How to Build Flight Time for Pilots
At various times during their training and in their careers, many professional pilots find that they need to get more flying hours in order to progress. This may happen quite early on, when training for a CPL (Commercial Pilot’s License), for which a minimum of 200 hours total flight time is required. It may be a requirement for a particular flying job, as a CPL, or at any other stage of your career.
However, the most common reason for wanting to build flight time is to become an airline pilot. To gain the ATPL or Air Transport Pilot’s License, you need a minimum of 1,500 hours of total flight time, with 250 hours as PIC, or Pilot in Command. And this is a lot of flying time!
So how can you get all those hours? In practice, there are three main ways. You can pay for the hours yourself, doing any kind of flying you want. Or, if you have a CPL, you can get one of the jobs you are allowed to do with that license. Finally, you can qualify as a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) and gain the hours needed by doing flying instruction.
We will now take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each of those ways of hour building.
Getting a Job with a CPL
Almost every pilot who gets a CPL thinks at first that now they have a professional flying qualification they will surely be able to make money from flying. After all, you are now a commercial pilot, aren’t how? Surely the clue is in the word ‘commercial’.
In theory, this is correct. But in practice, things are very different. In fact, there are a fairly limited number of jobs available for holders of CPLs. The FAA lists all the careers a CPL-holding pilot can legally perform. These include tasks like aerial application (crop dusting), pipeline patrol, banner towing, air charter (with a valid air operating certificate), sightseeing flights (with a valid FAA permit), aerial photography, traffic watch, and other similar careers such as agricultural flying or ferry flights.
You might well fancy doing some of these. Ferry flying involves delivering aircraft to customers, or moving them to new locations. It could involve you in learning to fly new types, and gaining a lot of flying time doing long flights. Glider and banner towing require skill, and you will learn a lot doing them. And sightseeing flights and aerial photography can be a great deal of fun.
The main problem is that it may well be extremely hard to find jobs like these. There are simply too many CPL holders chasing very few jobs. After all, nearly all CPL holders are looking to gain an ATPL, and so they want to hour build. You may find it very hard to get any of these jobs.
Even if you do manage to get a job, it may take you a long time to build enough hours for an ATPL, as such jobs may be part time and/or short term. Most of them don’t pay very well, and you will have to do other non-flying work along with them. And, at least early on, you will be competing with pilots with more hours and experience than you, who may well have decided to make a career doing jobs like these.
Having said that, it is not impossible to find work as a CPL. So maybe give it a try. But if it doesn’t work out, you might want to consider another option…
Paying for the Flying Yourself
Of course, the main disadvantage to doing this is that it will work out rather expensive. Most pilots finish the CPL with a few hundred hours at the most. This means you will have quite a lot of flying to pay for if you are to reach that magic 1500 hours.
Nevertheless, some pilots bite the bullet and do this. Now, there are no specific requirements for how hour building should be done. So some people simply try to fly the hours as quickly and cheaply as possible. I have known pilots who do a deal with a flying school, get hold of the cheapest hire aircraft available, and just fly and fly and fly. Some never get beyond their local area, or really extend themselves to any great degree.
To me, this seems like a terrible waste. If you do decide to pay for your own hour building, this is possibly the only time in your flying career that you’ll be able to go where you like, and fly whatever you want, with almost no restrictions. So why not do something completely different?
You will have to spend the money to obtain the hours anyway. So why not spend just a little more and gain some new experiences – get a new rating, try a new type of flying, or do some flying further afield or even in another country. It could be a good time to do a tailwheel conversion, or maybe a mountain flying course or some aerobatics.
Admittedly, these things may not be directly related to your future flying career. But they will definitely improve your knowledge and handling skills; and all flying experience is useful, for who knows where you might end up in the future? And they could well impress a future employer.
You could also team up with another hour building pilot and fly together, perhaps doing some aerial touring or even having a flying holiday. This could be very enjoyable indeed – half the work, half the money, twice the fun. And you will certainly learn a lot if you do that kind of flying.
Some people even find it is worth buying their own plane to hour build in this way, rather than relying on hired aircraft all the time all the time. You can always sell it on when you have the required hours. It could certainly be worth looking into.
So is this really such a bad idea? After all, you probably took up flying because that is what you love to do. So why not just do it. If you can afford it, this may be a very good way to build the hours you need.
Becoming a CFI
If they can’t get a job with a CPL, and can’t afford to pay for hour building, most prospective airline pilots decide that flight instruction is the best way to build hours. There are a number of advantages to doing this. It is a reasonably well paid job, and flight instructors are in demand at the present time. It is therefore probably the only way you can get reliable full time work, and so do enough flying to get the hours you need in a sensible time.
In addition, instructing is a job that many people really enjoy. After all, you are finally being paid to fly! Not only that, but you will be helping to train the next generation of pilots, and passing on your skills and enthusiasm for aviation to someone else, who you hope will share them. And you will gain your hours relatively quickly. What could be bad about that?
In fact the answer is – lots of things. For a start, actually getting the CFI qualification is not at all easy. Although not many flying hours are required for the actual CFI flying course, it is not easy. You need to learn to fly from the ‘wrong’ seat, and to demonstrate and talk through every flying exercise as you do it. In addition a large amount of ground school is necessary, and you will probably need to pay out quite a substantial amount of money for at least some of this. And the checkride for the CFI is reputed to be one of the most difficult tests there is, in or out of aviation.
Finally, you may well find that you do not like instructing. It depends what sort of person you are. To be a good instructor, you need to be able to relate to people, for flight instruction is as much about people skills as it is about flying skills. If it is simply a means to an end and a way to gain hours, you could well find it monotonous and you will end up short changing your students.
Please don’t do this! I had an unwilling hour building instructor in the early days of my PPL training, and I reckon he added at least ten hours to the time I needed to learn to fly. He would have been better off hour building in some other way, even if it took longer – and if you are a similar type of person, so will you.
As you can see, there is actually a fair amount of choice available when it comes to building flight time. So the first thing you need to do is take an honest look at yourself and what you want from your flying.
Do you love flying, want new aviation experiences, and have enough money to fund the hours? If that is the case, then maybe find a type of flying you really want to do and pay for it yourself.
Are you short of funds, but really don’t fancy doing any more training and then instructing? Then apply for all the how hours jobs going for CPL holders. Eventually, if you persevere, you will most likely get work. It may take you longer to get the hours, but does that really matter?
Or are you in a hurry to fly the hours, and you think you would quite enjoy instructing? If that is the case, then the CFI rating is definitely the one for you.
Whichever you choose, go out there and do it. And the best of luck in your future airline career.