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Job-Hunting Pilots

Low Time Blues

By Peter Forman
August 25, 2019

Recent years have been a remarkable time for pilots in possession of an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Demand for regional jet pilots is so intense that multiple job offers are commonplace, wages have soared, and this job places the new regional pilot in the fast lane for securing the qualifications needed to land a job with a major carrier.

Alas, securing the 1,500 flight hours needed for a Restricted ATP (lower minimums apply for military pilots and graduates of certain degree-granting aviation flight programs) after obtaining one’s certificates and ratings is often regarded as the toughest hurdle for becoming an airline pilot. Fortunately, the same demand versus supply forces that made the regional pilot job so much better than before are now starting to work their way down to the entry-level jobs held by pilots singing the low-time blues. How well you understand both the available choices and the entry requirements to a regional airline pilot job will affect the speed and overall satisfaction with which you transit this stage of a pilot’s career.

A Right Seat for Low-Timers

In June of 2018 the Federal Aviation Administration published Advisory Circular 135-43, which clarifies that serving as second in command in certain Part 135 operations with aircraft not requiring a copilot can still be legally logged. The purpose of the advisory circular was to recognize a shortage of pilots with sufficient hours to qualify for the ATP certificate, and that the profession of flight instructor was by itself insufficient to generate the necessary number of pilots needed in ATP-level jobs.

The advisory circular narrowed the scope to those operations using either multi-engine or turbine-powered aircraft. Additional restrictions exist. Prior to the publication of this document, a grey area existed in whether such time could legally be logged.

When considering such a time-building path, keep in mind that acquisition of a restricted ATP depends on achieving various specific types of flight time, not just total time. A candidate for the restricted certificate needs 200 hours of cross-country, 100 hours of night, 75 hours of instrument time, and 50 hours in multi-engine aircraft. The multi-engine time can be an issue for those pilots flying single-engine turbine aircraft such as the Cessna Caravan. Often pilots of Part 135 operators will do some moonlighting as multi-engine flight instructors to insure that the 50 hours are reached prior to obtaining the necessary total time. In some cases when operating in low latitude, good weather environments such as Hawaii, a pilot will need to keep an eye on night and instrument time as well and adjust strategy as necessary.

Flight Instructing

Historically, the most common method for a low-time pilot to build hours has been as a flight instructor. With the military providing just a small fraction of pilots needed by the airlines these days, the civilian flight instructor has become an absolutely essential cog in the airline pilot-building machine.

A flight school customer spending tens of thousands of dollars expects an adequate supply of instructors, and if they’re not available, that school has a real problem. Making the staffing issue more difficult is the growth of opportunities for a low-time pilot to circumvent the flight instructor job entirely by flying right seat for certain Part 135 operators. Of the two jobs, the flight instructor’s is the more demanding with continued pressure to improve one’s teaching abilities and responsibility for the lives of students as they are approved for various solo flight lessons.

Fortunately, the old supply and demand equation has been at work lately and the result has been an increase in the wages paid to flight instructors. In previous decades, flight instructors needed to take a vow of poverty like a Tibetan monk as they built hours in this profession while seeking the elusive airline job. That’s changed now, with more schools paying a livable annual wage exceeding $40,000 for their flight instructors.

Besides the flight instructor job paying better than most entry-level right-seat flying jobs, aspiring airline pilots should consider that the pilots doing the hiring at most airlines are in that position because they’ve favored the check pilot and training pilot routes in their careers. In other words, they are instructors who feel some connection with other pilots who take on a training role. Additionally, many airline pilots claim that former flight instructors are stronger pilots, both in skills and decision making.

Most flight instructors begin their careers at the same school where they received their training. Such a decision makes sense because the new instructor is already familiar with the aircraft types, the school’s procedures, and the local flight environment. It behooves an instructor to get Instrument Instructor (CFII) and Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI) qualifications as soon as possible so as to maximize the possibility that necessary instrument and multi-engine time is acquired along the way.

Keep in mind, though, that a flight instructor is a hot commodity in today’s job market and can use his or her credentials to obtain employment practically anywhere in the country. Instead of just moving to a job with better pay, a flight instructor might be better served by selecting the job which satisfies the restricted ATP requirements the fastest. Parts of the country that offer the most flyable days in a year (locations such as the American Southwest) are attractive, and schools that will give an instructor the most actual instrument, night, and multi-engine time may be needed to top off one’s qualifications.


Of course there are many ways to get paid for building flying time. In earlier years, pilots towed banners, flew pipeline patrol, or even dusted crops in order to build hours. Should you pursue one of these routes yourself, be sure to transition to another job soon enough so that you meet the Restricted ATP requirements for cross-country, instrument, night, and multi-engine flying by the time your total time reaches 1500 hours.

The Race

Whatever route you choose to take while building hours as a low-time pilot, sooner or later you will realize that you are in a race against thousands of other aspiring airline pilot in the country to get a seniority number at your eventual destination airline. A difference of only three months in hire date can make the difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars in career earnings or even between steady employment and years of furlough. Because most flight students are limited in affecting how quickly they can move through any particular flight school, and because the rate of acquiring airline qualifications is more uniform once one reaches the regional airlines, it is the entry-level flying jobs portion of your career progression that can have the greatest impact upon the speed with which you reach that first day in your destination airline’s ground school when seniority numbers are assigned to members of your class.

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