Flying Careers Part 3: Climbing the Ladder
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
- 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
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!
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.
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?