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Another Beginning

Many ways to get through the ratings maze

Career-oriented pilots have a big incentive to progress through flight training as quickly as possible: They can start getting paid to fly earlier.
Photography by Chris Rose.
Photography by Chris Rose.

Earning money from flying is the first return on a major flight training investment, and flying on the clock enables pilots to build even more flight time rapidly. If a pilot is destined for an airline career, getting qualified and hired sooner results in a lower seniority number that can pay dividends for decades.

The most efficient way to maximize ratings while minimizing training time (and costs) usually follows this order: first, a private pilot certificate, then an instrument rating, followed by commercial, multiengine, and flight instructor certificates.

This pattern follows an obvious and indisputable logic. The private pilot certificate requires a minimum of 40 flight hours; an instrument rating requires a minimum of 40 more; and a commercial certificate requires at least 250 flight hours. There’s no specific number of hours required to become a flight instructor or multiengine pilot, but an instrument and commercial certificate are requirements to become a flight instructor.

A seaplane certificate can be added to this mix, as well as high performance, complex, high-altitude, and tailwheel endorsements.

FAA Part 141 schools can accelerate the process of reaching these goals with lower hour requirements and provide a well-worn pathway to airline careers. But what about pilots who want to fly professionally but not for an airline? Should they follow this same paper chase? Probably not.

A pilot who wants to become an aerial firefighter, agricultural pilot, or Alaska fishing/hunting guide is likely to have a much different set of priorities. These careers emphasize high-performance aircraft and seaplane experience as well as tailwheel skills. Those seeking these stick-and-rudder-oriented flying careers sometimes skip instrument ratings altogether and focus on obtaining commercial pilot certificates.

Once armed with a commercial certificate, they can get paid for towing banners and hopping scenic rides (with the limitation that, without an instrument rating, they must fly in day VFR conditions only and stay within 50 miles of their origin airport). Agricultural pilots are likely to focus on gaining high performance and tailwheel experience, and not necessarily instrument or multiengine ratings.

Those seeking to become aerial fighters or hunting/fishing guides have the added hurdle of building floatplane experience, preferably in an amphibious aircraft. Combining seaplane, complex, and commercial pilot training is one creative way to maximize value by triple-counting training time.

An aspiring professional pilot who trains in an amphibious Aviat Husky, for example, can count those hours toward a seaplane rating, a complex endorsement (since the Husky has retractable landing gear, flaps, and a constant-speed propeller), and a commercial pilot certificate. The seaplane/commercial pilot training will cover the full spectrum of seaplane operations as well as commercial maneuvers such as chandelles, lazy 8s, and spot landings, all done in an amphibious seaplane.

Click images to enlarge and view captions.

AOPA Senior Photographer David Tulis says this about his experience getting his seaplane rating: “Earning a seaplane rating makes you a better pilot and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Become one with the airplane by practicing a seat-of-the-pants feel for speed, power setting, and attitude during a water landing descent. Look outside to analyze wind direction by telltale signs of crops waving, flags, smoke, or ripples on the water. After landing enjoy the scenery, listen for waves lapping against floats, and revel in the freedom to visit by land, sea, and air.” An experimental velocity, photography by Steve Fletcher. From backcountry aircraft like an Aviat Husky to high-performance designs such as the experimental Velocity in the previous image, earning new ratings and endorsements can open the door to new experiences and help you grow as a pilot. There’s always more to learn.

Those seeking to become aerial fighters or hunting/fishing guides have the added hurdle of building floatplane experience, preferably in an amphibious aircraft. Combining seaplane, complex, and commercial pilot training is one creative way to maximize value by triple-counting training time.

An aspiring professional pilot who trains in an amphibious Aviat Husky, for example, can count those hours toward a seaplane rating, a complex endorsement (since the Husky has retractable landing gear, flaps, and a constant-speed propeller), and a commercial pilot certificate. The seaplane/commercial pilot training will cover the full spectrum of seaplane operations as well as commercial maneuvers such as chandelles, lazy 8s, and spot landings, all done in an amphibious seaplane.

Those seeking to become corporate pilots are likely to follow the same strategy as aspiring airline pilots. An instrument rating is essential to a corporate flight career, but new categories of aircraft are making multiengine ratings less pressing to obtain right away.

Pilatus PC–12s, Daher TBMs, Cessna 208 Caravans, Cirrus SF50 Vision Jets, and soon the Cessna Denali are single-engine turbine aircraft that are gaining popularity with air charter firms. Whether they’re carrying people or cargo, they’re opening new opportunities for professional pilots even if they lack multiengine experience.

A flight instructor certificate is perhaps the most valuable post-commercial pilot certificate because it opens so many aviation opportunities. A CFI can teach both primary and advanced students, and a CFI with a seaplane rating is allowed to teach seaplane students right away without a separate checkride.

CFIs at busy flight schools have opportunities to build hours rapidly, and they are quality hours because instructors must master the subject matter they teach and communicate it clearly—sometimes under stressful conditions. Also, potential aviation employers, especially FAA Part 121 and 135 operators, know they need peer-to-peer, in-house trainers, and pilots who come with teaching experience as CFIs are likely to do well at it.

Aspiring CFIs should consider delving into the coursework as soon as possible after obtaining their commercial certificates because the CFI checkride is basically a commercial checkride performed from the right seat. Once a pilot has freshly mastered those maneuvers, doing them (while teaching them) from the right seat is a relatively small step.

But while the commercial pilot checkride is widely reputed to be the easiest of all the flight ratings, the CFI checkride is the most difficult. It’s often a full day (and sometimes more) of reciting regulations, reviewing signoffs, and delving deeply into the minutia of VFR charts. But jumping into CFI preparation while the material is freshly and firmly in mind frees pilots from having to re-learn it later.

The airline transport pilot (ATP) is the black belt of FAA ratings. There’s an intimidating amount of coursework to get through before the checkride, and the requirement of 1,500 flight hours seems like Mount Everest. But CFIs often meet that threshold after one full year of teaching—and they’re immersed in aviation education throughout that time.

The ATP checkride itself can seem a bit anticlimactic. By the time pilots get to it, they’ve often been flying for years and performing the required maneuvers, a close cousin to an instrument checkride with somewhat tighter tolerances, so frequently the tasks are almost second nature. ATP candidates also have taken, and passed, many previous checkrides and evaluations, so sharing a cockpit with a nitpicky examiner is a familiar, almost comforting exercise.

ATP checkrides are often administered during type-specific training in a high-fidelity flight simulator. The examiner performing the type checkride ensures that the pilot’s performance meets FAA standards, and that’s it. Usually, type-rating standards are identical to ATP requirements, so if you pass one, you get credit for both.

A rating that seemed impossibly distant during the intimidating start of flight training is suddenly in hand. Yet there’s still more to learn, and more to do. And what might have seemed like a conclusion is really just another beginning. 

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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