What are some jobs in general aviation?
April 6, 2010 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Help me find a career in general aviation.

I realized recently that I have been given a great gift.
I'm 35 years old and an at-home dad to an 8 year old and a 2 year old.
Previously my career was in high-tech sales and marketing for one of the biggest tech companies in the world.
Since leaving years ago I started a small business that I ran VERY part time and recently sold.

I've struggled my whole like to figure out what I want to do when I grow up and my one big regret (aside from never becoming a rock star) was that I never learned to fly. It's just something I've always been passionate about.

I was recently watching airplanes take off and land at my local mid-sized GA airport with my daughter when I thought to myself that I'm going to have to get myself back into the workforce in a few short years. We don't need a lot of income from me. My wife does well. But I'd really like to do something that I love. I need something with flexible hours so I can pick the kids up at school most if not all days at least for the first few years. I can spend some money and time learning.
In other words, I have the opportunity to start over and I have the time and (some) money to sink into doing it right.

I would love a job in the general (NOT commercial) aviation industry. Not a mechanic or anything like that. Ultimately I'd love to fly and get paid for it but that may or may not be a pipe dream. I'm a people person. I work well alone, too. I love structure. I'm a list maker. I have a degree in com sci and marketing but never really enjoyed either.

So, smart people, lay it on me. What are some enjoyable career paths in general aviation? Where could I start? Where could I go? What kind of cost and time commitment is involved?

For the first time ever there's a good chance that I may learn what I want to do for the rest of my life!

posted by Thrillhouse to Work & Money (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I know someone just like you! He got burned out working for Bloomberg in NYC and decided to give up his well-paying job for GA.

You want to become a flight instructor. This will take some investment of time and money - I would say around $20k, depending on where you live (your profile says Boston, so you may want to budget more than that). What you will need to do is go from a private license to instrument rating, then get a commercial license and finally a flight instructor rating. This will allow you to teach people to get their private ratings. There are "fast track" programs called Part 141 that expect you to be at the airport just about every day - it's almost like taking a college class.

Most people who are flight instructors are a) younger than you and b) using the job to build enough hours to get picked up by an airline. This should not discourage you, since the airline industry is very cyclical and these people will get laid off many times before they reach your age. You can expect, however, not to make very much money at all doing this. You should be able to determine your own hours to a reasonable extent, but this is a bit of a customer-oriented job; if your students want to fly when you're picking up your kids from school, they'll find another instructor.

I would start this path by taking a first flight with one of the schools in the area to get an idea if this is something you really want to learn. If you do decide to continue, I would take stock after each rating to determine if you want to continue sinking money into it.

There are other jobs around the airport, and these vary based on the size of the field. You could get a minimum wage job driving the fuel truck around, if you like, or running the front office. I've done both as a teenager and it's a great summer job, but I'm not too sure it would be stimulating enough at this point.

One thing you may consider to defray the cost of training is to take a job like working the flight line for a school in exchange for discounts or free flying/instruction. You won't get paid much (or at all), but you won't have to pay so much for the instruction, either.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:18 AM on April 6, 2010

Maybe I should expand on the "other" options. Working the flight line, depending again on what airport you choose, involves taking care of the school's and the customers' aircraft. You're sort of a glorified valet. You provide "line service", which may include refueling, general gofer tasks ("Can you run me out a quart of oil?"), engine preheating in cold weather, towing aircraft around the field, and running out to tie everything down as a freak thunderstorm rushes through. You might provide services for tenants as well, such as opening up hangars when they lock themselves out and generally being treated as a dogsbody by everyone. You're outside much of the day, and people generally fly less when it's lousy out so you can stay dry and warm much of the time.

Working the desk (Fixed Base of Operations) is much like any other retail job - bill customers for hours flown or fuel purchased, schedule airplanes and instructors for students, call customers to bug them about paying their bills. You stay inside most of the day, and hopefully have a good book with you.

Airports also need groundskeepers - hope you like plowing snow and driving lawn mowers.

Depending on the clientele (lots of private jets over small planes, say), there may be jobs available pumping lavatories and restocking fridges and minibars.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:28 AM on April 6, 2010

Best answer: Some of the odd jobs in GA that may just fit your bill. Not all will be available in your area, but some will be:

Pipeline inspection: flying along fuel, oil, or natural gas pipelines looking for evidence of leaks and/or damage.

Fish spotting for commercial fishing fleets if you're near a coastline. (I've done this myself).

Banner towing, for advertising.

Aerial photography.

Glider towing.

Flying the jump plane for skydivers.

Traffic reporting.

General reporting (frequently done by helicopter though)

Air ambulance.

Air taxi.

Some of these will require a commercial license, which (contrary to popular perception) is not the license required to fly airliners. A commercial is not that difficult to get if you're dedicated and enthused.

Best of luck.
posted by dinger at 9:31 AM on April 6, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, your responses just went from fun to suck. :)
Naturally I'd like to be on the fun and exciting end of it rather than the mundane and miserable. It's been years since I've seriously looked into flight training. There are at least two schools that operate out of my local airport.

Can you help me understand what I should be looking for in choosing a school?

I really appreciate your comments and ideas!
posted by Thrillhouse at 9:34 AM on April 6, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks Dinger. Apparently there are a lot of options over and above just recreational flying.
By the way, my other comment was for backseatpilot. Not you. :)
posted by Thrillhouse at 9:35 AM on April 6, 2010

I think the two biggest factors determining a school are determining which airplanes you want to fly and finding the right instructor. Schools usually have Cessna (high-wing) or Piper/Diamond (low-wing) fleets; most trainer aircraft are pretty much the same but have some noticeable differences in flying characteristics. You can also choose based on what type of airport you want to fly out of (towered vs. non-towered), but sometimes that option is rather limited. You should also make sure that the school has insurance and look into getting some (renter's insurance) yourself - it's usually only a couple hundred dollars a year.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:51 AM on April 6, 2010

Best answer: I second becoming a flight instructor. As backseatpilot said, you won't make much money doing it but if you really are a people person and you're not there to build hours and split, you'd be an ideal CFI and someone that will be sought out.

When I was taking lessons, this book helped me more than anything. It doesn't teach you how to fly, it teaches you how to learn how to fly. It talks about common mistakes CFIs make and how they often don't teach you the best ways to learn things. It really helped me think about what I was learning. That and Stick and Rudder are the two books every student pilot should read.

Profile says you're in Boston, but not where exactly. Bedford (Hanscom Field) is a popular training airport but it's big and busy. You're paying as long as the prop is spinning and at BED you'll spend a lot of time taxing and holding, paying the entire time. Also sometimes it's too busy for touch and goes so you'll spend 20 minutes in the air flying to Fitchburg or Lawrence to practice, and then 20 minutes back. I spent a lot of extra cash because of BED. If you have your choice of other airports I would advise you to avoid Bedford. Norwood is nice and I really enjoyed (and finally soloed at) Lawrence.

Best of luck and If I ever get back to finishing my training I'll be sure to seek out Thrillhouse, CFI!
posted by bondcliff at 10:10 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

You've got good answers above. I'm a new student pilot myself, some extra thoughts:

Your dream of making money in general aviation is a bit of a pipe dream, but don't give up. Flight instructing is the most obvious job that fits your requirements. Flexible hours, lots of flying, and you get paid to fly other people's planes. If you like teaching people complex skills, it'd be a great job for you. In the San Francisco Bay Area CFIs make about $60 / hour which isn't terrible but is awfully underpaid given the amount of expertise instructors have. Hourly rates are kept down by a host of young CFIs who are building hours on their way to becoming air transport pilots. There's also a lot of other job possibilities in GA. FBOs, equipment sales, event organization, airport operations, etc.

I think the best thing you could do right now is get a private pilot's license. That will be fun and immerse you in the culture of general aviation. If you do it casually, part time, it will cost about $20,000 and take about 150 hours of instruction, anywhere from 3-6 months depending on how much time you can devote. I'd look at the $20,000 as an expense, not an investment in a soon-to-be-lucrative career. Once you've done all that you'll have a much better sense of how GA works and whether it could be a job for you.

How to learn? Sign up for an AOPA student membership and go to their website for learning to fly to learn more about the process. And hang out at your local airport a bit, talk to some of the CFIs at the schools you mentioned. Find someone you like and go on a "Discovery Flight" with them. The usual deal is an hour flight at a discount, a sort of teaser to get people interested. You're looking for an instructor who doesn't make you feel dumb, makes you feel safe, lets you operate the controls, and isn't trying to prove to you what a hot-dog pilot he is.
posted by Nelson at 10:14 AM on April 6, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks Guys. Bondcliff, I'd be working out of Lawrence so there's Eagle East.
I've read Stick & Rudder. It was a nice easy read and taught me a thing or two. I've been up a few times and found it totally fascinating (and a bit scary but I'd be surprised if thats not normal).

I've heard people quote an average of $3000 to become certified to $6 or 7000 but never $20K.
Is that really normal now-a-days cuz that IS a huge expense.
posted by Thrillhouse at 10:40 AM on April 6, 2010

I've heard people quote an average of $3000 to become certified to $6 or 7000 but never $20K.

I read that as $20K to be licensed as an instructor. The sums you are mentioning sound like the costs just to be a licensed pilot.
posted by Brockles at 10:58 AM on April 6, 2010

Response by poster: Oooh right. Okay. Thats where I got that. Thanks for clearing it up.
posted by Thrillhouse at 11:12 AM on April 6, 2010

I'm about three weeks from taking my check ride. I've paid $6000 to my instructor for 110 hours of his time and $8700 to the flying club for 60 hours flying time. Add another $1000 on gear and gadgets and 10-20% more lesson time and I expect it will cost me $17,000 to get my private pilot license.

You can definitely do it cheaper: I'm doing my training in an expensive area, I'm renting newer 172SPs at $140/hr instead of cheaper old 152s at $90/hr, and I'm taking my time in my training. Even so, I'd look at $7000 for a PPL to be optimistic.

(Sorry to be so specific, but since the question is about general aviation as a job I hope it helps to have some hard numbers.)
posted by Nelson at 12:17 PM on April 6, 2010

Response by poster: No, thats good. Thanks Nelson. I appreciate the numbers. I guess I'll need to do a little more research and then present my findings to my manager and my bank. Luckily she lives with me... :)
posted by Thrillhouse at 12:22 PM on April 6, 2010

I'm not sure if they still do it, but you used to (as of around 1999-2000) get loans through Sallie Mae for flight training. You may need to be in a Part 141 program, as that is more analogous to "school" and less "guitar lessons on the weekend".
posted by backseatpilot at 12:28 PM on April 6, 2010

Best answer: You should expect to take between 50 & 80 hours of training to get your private certificate. The more often you fly the shorter time it will take. I took 72 hours to my final checkride (flight test with the FAA to get the certificate) flying once or twice a week. But it took me 30 hours to solo while many do it in half that time. Of that 80 hours probably around half will be dual time (with an instructor) and half solo.

Looking here it seems rental at Lawrence Airport runs $115 for solo and $165 for dual in a Cessna 172 (a great airplane in which to learn to fly). So say 40 hours dual plus 40 hours solo will cost $11,200. On top of that add probably $1000 for ground school classes, equipment, exam fees and other incidentals. You'll typically spread the expense over 4~6 months rather than have to pay upfront.

I would agree with most of the comments above that flight instructing is probably the best option for flexible/part time work. Mature instructors who are going to stick around are great compared to the kids instructing to build flight hours while on their way to an airline job. Getting to CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) requires your private certificate, an instrument rating (to fly in low visibility) which may cost at least as much again as the private certificate, a single engine commercial certificate which should cost about half of what the private cost, it doesn't take long but you'll have to rent a more expensive airplane to train in (high performance, retractable gear) and your CFI certificate which will also be expensive but I never completed it so I'm not sure how much.

Aviation is not a cheap past time, but it is a ridiculous amount of fun. Get your private certificate anyway. It's a huge achievement and by the time you're done you'll have plenty of insight into what part of GA you'd like to work in.
posted by Long Way To Go at 4:22 PM on April 6, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks Long Way. Thats a lot of useful information. It does seem a lot more expensive than I thought it would be. I guess I need to determine if this is going to be an educational investment or just a really expensive hobby.
posted by Thrillhouse at 4:57 PM on April 6, 2010

Most of what I wanted to say was said above. My private pilot checkride is scheduled for this week and looking back, it's been a costly investment in both time and money. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Some things off the top of my head that you can do to reduce the amount of money you spend:
Unless you're a big guy, go for a 152. They're cheaper and smaller, but they're great little planes to learn in.
Be choosy about your instructor. I attended ground school classes and there were a gang of flight instructors in the back of the room waiting to pounce on the next student who expressed interest in starting to fly. I got lucky and ended up with a decent instructor but I never really got a say in who I got. Don't be afraid to chat with a few of them to see which fit your personality the best. Remember, you're going to spend 40 hours with them in a tiny plane and having one who clashes with you is going to seriously degrade the experience. However, you're going to want one who's serious about teaching well. Often there are instructors who are simply furloughed airline pilots who got their CFI so they could fly until getting called back (like mine) who hate the job but need the money.
Start flying after one or two classes of ground school. There's nothing like getting up and feeling the plane to solidfy the stuff you're learning on the ground.
Study! Always be studying, every day. I can't emphasize this enough. Read an hour a night. Read your textbook. Read the private pilot oral exam guide and memorize the answers to the questions. Study your sectional chart and know what everything means. Know where to find things in FAR/AIM and label the important parts. Read the PIM for your plane and know how your plane works inside out. The amount of information you have to know is crazy, and it's not something you can cram for whatsoever.
If your school offers a maneuvers manual, get it and memorize it right away. I feel like I wasted a lot of time in the air by practicing the maneuvers in the air without knowing the procedure for entering the maneuver. Basically, when your instructor is up with you and tells you to do a steep turn, you don't want to hesitate and struggle to remember what you're supposed to do to set it up. By doing this you establish really good habits that you don't have to learn later.
Know your Practical Test Standards. Your eventual goal is to pass the checkride. During your training practice as if you were being graded. This means, for example, during maneuvers you have to know that you can only lose so much altitude/deviate by so many degrees/lose so much speed while actually performing the maneuver correctly.

Hope this helps. Good luck!
posted by pyrom at 6:50 PM on April 6, 2010

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