There is a dilemma that faces every person thinking about a career in aviation: how do you bridge the gap between your training and your first job? In the fixed-wing world a pilot might complete his training with three hundred hours while a helicopter pilot finishes closer to 200. In both cases a pilot is looking at a 500 to 1000 hour minimum for her first real job in the industry. In this blog I’d like to cover some of the strategies for bridging the gap and talk about my personal plans. Of course we’ll have to wait and see how I actually cross that bridge once I get to it!
The established path for building time is instructing. Almost everyone that I tell this to is shocked. Do I mean to say that the instructors at most schools are the most inexperienced and lowest-time pilots in the industry? Yes. But that’s the way the industry works. The main reason for this is simple economics. Instructing jobs are low paying so they do not attract experienced pilots. But there are some good arguments for having new pilots instruct before starting their professional careers.
First, most of us already recognize the fact that you must understand concepts on a much deeper level in order to explain them to another person. We have probably all scratched our heads when asked to explain something we thought we knew backward and forward and suddenly found ourselves at a loss for words. The time that a new pilot spends instructing should cement the fundamental concepts while they are still fresh. And that brings me to the second fact. Pilots who have just finished school are the most familiar with the material and the fastidious nature of the exams. Every professional, no matter what trade, knows that there are many ways to accomplish a task. And most of these ways are not “by the book.” However, in order to complete the task of earning your certificates you must be able to do everything by the book, there are no exceptions. Further down the road in your career you may find flexibility and more freedom, but those things are not part of your training. And this is the reason why it is good to have instructors who are familiar with the book.
Let me touch briefly on the certificates or ratings that pilots work through on their way to a career. It all starts with a Private Pilot certificate. This is the first step for fixed-wing or rotorcraft. Second comes the Instrument rating. Simply put the instrument rating allows a pilot to fly in conditions where she cannot see the horizon for visual reference. While people imagine flying in a white-out or fog the more practical purpose of an Instrument rating is simply flying through clouds to access the better flying conditions above. After Instrument is the Commercial certificate. A commercial allows a pilot to fly for money. Then there are the CFI and CFII certificates. These are Certified Flight Instructor and Certified Flight Instructor Instrument, the later meaning that you can teach students pursuing their Instrument rating. In the fixed-wing world there are more ratings: multi-engine, tailwheel, and sea plane for example. Helicopter ratings are simpler though and the only thing after your CFII is a rating called Airline Transport Pilot or ATP.
All serious schools offer a path from zero hours to CFII and they then look to graduating students to fill the slots of flight instructors who are moving on to their first industry jobs. It sounds simple but it is easy to imagine that schools will not always have enough students to hire another instructor when you graduate. And perhaps it is taking a while for the current instructors to build enough time to move on. These are the hurdles one must jump to reach even the first step, a job instructing, toward 1000 hours.
Instructing is not the only way to build time though. When told about my idea of becoming a pilot a friend of mine in Antarctica told me I should buy a plane. Sounds crazy, right? But actually small trainer airplanes are cheap, less than thirty thousand dollars, and hold their value quite well when maintained. That was how he built time. Other options in the fixed-wing world are flying skydivers or towing banners. Both of these jobs are available to low-time pilots because they are flown in good weather and normally out and back from one airport. There are also no passengers on these flights. (Interestingly the FAA does not consider a skydiver a passenger because she does not return to the airport with the aircraft!)
When it comes to helicopters buying an aircraft is not as realistic. Helicopters are expensive, even the trainers. They are also expensive to maintain. And they do not hold their value. But there are some other options. The main one is agricultural spraying. This is a career in and of itself that requires familiarity with crops, pests, and many other facets of the industry. Pilots are expected to be much more than just pilots. They drive trucks, pumps pesticides, and fly the helicopters too. Rumor has it that these positions are in high demand and pay well. Though it may not be glamorous it could offer a way to build time and get real world experience without instructing. I have also heard that many of the Ag spraying companies want commitment from their pilots, perhaps 5 years of work, in exchange for their early employment. One other way to build time is ferrying aircraft. Companies have to move their fleet around the country, and sometimes around the world, to meet the needs of their contracts and this is a way that many pilots build extra time. It’s hard to learn anything about ferrying; it seems to be a word of mouth type of job. Most pilots I’ve met got their first opportunities to ferry aircraft through their instructors.
So what’s my plan? My plan is to do whatever it takes! If all goes well I will be hired at the school where I get my instruction and work there until I get my first industry job. While I’d like to go the traditional route I’ll be open to other options and quick to try something different is instructing does not fit the bill. My main fear about instructing is slow progress to the 1000 hour mark. It is of particular importance to me because of my age. At 36 I do not have the luxury of taking 5 or 6 years to get my first industry job, at least that is my current opinion. A good school could get you through your ratings and up to 1000 hours in about 2 years, but that is with extraordinary hard work and diligence on your part. With some good fortune thrown in as well. And this all leads into the next topic, how does one pick a school among the overwhelming number of options?