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Head in the gameHead in the game

Keeping the rust off during the downturnKeeping the rust off during the downturn

While the coronavirus pandemic brought the hottest pilot job market in 60 years to its knees, nearly all experts agree that this downturn will be a pause. So what can you do to keep your skills sharp to be ready for the interview or return to work when it comes on the back of this slump?

King Air

Keep your flying skills sharp during a period of furlough by taking on other professional pilot jobs. Photo by Chris Rose.

Recruiters hate to see pilots simply "give up" and stop flying. Sure, flying is expensive and everyone knows it, but if at all possible, try to keep your foot in the cockpit door as much as possible. I last flew a trip for my airline in April. In the meantime, however, I have picked up a little side hustle flying a turboprop for a real estate company at my local airport. If the worst happens and I get furloughed from my airline, I have a flying job to fall back on at least. No, it doesn't pay nearly what my airline job does, but it keeps some income coming in and keeps my flying skills sharp.

Since many pilots have been or will be let go by the airlines, perhaps it may be time to take that bucket-list trip you've always wanted to take. For me, the Out Islands of the Bahamas have been calling for decades, but here I am starting my 50s still not having flown out there. Perhaps now is the time? Maybe it's time for that type rating that will give you a boost at your dream airline? Another bucket-list item that's popular is to get a new rating or endorsement—perhaps a seaplane rating or a tailwheel endorsement? Both will keep your seat-of-the-pants flying skills sharp while proving that you haven't sat idly at home during the hiring freeze. Besides, these add-ons are a lot of fun. Aerobatics lessons are fun and also great training for aircraft upsets. Unusual attitude training is currently on the dockets at many airlines these days. Oh, and let's not forget the glider rating while we're at it.

Of course, everything I've mentioned so far takes a sizable chunk of change, and if the funds simply aren't available for those ideas, it may be time to get a little creative. Many flight schools rent simulator time for far less than real airplanes. Sims are great for keeping instrument flying skills and cockpit procedures sharp. Of course, if you're a CFI, perhaps it's time to get back into the game and get paid to fly. Earning a remote pilot certificate is another inexpensive add-on to your certificate. If you also happen to be a decent photographer, aerial imaging using drones is an exploding business. Loans or financing may also be worth looking into to fund bolstering your resume.

Longtime airline pilots have seen several ups and downs in the business, and many of us have a side job or three. Real estate and property management are popular. For those with military backgrounds, returning to active duty or to the National Guard is a solid choice, as is the Civil Air Patrol. While the passenger airlines are in a world of hurt, cargo operators continue to hire and likely offer preferential hiring to furloughed airline pilots.

Airline pilot Sarah Rovner is facing a possible furlough but has made success in ferrying airplanes, especially on overseas ferry flights. “Having a specialized skill set like tailwheel or experience in a particular type of aircraft can help a pilot gain ferry-pilot opportunities,” said Rovner. “Additionally, many owners want instruction on ferry flights,” she added.

As is usually the case with seeking out flying jobs during a down market, it's important to keep your head on a swivel for potential opportunities and network as much as possible. Start reconnecting with old pilot friends to see what they are up to and whether they are aware of any opportunities. Perhaps your corporate pilot friend could use a warm body in the right seat? Check out seasonal jobs like aerial firefighting, banner towing, and skydiving operations. And don't forget to look within your company at jobs like dispatcher, or simulator/ground instructor, or helping in the chief pilot's office.

Keeping your head in the aviation game while also making a living is a delicate balance during a downturn. Assuredly, those pilots who make the effort to stay involved with aviation during the slump will shine brighter than those who choose to sit idle.

Peter A. Bedell

Pete Bedell is a pilot for a major airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172M and Beechcraft Baron D55.
Topics: Career, Advanced Training

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