Professional pilot. What was the first image you just thought of? If it was an airline pilot, you’re probably like most everyone else in the country. There are many opportunities to earn a living in a variety of careers in aviation outside of the traditional airline track, however! Below are a few options to get you started.
Also known as “crop dusters”, ag pilots perform a critical function for the farmers of America’s agricultural industry. According to the National Agricultural Aviation Association, there are approximately 2,700 ag pilots in the United States with an average age exceeding 50 years old (2015). These pilots will soon be retiring, leaving a unique window of opportunity for those interested in pursuing this exciting path.
Requirements to be an ag pilot include holding a commercial pilot certificate with the respective ratings for the aircraft you’ll be flying (airplane or rotorcraft), a second class medical, a pesticide license for each state you operate in, and being able to meet the insurability requirements for the aircraft you will be flying.
While flying is a significant aspect of the job, there’s more to being an ag pilot than just hopping into the plane or helicopter each morning. It requires a thorough understanding of the chemicals you are applying and knowledge of the crops you are working with. You can expect your first two years on the job to consist of learning the ground operations as a chemical loader before gradually transitioning to the flight side.
Additionally, ag aviation is a seasonal industry. How many crops can you think of that grow in the middle of December? During the summer, ag pilots are up before sunrise and work until the temperature gets too hot for their chemicals to be applied or until the sun goes down, whichever occurs first. In the offseason, ag pilots may work other jobs or complete continuing education in the ag industry.
Most ag pilots are paid based upon the number of acres they treat, with incomes ranging from $20,000-40,000 for first year pilots and rising to $60,000-100,000 for more experienced pilots.
For more information about an ag aviation career, just read this article about Upper Limit Aviation alum Caleb Mason.
Corporate aviation is another opportunity for an aspiring commercial pilot. According to the NBAA, there are approximately 15,000 business aircraft registered in the United States (2015). These vary from small, single-engine piston aircraft to large, multi-engine transport category aircraft to helicopters. All of these aircraft require someone to fly them! While the first thing that may come to mind when you think of corporate aviation is a Fortune 500 flight department, according to the NBAA only 3% of the U.S. business aircraft fleet is registered to a Fortune 500 company. The rest are operated by smaller companies such as your local supermarket chain or a local law firm.
One exciting aspect of corporate aviation is the variety of airports you will operate into compared to your airline colleagues. According to the NBAA, corporate aviation reaches 10 times the number of airports that U.S. airlines operate into. Rather than fly the New York to Boston milk run for the fourth time in two days, as a corporate pilot, you may fly into Grand Island, Nebraska one day and Jackson Hole, Wyoming the next.
The minimum requirements for obtaining a job as a corporate pilot are a commercial pilot certificate and a second class medical. If the company aircraft requires a type rating, you will, of course, need that as well. Many companies, however, will have established internal hiring minimums, whether as a matter of safety or to meet applicable insurance requirements for the aircraft. Generally, the larger the company and more advanced the aircraft, the higher you can expect the requirements to be.
The pay for a corporate pilot also varies widely from $37,000 as a first officer on a small business jet to upwards of $190,000 as a captain on a Gulfstream 650, according to a 2014 survey conducted by Professional Pilot magazine (Salary study, 2014). In return for these generous salaries, however, you can often expect to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, rather than have the predictable schedule of an airline pilot.
Also referred to as “air taxi” or “on-demand” flying, charter aviation is very similar to corporate aviation. The main distinction is that on-demand flying operates under Part 135 of the Code of Federal Regulations while most corporate flying operates under Part 91.
While Part 91 does not have any explicit regulatory minimums, Part 135 flying does. In order to act as pilot-in-command under IFR during a Part 135 operation, you must hold a commercial pilot certificate and second class medical, have at least 1,200 hours total time, 500 hours cross country, 100 hours night flying experience, and 75 hours of instrument time. In some cases, you must hold an airline transport pilot certificate rather than just a commercial certificate. The requirements to act as pilot-in-command on a VFR flight are slightly less. In this case, you only need 500 hours total time, 100 hours cross country, and 25 hours of night flight (14 CFR Part 135, 2015).
Examples of this type of flying include Grand Canyon sightseeing flights, medical transport companies, or on-demand cargo companies flying small piston or turbo-prop airplanes between small outstations. Some charter companies do operate larger, turbine powered aircraft however.
According to the 2014 Pro Pilot study mentioned earlier, pay as a charter pilot on the low end is comparable to that of an entry-level corporate pilot, with high end salaries for a charter Gulfstream captain topping out around $149,000 per year. Pay will, of course, vary by company, aircraft type, and region.
Law enforcement aviation is another opportunity for those who are interested in being a professional pilot, but also want to serve their communities. As a law enforcement pilot, you may fly either fixed wing airplanes or helicopters. On any given day, your mission may be to provide airborne assistance to ground units in traffic enforcement, manhunt or search and rescue operations. Additionally, some state law enforcement agencies also provide executive air transport for senior state government officials (OHP, 2015).
In order to become a law enforcement pilot, many agencies require you to first spend some time as a ground based law enforcement officer to get an idea of what those officers are going through while you are in the air. Additionally, during times of budget reductions, you may be sent back to being a ground based officer if the need for aviation law enforcement manpower cannot be funded. If this does not appeal to you, you might give a second thought to this career path.
Salaries and benefits for law enforcement pilots are often comparable to that for ground based law enforcement and varies widely by region, though the benefits and job security are often good, as with most government positions. Minimum requirements, as a rule of thumb, are a commercial pilot certificate and second class medical.
While being an airline pilot can be one of the great careers in aviation, don’t be a victim of tunnel-vision. There is an abundance of other opportunities available to those seeking a career as a professional pilot outside of the traditional airline track. All you have to do is find them!