Building Hours Towards a Career in Aviation

Pilots pursuing a career with the airlines often struggle to find cheap and efficient ways to build the required 1500 hours for their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating. It’s a lot of flight time and often a big jump from the hours they’ve flown pursuing their other ratings and licenses.

There are some options to build hours towards your ATP that are better than others, but your needs and goals will also help determine which option is best for you. So what options are there?

Become a CFI

If you ask any career pilot how to build hours towards an ATP, they’ll likely tell you to become a CFI—and for good reason.

Pros:

  • Cheap – You get paid for the hours you build while flying students and often get discounts when flying on your own.
  • Efficient – If you’re employed by a flight school with a steady flow of students, you can easily fly 800+ hours in a year, all of which you get paid for.
  • Easy to Get – CFIs are in high demand right now. Since the airlines are in a pilot shortage, they hire a lot of CFIs who are using this job as a stepping stone. This creates a need for good CFIs at flight schools.
  • Flexible – Many flight schools have positions for both full- and part-time CFIs, allowing you to fly and instruct (mostly) on your schedule.

Cons:

  • Structured – Despite the flexibility mentioned above, becoming a CFI isn’t as flexible as just flying on your own dime. Chances are, you’ll still be required to instruct a certain number of hours per week or during certain shifts.
  • Ground instruction – Although you get paid for ground instruction, it doesn’t count towards your flight hours.

Fly on Your Own

This is kind of the opposite of becoming a CFI—everything is up to you and all of the costs come out of your pocket.

Pros:

  • Flexible – Fly completely on your own schedule (weather-dependent)

Cons:

  • Expensive – You aren’t getting paid for this, so it’s all out of pocket. The cost is less if you own your own airplane, but you’ll still need to cover the cost of gas and maintenance.

Military

You can join the Air Force, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Navy, or Navy Reserve to help build flight hours.

Pros:

Cons:

  • Difficult to Join – You must have a Bachelor’s Degree and meet all of the requirements to be an Air Force or Navy pilot, including passing intelligence-related tests, physical tests, and meeting height and weight requirements.
  • Commitment – Once you sign the contract, there’s no going back and you must serve in the military for the time agreed upon, often 6+ years.

Other Paid Options

If you become a Part 135 Charter Pilot, you can be paid for flying unscheduled aircraft with fewer than 30 seats or scheduled aircraft with fewer than 9 seats and weighing 7500lbs or less. This can include small commuters, air taxis, or small cargo planes. There are some other options that will pay you to fly as well such as banner or glider towing, aerial survey or photography, traffic watch, skydiving shuttling. etc. The pros and cons depend on which of those you choose, but these jobs can often be low hours or difficult to find. Many of these also have 500hr minimums, as well.

Pros:

  • Cheap – Again, another option where you can get paid to fly.
  • Variety – Depending on what you do, you can potentially go to a lot of different locations doing a lot of different types of flights.

Cons:

  • Hours – The hours can often be long, irregular, or even just difficult to come by.
  • Availability – These jobs are often hard to find.

Future Career Paths

Once you build your 1500 hours and earn your ATP, there’s a few different career paths that pilots often take:

  1. Stay a CFI – Many pilots find instructing students to be so rewarding and the flexibility of CFI working hours to so accommodating, they make a career as a CFI.
  2. Fly for a Small Regional Airline – Airlines such as Delta Connection, American Eagle, United Express, or SkyWest are among the most likely to hire pilots who recently received their ATP. According to the most recent FAA Aerospace Forecast, these airlines will likely be experiencing a pilot shortage (and therefore hiring) through 2036.
  3. Fly for a Major Airline – Airlines such as Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, and United historically have mostly hired pilots who have experience from the small regional airlines. However, due to the pilot shortage, it may be possible to be hired by a major airline more directly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will likely be a 5% increase in pilot jobs for these airlines through 2024.

Becoming a CFI

If it seems like the pros and cons lists are a little one-sided, it’s because they are. As previously stated, there’s a good reason that most professional pilots will recommend becoming a CFI in order to build hours—it offers some of the biggest pros and smallest cons.

If you don’t already have your Flight Instructor Certificate, the FAA requirements to receive one are:

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Hold a Commercial Pilot Certificate or ATP Certificate
  • Must hold a valid FAA 3rd Class Medical Certificate
  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language
  • Pass the FAA Knowledge Test
  • Pass the FAA Practical Flight Test and Oral Examination

Getting Hired as a CFI

Many flight schools are readily hiring for CFIs due to shortages of experienced pilot. I can’t speak for other schools, but if you’re interested in becoming a CFI for Regal Air, you can apply here. If you don’t have your CFI yet, we’re also hiring for Ground-only instructors. The only requirement for this is that you’ll need to have passed the written portion of the FAA Private Pilot Knowledge Test. You can apply for that one here.

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