Landing your first pilot job is one of the biggest challenges we all face. Having low hours puts you in a difficult position, and can make it tough to get your first paying job as a pilot, but it is definitely possible – I did it, so have many others, and so can you. With the right strategy, hard work, and persistence you will eventually get your first job, and feel the accomplishment of hitting a big milestone as a professional aviator.
Be realistic about what you apply for. There is no point applying for a job with the major airlines if you are a bare-bones commercial pilot license graduate with 200 hours. It’s typically not going to happen – unless you manage to score a Cadetship or other specialist graduate entry scheme. These do happen infrequently, and it is worth researching individual companies and reaching out to their HR departments to ask for more information.
For the majority of pilots, however, getting your first job is part of the natural progression through increasingly complex machines on your way to the big jets.
How many hours do you need to get a pilot job
The number of hours you have will be a big factor in determining what aircraft you get paid to fly, here are some rough numbers:
- 200-500hr: VFR light single-engine piston ie Cessna 172:
- 300-1000: VFR Heavy single-engine piston ie Cessna 210
- 1000+: IFR single-engine Turboprop ie Cessna Caravan
- 1000+ IFR Light piston twin ie Piper Seneca or Beechcraft Baron
- 1500+: IFR heavy twin-piston ie Cessna 406,
- 2000+: IFR multi-engine turboprop ie Beech King Air
Past 2000 hours, you will generally need an ATPL licence for aircraft above 5700kg doing regular passenger transport RPT services. Pilots typically start these operations with regional airlines flying aircraft such as the SAAB Metroliner, Dash-8 or ATR. With further experience one can then progress into the major airlines flying jetliners domestically such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, and then internationally flying aircraft such as the Boeing 747 or airbus A340 or A380.
The next consideration for what type of pilot jobs you can get is your qualifications. Some pilots spend a lot of money getting a lot of qualifications at the start of their careers, but this is not necessarily the best or most efficient way to tackle the problem. There are some basic qualifications that you’ll need, and there is an optimum time to get them.
If your goal is the airlines, then you will require at minimum a Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL) and eventually need an Airline Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL). In my opinion, it’s worth having at least the required exams for the ATPL completed if you can bear it. A competent and astute pilot can knock these over easily in as little as two months, but a more attractive option for most is to study these part-time during your initial few jobs. Whilst putting it off might seem like a good idea, it’s going to be a large distraction while your trying to learn the ropes of your new flying job(s), and something you will likely have to ask for time off to complete. This means its very easy to procrastinate and rationalise putting them off. If you are truly committed to your goal, then completing the exams is a relatively small amount of effort compared to getting your first pilot job
Ratings and endorsements
Whilst not required for many initial jobs, having completed certain flight ratings and endorsements can be very useful to have up your sleeve; especially if you plan to progress within a company that operates a varied fleet, or onto a new employer altogether.
Single engine vs multi-engine
Multi-engine flying is not something you will likely do until after 6-12 months of your initial role. The best use of funds would be to concentrate on single-engine flying, but keep enough savings to complete a multi-engine endorsement if required. If you’re applying to a potential employer that operates a mixed fleet of single and multi-engine aircraft, however, an initial multi or multi-engine command instrument rating may be the key to a foot in the door.
I would recommend you complete the following as part of your initial pilot training, mostly for the sake of your own competency and safety reasons;
- IFR rating
- Night rating
- Aerobatic rating
The following suggested relevant qualifications may assist you in getting your license, and certain ones such as a medical and security clearance are required for all roles.
- drivers license
- Specialist license: forklift, loader, etc
- First aid
- Police check
- ASIC (validity period applies)
- Aviation medical (validity period applies )
- Working with children/minors check
Secondary and tertiary qualifications
These qualifications are by no means necessary but may be able to put you ahead of the crowd. Certain employers like the airlines or the military may impose minimum education requirements such as high school maths and physics, but a tertiary college education is generally not required. Many are of the opinion that it is better to get out there and start practically flying and learning your trade, rather than spending three or four years at a tertiary institute learning theoretical aspects of aviation.
Flying experience is a big factor when applying for a job, second only to the base qualification requirement for the jobs. Generally speaking, more flying experience is good. Having more flying hours in your logbook opens up the door to more job opportunities, but it’s not necessarily the case that more hours means you’ll get the job.
Employers often set hours minimums based on insurance requirements, so once you’re over a certain minimum threshold that’s good. And being competent at your job usually comes with experience which is also good. But employers also know that a more experienced pilot might be expecting to move onto a ‘better’ job sooner, so they might be concerned about people overqualified for the job.
For example, consider a scenic flight operator that flies exclusively single-engine light aircraft. These are the most common low hour pilot jobs. They typically employ graduate pilots with bare bone 150 integrated and 200-hour standard commercial licenses. Flying rate of effort will obviously depend on how good the business is, but legally speaking you’ll max out at around 900 hours a year, but usually you’d be lucky to fly half that – which means you’ve flown at least two hours a day, five days a week for most of the year, factoring in weather, etc for this day VFR role. This kind of graduate job would typically attract pretty average pay, so it’s obvious graduate pilots would use this as a stepping stone into other roles. If you were lucky, 6 months into this job you would have doubled your flying hours and probably be looking into flying high-performance singles. This means the operator would reasonably expect to get a good 6 months of return on their effort training you into the role; a good return on investment. Statistically, there is a higher turn over of more experienced pilots.
Related – How Much Do Commercial Pilots Make?
There is a debate that often comes up regarding flying hours and whether would-be pilots should continue training or ‘build-up’ their hours before job seeking. The answer is it depends – yes it’s tricky to get your first job especially as a bare-bones commercial pilot, and more hours do typically open up more opportunities, but self-funding your hours can be extremely expensive and as we continue to mention, hours in the book are not the only thing prospective employers look at. Hours don’t necessarily translate to competency; for example, 400 hours of scenic flights is a completely different skillset to 400 hours of crop dusting or 400 hours of aerobatic instruction.
Like any role where you are competing with your peers, you need to have some method or way of standing out from the crowd. What I would suggest is that you carefully research your options, and upskill yourself within reason. This might include trying to get some volunteer experience (for example helping wash airplanes and brief passengers at a joy flight operator). As discussed, I would strongly recommend undertaking an aerobatic rating and instrument rating during your initial pilot training; these two qualifications will make you a more competent pilot and the hours would also put you ahead of the crowd, perhaps around 250 hours, or 300 hours factoring in some recreational flying.
As discussed earlier, a graduate pilot would expect to progress from light singles through to the ‘heavy singles’ before getting into the light twins, gaining valuable multi-engine experience to allow progression into turboprops and multi-engine turboprops. Spending 10 hours or so getting properly trained on a ‘heavy single’ and then getting some command time demonstrates to an employer your commitment and also potentially reduces their training cost to get you online.
There has to be a limit, however, and an excessively long CV and logbook filled with PICUS (pilot in command under supervision) with limited actual commercial experience will not only raise eyebrows as to your suitability for the job but also may have you branded a scab. Which leads us into the next topic
Like any job, you’re going to be working with people. You should be a team player, and pilots also need strong leadership skills. If this is something you’re weak at, join a local sporting team which will help you work on both, whilst improving your physical fitness
You want to, generally speaking, be the grey man or woman. You should go unnoticed, but if the spotlight comes on you should perform well. Be the guy or gal that people would be happy to hang out and have you over for a meal with their family.
Networking is arguably the best way to land a job, so make sure to put in the effort and get your name out there. Going out for a night to have a few drinks with other pilots is a great way to get to know them better, and make sure you shout your rounds. Know when to leave though, and avoid situations which might paint you in an unfavourable light (such as drunk and disorderly or assault charges losing you your ASIC)
Drafting your pilot CV
This is where we getting into how to actually apply for your first pilot job.
Writing your CV
Your CV is going to be one of the first things your prospective employer is going to see in writing when they come to hire you.
For the best chance at getting your first pilot job, make sure your CV includes the following:
- your photo: mugshot (Hint: smile)
- Your contact details
- Your height and weight
- brief summary of your up to date hours
- Your relevant qualifications
- A short career statement
- Where you trained
- Any volunteer experience you have
- Three or four up to date references that you trust to vouch for you
- Very short about me section: hobbies etc
Cover note for each specific employer
So many brand new pilots make the mistake of not providing a personal cover note to each employer, specifically outlining why they are the best candidate.
You must include a cover note with the following:
- specifically addressed to the employer you are sending your CV to
- The job your asking for
- Why you meet requirements and are suited to the role
- What special skills you can bring to the role
- How long you intend to work at the role
Right time, right place
You often need to be there – which means having a savings fund, accommodation and for most people, casual work in the area
Where are the jobs?
Tracking down the jobs is an important part of landing your first job. Once you really know what your target job opportunity is, jump online and do as much research as you can. Obviously, nothing substitutes physically being there, but that’s impractical in most cases. Learn as much as you can about potential jobs, especially which airports they are operated out of. I made a giant spreadsheet on Microsoft excel, as well as marking them out on a big geographical map.
How much money do I need?
Realistically, 6-12 months living expenses. Remember that this might be much higher than you are used to, especially in rural or tourist towns where accommodation and the general cost of living is high. It’s also important to realize your low starting wage means you’re likely going to be literally ‘eating’ into your savings just to stay afloat. Remember though this is transient, but having a large enough buffer to see you through is important and will give you peace of mind, reducing your stress and allowing you to focus on your core role of job seeking and then learning the ropes as fast as you can
Some practical ways to get by at the start:
- Stay in youth hostel accomodation
- live out of an RV
- Supplementing your new flying job with local work such as hospitality (pulling beers at a bar or serving meals at a restaurant), or other casual roles such as gas station attendant.
Landing your first pilot job when you have low hours is hard, but once you’ve gotten your first gig, and increased your hours, it does get better. The main things to remember are:
- Be realistic with the jobs you’re going to get to start with- it’s most likely going to be low paying, part-time work
- Make sure you have the essential ratings, as a minimum, and have your medical and security clearance
- Have a good CV and keep it up to date
- Always include a cover letter when submitting your CV to an employer
- Make connections and network
- Be financially prepared
What was your first pilot job? Do you have any tips for new pilots looking to get their first paycheck? let us know in the comments below.