Flying Careers: Choose Wisely!

December 30th, 2013 by Ron Rapp

One of the things I love most about aviation is the incredible diversity of jobs and experiences available to those of us who venture into this exciting world. There are so many disparate flying gigs out there that referring to them with the generic “pilot” moniker is almost deceptive.

I’ve got friends who are professional aerobatic coaches, bush country explorers, test pilots, flight instructors, fire fighters, sightseeing tour specialists, military aviators, ISR (Intel/Surveillence/Recon) pilots in Afghanistan, banner towing experts, ferry pilots, VLJ mentors, formation sky typing team members, and more.

I even know a few who fly for airlines.

Float planes are just one option for those seeking a career in the air (and/or on the water!)

Float planes are just one option for those seeking a career in the air (and/or on the water!)

There are countless nooks and crannies in the flying world! An example from my own life: I spent several years working for Dynamic Aviation on a sterile insect technique contract here in Los Angeles. If you’ve never heard the term, you’re not alone. The shortest description I can think of would be “cropdusting in a dense urban environment”. What made the job unique is that we were dropping live sterilized fruit flies instead of chemicals, and the aircraft we used were restricted category, ex-military King Airs.

But we had many of the other elements you’d find in any other cropdusting operation: light bars, AgNavs, low-altitude flying, and certification as an aerial applicator. I wrote a “day in the life” of the operation a few years ago if you’re interested in reading more about it.

Every flying job requires a different combination of talents and abilities. The iPad-specific P1 Aviation Magazine recently completed an interesting three-part series on the unique skills required by pilots in corporate flying. This happens to be my current niche, and it echoed an early realization that not everyone is cut out for this line of work.

You might think “hey, flying is flying — they’re all airplanes!”, but there’s so much more to it than just manipulating the flight controls. At a Part 121 airline like United or JetBlue, someone else prepares a weather package, computes weight & balance, files the flight plan, handles security, greets the passengers, loads the bags, organizes the catering, restocks the galley, and cleans the cabin.

In charter and corporate flying, the pilots are responsible for all those tasks — and much more. The actual flying is almost an afterthought. That’s not to say the aviating is not important — obviously it’s our primary job! But corporate aviation is less of a transportation business than it is a service industry. It requires a specific mindset, and the fact is, there are plenty of outstanding aviators who just don’t fit into that mold. It’s simply not in their DNA to futz with those things, to spend hours waiting for passengers, and to roll with the punches when the schedule invariably changes. Somehow I’ve developed a knack for it.

On the other hand, I’d be a poor fit at an airline. While the monthly schedule would be attractive, the limited route network, large terminals, long lines, compensation issues, mergers and bankruptcies, unions, and seniority system are not for me.

So when someone tells me they’re interesting in flying professionally and want to know what it’s like… well, that’s a tough question to answer. A day in the life of a Alaskan fish spotter bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of a cruise pilot on an Airbus A380. The guy in the Gulfstream at Mach .80 isn’t in the same league as the one flying the blimp at 40 miles per hour.

I think the key to happiness as a professional pilot is to “know thyself”. Forget Hollywood films and dreams of financial riches. Those things are fleeting no matter what your career choice. Instead, explore the market to see what’s out there, and then pick something that fits your personality and natural talents. As my father once said, “Life is too short to do something you hate every day.”

So… where do you belong?

Ron Rapp

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 7,500+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

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The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Brent

    No truer words have been written. As a corporate pilot myself, it is rewarding if you are of the right mindset.

    Even within the corporate world jobs can vary wildly.

    Never a dull moment!


    • Ron Rapp

      Never dull is right! You do meet some characters in this business, don’t you? :-)

  • Christian

    Don’t forget part 135 Cargo ops!

    • Ron Rapp

      There *is* something to be said for flying without human passengers. No complaints about the ride, fewer security concerns, less chance of medical emergencies or other issues in mid-flight. I can see the attraction.

  • Tom

    So true. I fly helicopter tours and the flying is a lot of fun but I get just as much enjoyment out of meeting people from all over the world and sharing in their adventure. I could make more money flying utility or EMS but I don’t think it would be as fun.

    • Ron Rapp

      Obviously we all have to earn enough money to live, but I think you’re smart to stick with the kind of flying you enjoy rather than jumping into something just because it’s got a larger paycheck. I’ve had a number of overseas opportunities with big salaries come my way, but I passed on them and in retrospect it turned out to be a good call because I’m very happy with what I’m doing now.

  • Randy

    Hello Ron,

    Boy, have you nailed that one on the head! I fly corporate and sometimes it is a serious chore. Where else are you going to make good money for a day and not have to work? Thanks,


    • Ron Rapp

      There are long tough days (actually, they’ re more often NIGHTs than days, right?) in the corporate/charter biz, but when I’m sitting on the beach in St. Maarten for a week and getting paid for it…

  • http://AOPA Friend Deming

    I am thankful for AOPA and you sir fir writing this article, as a Private Pilot looking into the corporate field and even the Military as an option to assist me in furthering my career. I fly out of Flabob Airport in Riverside California and I have some experience loading the Cal Fire aircraft during our lovely fire season. I encourage many to not give up but allow the turbulence to calm down when it seems to get rough. You’ll get to your destination soon enough. As Major General Pat Halloran told me during my early years of flight training.
    Thanks again.
    Friend Deming.

    • Ron Rapp

      Good advice, Friend! Sounds like you’ve been getting some valuable experience and, I’m sure, meeting a variety of people in the industry. Like most things in life, *who* you know is as important as *what* you know, so you are probably further along in establishing that career than you think.

      By the way, I love Flabob! One of my favorite airports… I enjoy taking students there when they’re ready for a more advanced pattern experience (and/or a classic airport cafe!).

  • Wade

    Great article. I’m a 27 year old student pilot with about 14 hours of training completed. I wish I would have discovered my passion for aviation sooner in life, but hopefully my late start doesn’t leave me at too great of a disadvantage. Currently I am leaning towards being a corporate or charter pilot. Do you have any recommendations or suggestions that will help me reach that goal?

    • Ron Rapp

      If it helps you feel any better, I started (and finished) my PPL at the age of 28. I wasn’t on a fast-track toward an aviation career, I was just doing it because I enjoyed it. I’ve seen people in their 50s make the jump into professional flying.

      So I don’t think you’re a “late start”, especially if you’re headed for the corporate/charter world. For one thing, those sectors are not subject to mandatory retirement at a specific age the way 121 airlines are. Also, unlike the airlines, corporate & charter jobs require a specific kind of personality. They often look for people who have some life experience and things beyond just an aviation background to bring to the table. You might actually have an advantage in that area.

  • Angelo

    Great article. Am 33 and still on the fence whether to jump into aviation full-time as a career (only have my private now studying for instrument) or stay in the corporate world (private equity). Hard to give up the golden handcuffs. Feel less and less motivated to stay in corporate world and am constantly day dreaming about flying. Not sure it it’s “too late”…

    • kvand

      I was essentially going to post this EXACT thing except I’m 31 and haven’t started my instrument work.

      Talking with flight schools, the field is amazing…. Talking with pilots… they’re looking to go back to 9-5 work and fly for fun.

      I just don’t know who to trust. I don’t see myself in the airlines but something in aviation as a whole.

      • Angelo

        Thanks for replying. Same here, airlines don’t appeal to me. Looking at the careers of Brent and Ron they sound like they are in great spots but they started when they were younger and without family in tow (based on my read of their blogs). Need to be able to support a family.

        • Ron Rapp

          It’s true I started before I was married, but as far as being young… well, I started at 28. Got my instrument at 29, commercial single at 30. Along the way I did a seaplane rating and aerobatic & tailwheel training. Then I just flew for fun until I was 33. Eventually it got too expensive and I had to choose: either fly less, or make it pay somehow.

          So at 33, I got my multi engine add-on, CFI/CFI-I,MEI, advanced and instrument ground instructor, and glider rating, and started instructing. That was a busy year…

          So at 31 or 33, you’re definitely not too old!

      • Ron Rapp

        You don’t necessarily have to choose between the two. Why not start off instructing on the side and see how you like it? I know people with full time corporate jobs that will take an occasional day trip in a Citation or whatnot as a contract pilot. It has the advantage of giving you a chance to try out the industry, meet some people (very important!), and see how it goes before making “the jump”. I can see how with a family and an established career, it could be very tough to make the switch.

    • kvand

      Yea, I don’t need to be a millionaire but a steady, dependable income is important. Time/location I’m flexible on.

      Flying for fun isn’t really fun for me, watching the hobbs meter and doing the math along the way, $150… $175… $215… it just sucks all enjoyment out of it.

      I need to find a one week ride-along program. :-)

    • Ron Rapp

      I know the feeling. I’ve often said that if I was going to learn to fly today, I’d never get off the ground. At the FBO were I studied, the cost has escalated from about $100/hr (Skyhawk wet plus instructor) in 1998 to $220/hr in 2014.

      On the other hand, that sort of thing is keeping the number of new entrants into the field low, so there’s a contrarian case to be made for the opportunity this might provide to those who DO jump in.

      I can’t say it’s easy or will always be sunrise and roses, but my own experience has been a good one.

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