Aviation writer Mark R. Twombly is the AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer at Florida's Page Field.
While sitting in my big chair in my little office at the airport, I can hear and see everyone who walks up and down the nearby stone-tiled hallway. Most are pilots, uniformed professionals who fly for the charter company based in the hangar. At times there sure do seem to be a lot of them — pilots, that is — in the house. I wondered how the small company, which currently operates a Pilatus PC-12 and Cessna 206 on its certificate, could employ so many pilots.
One reason is that the company soon will add a Bell Jet-Ranger, a Cessna Citation II, and a second PC-12 to its charter fleet. The company is ramping up. It needs all those pilots.
Even so, turns out that not all of the purposeful-looking people crowding the narrow hall are pilots in the company's employ. Some are low-timers who are there hoping to gain professional experience. Thanks to Peter Krpata, they are getting it.
Krpata is the chief pilot for the charter operator. Confident and experienced — he flew for a scheduled carrier but tired of the uncertain future — Krpata is taking the time and making the effort to give aspiring pros a chance to get some valuable on-the-job training in turbine-powered aircraft. Ask anyone who wants to be, is now, or has been a professional pilot and he will say that gaining the initial experience needed to qualify for a line pilot's position is the hardest part of walking the career pilot's path.
In many cases newcomers, especially those who want to fly corporate aircraft versus scheduled airlines, are caught in an FAA-insurance industry Catch-22 that can make it extremely difficult for them to find work. They possess the requisite FAA commercial or even an airline transport pilot certificate to fly for hire, but may not meet additional requirements imposed by insurance underwriters. Those requirements usually include completion of formal simulator-based schooling for the specific aircraft make and model and, on top of that, actual line experience in the make and model of aircraft they hope to fly. Thus the Catch-22: You need a flying job to gain experience, but you must have experience to get the job in the first place.
Here's how Krpata cuts through the catch: He takes a select few of the many, many pilot applications the company receives and puts the applicants in the second-in-command (SIC) program. These are pilots who could not possibly meet the company's minimum experience requirements for pilot in command (PIC) as dictated by the insurance underwriter.
The SICs undergo the same FAR Part 135 indoctrination program as the line pilots do, take a Part 135 right-seat qualification checkride, and wear the same Florida-casual uniforms when they fly on company aircraft. They go through the same preflight drill, including preparing the cabin with catering, newspapers, and the like. They help pull airplanes out of the hangar before the first flight of the day and help put them back in after the last. They tidy up the cabin, and service the potty if necessary.
They fly right seat and perform traditional right-seat duties — reading checklists, handling air traffic control communications, and navigating. The best part is that, when 135-qualified, the SIC gets to do some of the actual hands-on flying. That's loggable PIC cross-country time in an all-weather turbine aircraft operating in the flight levels to a variety of big and small airports. To an aspiring professional pilot it just doesn't get any better than that.
The value of gaining PIC experience in a turbine aircraft is obvious. But Krpata believes it is vital to the interns' professional prospects that they gain experience in a two-pilot crew environment. That's what he focuses on, and for good reason.
Most turbine-powered business aircraft, and all scheduled carriers, operate with a crew rather than single-pilot. Learning how to function safely and efficiently as part of a crew is just as important as learning how to fly the aircraft. Any operator looking for pilots will insist on certain minimum qualifications in terms of experience. Who gets hired likely will depend on who appears to fit in best, who is most apt to function well in that operator's crew environment.
The charter company Krpata works for is new, is small, and works in a fiercely competitive arena. It's not unusual for an operator in similar circumstances to consider the seat time as the SIC's compensation, even when two pilots are required. Some even charge the SIC for the time. Krpata's interns get paid when they fly any trip on which an SIC is required by the operator, customer, regulations, or insurance underwriter.
On single-pilot-only trips — no SIC required — the right seat is made available to an intern. No pay, but loggable time just the same. The offer usually is accepted.
Mentoring programs, including AOPA's Project Pilot program, are invaluable for improving new-pilot retention. It makes all the difference when an experienced pilot gives a newcomer valuable technical and moral support.
Support from someone who has been there may be even more important for the aspiring pro. It's never been easy to get a good flying job when you're low on experience, and increasingly restrictive insurance requirements are making it even more difficult. It takes creative, committed people like Pete Krpata to find ways to make it happen.