You put in the time to earn a commercial pilot certificate. You brushed up on the privileges and limitations that come with it, and now you are ready to go land that first job. The only problem is you have less than 500 hours, and many of the job listings require more experience.
Before giving up and resigning yourself to taking a job in another field while building more flight time on the side, check out our list of 8 low time pilot jobs that all require you to have logged less than 500 hours.
1. Air Tours
An air tour pilot is the classier aviation version of the tour bus guide in popular destinations. This type of pilot flies passengers over scenic sites of all types whether in urban areas like Las Vegas and Miami or place with natural beauty like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.
Many air tour pilots are people oriented, so they enjoy entertaining and interacting with their passengers. Passengers are usually tourists looking for a good time and some memorable photo opportunities. As their pilot you have a chance to showcase all the best sights plus share interesting stories and history of the areas you are flying over. As a bonus, wherever you choose to work, you know it will be somewhere with a view that others are paying to see.
Working as an air tour pilot is an excellent starter job that can require as little as 200 hours of flight time to get your foot in the door. Although the salary is not lucrative, you are still being paid to build flight time rather than having to pay for it yourself.
2. Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)
One of the best ways to crystalize your own skills and push yourself to the next level at the same time is to start teaching. As a certified flight instructor (CFI), you will naturally close any gaps in your own learning and become an expert on the fundamentals of flight. This strong base will serve you as you continue to advance your career.
As you know from having gone through plenty of pilot training yourself, the role of a CFI is to guide student pilots through both the academic principles of flight during ground school and the hands-on reality in the air. Like other teachers, flight instructors dedicate additional time outside of lessons for planning curriculum and preparing lesson plans.
If you are interested in becoming a certified flight instructor, you will need to earn your CFI certificate. Prepare for a longer and more challenging check ride than you have previously experienced. During this check ride, not only will you need to demonstrate your own piloting skills, but you must also show that you have what it takes to reliably transfer those skills to your students and to serve as their safety net while in the air.
Some CFIs really love their job and make a career out of it. Others use the experience as a steppingstone to different piloting jobs. Either way, becoming a CFI is a low time pilot job that rewards you in terms of building your skills and capabilities.
3. Banner Towing
We have all seen the planes flying over sporting events, festivals, and beaches towing the promotional banners. Banner towing pilots spend their days flying back and forth slow and low over designated areas so that people below can see the banner.
It may not be an incredibly glamorous job but working as a banner towing pilot can certainly pay the bills and help you build flight time. You could even get to tow an engagement proposal, birthday, or other special banner.
One of the most fun and exciting parts of being a banner towing pilot is the low flyby of the airfield to pick up the banner. Pilots must be very precise to hook the banner without getting too close to the ground. Watch The Flying Reporter’s How pilots tow banners feature to see this maneuver in action.
To work as a banner towing pilot, you will need your banner towing endorsement. This is where you gain the towing-specific skills required to be a safe banner towing pilot.
4. Aerial Surveying/Mapping
Aerial surveying or mapping uses both fixed and rotary wing aircraft to collect various geographical information about a designated region from the air. Depending on the nature of the survey and the equipment management needs, the pilot may be flying solo or with an experienced systems and sensor management engineer on board. If you do not have an engineer on board, part of your job as an aerial surveyor will be to operate the imaging and other equipment yourself, so computer and technical skillsets can be useful.
Multiple pieces of hardware are typically used to conduct a survey, and they must be mounted or properly positioned in/on the aircraft. As an aerial surveyor you will be using technology like calibrated aerial cameras, laser scanners, magnetometers, radar, and hyper-spectrometers. The data will be georeferenced using additional equipment like a global navigation satellite system (GNNS) and inertial navigation units.
Pilots considering applying for a job as an aerial surveyor should be sure they are up for the challenge of flying with the precise accuracy needed and for long stretches of time. You will have to fly a specific route at an exact altitude to successfully meet the needs of the survey. An advantage of this type of low time pilot job is that it helps pilots to practice and enhance their precision and instrument flying skills which will prove useful in future jobs.
5. Pipeline and Powerline Patrol
Companies that own pipelines and powerlines must conduct regular and emergency services of their lines. While ground crew will walk or drive the lines doing more detailed inspections and conducting repairs, pilots are also contracted to fly overhead. A pipeline or powerline patrol pilot flies low over the pipeline or power line route conducting surveys and inspecting for signs of leaks or damage. If a power outage or potential leak is reported, depending on the location, it can be easier and faster to send a pilot out to pinpoint the source rather than having a ground crew inspect a large length of the line.
One of the hazards of working as a pipeline or powerline patrol pilot is that you are frequently flying over remote and rugged terrain. This means that emergency landing area sites may be minimal and alternate airfields may be further away. Patrol pilots gain plenty of practice doing careful preflight planning to mitigate these risks.
Pipeline and powerline patrol pilots may be hired directly by the power/pipeline company, through a survey company, or through an air patrol company that contracts with the power and pipeline companies.
6. Glider Tow Pilot
The roll of a glider tow pilot is an interesting one because according to the FAA, it can be performed by anyone who holds at least a private pilot certificate with the appropriate category rating, and who has logged a minimum of just 100 hours as pilot in command of that category of aircraft.
To qualify as a glider tow pilot, the pilot simply needs to log their 100 hours, receive tow training, and have a logbook endorsement from an instructor or qualified pilot. Training must include just three tows as sole control manipulator.
To maintain currency, each twelve-month period tow pilots must make three tow flights under the supervision of a qualified tow pilot. Alternatively, if the pilot is also a glider pilot, he or she can meet the tow currency minimums by making three flights as pilot in command of a glider during the twelve-month period.
The relatively low barrier to entry and ability for a private pilot to be tow certified can make it sound like the job of a glider tow pilot is an extremely easy one and perhaps not worth paying someone to do.
Thankfully, there are still paid tow pilot jobs out there, and the Soaring Safety Foundation notes that just because a pilot satisfies the FAR requirements, that does not mean that said pilot is truly qualified and competent. It takes skill to coordinate with the glider pilot and there are unique dangers like kiting accidents to be aware of and watch out for.
7. Skydive Jump Pilot
Skydiving is an adventurous and thrilling activity that is on many people’s bucket lists. Before jumpers can make their breathtaking dive, they need a pilot to get them and their gear up in the air. That is where you come in.
Working as a skydive jump pilot can be fun because your passengers are all very excited, enthusiastic, and a little nervous to be there. They are looking forward to a memorable experience and you get to be a part of that. If you are not already a skydiver, you just may become one after spending so much time watching the action.
In an interview with boldmethod, skydive jump pilot Jeremiah Johnson credits his job for helping him to hone his stick and rudder skills. He notes, “it’s a great first piloting job because you really can’t be slack in your procedures…there’s a whole lot of multitasking involved from the pilot’s position.” Johnson explains that the pilot must compensate for wind to ensure the jumpers are set up to land on target. He also must maintain altitude and airspeed even while jumpers climb out on the wing struts and create drag. As the jumpers move around and exit the plane, the center of gravity shifts, so the pilot gets plenty of experience adjusting pitch and trim. Since jump pilots do roughly 2 takeoffs and landings per flight hour, you will quickly perfect those skills as well.
8. Traffic Watch Pilot
In large cities, television or radio stations may hire pilots to perform traffic watch and traffic reporting flights. These pilots fly above crowded roads and potentially in marginal weather to gain an aerial view of conditions on the ground. They then relay that information to the reporter or radio host in the studio so it can be passed along to viewers or listeners.
Due to the nature of the work, traffic watch pilots are often scheduled to fly during morning and evening rush hour. They can also be called on to monitor holiday and special event traffic or conditions during types of inclement weather or civil unrest. Some government and local law enforcement agencies may also request the services of a traffic watch pilot.
As a newly minted commercial pilot, you may not have accumulated enough hours to qualify for your dream job, but that does not mean that you cannot get paid to fly. There are plenty of low time pilot jobs available to pilots with under 500 hours. Some are starter jobs, while others could be made into a full-time career. There are even pilots who hold more than one type of low time pilot job at the same time.
Consider spending weekends as an air tour or banner towing pilot then doing aerial surveying or pipeline and powerline patrol during the week. Scheduling as a flight instructor could be flexible and work around your traffic watch schedule. Perhaps a local airfield supports both glider traffic and sky divers so you can serve two client bases out of the same location.
Whatever you choose to pursue, know that having a limited amount of flight time does not have to stand in the way of getting paid to do what you love: flying.