It was the spring of 2001, and after years of being foretold, the pilot shortage had finally arrived.
The major airlines’ hiring was in full swing, smaller upstarts like Southwest and JetBlue were rapidly expanding, and the regional airlines’ competitive minimums had fallen well below 1,000 hours. There were rumblings about slowing business-travel bookings for that summer and beyond, but this did little to darken the sunny outlook. Flight schools everywhere were jam-packed.
And yet, my own options appeared to be surprisingly limited. As a 20-year-old college student with fresh commercial and CFI tickets, there were few flying jobs available, and that first step from 300 to 1,000 hours looked like a formidable one.
Flight instructing appeared to offer the best chances of employment, and unlike many of my peers, I thought I would enjoy instructing and didn’t mind going that route. But even there, in the middle of an instructor shortage, flight schools were rather cool to the overtures of a newbie CFI they didn’t know. My first inquiries into summer instructing jobs went nowhere.
Finishing up an internship with Trans World Airlines, I got a hot tip from a regional pilot at my crashpad about a busy flight school in the Los Angeles area. They didn’t pay much, but their instructors flew a ton, and they were known to hire low-time CFIs.
My first email and phone call to the flight school manager garnered a noncommittal response. Undeterred, I jumpseated to LAX the next weekend and navigated LA’s abysmal public transit to Brackett Field (KPOC). The surprised manager offered me the job, pending completion of my certificated flight instructor-instrument (CFII) and certificated multi-engine instructor (MEI) ratings. I finished them in one week and went on to fly 400 hours in three months. This first experience proved crucial in jump starting my career—particularly considering the events of that September and the following years of aviation turmoil.
Twenty-two years later, so much in the industry has changed, and yet some things stay the same.
Today, despite a historic pilot shortage that puts the mini-shortage of the late ‘90s to shame, it is still remarkably difficult to land that first flying job—which, with the advent of the 1,500-hour rule, is more critical than ever. Aviation forums are full of newbies lamenting their inability to find a time-building gig. Another frequent topic, closely related, concerns many low-timers’ hesitancy to resign themselves to flight instruction. “Isn’t there a better way?” they ask.
I want to be clear here. There is a strong tendency in aviation for experienced pilots to dole out advice to newcomers based on their own career of 20 or 30 years past, and there’s also a common attitude of “I endured this, therefore you should endure it too.” Just because flight instruction worked out for me, and just because I mostly enjoyed it and was fairly good at it, does not mean it is the right path for everyone.
There are some very valid reasons not to want to instruct. It is hard work, carried out in basic aircraft of middling performance and sometimes varying states of maintenance in a noisy, cramped, and sometimes hot and turbulent environment. It is one of the more genuinely dangerous sectors of aviation, as detailed in this V1 Rotate episode. You don’t get to manipulate the controls that often. You have to be constantly alert, because students like to find novel and clever ways to kill you. This vigilance is hard to maintain if you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, teaching the same lessons over and over.
Not everyone is cut out to be an instructor. It requires organizational ability, good communication skills, steady nerves, and the patience of Job. The hours can be quite long and the pay, while somewhat improved since my day, is still nothing to write home about unless you can carve out a niche for yourself as an independent instructor. Depending on your area and what type of students you have, your income may be highly weather-dependent.
But the reality is that most of these things apply to every position that is realistically available to the 250-hour freshly minted commercial pilot. Basically, no matter what you do, your first flying job is likely to be hard, uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous work. It will probably involve unsexy aircraft, and it’s probably not going to pay a lot relative to the small fortune you’ve invested in training.
This is a bit tough for today’s new pilots to swallow, because they’ve heard so much about the unprecedented pilot shortage that has been raging for six or seven years and all the opportunities it has afforded. The hard truth, however, is that the shortage is unevenly distributed, and at present, there is no shortage of 250-hour pilots. In fact, at the moment there’s not even a shortage of 1,500-hour pilots!
Unless and until this changes, which I find unlikely given the current elevated volume of training, you will likely have to hustle for your first flying job, and your life just might suck for a year or two.
That said, your entry-level alternatives to flight instructing are essentially as follows, roughly ordered from easiest to hardest to break into:
- Buying flight time (perhaps via aircraft ownership): There are a surprising number of people doing this as they race to 1,500 hours. I think they may be surprised when they get there. I would be loathe to hire an airline pilot who had never proven the ability to hold down an aviation job. This is, by far, the most expensive option —but probably also the most enjoyable, particularly if someone else is footing the bill.
- Flying skydivers: This can yield a lot of flight time at busy drop zones (DZs), especially in good weather on the weekends. It may involve turbine aircraft such as Caravans or Twin Otters. Good stick and rudder flying but zero instrument experience, which may be off-putting to future potential employers. Smaller DZs may fly only Cessna 182s or 206s, and some have legendarily sketchy maintenance.
- Ferry flying: Good cross-country experience, getting to fly a wide variety of aircraft. Low barrier to entry; essentially, anyone can hang out their shingle as a ferry pilot (and many do). Initially unlikely to get enough time to be a full-time job unless hired by a well-established ferry operation.
- Towing advertising banners: This is primarily over tourist destinations in high season, notably the Florida beaches from November through April (some operations move north for the summer season). Hones stick and rudder skills, but strictly VFR with the same resumé implications as diver driving. Largely Piper Super Cubs and the like, and the tailwheel experience is a big plus.
- Traffic watch, fire spotting, pipeline patrol, fish spotting, aerial survey: these classic time-building jobs have all been partially replaced by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and I expect that trend will continue, but there are still some gigs out there. Fairly boring flying that involves long stints at cruise, but likely to build flight time fairly quickly.
- Aerial application (cropdusting): One of few time-building opportunities in many rural areas of the country. It can be tough to break into as today’s agricultural aircraft are fairly complicated and expensive, and this is a tough job to do well without experience. Demanding, relatively dangerous flying, and constant exposure to toxic chemicals carries long-term health implications.
- Part 135 SIC: Acting as PIC under FAR 135 requires 1,200 hours for IFR operations and 500 hours for VFR-only (common in Alaska and backcountry areas). However, many Part 135 operators use copilots where required by the aircraft type certificate, by their ops specs, or by their insurance carrier. This is high-quality time, often under IFR, that is attractive to future employers. You may be able to upgrade to PIC once you meet the time requirement.
- Private SIC: There is a growing segment of private owners that are required by insurance to operate with two crew, even in single-pilot aircraft, which can lead to opportunities for low-time pilots. These gigs traditionally pay little and offer spotty flight time, and in some cases, you may need to get a type rating (which has become incredibly expensive). But entry as a 250-hour pilot is absolutely possible, if you know the right people.
- Business Jet SIC: Once unthinkable as an entry-level gig, today’s regional pilot pay has robbed corporate flight departments of enough applicants that average SIC-hire times have fallen considerably. I’ve heard of multiple pilots getting hired into bizjets with minimal time in the last year, but it’s still far from the norm.
What all these jobs have in common is that they are all less prevalent than flight instructing positions, some are confined to particular areas of the country, and many of these jobs—particularly in twin-engine and turbine equipment—are extremely dependent on who you know, especially as a low-timer. This is one reason that I place so much emphasis on networking early in your career.
If you, for whatever reason, have decided that flight instructing is not for you, then you need to really up your networking game, and you also need to have a high degree of geographic flexibility. If you’re not able to move or you haven’t networked extensively, I’d suggest you give flight instruction a second look. I’ve listed a lot of the negatives above, but there are some pretty great positives, too.