Unique Aviation Careers in Specialty Flight Training

The demand for specialty flight pilots is increasing, which requires additional trainers. The potential job growth is expanding on a global level.

Aviation Careers Specialty Flight Training

Aviation Careers Specialty Flight Training

Inside the cockpit, specialty flight trainers work one-on-one
with pilots. (Courtesy of Draken International)

The FAA counted 100,993 Certified Flight Instructors (CFIs) on its rolls at the end of 2014. How many conduct advanced pilot training for specialties ranging from Search & Rescue (SAR) to crop dusting is unknown, but "demand is going up dramatically," says Mo Rolfs, chief operations officer at Flying Tiger Aviation in Rayville, Louisiana, which trains pilots for agricultural aerial application (crop dusting), aerial firefighting, and other utility missions. Sean "Stroker" Gustafson, vice president of Business Development at Draken International in Lakeland, Florida, whose pilots provide combat training for U.S. and Allied fighter pilots, says the need for instructors like he hires is "expanding on a global level."

Career Description: Train professional pilots to improve or learn new skills, either to seek employment opportunities or enhance their operational effectiveness, be their mission protecting a crop from blight or a homeland from foreign threats. Draken's instructors fly platforms including the A-4K Skyhawk and Aermacchi MB-339CB, outfitted with electronic systems mimicking hostile forces, performing as "aggressor squadrons." Utility instruction involves teaching both flying skills and operations of the technology these professions rely on. "It takes a good stick and rudder," says Rolfs of ag flying, "[but] it takes just as much systems knowledge in order to do it effectively and efficiently."

Job Requirements: Specialty instructors require real-world experience. Draken's are former military pilots, but many qualified prospects, after leaving the military, fly for airlines says Gustafson, who flew with the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds. Flying Tiger prefers pilots with a minimum of 500 hours of flight experience in their fields, and expects its ag ops instructors to work as crop dusters three to six weeks per year to stay current and maintain practical experience.

Educational Foundation: Specialty instructors need no degree, but employers appreciate a formal aviation education; Draken's CEO, Jared Issacsman, is an Embry Riddle grad. Gustafson recommends military aviation as the best career path to becoming a jet fighter instructor. Rolfs, himself a former Air Force A-10 pilot, got his start in specialty instructing as a student at Flying Tiger, and after working as an ag pilot, bought the company.

Who's Hiring: Training companies worldwide need qualified instructors, Rolfs and Gustafson say, and their own firms are always on the lookout for qualified candidates. Draken currently has 10 fulltime and 10 contract pilots.

Salaries: Starting salaries for instructors at Draken are on a par with a first officer with several years experience at a major airline, which is generally in the $70-$90,000-plus range. At Flying Tiger, turbine instructors earn $250 per hour, advanced piston instructors earn $75, and primary instructors get $45; ground instruction pays $20 per hour. Outside ag work brings in an additional $30,000 per year, Rolfs says.

Career Prospects: While demand for agricultural pilots is increasing worldwide, the average age of the pilot corps is 56, Rolf says, putting a squeeze on the supply of instructors. Gustafson notes the deployment of the F-35 is creating a growing need for advanced combat training, which companies like Draken can provide at a much lower cost than can governments.

Benefits: Instructors can take pride and satisfaction in knowing the pilots they train are performing some of the aviation world's most vital jobs, be it SAR, helping feed the world, or keeping nations safe.

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