In their pursuits of aviation employment, many pro-pilots-to-be consider the Part 121 left seat position to be the pinnacle of the pilot career ladder. There’s good reason for such a widespread belief. After all, the position is highly visible, well respected, and fairly lucrative. Additionally, it’s not a job that’s attainable in the manner most professions can be entered. Those who secure such a position do so only after years of industry experience and a host of sacrifices along the way.
M.D., J.D., Ph.D., ATP
Perhaps I’m overly biased, but I’ve always viewed the ATP certificate as being roughly equivalent to a doctorate-level credential. Think about it. The minimum qualifications can only be attained after a considerable outlay of time, effort, and money. Once you meet these experience requirements, earning the certificate is still a formidable challenge. Holding an ATP shows you’ve honed your skills and knowledge to an expert level of airmanship.
But Not Good Enough
Even once you’ve earned the ATP, you can expect to spend the next several years accruing on-the-job experience before you can even hope to enter the cockpit of a major airliner. Once you do, you’ll be holding down the right seat for a long time. By the time you’re able to upgrade to major airline captain, you’ll have several times the flight experience as many other pilots who also hold the industry’s highest credential. It’s a very long, difficult road to realize this dream; so it’s no surprise that airline captain ranks as the envy of the industry.
While major airline captain is probably the most difficult of pilot jobs to attain, it’s hard to say it’s the best position for a professional aviator. After all, best by definition is a subjective term; one that varies (sometimes substantially) from person to person. The ideal aviation position for a given person depends on his/her lifestyle choices, values, personality, and other personal preferences. Let’s take a look at some other pilot options that, while maybe not the top jobs by industry consensus, could be the best job for you to realize your career goals.
Part 135 Pilot
The charter route is a good choice for pilots who like variety. Part 135 fliers get to visit a variety of destinations & airports, fly a mix of passenger types, work varying schedules, and (sometimes) fly a range of aircraft models. In many such setups, the aircraft used are small enough that you don’t need to worry about coordinating with cabin crewmembers. Additionally, if you have the right contacts, it’s often possible to nail down a charter position without all the barriers to entry characteristic of the Part 121 world. You also stand a good chance of being based at a nearby airport, which saves you the hassle of a multi-state commute.
While variety is the name of the game, flexibility is a must if you hope to last in the on-demand world. You must be willing to depart at any hour, sleep in FBO recliners, and remain on call for much of your career. Don’t plan on spending the holidays with your family, either. Chances are good you’ll be working away while everybody else is at play. This also isn’t something that you’ll usually be able to shake as you gain seniority. Whereas junior airline pilots are the ones subject to reserve duty and undesirable schedules, that’s just business as usual for the charter set. If you’re okay with that, charter can be a nice gig. If not, you’d best look elsewhere for long-term employment.
Part 91 Ops
Private (usually business) operations often bear a strong resemblance to Part 135 flying. The chief difference is that rather than flying anyone and everyone, you’ll only be piloting for one company or group of individuals. In many cases, such positions lend themselves to comfortable duties with cushy benefits.
Does your organization’s top brass attend a weeklong industry convention every year? If so, you might get the equivalent of a mini vacation somewhere like Las Vegas – only that the company will be covering your expenses (and paying you wait time). Do they frequently do business with foreign multinationals? Can you say Bienvenue à Paris? Maybe the company sponsors a pro sports team or stadium; giving them (and you) access to incredible tickets. At times, private corporate flying can offer perks that even senior airline captains don’t enjoy – and you still get paid to fly!
Before you forsake all other employment channels, realize that such benefits won’t come without a price. If you can’t stand flying (a) certain member[s] of the organization, know that said individuals might be frequent passengers; thus making the proverbial passenger from hell experience a regular occurrence. Additionally, if times get tough, the aircraft (and its crew) are often the first items cut from the budget. When this happens, even super seniority won’t necessarily save you from a layoff.
Not much of a people person? If that’s the case, cargo ops might be the route to follow. As a freight flier, you won’t have to worry about the payload complaining of turbulence, delayed departures, or your less-than-stellar landing. As cargo is often flown at night, this makes a great option for the night owls among us. In terms of career stability, shipping is typically less susceptible to the effects of the economy than the passenger equivalent. Also, as globalization continues to develop, international shipping needs will likely remain strong for the foreseeable future.
Gregarious types might really enjoy the aviation sales arena. As a demo pilot, you’ll be flying brand spankin’ new aircraft with prospective purchasers. Have a knack for sales? If so, you have a huge potential to cash in on the referrals you make and the deals you help close – to the tune of around $1,000 per aircraft (possibly more for bizjet/transport category birds). Just imagine the possibilities if you’re able to convince a flight school to choose a fleet of your equipment over the competition. For the right person, this Part 91 gig could easily outshine the offerings available in the airline arena.
If you’re not a big fan of spending multi-hour stretches in the cockpit, know that demo flights are typically short events. You also don’t have to worry much about flying in bad weather or keeping night current. Instead, you can expect to enjoy blue skies as you slip the surly bonds. This option is also great for the family oriented; as you can often look forward to being home most nights.
On the downside, conducting demo flights day in and day out can get incredibly monotonous. You’ll be flying the same aircraft, giving the same spiel, demonstrating the same features – only the customers’ faces will change. There’s also the possibility that if the economy slows and production is halted, the company will view you as an additional expense that can be cut until better times.
Though it’s hard for some to believe, a healthy percentage of the career-oriented pilot world is perfectly happy staying on the CFI rung for life. I’ve encountered many excellent pilots over the years who are completely content in the right seat of a decades-old 152. Such people are teachers at heart who enjoy nothing more than helping others succeed. For them, personal satisfaction trumps a captain’s hat any day of the week.
To knock the stereotype, I want to point out that opting for a flight instruction career doesn’t mean accepting a life of poverty. Even though it is often considered a low time pilot job, Several CFIs perennially bring home a respectable income. John & Martha King even built an empire on their instructor certificates. As a full-time CFI, you have many opportunities to earn a predictable paycheck (take a look at university programs). If this sounds like your true calling, don’t overlook the career just for the sake of greater pay or prestige somewhere else.
Besides the airline option, I’ve listed only five possible career choices to earn a living as a professional pilot. There are loads more out there if you’re willing to consider the options. Careers as delivery pilots, crop dusters, seaplane fliers, pipeline/powerline inspectors, UAV operators, skydiver haulers, banner towers, aviation journalists, and many things unique to Alaska are all possibilities. Each offers a variety of benefits, detriments, pay scales, and personal satisfaction.
What’s the best pilot job for you? Only you can answer that. Spend some time thinking about your passions, hobbies, interests, and goals. Consider which flying jobs provide the greatest opportunity for personal fulfillment. Though an airline captain’s position is the way to go for many, know that the best pilot job in your case could vary greatly depending on your preferences.