even Learjets or Falcons.

As I've mentioned previously, you'll need 1200 hours total time to get hired, which may be more than regional airlines are requiring. No matter; the extra time flight instructing (or banner towing, traffic watch, etc) is well worth it if you get hired someplace that'll transition you to turbine equipment fairly quickly. Note that the pay and lifestyle may leave something to be desired, but no worse than a "bottomfeeder regional," and without destroying your future job at a major airline (my own opinion.) Also, the transition time to turbines tends to be much more stable than upgrade time at a regional. Actually, there are some operators that fly only turbine aircraft, but you'll need more experience, and possibly turbine time, to work for them. It's a possibility, though, if you have previous turbine time from, say, jump flying (see below).

A few potential problems with this approach: you'll be flying smaller aircraft than you would be at a regional, and a few major and national airlines (like jetBlue) require some flight time in aircraft over a certain gross weight. Also, the most popular turbine box-hauler is the Cessna Caravan, a single-engine airplane. Most airlines still credit this time towards their turbine PIC requirement, but make sure you have enough multi-engine time to be competitive.

One variation of this route is to haul boxes until you have your 1000 hours PIC time, and then go to a regional. That way, it will still be possible to apply to major airlines if upgrade takes longer than hoped for.

Although I write about freight dogging, Air Taxi may offer you a good opportunity to build turbine PIC as well. Note that most air taxi aircraft have two crew, so you'll start as a FO. Upgrade time will be most likely based on turnover, not growth, so I'd imagine it stays a little steadier than the regionals.

Closely related to Air Taxi operators, but actually flying under Part 121, would be scenic flight operators such as Scenic Airlines out of Las Vegas. The Twin Otter may not be the flashiest airplane in the world, but left seat time is turbine PIC!

Corporate Flying
As I've previously noted, corporate flying is really a separate career from airline flying. That said, it does offer a way to log turbine PIC while potentially enjoying better pay and lifestyle than a regional airline. Also, you can sometimes get hired with less flight time than you could at a regional or Part 135 operation. The key to that, though, is knowing someone. If you pursue this route, all I can say is network, network, network.

Note that most corporate flight departments are considerably smaller than any airline operation. Time to the left seat can swing wildly either way because it is based on individuals leaving, or buying/selling individual airplanes. A more surefire way to ensure turbine PIC time would be to get hired by a small flight department that flies single-pilot airplanes like the Pilatus PC-12, King Air C90, or Cessna CJ1. These, however, will require more flight experience to get hired.

Jump Flying
Recall that one of the advantages of flying skydivers vs flight instructing is the possibility of flying turbine, perhaps even twin turbine aircraft. Caravans, King Airs, and Twin Otters are all commonly used at larger jump zones. The good news: you can get hired with very little experience. The bad news: You'll likely be flying piston singles for a while before you get your hands on the Twotter. The other bad news: To my knowledge, no major airline has hired any pilot that did nothing but jump flying. Your instrument skills just go to seed, and it's really a world away from airline flying in terms of procedures. But, if you hire on with a large dropzone that operates a few turboprops, you could well get the 1000 hours turbine PIC fairly quickly and then go to an all-turbine freight operation or a regional airline.

Jet Vs. Turboprop
Given that major airlines fly jets, you'd think that they'd want pilots with jet experience, but it really doesn't matter. A turbine airplane is a turbine airplane, whether it's swinging propellers or high-bypass turbofans. In terms of career expectations, neither really gives you a leg up.

That said, there are a few generalizations that can be made. Jet flying is typically easier, given that you're cruising at an altitude above most of the turbulence, icing, and storms. You'll be flying longer stage lengths, so you can relax more than a turboprop pilot. As a turboprop pilot, you can expect to slog through lots of turbulence & ice, pick your way around big thunderstorms at uncomfortable altitudes, perform lots of takeoffs and landings, and fly lots of approaches, many of them non-precision approaches to podunk airports. Oh, and if you're flying a smaller turboprop you may not have an autopilot. So I'd say turboprop flying is harder than jet flying, but much better experience for you - and that's experience that you can point out at any interview, when they ask why they should hire you instead of the jet captain.

So, how long is all this gonna take, you ask? Good question; nobody has a good answer. The aviation industry has always been cyclical, but this really is the worst downturn yet. It remains to be seen how long it'll take the industry to recover, and what it'll look like when it does. I can give you some rough numbers based on current conditions, and hopefully things will pick up and your career progresses faster. My own philosophy is to plan for the worst & hope for the best.

If you go the regional route, I'd plan on instructing at least until 1000 hours total time. If you get hired sooner, great, but don't plan on it. From go from a freshly minted CFI with 300 hours to breaking 1000 hours will take from 6 months (116 hrs/mo) to 18 months (38 hrs/mo). It just depends on how busy of a school you're at. I personally took about 15 months, only 5 months of which was full-time instructing (was finishing my college degree). If you want to get on with a freight operation, plan on another 200 hours. During this time you'll need to get at least 100 hours of multi-engine time, either by instructing or buying a block of time.

Although some regionals have ridiculously low upgrade time (I believe I've already made my views clear on them...), that really only applies to experienced newhires since most also require 2500 hours total time to upgrade. Therefore, if you're hired on with 1000 hours, you'd need to spend 1500 hours in the right seat. That'll usually take at least 18 months, so you should consider that the absolute shortest upgrade time. It could range up to 6 years (Horizon, American Eagle) but a good average would be 3 years.

You'd have 1000 hours turbine PIC after 12 months - 2 years as captain. Depending on how long you spent as a FO, you'd have 3500-6500 hours total time by then, so you'd be well qualified to apply for major airline jobs. Total time since beginning flight instructing: between 48 months and 9.5 years. I'd put the average at 6 years - 1 as CFI, 3 as regional FO, 2 as regional CA.

Let's say you go the freight dog route. You can generally get hired at 1200 hours, which is to say between 8 months and two years of flight instructing. At Ameriflight, a 1200 hour newhire pilot could expect to be flying turbine equipment in about a year, and I believe it's similar at other operations with mixed piston/turbine fleets. In that time you'd likely be up to 1800-2000 hours total time. Twelve to 20 months of flying turbine equipment would put you at 1000 hours turbine PIC, with 3800-4000 hours total time - meeting the majors' requirements. Time expenditure is 32 months to 4.5 years since beginning flight instructing.

Let's look at a possible timeline for somebody who thinks outside the box. A plausible scenario would be to instruct for a few months, then get hired on at a busy drop zone at around 500 hours TT. After flying divers in piston singles for 500 hours (4 months to 1 year), fly the Caravan or Twotter for a similar length of time to get 500 hours turbine time (1500 total). With this experience, you could likely hire on with a turbine-only FAR 135 freight operation, flying Be99 or similar turbine twins. Another two years would put you at 3000-3500 hours total time with up to 2500 of that as PIC turbine - in good position to apply to major and national airlines. In this scenario, time expenditure is 3-4 years.

A Word About Age
Aviation seems to attract a lot of mid-life career changers. It is unfortunate, then, that the FAA will only allow airline pilots to fly until age 60. So how late is too late, and what's the best route for a "late bloomer?"

The average age of hire at major airlines is 35, or at least was during the hiring boom of the late 90's. Hiring pilots up to age 45 is fairly commonplace; older than 50 is pretty rare with the exception of furloughees from other major airlines. So I'd say you'd want to be eligible by age 45. If going the regional route, that means you'd need to be timebuilding as soon as age 35-39. If any older than that, I'd suggest looking at FAR135 freight or alternative jobs to get PIC turbine sooner and bypass the regionals.

Another alternative for career changers is to forget the majors altogether. If you start instructing at age 45, you could be hired at a regional by age 47 and still have 13 years of flying left. Or, you could go the corporate or FAR 135 routes. They have no mandatory retirement age, so long as you stay healthy. I would suggest that if you've made your millions and pay isn't much of an issue, consider being a career flight instructor. The flight training industry does need more mature instructors with some life experience behind them.


So hopefully you have a better idea of how long you could expect to stay in timebuilding jobs before being qualified for a major airline slot or other job requiring significant experience. Next I'll post briefly on some of the other requirements that major airlines have. After that, I'll go into more detail on career expectations regarding pay, lifestyle, etc, and also post on the training process up to getting your commercial/CFI certificates.

For comments: From your first flying job, how long did it take before you got your "dream job?" Was it longer or shorter than you expected when you started flying? Is there anything you would've done differently?