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Pilot Paths: Aerial Survey Pilot

When you think of a "commercial pilot", the image that most people think of is a professional pilot who flies for one of the major airlines.  However the truth is, that when you become a pilot and obtain your FAA commercial pilot certificate, you open a door to many pro pilot careers; a career such as working as an aerial survey pilot.

An aerial survey pilot is usually employed by an engineering firm flying aircraft that contain very accurate cameras, scanners and other types of acquisition equipment.  The pilot is usually charged with flying multiple passes or grids over an area chosen by the firm's client.  Clients can be public or private, but in my experience, mostly public, such as county, state or federal agencies.   Clients use the information that is gathered to create maps that can be used for all kinds of purposes; everything from zone planning to creating emergency escape paths. Aerial survey pilots are sometimes called into action after major natural disasters, such as a hurricane, to obtain aerial data that is used to estimate the amount of natural damage such as beach erosion.

Depending on the type of aircraft and acquisition equipment flown, pilots can either work by themselves or with a camera / equipment operator.  Aerial survey pilots have to work closely with ground survey crews that may be running a fixed ground-based GPS recorder.  You will also have to coordinate your flights with Air Traffic Control facilities to determine the best time to make passes over an area, especially if that area happens to be in a major traffic route.

One of the many things that I enjoyed about this job was the amount of planning and coordinating that went into every single flight.  If you enjoy working on a team, with lots of very talented people, then you might want to consider working as an aerial survey pilot.  If you enjoy computers, like I do, you'll enjoy laying out the flight grids and flight plans using CAD software programs.   You'll learn a lot about creating and making maps, survey techniques and photography (which I enjoyed).

I need to point out though, that flying a grid and straight lines for 6+ hours can be a little monotonous and boring.  This is also one of those jobs that can require a lot of extended stays and overnights, which can be hard if you have a family or just don't like to travel for long periods of time.

Most survey firms usually require between 500 - 2,000 hours of total flight time, depending on the type of equipment you will be flying.  I've known a few pilots who started as equipment operators and then when they had enough flight time, moved up to the pilot's chair.

Just becomming a pilot is a very rewarding experience in and of itself, but working as an aerial survey pilot can take many different interests (mapping, flying and traveling) and combine it into one highly rewarding career.

5 Responses to “Pilot Paths: Aerial Survey Pilot”

  1. I'm a commercial pilot with instrument rating. I've been told of an outfir in Erie, Colorado that "fly's the grids" for the government. How would one get into this field?

  2. In my opinion the really fun flying job are outside of the airlines.

    The trade off is usually the pay


    if you can come up with a secondary source of income you can have a great life as a pilot notflying a bus.

    Become A Marine Pilot

  3. This is such a load of crap. As with anything in aviation, you need experience to get the job but can't seem to get experience without the job. Aerial Survery is for those who know someone and already have experience, not the newbie who even has all of his or her ratings but is low time. Rewarding carreer... hardly!

  4. Survey Pilot Says:
    May 12th, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Not true Smith. I got my first aerial survey job with no survey experience at all. 6 years later in the business I am now flying turbine equipment(C208B and C441) and making more money than most Regional Captains. The only downside is the lack of schedule, but I am home more than I was when I flew for the airlines.

  5. I did the flight instruction route for a few years. Got hired on with a survey company traveling everywhere in the US and outside the US. I stay in very nice hotels, get paid more per diem than regional pilots, paid a higher salary than said regional pilots, and I'm captain of my own ship building PIC and single IFR time to get to the job sites. C206, C310, C421 is the equipment im currently flying. It's a blast, and i'm paying the bills while banking the rest. I'd say it's a great stepping stone! I've learned a lot with coordinating with ATC flying in the NYB 1300' over JFK, EWR, LGA. Makes for some great interview stories.

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