A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

February 2010

Fly and Build Hours Free

            Be prepared to pay the very real cost of your time, effort & commitment.

           At the local flight school, there is usually no shortage of optimism.  Enthusiastic students eagerly absorb the teachings of their instructors and methodically perform the checks and duties in the airplanes on training flights.  This is where the freedom of flight begins.  This is where careers are launched.  Private and professional pilots, all start here. 

          This information was valid in the summer of 2008, when there was an acute shortage of instructors.  However, even today if you browse the aviation newsletters and periodicals, you’ll see ads running regularly for schools seeking all classes of instructors.  Some even offer sign-up bonuses.  A class 4 rated fellow has choices of where he’d like to work.  Any class 1 instructors can pretty much dictate the terms of employment.  It would seem that the shortage has been caused by many aviation operators hiring instructors away from the schools, offering the so-called ‘step up the ladder’ in their careers.  The person who stays on as a career instructor is rare. 

          It’s a fact that many instructors hold their ratings for the primary reason of building time.  Once they hit some magic number of hours, they’re gone from the schools , absorbed by the current pilot shortage in commercial aviation. 

          Make no mistake, there’s a huge commitment in time and money for the person who decides to go the instructor route, regardless of motives.  In many ways, the instructor is technically a better pilot than one who scores a bush flying job and then has no further guidance outside experience. 

           For those pilots at the crossroads, wondering what to do with their new commercial license and 250 or 300 hours in their logbooks, there are alternatives to instructing when it comes to free time-building.  When I say free, it doesn’t mean there aren’t some sacrifices.  These are just not the financial sacrifices.  They’re time, effort and commitment.

           Start with glider towing.  First off, a commercial license isn’t a requirement in most schools and clubs.  You may need to buy a membership, pay dues and take the mandatory training course with the organization you fly for.  The clubs generally rely on members who hold private pilot ratings to take turns in the tow plane.  But they’re quite often happy to embrace the pilots who have no interest in gliding, but just want to build time towing.  The commercial glider schools do have some minimum requirements, but with the shortage of help these days, some may be willing to train pilots at their own expense on their tow planes.   A good summer of this type of work can result in a couple of hundred hours in your log book.

            Parachute centers and schools also quite often come up short in the pilot department.  This type of flying may not appeal to everyone.  It’s up and down, never takes you more than a few miles from the airport, but it’s good time building.  Flying a jump plane is not without risk, but once again, most of the training is done by the school or operator, and at their expense.  You’ll need to learn the workings of the operators’ procedures and safety precautions.  In other words, just as in the glider schools, there is a commitment on the part of pilots to ensure all the rules and regulations are understood and followed. 

            Taking friends or other passengers along in your rental aircraft can keep costs down.  Depending how much these passengers are willing to pay, you may be able to fly free.  The regulations state you cannot legally charge for flights, but if your friends are just along for the ride, they can offer to assist with the costs.  

             If you can’t find some way to fly for free, another option is owning an aircraft in partnership with other pilots.  The more partners you have, naturally the lower the cost will be.  In a well-run group, the costs can be less than half of renting from a school.  An advantage to ownership is that you will learn a lot about the problems, responsibilities, maintenance, and hassles of aviation.  Consider it the cost of experience.  Besides, being an aircraft owner can look good on a resume when you start applying for work.  An employer is looking for people who understand what he’s up against in maintaining his aircraft. 

           The commercial pilots first job is sometimes a ramp position.  It can be hard work, but the advantages are huge.  You’ll be working around airplanes, learning all the while.  Be prepared with other skills like carpentry, mechanics, computers, local knowledge, anything that could be helpful around the company you’ll be working for.  Probably the most important thing a young pilot can bring to the operation is his attitude.  Combined with good people-skills, he will go far with the company if he is eager, ready and willing to do the job.  It won’t be long before the flying starts.

            Insurance requirements for small (and large) aviation employers usually dictate the minimum times their pilots require.  It’s the job of the low-time pilot to somehow build that time in their log books.  Pilots with parents who have deep pockets may have an advantage.  Some, like budding actors, work at other jobs to pay for their flying.  Still others get lucky right out of commercial pilot school and find work flying supplies, doing aerial photography, power-line patrol, camp checks, or whatever.  Some invest more time and cash for the instructor rating.  There are many ways to build time at little or no cost.  Just be prepared to endure the very real price of your time, your effort and your commitment.  You’ll be flying before you know it.

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