So, you’ve officially earned your pilot’s certificate. Congratulations – now what are you going to do with it? If you’re like many newly minted pilots, you may be wondering what pilot careers you can choose from. Of course, you’re looking for a job that you enjoy, but there’s more to it than that.
If you’re being honest, you are also looking for a career that comes with a generous paycheck, right? And why not? You’ve earned it.
So here you go – we’ve recently updated our list of the 7 most lucrative pilot careers. Check it out and discover how you can put your pilot skills to work with an engaging job that provides the salary you’ve been looking for.
Many apply but few are chosen. As NASA continues gearing up for the Artemis program’s anticipated lunar landing in 2024 and the subsequently planned manned Mars missions, more and more pilots are drawn to becoming an astronaut.
Do you have what it takes? In the original Mercury days, astronauts had to be military jet aircraft pilots with engineering background and there was a max height of 5’11”.
The selection parameters have changed a bit since then, and today’s prospective NASA astronauts must meet the following 4 criteria to be considered:
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Hold a master’s degree (or accepted equivalent) in a STEM field such as biological science, computer science, engineering, mathematics or physical science
- Have a minimum of 2 years of related professional experience after receiving degree or have logged at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft
- Be able to pass the NASA long-duration flight astronaut physical
If you meet those criteria, you can join the other roughly 18,299 applicants a year who are vying for a few coveted positions.
The Astronaut Selection Board reviews applications and assesses each candidate before inviting a small group of potential selectees to interview at the Johnson Space Center. Half of these candidates will get second interviews and a lucky few will be chosen to begin a two-year basic training program.
Pay varies based on whether you are civilian or military. Military astronauts will transfer over at their current military pay rate while civilian pay is based on government pay scales. In either case, the average pay is lucrative.
Average base salary: $132,814
2. Federal Government pilot
You may have heard that certain government jobs come with excellent healthcare and retirement benefits, but you may not have realized that the government hires pilots. That’s right – you can be a government employee with an office in the sky.
You’ll have to do a bit of research and digging around to find out what jobs are currently available because many government agencies hire pilots.
You could fly de Havilland Twin Otters or WP-3D Orion Hurricane Hunters for NOAA or get picked up by the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or even the FAA.
Another subset of federal government pilots are airborne law enforcement (ALE). The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other policing agencies utilize ALE pilots to support mission operations.
Since these are federal jobs, in addition to department and role-specific criteria, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) sets minimum requirements for all aircraft operators. For the most part, the OPM requirements simply align with the FAA criteria to earn the appropriate pilot certification for the role.
Average base salary: $115,153 - $126,158
3. Cargo pilot
In our global economy, there is increased demand for reliable, fast transportation and mailing options. Shipping companies like DHL, FedEx and UPS hire cargo pilots to ferry packages, mail, freight and perishable items to their destinations.
As a cargo pilot, you will fly both small and large aircraft, often in the early morning or late-night hours as you support next day air shipping logistics.
To qualify as a cargo pilot, you must have your commercial pilot certificate and hold an instrument rating so you are eligible to fly during IFR conditions.
Average salary: $105,144
4. Airline pilot
When many people hear that you are a pilot, they will automatically assume you are an airline pilot since that is the type of pilot they are familiar with.
Airline pilots require the most extensive training, must hold the highest level of medical certificate and are expected to have logged extensive hours as pilot-in-command.
Expect to start building hours with a smaller, regional airline before you are ready to level up and interview with one of the major industry players. The career progression takes you from a co-pilot/first officer who is building up hours and experience to a captain who is the main PIC of the aircraft.
Pay naturally increases with experience and promotions, but the average pay is in the six-figure range.
Average salary: $102,588
5. Military pilot
While the rest of the careers on this list are in the civilian sector, another route you can choose to take your pilot career is to join one of the branches of the military and become a military pilot.
All 5 branches of the United States Armed Forces – Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy – have aircraft, and they recruit the most skilled pilots who display the highest degree of aptitude.
Aptitude is tested using the Aviation Selection Test Battery (ASTB) or the Air Force Officer Qualifying Aptitude Test (AFOQAT), physical fitness tests (PFT), an Officer Aptitude Rating and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB).
As with other military positions, there are age restrictions. According to careers.com, the cutoff for Navy and the Marine Corps is 26. The Air Force requires you to meet a selection board before you are age 28 ½ and to enter undergraduate pilot training (UPT) before your 30th birthday although they do offer waivers up to age 35 in certain circumstances.
The Army is mainly looking for rotary wing pilots and their age cutoff is under 33 as of the date of the convening board with potential waivers for highly qualified 33 and 34-year olds.
The most restrictive and selective branch for military pilots is the Coast Guard. To become a Coast Guard pilot, you must have already been a pilot in a different branch of the military. Even then, you will be run through an Aviation Selection Test Battery (ASTB) prior to selection for training on fixed-wing and rotary aircraft.
You must be older than 21 and younger than 32 with a minimum of 500 hours as a rated military pilot and full-time flight experience in the previous two years to qualify.
The highly competitive process of becoming a military pilot also comes with a commitment to serve a set number of years, so be sure that fits into your life plans prior to signing the dotted line. If it does, you can enjoy a competitive salary as well as all of the other benefits that come with military service.
Average salary: $101,595
6. Commercial pilot
The job description of a commercial pilot is varied and can include all sorts of interesting taskings. Within the more broad “commercial pilot” category, there are plenty of niche markets to choose from.
Pilots who hold a commercial pilot certification are eligible to fly charter flights, do crop dusting, aerial photography or even search and rescue operations.
Word to the wise: if you choose to pursue a position with a charter flight company, be prepared to take on additional non-flight duties. When they are outside the cockpit, charter flight pilots can be found coordinating aircraft maintenance, scheduling flights, loading luggage and even escorting passengers to the aircraft.
Whatever else the job of a commercial pilot may be, it certainly is not boring, and the pay isn’t so bad either.
Average salary: $81,965
7. Aerial Firefighter
The final job on this list may just be one of the most unique, exciting, meaningful and potentially highly lucrative of piloting positions. Welcome to the world of aerial firefighting.
When ground-based firefighters need additional resources and support to attack and gain control of a large, fast-moving, or remote fire, they often turn to aerial firefighters.
As an aerial firefighter pilot, you could be tasked with either a fire-bombing or observational mission support role.
New fire bomber pilots will likely start out flying a fixed-wing single-engine air tanker (SEAT) like the Thrush 510 or Air Tractor 802 Fire Boss. Once you’ve logged many hours and are ready, you can move up to larger tankers and repurposed jets that have a fire-retardant payload capacity of more than 3,000 gallons.
If you’re assisting on the observational front, you will fly an aircraft that functions as an aerial observation platform for the forward air controller who is directing the fire bombers and coordinating the attack.
The U.S. Forest Service is the largest employer of aerial firefighters although other agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs also have openings.
With the increased number of wildfires in recent years, the pilot pool has shrunk greatly. State agencies like CalFire are in particular need of new pilots to fill the gaps.
The low-end average salary for this job is respectable, if not something to write home about, but the room for advancement is where the real excitement lies. Prove yourself, put in your time, and you could be on your way to a highly lucrative top-end salary.
Average Salary: $73,600 to $113,800
(Captains on large tankers can make $100,000 the first season and up to $360,000 as a senior captain).
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