I’ve been writing about how pilots can deal with the industry downturn that COVID-19 is causing. If you haven’t already, be sure to read:
- Coronavirus – How Pilots Can Make the Most of a Bad Situation
- Airline Pilot COVID-19 Layover Survival Guide
- What Happens to Pilots in an Economic Downturn?
- Filling my Furlough Camel Hump
After publishing all of that, I was feeling pretty sanguine about my lot in life. However, this week my company released the details of a huge displacement bid and most of us got pretty spun-up about it. It actually wasn’t as bad as I expected…I might even stay on flying status despite only being at 75% seniority in the company. However, seeing this announcement was a gut check…or a gut punch…or both.
I have zero control over our economy, my company, or the ‘Rona itself. However, I can control how I react to all of this. In hopes of continuing to stave off panic on my part, and potentially doing some good in the world, I plan to write some posts about jobs that you or I could pursue if one of us gets furloughed. I’m going to avoid some of the obvious choices. (I already covered some of them anyway.) Instead, I hope to highlight some jobs that you may not have considered.
Many people will tell you that these jobs are difficult to obtain, or are undesirable for one reason or another. Tell those whiny morons to shut up long enough for you to at least consider what it would take to get each job, whether you think you’d enjoy it, and if you’d be able to support your family with it. Those things matter far more than what anybody in the peanut gallery thinks.
For today, we’re going to consider the possibility of becoming an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE.)
Instruct First, Evaluate Second
Honestly, I think this should be Furlough Job #2. Job #1 is, of course, flight instructor. There was a nationwide shortage of both airline pilots and CFIs before the COVID-19 crisis hit. Even worst case estimates show the airline industry returning to pre-virus levels within a few years. Our industry will see thousands of pilots reach mandatory retirement each year between now and then. Thousands of smart individuals are starting or continuing their flight training right now, knowing that there will be a place for them once they earn their ratings. Every single person reading this post has the ability to earn a CFI rating and get work as a flight instructor. Instead of re-hashing this further, I’ll just refer you to Part 6 of my “I Want to Be a Pilot But I Need Cash Now” series.
Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) Basics
At several stages in each aspiring pilot’s training, he or she has to take a checkride with either an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI,) or, more commonly, a DPE.
The least desirable CFI jobs end up paying instructors about $22 per hour of instruction given. More desirable jobs pay in the $30-50 per hour range. DPEs charge much higher rates. Of the FAA checkrides I’ve had to pay for, the cheapest was about $300 while the most expensive was $500. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of DPEs charging even more ($800-1000) for higher-level ratings in areas with lots of checkride demand, or to accommodate last-minute requests.
Although a DPE represents the FAA and gets a lot more oversight than a CFI, he or she is required to work as a private individual. (Think independent contractor vs employee.) A DPE sets his or her own schedule and negotiates his or her own rates. (By the way, FAA Order 8900.2C 5.1.c requires a DPE to charge an “application” fee, not a “passing” fee. If your student fails, you still get paid. Then, you get paid again when the student re-tests.)
Without special permission, a DPE can give a maximum of two checkrides in one day. This is a long day, as the examiner is expected to conduct a thorough brief, debrief, and oral examination. However, I think it’s completely realistic for a DPE to plan on earning $600-1000 per day he or she spends working.
Like I said, there is no shortage of demand for DPEs, and I think it would be possible to stay as busy as you want in this job. A furloughed regional airline pilot could replace top-line Captain pay working 125-150 days per year as a DPE. That plus a Guard or Reserve job could easily replace O-5 pay for a military aviator who unknowingly botched his or her exit timing from Active Duty.
Not bad, huh?
The two main regulations governing DPEs are FAA Order 8900.2C, and FAA Order 8000.95. If you read through the FAA’s info website and these two FAAOs, you can learn everything you need to successfully apply for an examiner designation. However, since I’ve already gone through them I’ll hit the highlights for you.
The FAA is very specific about what types of aircraft an individual DPE can give checkrides in. They use a cumbersome nomenclature that is thoroughly spelled-out in FAAO 8000.95, Tables 3-1 through 3-4. (If you aren’t already comfortable with FAA rating nomenclature, be sure to read my Military Pilot’s GA Translation Guide before you go on.)
You can only give checkrides for pilot ratings at or below the level of your own rating. As a DPE with a Commercial Pilot Rating you could give checkrides for Recreational, Private, and Commercial Pilot, but you would not be able to give ATP checkrides.
A DPE can also give Sport Pilot checkrides, though the experience requirements specify that you must actually have some flight time in Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs.) More on that in a moment.
There are also separate designations for being an Instrument Examiner, Flight Instructor Examiner, a Type Rating Examiner, and a few other oddball designations.
Once you figure out the level of pilot rating for a designation, you move on to the type of aircraft. The most simple ones are Airplane Single or Multi-Engine, Land or Sea (that covers four possible designations.) Other designations that might be meaningful to you include Rotorcraft Helicopter (different than Rotorcraft Gyroplane,) Glider, Turboprop, Turbojet.
There are also administrative designations for doing nothing more than submitting paperwork that a pilot would otherwise have to do at a FSDO. Some military bases have a Military Competency Examiner who will charge $150 or so to file your Mil Comp and/or Mil Comp Instructor paperwork so you don’t have to bother traveling to a FSDO. That’s a pretty easy side hustle, especially if you live near a base with UPT or an FTU!
If you want to give checkrides in an aircraft that requires a type rating, you need to hold that type rating yourself. Your designation will specify that Type of aircraft. There are also special designations for vintage and experimental aircraft, aka: warbirds.
The application website lists every possible combination of these designations.
The instructions ask you to check the box for every type of designation for which you’re qualified. However, since this is all voluntary, you only ever have to give checkrides in the types of aircraft you want. You’re free to choose those that are most interesting to you, or those types of examinations for which you can charge the highest fee. (There’s also no guarantee the FAA will designate you as an examiner for a particular type of aircraft. I’d check every possible box and see what they offer me.)
In general, each DPE is assigned a specific geographic area, and has to ask permission to give a checkride beyond those boundaries. However, as a sign that our country has a significant DPE shortage right now, the FAA has given blanket approval for DPEs to work outside their assigned areas, essentially until further notice.
Will you have any pass or jumpseat travel privileges while on furlough? Shop around to find an area with lots of flight schools who are desperate for checkrides. Arrange to do two exams per day for a week or two. Catch a flight out, earn your $5K-20K, and head back home. At that rate, even buying a round-trip ticket seems like a pretty reasonable proposition.
At this point, the unimaginative jerk reading over your shoulder is saying, “Dude! You can’t be an FAA examiner. You haven’t flown a Cessna in years.”
Getting this job will take some effort on your part, but for any airline or military pilot with at least enough hours for an ATP, I promise this job is attainable.
If you’re interested, you’ll want to visit the FAA website for basic designee information. You should also get a login to the FAA’s unique website for filling out your application. You might as well just start filling out the whole application…just don’t hit submit. It works as a sort of checklist, and helps you identify areas you might need to strengthen before you actually apply.
Overall, the requirements for becoming a DPE are surprisingly low. FAA Order 8900.2C, Figures 7-1 through 7-6 outline all the requirements. They get pretty specific for some of the designations, but here is an abbreviated set of the high notes for becoming an Airplane DPE at each rating level:
Another requirement hidden in FAAO 8000.95 Volume 3, Chapter 2, 6.b(7) says that within the last 3 years, an applicant must have given at least 200 hours of instruction in airplanes or helicopters, or 100 in gliders.
While we’re in Chapter 7, we should note that a DPE has extra currency requirements for aircraft in which he or she gives checkrides. Paragraph 7.2.c and Figure 7-7 say that an airplane DPE must have logged at least 60 airplane PIC hours in the last 12 months to give a checkride. Sorry, but this does not include any flight time logged while giving a checkride.
The FAA Orders have a lot of other language about the requirements for earning a designation, and maintaining it once you have it. If you’re already interested enough in this idea to be excited about it, you’ll definitely want to read the applicable parts of both FAA Orders from start to finish to get the rest.
Getting the Job
Unlike getting a job as a CFI, which is practically a foregone conclusion for any pilot experienced enough to hold an ATP, becoming a DPE will take some effort on your part. I think the potential difference in pay between DPE and CFI work is well worth the extra effort.
If you want to pursue this job, you’ll have to make your own stars align. Here’s a breakdown of how I would pursue an examiner designation with the FAA. (I say would, though it’s a personal aspiration to do this at some point in my flying career. If now isn’t the right time, I will go through this process at some point.)
- First off, I’d want to identify the designation(s) I want to pursue. I think that most of the checkride demand is for Airplane Single and Multi-Engine Land ratings, so I’d at least list those. I’ve done enough instrument flying and flight instructing in my life to have the chops for those designations. I’ve done a lot of flying in the Icon A5, an amphibious LSA, so I could potentially pursue designations for both Single Engine Sea and Sport Pilot. I also feel like I’m sufficiently tied-in to the military pilot community to provide value as a Military Competency Examiner.
I also happen to have a Global Express type rating. I could probably charge $3-5K per checkride for those services. That’s lucrative enough that I might pursue designation for this aircraft too.
- That’s a lot of designations. I don’t know that I would want to pursue work in all of them at the same time. My next step would be to start asking around to get an idea for checkride demand. I’d call every flight school from Tampa, to Orlando, to Daytona Beach, to Miami to start my research. I’d also call around to the (relatively few) Global Express Type Rating providers to see if any of them need examiners. I suspect I’d end up focusing my application on the following designations:
DPE-ATPE-AMEL (Airplane Multi-Engine Land, up to ATP)
DPE-CIRE-ASEL (Airplane Single Engine Land up to Commercial and Instrument)
DPE-CIRE-ASES (Airplane Single Engine Sea up to Commercial and Instrument)
DPE-SPE-ASEL (Sport Pilot Airplane Single Engine Land)
DPE-SPE-ASES (Sport Pilot Airplane Single Engine Sea)
DPE-FIE-ASE (Flight Instructor Airplane Single Engine)
DPE-FIE-AME (Flight Instructor Airplane Multi Engine)
If it made sense, I might add:
DPE-TYPE-GLEX (Global Express Type Ratings)
- My next step would be to make sure I have the overall and recent experience requirements. I have more than 6000 hours total time, and all but a few hundred of that is in airplanes. I’m off to a good start.
For my DPE-ATPE-MEL I already have the other PIC hour requirements: 100 at night, 200 in complex, 100 instrument flight (actual or simulated) AND in the past 12 months, 300 hours in airplanes.
However, when it comes to hours of flight instruction given I might hit a snag. I have 500 in airplanes. I probably have 100 hours in the class of airplane for designation sought (MEL) based on instructor time logged in the E-11A in the Air Force. If not, I’d need to start looking for a job teaching in Piper Seminoles at a local flight school. I could claim 250 hours of instrument flight instruction, of which at least 200 hours were in airplanes, based on instruction I gave in the Air Force. I haven’t technically spent 150 hours preparing airmen for commercial or ATP certificates with airplane categories OR airplane type ratings or instrument airplane ratings. However, my experience instructing in the T-6A, U-28A, and E-11A might be good enough.
I’d be good for Single Engine Commercial and Instrument, though there are a lot of specifics that could be gotchas.
For Sport Pilot Examiner, I’d actually be stuck. I have about 150 hours in the Icon A5, but 8900.2C Figure 7-1 says I’d need at least 250 total PIC hours in LSAs. I’d have to find a way to get at least another 100 hours. I’ve done some ferry flying of A5s, and that’s the quickest way to add hours. I’d look for gigs doing that, as well as try to pick up more A5 instructing.
If I felt like there was demand for my services as a Global Express examiner (DE-TYPE-GLEX) I’d have to start by getting recurrent and logging some hours in one. That refresher course costs $25K, assuming you can get on the schedule. Thankfully, a contract pilot can make $1.5-3K per day flying it. Knowing this, I’d consider trying to make Contract Global Pilot my primary furlough job and only apply to become a designee as a side-hustle to that.
- You should notice that there are some pretty obscure types of flight hours listed in these requirements. No Air Force ARMS product or other half-assed flight record is going to list these times in the ways you need them. I keep my own, detailed, electronic logbook that makes it easy to sort and query to answer the FAA’s obscure flight time groupings.
If I hadn’t been keeping a decent logbook, I’d have to get it in order before I’d be able to make any sense of Step 3. We’ll also see in a moment another reason to have a good logbook.
- Although I have all the hours I need for some of these designations, I’d want to make sure that I was proficient at performing all the maneuvers I’d be testing examinees on. I’d need to rent, borrow, or own an airplane to do this in.
I’ve done enough civilian instructing in the past, that I’m somewhat familiar with these maneuvers. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to hire an active CFI to run through all the maneuvers with me to make sure I’m not missing anything. We’ll see in a moment why this is important.
- Once I felt confident that I had the experience requirements wired, I’d submit my application with the FAA. I expect this would take a while to process, so I’d start on it long before I thought I’d need to use it to support my family. Ideally, it’d start as a side-hustle before I got furloughed.
The online application is just the start. I’d expect to go through interviews, including what amounts to a checkride for an Aviation Safety Inspector to verify my credentials. This is another reason I would have spent all that time practicing maneuvers.
This event will also include a very thorough logbook review. An FAA ASI could care less if I flew for the Air Force or an airline. He or she will comb through every line of my logbook, checking for the minimum requirements, valuable experience exceeding the minimums, and also any sloppiness, errors, or potential falsification.
One of the FAA’s major emphasis items for DPEs is not making any mistakes on the paperwork they submit after a checkride. A DPE can actually lose his or her designation if too much paperwork gets sent back for corrections. They’re not going to hire me if my logbook is sloppy.
- Finally, assuming I got the job, I’d immediately call back all the flight schools in the area and offer my services. I’d consider setting up a simple website and social media for advertising. I might even put a scheduling function on there so people could verify my availability and sign up without me having to answer as many phone calls.
So, what if I was lacking experience in some area? What if I hadn’t logged enough Multi-Engine instructor hours, I’d been stuck in a staff job and hadn’t logged 300 airplane hours in the last year, or hadn’t logged 200 hours of instruction in the last 3 years?
For me, the easiest answer is to go get a job as a flight instructor. 300 hours in a year is a lot for a fighter pilot, or for many types of airline pilots. For an active CFI at a busy flight school, 300 hours could be 3-4 months of work.
Yes, your long-term goal may not be to work full-time as a CFI, but this is a means to an end. You’d be getting paid more than furlough pay (nothing) for the months it takes to accrue your hours. You’d also be building proficiency toward your own DPE checkride, and networking with CFIs who could send you future clients. (Should I send my student to the cranky old geezer, or someone I’ve worked with who flies well, has a good attitude, and buys the first round of beers after work. Gee…let me think.)
All of those are good things. Just keep in sight the fact that you’re working toward a job that pays upwards of $1000 per day. That’s worth a few months of instructing for now.
If I wanted to evaluate something more interesting than private pilot checkrides, but didn’t have enough hours, I’d look for a job in that specific type of aircraft. Jones Brothers and the SPA have recently published an article about a USAF TSgt who used the SkillBridge program to spend his last 6 months on active duty getting paid to fly seaplanes in Tavares, FL. He’s the perfect example of finding a way to log a specific type of hours to accomplish his long-term goal.
Don’t let the jerk still drooling on your shoulder tell you that a specific type of designation is out of reach. If you’re passionate about a specific type of flying, you can find a way to earn an examiner’s designation for it!
More Ways to Be a DPE
I’ve gone through some mostly vanilla ways to work as a DPE, but there are lots of other categories out there. Here are some other ways you might be able to put a DPE job to good use:
- There are a lot of military pilots with significant numbers of flight hours in aircraft that have civilian equivalents. If you have ever been qualified in the C-12, C-21, T-1, UC-35, C-37, P-3/C-40, E-11, RC-26, or a variety of other aircraft, you’re a prime candidate for a DPE-TYPE-XXXX designation. The world is full of King Airs, Citations, LearJets, Beech 400s, and Gulfstreams…and those pilots have to take a checkride every year. Military helicopter pilots are in a similarly advantageous position.
Many of those evaluations could be accomplished in simulators at major training centers that are frequently located near major airline domiciles. That could make DPE a commute-free side-hustle and/or furlough job. I’d shop around a variety of training providers to ensure demand before I jumped into this with both feet.
- In addition to putting my military type ratings to good use, I’d look into the possibility and usefulness of getting designations on my airline aircraft as well. There aren’t all that many A220 pilots in the world. I have all the experience and PIC time in type needed to qualify as an A220 DPE. Most airlines get DPE or equivalent status for their Check Airmen, but there could still be opportunities out there.
Other types of large Boeing and Airbus jets also have a lot of private owners throughout the world. (Including more than one Three Letter Agency in the US Government.) Many of these are US-registered and flown by US-licensed pilots who need checkrides every year. It might be worth looking into putting your most recent type rating to use this way too.
- I love flying gliders, and would enjoy giving glider checkrides. Anyone who instructed in gliders at the USAF Academy or Annapolis should at least be close to having the experience to qualify for this designation. (500 total time; 250 in gliders; 20 hours and 50 flights within the last 12 months; and 100 hours of dual given in a glider)
I haven’t flown a glider in years, but I’d love an excuse to get back into it. Holding this designation only makes sense if you live within driving distance of one or more active glider operations. I’d need to start by getting checked out at one of them and probably doing some instructing to get to 50 flights in the last 12 months.
I think most Glider DPEs charge closer to $200-300 for their checkrides, but this is still a decent income to pair with some other DPE categories, flight instructing, or other side-hustles.
- I would also love an excuse to get into flying warbirds. The easiest way to become active in this community is to join the Commemorative Air Force. (I hope to write a full post all about doing this someday. If you’re interested in helping with that, please let me know!)
The costs of joining the CAF aren’t aren’t insignificant, but as a qualified PIC (and a person people want to be around) you could get a lot of free warbird flying, taking your aircraft to airshows all over the world and flying for Hollywood. As a CFI, you could potentially give flight instruction in your aircraft, and as a DPE it’s worth remembering that everyone who flies these airplanes needs a checkride every year. The operating costs of these aircraft are usually thousands of dollars per hour. A pilot who will be grounded without your checkride will be willing to pay at least $1000 for your time, if not significantly more.
There are other groups and individual warbird owners who offer training and flying on their aircraft. It’d be worth shopping around those circles as well.
Reading in FAAO 8900.2C, Figure 7-6, we see that qualifying as a DPE in a large vintage airplane would require: 5000 hours total time, 100 hours in large vintage airplanes, and 10 hours in type (and a few other requirements.) It could be very expensive to accrue 100 hours in one of these aircraft. However, some cross country flying during a busy airshow season, and/or doing some aerial tour work could help reach this goal in a reasonable amount of time.
I’d look into ways to cover the type rating with the GI Bill, funds from a 529 plan, or the VA’s Vocational Rehab program. (The folks at RTAG have a lot of experience with that last one, so I’d ask them first.) From there it’s just a matter of hanging out and getting enough hours to apply to become a DPE.
This route is a serious financial commitment. I would only pursue this if I were in a position to handle the costs and planning to be an active part of this community for many years.
It’s worth noting that these communities are small and very tight-knit. The DPEs currently serving these groups have a great hold on a very limited resource. It’d definitely be a good idea to speak directly to as many DPEs as possible on your target aircraft and make sure they’re okay with you cutting in on their business. (I envision this process involving me buying plenty of beer, telling some exciting war stories, and being very personable and charming.) This is also another reason to make sure you only go this way if you’re planning on making warbirds a large part of your life.
- We already mentioned James Young, the guy who used the DOD SkillBridge Program to get a flying job that also let him build time. I cannot overstate what a great deal this program is! You get paid your full Active Duty military benefits to spend six months doing some other job. If you’re on Active Duty right now, using this program should almost be a foregone conclusion in my book.
Do you want to become a DPE in the DeHavilland Twin Otter? Take 6 months to fly them for a Grand Canyon tour operator, gain tons of experience, and you earn the hours you need. Or, do like TSgt Young did and use this program to get some floatplane time so you can spend a couple years giving checkrides in Alaska.
- No matter what types of flying examiner designation I went for, I’d absolutely try to scoop up as many of the non-flying ones as possible. I already mentioned Military Competency Examiner. I’d also try for:
- DPE-GIE (Ground Instructor Examiner)
- DPE-FIRE (Flight Instructor Renewal Examiner – for CFI renewals that are paperwork-only)
- DPE-RPE (Remote Pilot Examiner)
Although Ground Instructor Examiner would require giving ground-only checkrides, these designations are mostly just paperwork drills. I once used a DPE-MCE to renew my CFI. He charged me $150 for the 30 minutes it took to review and file my paperwork. That’s not bad for a side-hustle.
Becoming a DPE may not be 100% effortless for every pilot. However, I think it offers surprising income potential with a lot of scheduling and geographic flexibility. There is absolutely a shortage of DPEs in our country. If you’re located in a training hotspot, you could find plenty of business without commuting. If you have access to a free commute, you could charge even more to serve the areas most desperate for your services.
I think this is the perfect furlough job for any pilot. It pays well enough to do justice to a missing airline income. As a DPE, you can work as much or as little as you want. When your airline offers to bring you back from furlough, or airlines start hiring again for those who haven’t landed a Part 121 job yet, you can just throttle back on your DPE work.
The best part of this is that being a DPE can then become a fun and lucrative side-hustle. I’ve worked an average of 10 days per month at my airline for the last two years. That leaves me upwards of 21 days per month to pick up DPE work at my leisure. I know of at least a dozen flight training operations within driving distance of home, including two glider clubs. I’m also not afraid to hit the road if I can schedule a few days of double checkrides.
The side-hustle angle also works in the opposite direction. As an experienced pilot, you can start a DPE side-hustle now while flying for the military, an airline, or some other company. As long as you have a full-time job, you’re just moonlighting. However, if you get smacked with a furlough, you’ll be able to just shift your time and attention to making DPE your full-time job. That transition would be easy, and should reduce your family’s stress in what will otherwise be a very scary time.
I’ve covered a lot here today. I didn’t spoon-feed you everything, so read the underlying pubs to get the rest of the details. However, I maintain that any pilot experienced enough to hold an ATP should be able to qualify for a DPE without too much trouble.
If you’re even a little interested, there’s no harm in updating your logbook and starting a little market research for your area either.
Fly safe and stay healthy!