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Career options

Everything moves fast in the aviation/aerospace industry. With its multiple points of entry, it’s one of the most exciting industries in which to build a career. You can start out by taking flying lessons at your local flight school and work all the way up to captain of a Boeing 777.


Pilots who earn a living at the “majors,” such as United, American, Delta, and Federal Express, fly large jet equipment such as Boeing’s 737, 757, and 777. The average salary for a major airline pilot is in the $100,000 range, with senior captains flying mega-size airplanes (i.e., Boeing 747/400) earning up to $200,000 annually.

For flying professionals associated with the “regionals,” smaller turboprop airplanes are the norm. Entry-level salary for a commuter pilot is invariably in the $20,000 to $25,000 range; a captain on a new regional jet can earn $70,000 to $110,000 annually with seniority.

Major airlines, the companies that are most highly desired and attract the most competitive candidates, will require in the neighborhood of 1,500 to 3,000 flight time hours and about 300 to 500 hours of multiengine time for application acceptance. Additionally, a four-year college degree is virtually a must because more than 80 percent of pilots interviewed had at least a four-year degree.

Most regional airlines require about 1,500 total hours, including 500 hours in multiengine airplanes. However, a few companies have been known to hire applicants with only 1,000 hours of total flight time and 100 hours of multiengine experience. Although a college degree is helpful, it is not a requirement.

Business aviation

General aviation includes all aircraft not flown by the airlines. Business aviation is one of the most important segments of general aviation and consists of companies and individuals using aircraft in the conduct of their business.

Plan a trip to a local airport and take special note of midsize jets and turboprop airplanes landing and taking off. These are business aircraft, which include Learjets, Falcons, Gulfstreams, King Airs, Hawkers, and Citations.

Corporate pilots fill a wide variety of job descriptions. If you are employed by a small tool and die company in rural Nebraska, you may be assigned to fly a single-engine Piper or Cessna every day to Omaha to retrieve parts. If, however, you are flying for a Fortune 500 corporation, you could be regularly conveying a planeload of officers to Hong Kong and back in a business jet that may exceed the complexity and performance of a Boeing or Airbus airliner.

A chief pilot, captain, or first officer (co-pilot) flying the larger business jets can earn $136,000, $113,000, and $77,000, respectively. Annual salaries for captains and first officers of smaller turboprops can fetch salaries of $51,000 and $29,000.

Unlike airline flying, piloting a corporate aircraft is, for the most part, unscheduled. The pilot must be flexible as the schedule is subject to change at a moment’s notice.

Flight instruction

There is no more important person in the aviation industry than the flight instructor. Everyone who pilots anything, from a balloon to the space shuttle, is the product of a flight instructor. In the jargon of the FAA, a teacher of flight is called a certificated flight instructor (CFI).

Although a CFI is normally thought of as someone who teaches a novice how to fly, always bear in mind that a flight instructor engages in advanced training as well. The CFI will instruct the student in three common areas: knowledge, skill, and judgment.

The flight instructor will develop a student’s understanding of traditional aviation academics, such as rules and regulations, aerodynamics, aircraft operations and performance, meteorology, navigation, etc. The flight instructor will also demonstrate flight procedures and cultivate individual piloting skills.

It is also the CFI who will be the mentor in handling the challenges of flight. It is through the experience of the flight instructor that the student pilot will initially gain insight and perspective that leads to good judgment and decision-making skills.

The pay scale is somewhere between $20 and $30 for each hour of instruction given. Unfortunately, on rainy days or when business is slow, the CFI may not earn income. Traditional benefits of insurance, paid vacation, and retirement plans are not usually offered. For the new CFI working in the traditional role of instructor at the neighborhood airport flight school, the income scale will probably continue to be in the $12,000 to $20,000 range.

Remember, though, that a new flight instructor will have acquired only about 300 hours of flight experience before joining the school staff. The new CFI should really view this time in his or her career as a paid apprenticeship. That fledgling CFI is given the opportunity to build and develop and is being paid something in the process.

Throughout the United States, there are more than 200 colleges and universities that offer aviation programs. Career CFIs within the traditional academic environment enjoy customary benefits, including, in some situations, tenure.

Airlines, business aviation, and air taxi firms that operate sophisticated turboprop and jet aircraft require that their pilots undergo periodic proficiency training. A good wage in the $30,000 to $45,000 area can be earned in those professional training environments.


Ever take an early morning drive in the country? Maybe, if you were lucky, you were treated to the sight of precision flight by an ag pilot, as the sprayplane was delicately maneuvered just a few feet above the landscape. From nozzles positioned along the wing, various liquids were sprayed in a precise pattern over and through the land and crops, ensuring the crop will not fall victim to disease or pests, or that the plants and vegetation receive the nourishment so vital to survival.

An ag pilot or aerial applicator flies specially equipped single-engine airplanes (and in some cases, helicopters) over farms and fields, usually at altitudes ranging from 30 to 50 feet, to apply either crop growth enhancers and fertilizers or pesticides. Ag pilots are either self-employed or work for an aerial application enterprise. In either instance, the work is intense. Additionally, depending on where the pilot is based, the work can be seasonal or full time.

Air taxi

It may be difficult to comprehend, but there are more than 13,000 airports in the United States. Some 5,000 airports are considered public use, and about 8,000 are private. They each represent a potential destination for someone or something. Only a few hundred of these airports have scheduled airline service. If a businessperson needs to make a presentation in Cuba, Mo., or an essential automotive part must reach a consumer in Granby, Colo., the air taxi pilot may be summoned to the rescue.

The air taxi pilot (also routinely called a “charter pilot”) is not unlike a business aviation or corporate pilot. He or she may be called upon to fly a variety of aircraft, ranging from four-seat single-engine airplanes on floats to multi-million-dollar jets. A trip may encompass a few hours or several days.

With duties split between flight instruction and flying charter, compensation can be from $13,000 to $22,000 annually, as a rule. On the other hand, a full-time career can be had flying for a sizable air taxi operator that owns turboprop and jet airplanes. The compensation and lifestyle is quite similar to that of a full-time business aviation pilot.

Banner towing

Banner-towing pilots are still faced with restrictions in place as a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. However, there are still opportunities for towing banners over beaches up and down the coasts. A banner pilot will fly low and slow in a single-engine airplane over gathered crowds to promote an advertiser’s message.

The flying could be sporadic or daily, depending upon the operation. Banner towing is also a good track for future agriculture pilots.

Fire fighting

From time to time, you see the scenes on the local news channel of a raging brush or forest fire. Then from the smoke emerges a large twin-engine airplane, maybe resembling an old World War II bomber. Just above the treetops, the aircraft releases a load of chemical fire retardant. This is the “slurry bomber” piloted by a unique breed of pilot: the “fire bomber.”

The job requires an adventurous spirit, a willingness to travel and live at remote sites for long periods, and flying skills that some would call hair-raising. For the few aviators who have the personal make-up, character, and qualifications, this kind of flying is an adventure beyond compare.

Government service

Did you know that Uncle Sam employs thousands of pilots? A veritable air force of nearly 4,000 pilots work daily in the service of U.S. citizens, flying every conceivable flying machine from turbine-powered helicopters to Boeing 727s. They work for various agencies such as the Department of Interior, Federal Aviation Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Law enforcement

They are called “Flying Smokies.” They track speeders and bandits. They transport prisoners from one jurisdiction to the other. They may even fly elected officials from one part of the state to the other in the dispatching of governmental duties. From region to region, municipalities and state government systems offer flying opportunities for a very few individuals.

Medical evacuation

You may hear it called “Flight For Life,” “Air Life,” “Air Ambulance,” or “Rescue One.” The men and women who fly both helicopters and airplanes in life-saving missions are a breed apart. Broadly speaking, medical transport has two main objectives: emergency response to a life-threatening situation or conveyance of ill patients to distant treatment centers.


You hear them give traffic reports, or you see them on the evening news. The top radio and television stations in the 100 largest cities often have flying career potential for those with the gift of gab and an ability to fly. A broadcaster pilot could be flying small single-engine airplanes every day, which circle lazily over the city’s freeways. Several times each hour, live, on-air traffic reports are given with the latest information on pile-ups and bottlenecks.

The traffic reporter/pilot, who is possibly earning $35,000 to $50,000 annually or more, will acquire literally thousands of hours throughout a career and rarely leave the airspace over the home city. Rotorcraft fliers who act as on-camera reporters can enjoy a yearly salary of $75,000 or better.

Scenic flying

Take a journey to some of the nation’s most scenic spots, and you can expect to find an air tour company nearby. The notables include the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Bryce Canyon National Park, Lake Powell, and Sedona, Ariz.

Pilots can make a career out of flying larger multiengine airplanes for touring companies based in Las Vegas, for example. Operating with airline regularity, aircraft launch for points of interest with loads of enthusiastic visitors eager for a bird’s-eye view of the area’s splendors. Although the salary tends to be in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, highly tenured pilots have the potential for more.

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