Is Pilot Time Building Holding You Back?
Most pilots in the making end up with the same challenge after completing years of specialized training and investing thousands of dollars for the overall expense of training. When you finally get that hard-earned commercial certificate, there's only one problem. We fall short of most employer's minimum insurance requirements. You have the skills and the certifications, but our logbooks are still too thin to play with the heavy Iron, turbines or don't have enough actual instrument flight experience.
I like many aspiring pilots was aggressive and finished my commercial rating at the minimum requirements per the federal aviation regulations. I knew the aeronautical information manual like it was a part of my hand, but I lacked the additional capital to go fly around and build time.
Sure, I could become a Certified flight instructor if I wanted to go further into debt. Not to mention, I had no desire to let others attempt to fly me into the ground day in and day out. I honestly had no interest to teach others how to fly, considering I was just a rookie myself.
There was one thing I knew for sure. I needed to build time, a lot of it. I talked to everyone I could, Networked, begged, bargained, and pleaded. All to find I was in a pool of candidates so large I was just another aspiring pilot fighting my way to the top. I had tried everything I could just scrounging up a photo flight opportunity or conducting the occasional tour or introduction flight. I quickly evaluated, and at this pace, it was going to take me decades to get 2500 hours in the books.
Below are my ten useful ways I used to put all of that behind me and become a pilot others could look up to, not down on. The list below is excellent but most essential to understand is I did not walk into the door and introduce myself like I was some legend they could not live without hiring. I had to earn it! I washed and waxed helicopters entirely for free. The first time I did it, I took a big chance. I had the rare opportunity to sit second in command in an aircraft I did not even have the rating for, we were doing some photo contract work. The weather kept the ship on the ground on the last day of the contract. I took it on myself to go wax that Bell 206BII to the best of my abilities. I washed and waxed that aircraft all day. When we flew her home, the owner of the company's first response was what did you do to my helicopter! I figured. It was the end of the line for me at this company. I honestly was bumming some time and thought it was worth a shot. He walked directly up to me. I clenched and prepared to get punched in the face. His hand extended out. Here it comes, he shook it with the words great job that helicopter has never looked so good. Phew, that did not hurt at all. He then offered to pay the favor in return. He said the next time they flew some necessary aerial application work I could sit left seat. That's second in command for all my airplane folks.
A few weeks later, I was invited back to fly over California citrus all night. Little did I know the owner of the company was going to have me sit next to him and fly, not my friend who was more forgiving to my rookie approach. The owner named Scott said to me if you don't spill my coffee all night, you can come back again. My palms were sweaty, and my heart was pounding. I had everything riding on this. I was flying this Jet Ranger basically at a sustained hover in the dark all-night dodging trees, owls and other aircraft. A good hour into the flight while conducting my waterfall checks I glanced at the fuel gauge, it was clear I needed to think about refueling soon.
I blurted out over the Comms, Scott we need Jet fuel, it made me feel good to say jet fuel, so after no answer, I happily repeated it louder this time. SCOTT, WE NEED JET FUEL. Still no response. I peeled my face off the windscreen to see he was fast asleep! Are you kidding me! I have no idea how to land this thing. I make the radio call to secure my fuel place following what the pros had been doing all night. I get assigned #3 to land and get refueled. He, fortunately, woke up and came on the controls with me to settle into the dark fuel spot. Wow, I was on cloud nine. I continued to get invited and built a name for myself as a contract night agriculture pilot. Earning a turbine endorsement in the Bell OH-58C,206BII and 206BIII the rest was history. I have friends that have done the same thing but in other fields. Below I have listed a few places you too can put your time in to earn that spot to prove yourselves. Remember you may have to clean the office, wash the owner's cars, or take out the trash. To try cost you nothing but time, it's well worth it and in my eyes a lot more fun than playing CFI for two years.
- Tow Banners
Often you see old-timers who love to fly doing this low and slow flight work. When they can’t, or the loss of a medical certificate due to health conditions prevents them, this door can open, creating a time building opportunity. It may not be IFR or turbine time but your building hours, and often you can even get paid a few dollars for doing it. Drop into the hanger early in the morning and offer to help hook up banners before takeoff or rolling up banners at days end. You just never know what might happen.
2. Skydiving operations.
If you live near a busy skydiving facility, these places are often running like mad Friday through Sunday. These hours are perfect if you have a day job to pay off your aviation debt. Typically, you’re going to sit right seat until you meet the insurance minimums, but this type of work tends to be more relaxed on the rules. Skydiving operations typically do not require a copilot. If you’re not taking up a paying customers spot, there is a good chance they will be willing to grab a free safety pilot. Larger operators often run single-engine turbine aircraft as well as the occasional twin-engine.
- Scenic/survey Pilot
Tour operator’s usually land at the same place they take. Most often they do not operate over 25 statute miles of their home airport. All this typically lands them under Part 91 flight rules. Lower regulations make it a great place to start getting paid a few dollars for your time. Today this has become a time builder business, and often operators charge the pilot a reduced rate to run these aircraft. With that said there are still great opportunities to do this fast turn work in scenic parts of the country, or in areas where wildlife tracking occurs. I have had a few friends successfully build time and get paid to do spectacular work or tracking the population of red-tailed hawks.
- Aerial Photography
Often these options can be limited with no help from today's top dollar drones. With that said, there is an excellent opportunity to build your own small business flying photographers around to do aerial work for friends. A woman I flew with now fly's for Cal Fire. She would build time flying photographers around L.A. for real estate pictures. Sometimes this was people just wanting a fancy shout of their overpriced home or business. I took a photographer over the Ikea distribution center in central California so he could take pictures of the solar panels on the roof. Today this is a picture I now see every time to walk into my local Ikea.
- Safety Pilot
There are a handful of corporate operators who choose their niche flying top-level executives for short trips. These operators prefer single-pilot approved aircraft as this saves them the cost of an additional second pilot salary each year. Aircraft like the King Air 250, Pilatus PC12, Citation M2, Citation CJ3+, Phenom 300, to name a few are popular choices. Play your cards right, and getting the chance to build hours as a safety pilot can be helpful often once your seasoned these operators take you into the ranks. Being type rated in the specific aircraft is usually crucial for real success. Honestly, if you have the chance, it may be worth the out of pocket expense to get type rated in the specific airframe. It’s often expensive and done in a simulator. With that said, it can secure your seat as a corporate pilot for a lifetime.
- Agriculture flying
My key to success. You will need to start as an apprentice in this field. So learn your local state regulations and come prepared. Being an Ag pilot is a lot more than just flying, so it’s a significant role for people with a good mechanical background. The operator I was working for was also an AG Aircraft A&P Shop, so I would run the sandblaster, clean and repair the pumps on the mixing truck and maintain spray gear when an aerial application was not taking place.
- Infrastructure patrol
With millions of miles worth of gas lines, oil lines, and electrical power transmission infrastructure, there is a lot of terrain to cover to ensure safety and efficiency. These sites are often remote and difficult to access. Aircraft are used almost exclusively to get the job done. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking out the window, and other times there is specialized equipment being used to detect issues. Either way, it’s an excellent place to dig in and build time. Find out who gets these contracts and approach them about the willingness to learn.
- Farm flying
Many Farms and ranches today own hundreds of acres that require patrolling for one reason or another. Many own their aircraft and even have private runways. I have used helicopters for lost cattle locating and herding. Bee patrol for crops that can not get pollinated as part of there success. Fruit drying in the rainy season and general transportation for the owner. Often this work is seasonal, so establishing the right relationship could give you a 100-hour spring.
- Ferring Aircraft
If you have a few type ratings or are just great friends with an aircraft broker, this can be a golden ticket. Whenever aircraft are bought or sold, there is a need to move them to the new owner's location. Sometimes operators are changing their base of operations or an aircraft needs to be moved to a different location for many reasons. I have also seen aircraft owners spend weeks at a separate property they own. Each time they get dropped off the aircraft returns to its FBO empty. Building time moving aircraft is a great place to be. I had flown two different aircraft cross county. It was an easy 20 hours and a great cross county experience for the logbook.
- Private business aircraft roles
Many of today's entrepreneurs rely heavily on the ability to utilize aircraft for daily operations. Often, it's day to day operations stuff, and a means for C Level use. It opens the door to access their vast network of locations. Most of these operations are an owner-operator. I see anything from a Mooney M20U, Piper Meridian PA-46 to the VLJ Market of Citation M2 or the Phenom 100. Typically, these guys are flying solo as it is, so having someone to talk to and run the radios with is often welcome. The beautiful thing with this one is it's one of the few time building places where IFR time is abundant. Be sure to take plenty of breath mints and prepare to hang around the pilot's lounge in the same FBO's month after month. Before you know it, your logbook will start to fill up with meaningful flight experience.