Maybe airline flying can wait?

Following on from the much publicised BALPA warning not to begin professional pilot training and the general doom and gloom around the aviation industry recently, I thought it would be useful to go over once again the various options for those who are simply unwilling (quite rightly in my opinion) to give up on their dream.

I have been around long enough to have experienced quite a few booms and busts in my aviation career and not that long ago it was just considered normal that from time to time your career took a backward step. You might even have had to step away from it completely for a few years and find something else to “bring home the bacon” only to return phoenix like (!) to a flying job once more when things started to improve. More recently, the meteoric (pre-covid) increase in global air travel had created a simply staggering requirement for a constant supply of new pilots. Flying training organisations across the world sprang up to satisfy that demand – simple market forces in action.

But you know what it didn’t used to be like that, at least not in the countries in which I cut my aviation teeth. Airlines wouldn’t even consider you unless you had at least 1500 hrs and very healthy twin time. To achieve the dizzy heights of decent salary, pension, benefits, proper roster and a peaked cap to boot, you were expected to have properly served your apprenticeship. This meant building hours and experience with whichever employer/s you could convince to actually take you on in whichever aircraft they would trust you, doing whatever they thought you might be capable of! Conditions could be harsh at times and remuneration was underwhelming (and often sporadic, even non-existent) but at least you were on the right road to your ultimate goal.

I am not dragging all this up just to fit the stereotype that “everything was tougher in my day” but rather to remind us all that there are other ways than the airlines to earn money by flying. Competition for these alternative roles may well be fierce in the current climate but then if you can’t handle a competitive job market then perhaps consider another career! Also, there is absolutely no substitute for experience or plain simple hours in the air, no matter what the role is, as long as you are determined to derive absolutely every possible ounce of value from each and every hour. Along the way you might also get the opportunity to live and work in other countries and see and do things you never imagined.

This often-nomadic lifestyle does not have to be the sole domain of young free and single types. Those with partners and/or families can be found all over the world, very far from home, flying for a living. I dragged my (surprisingly willing!) young family around various countries whilst climbing the slippery pole. Having said that, opportunities may also be closer to home and even part time, so that you can continue in your current occupation until ready to take the full-time plunge. If you want or need to explore opportunities in other countries then rest safe in the knowledge that an EASA professional pilot qualification is very well regarded and accepted/simply validated or converted in most parts of the world.

The airline industry will recover. Opinion differs as to when and as to how much it will recover compared to pre-covid days – but recover it will…and you will be ready, waiting and experienced which is just what any future employer will want. Not only that you will have demonstrated the drive, determination, and imagination to succeed. Which employer wouldn’t seek those qualities in their staff? The Aviation industry will never learn. Quick to fire when times are tough and then ridiculously desperate to hire when it picks up again. Make sure you are there when they need you most!

Finally, this is exactly why there is (thankfully) a modular route to pilot qualification and employment. Because for some people it is a complex balancing act of job, commitments, finances, family and well…just real life. I salute them, because I’ve been there myself and know how tough it can be sometimes. The modular route also puts you in control and when things seem to be becoming increasingly out of control around you that’s not only vital in keeping the dream alive but it’s also particularly good for your own morale and well-being.

Anyhow, back to those other flying jobs. Of course, some of you reading this may be in such a role already, maybe in another country under a different license or perhaps you have been there done that and have the hours in the book! This brief overview is mainly to highlight the other available opportunities for pilots new to the industry. Even though it seems the helicopter folks have been much less affected by the covid restrictions, the roles/opportunities will cover both aeroplanes and helicopters where applicable. Many of them will be restricted to those with reasonable commercial experience but it’s good to know that they exist – even if it may have to be down the line a little!

Cargo Carriers (Fixed Wing)

Probably for those with some time in the bag (or the right contacts or both) but with carriers such as DHL reporting rapid airfreight revenue growth companies like these will be worth watching closely. A quick check on the DHL website shows they are not currently recruiting First Officers but that could change quickly. Federal Express have quite high requirements in terms of hours and experience but could be something to aim for in a year or two after some concerted hour building? There are, of course, many other smaller air freight companies that could be worth investigating.

Corporate Aviation (Fixed Wing and Helicopter)

This could be with a company providing personal and business travel services or even for a private owner. Its fair to say that both avenues are influenced to a greater or lesser degree by recessionary forces. In the helicopter private owner world, it was often referred to as the “ABC syndrome”. When times were tough the first thing to go was the Aircraft, then the Boat and finally the (fancy) Car! But still, in the past this was perceived as an established direct entry route to airline flying if you wanted it and still is in many countries. Actually, the job itself and associated salary is more than adequate for many pilots, who enjoy it’s varied nature.

Skydiving pilot (Fixed Wing)

Although helicopter pilots have been known to throw suitably equipped persons out of their aircraft this is predominantly a fixed wing opportunity! The aircraft will have to be fairly large and perform well (think Cessna 182 upwards) and often these days with a turbine engine so hours requirements will generally be stipulated by the insurance companies. A Cessna Caravan pilot may need in the region of 500 hrs PIC and the appropriate SET rating but for smaller aircraft less hours may suffice. Expect to do as many as 30 landings a day. Although the whole idea is to get up and down as quickly as possible the hours will build steadily and the role is better experience than you might think. Imagine having to deal with a constantly shifting load of super excited jumpers and making sure they exit at exactly the right place, at the right altitude at the perfect speed every time! This is precision flying for sure.

Skydiver about to jump out of a small aircraft

Fire Fighting/spotting (Fixed Wing and Helicopter)

The aircraft used in these roles vary wildly. There is even a Boeing 747 fire bomber! Mostly the spotter aircraft will be small single engine aircraft. This is a role in which some experience of flying small, underpowered aircraft is often preferred. Also, those with agricultural experience (see below) or corporate flying are often recruited. These types of pilots understand away from home experience, diverse cross-country routes and “mixing it” with unpredictable weather low level often in mountainous areas. Mostly in the form of seasonal contracts, there seems to be a move to more full-time employment conditions. Although it is a sad fact for the flora and fauna that it affects, there is no doubt that firefighting from the air is a growth industry across those regions that routinely and increasingly suffer such events. Obvious locations include Africa, Australia and certain parts of the US but closer to home we are likely to see more of this in southern, arid parts of Europe, such as Spain and Portugal in the coming years.

Survey/line & pipeline patrol (Fixed wing and helicopter)

Both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters are employed in this role all over the world. I imagine that drones will take on some of this in the future but there is still plenty of work out there in this role for relatively low time pilots. Also, the aircraft used tend to be light, relatively simple/robust and as cost effective as possible – much like your average training aircraft!  – so, you might find yourself with the required rating and experience sooner than you think. It can be demanding flying, especially in helicopters, and often requires a high degree of autonomy as you will often manage the operation far away from home base support and comforts.

Air Ambulance/Medical Transfer (Fixed Wing & Helicopter)

Probably a 1500 hr plus job for helicopter pilots and even higher for fixed wing pilots, although, of course, opportunities and requirements will vary hugely from country to country. Helicopter roles will be predominantly single pilot, but occasional fixed wing co-pilot roles do appear from time to time for the turboprop and business jet type aircraft utilised.

Agricultural pilot/Crop dusting (Fixed Wing & Helicopter)

This role will obviously require much additional specialist training with most countries having an agricultural rating with associated ground and flight test. Then there is the required intimate knowledge of the chemicals you are spraying and how to spray them most efficiently and safely. Pilot turnover in this industry tends to be quite low with many pilots making good money (as much as 100000 USD in the States for example) with those owning their own spraying business doing even better. Of course, it is a highly demanding role with the inherent risk associated with low level flying, but the importance, intricacy and dangers of the job all contribute to the positions increasing salary. Entry level pilots may make 20,000 USD equivalent or thereabouts (if you can find a company that will take you on) but as previously mentioned the skills you acquire in this role can make you ideally suited to others such as fire-fighting, with many agricultural pilots earning good money from doing both.

A cropduster sprays chemicals onto a corn field in Arkansas 

Salesman pilot/aircraft ferrying/aerial photos (Mostly Fixed Wing)

I have lumped these together since they all have one thing in common. Nobody really knows how you actually set out to get a job like this! I have known pilots that have done these jobs and have done a bit of aircraft ferrying myself but you kind of fall into it. There you are one day minding your own business when someone says “can you ferry this aircraft from A to B for me” and that’s it…great fun it is too, although I have to wonder about the sanity of those remarkable pilots that routinely ferry single engine aircraft from the states to Europe! Not sure that since the arrival of drones anyone takes photos from a Cessna 150 anymore, but I guess flight instructors are still tasked with this job from time to time?

Aid/NGO/Charity work (Fixed wing and Helicopter)

A quick Google search brings up an opportunity “Relief Aid Bush Pilot” with a well-known aviation NGO in Africa. Captains and Co-pilots wanted for Cessna 208s with TT/PIC minimums of 750/500 & 450/100 respectively. A sense of adventure is non-negotiable for a role like this of course and often requires lengthy tours of duty, but what an experience!

A pilot goes to take off in a small aircraft in a sandy field

Flight Instructor (Fixed Wing and Helicopter)

Last but definitely not least, the noble art of flight instruction. Probably still one of the best ways to get those first 500-1000 hours, although believe it or not some people like it so much that they never do anything else!

I have to admit that until I became a flight instructor (relatively late in my career) I used to rather look down on this type of commercial flying. By the time I had made it to CFI, however, I began to realise that I had experienced what was quite possibly the most challenging and rewarding part of my career thus far.

Yes, we all know that the salaries are generally pretty low, at least for elementary training in simple aircraft but a single person can survive on these lean pickings well enough. If it’s not enough for your own personal situation then rather consider doing it part time. In any event what you get back in spades is great hour building and superb experience.

It is only when you try and teach someone else how to do something that you really analyse properly how you do it yourself! This forces you to perfect your flying skills but more importantly you quickly get into the unbreakable habit of always flying as accurately and as well as you can – call it professional pride, call it what you like but to me it is the hallmark of a proper commercial pilot, always wanting to be as good as you can be.

I have often been asked whether brand new commercial pilots should even be teaching others to fly. Well, in my own particular team of instructors I had all ages and levels of experience. Just as thousands of hours don’t necessarily make you a good pilot, they don’t necessarily make you a good instructor either. Some people have just got it, some people can learn to teach perfectly well enough and others have no business doing it at all. Besides, the older and more experienced instructors will tend to handle the more advanced training anyway, when passing on commercial knowledge is more relevant.

In the early days of flying what a student pilot mostly requires is empathy and understanding. You could argue who better to provide this than someone who has just gone through the training? You will understand the highs and lows, the roadblocks, the frustrations and readily recall how you and your fellow students overcame them. The other thing you will learn is how to manage a flight, proper Captaincy, because you are not just managing the aircraft and yourself, you are also ensuring the safety and general wellbeing of your student. Lastly when it’s your time to be in the left hand seat of a large and complex commercial aircraft your co-pilot will certainly appreciate the time you take to pass on your knowledge in an appropriate and effective manner since it’s a skill you never lose.

In summary, absolutely the effect of COVID-19 on the aviation industry (particularly airlines) has been unprecedented and it serves no purpose to deny the seriousness of the situation. This is not your average “bust” for sure. Yet for those who are determined to seek them there will still be opportunities now and in the near future, particularly whilst the airline industry is still recovering. Timing in life is everything and at least with the modular route you retain control of that. In the meantime, maybe look at other potential flying jobs with a fresh perspective. Having been focused for any length of time on the goal of Airline flying it can be hard to divert to a different destination but if your ultimate goal is a rewarding and stimulating career as a pilot then maybe that airline job can simply wait until the time is right?

I have not been trying to give advice or recommend a course of action (I’ll leave that to BALPA!). All I hope is that you remain positive and recognise there are other ways to get where you want to be. Stay well and stay positive because trust me, it’s worth it.

Matt Hayes TKI Bristol Groundschool