I Want to be a Pilot, But I Need Cash Now – Part 1

By Jason Depew, TPN staff writer

This article is for very low-time pilots trying to figure out how to get started in professional aviation without expecting imminent bankruptcy. If you’re a high-time military or regional pilot trying to get to the majors, you’re not my target audience today. You’re welcome to read for your own enrichment, but no fair criticizing the idea if you already have hours and a job. (Unless you’re interested in a very fun side-hustle. https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/soside-hustles In that case, read on!)

For any aspiring or baby pilots out there, one of the toughest parts about breaking into our industry is the cost of gaining flight time. The FAA’s rules require you to mostly pay your own way, at least until you earn a commercial pilot certificate before you can start flying “for compensation or hire.” Accruing the 250 hours required for that rating would cost more than $25,000, even if you did most of your flying in the oldest C-150 in the world. This says nothing of acquiring the 1500 hours needed for an ATP.

Many aspiring pilots decide that they need cash now, and they do the pilot equivalent of calling J.G. Wentworth and just taking out a loan. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdPM6j1Q4sg) The need for this is an unfortunate and ugly reality in our industry.

However, a question recently posted on the TPN Facebook group led me to realize that there are a some options here. A couple of lesser-known paths could get you legally earning money to fly with far fewer than 250 hours and a Commercial ASEL rating. The best part of that deal is: all the hours you accrue in these flying jobs will count toward your eventual Commercial Pilot and ATP Certificates. If you’re strapped for cash, and interested in some fun flying along a road less traveled, a couple great opportunities come to mind.

In Part 1 of this series, I’ll outline how a baby pilot could jumpstart a career by becoming a Flight Instructor in Gliders with as few as 25 total flight hours. In Part 2, we’ll look at how to start earning money as a Flight Instructor in Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) with as few as 150 hours. Then, in Part 3, we’ll address some other techniques for subsidizing the costs of flight training and discuss at least one other type of Instruction that makes a great side-side-hustle or rainy-day option. Parts 4 and 5 will continue that journey.

(Yes, I know some of you don’t want to be flight instructors. We’ll address that in Part 3 too.)

CFI Glider

Before I’d actually flown a glider, I scoffed at the idea of their very existence. An airplane without an engine? How could that be fun? Who would want to do that? Morons!

Then I actually flew one, and I was hooked.

More than 900 flights later, I’ve enjoyed soaring all over the US. I’ve spent hours riding thermals and mountain wave as high as 15,000’. (Yes, I was on oxygen because I was up there long enough to get hypoxic otherwise.)

You may think that aerobatics in an Extra or a jet is cool, but there is something truly special about doing a hammerhead stall in a glider. It’s the only time I know of in all aviation where there is truly no vibration and no sound. It is the only way I know of to actually experience the “sunlit silence” that we’re always telling the pedestrians about. (http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/highflig.htm) You should try it.

Flying cross country in a glider is thrilling, fascinating, and challenging. You can do cross country flights just for fun, and there is a worldwide circuit for cross country glider racing. It’s something I aspire to do once I convince my wife that we’re okay financially and that we can start working less. (I have my eye on the Windward Performance Goshawk, http://windward-performance.com/. I’d also settle for one of their now out-of-production Sparrowhawks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windward_Performance_SparrowHawk.)

It turns out that the requirements and costs for glider ratings can be pretty darn reasonable as well. When we look in 14 CFR Part 61.109(f), we see that a pilot starting from scratch can get a Private Pilot certificate in gliders with a grand total of 10 hours. (https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/retrieveECFR?gp&r=PART&n=14y2. This must include at least 20 flights with an instructor and 10 solos, along with a few other requirements. If you’re already a pilot who has logged at least 40 hours of total flight time, you only need a total of 3 hours in gliders. This must include 10 solo flights and at least 3 flights with an instructor in preparation for your practical exam.

If we go on to 61.129(f), we see that a Commercial Pilot certificate only requires 25 hours and a total of 100 flights. (https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/retrieveECFR?gp&r=PART&n=14y2. Finally, scrolling down to 61.183(j), we see that the only requirement specified for adding a glider Flight Instructor certificate (CFIG) is 15 hours as Pilot in Command in gliders. https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/retrieveECFR?gp&r=PART&n=14y2.

One of my favorite parts about flying gliders is that the amount of flying you get is directly proportional to your skill as a pilot. Most training flights are what we lovingly refer to as “sled rides.” You get towed up to 2000’ or 3000’ AGL behind another aircraft, let go, and practice maneuvers for about 0.2 hours until you’re out of altitude and have to head home. You can get quality training done that way, but it’s not cost-effective for time-building.

However, if you can find a thermal, some ridge lift, or a mountain wave, you can end up flying for hours after ditching your tow plane at 3000’. Pilots who race gliders compete over multi-hundred-mile courses. The glider altitude record in Colorado is 49,000’. That might sound impressive unless you’ve read about the Perlan Project recently setting an altitude record of 76,000’ (http://www.perlanproject.org/) in a very special glider. Glider flying is truly a pilot skill meritocracy.

Most glider operations are organized as non-profit clubs, rather than regular corporations. Frequently, they don’t charge members for flight time in the glider. All you pay for is the cost of your aerotow and your instructor’s hourly rate. So, if you are looking to build time, and you’re a good pilot, gliders can be an extremely cheap way to accrue flight time.

While skill does play a large part in getting the most bang for your buck, weather is also important. Some places like Colorado and Nevada are famous for great mountain wave in the winter. Many places out east have good ridge lift. The entire southwestern US has great thermals all summer. If you want to do a lot of cheap flying, your best bet is to go to one of those locations.

Let’s take a look at some actual costs using the closest glider operation to me, the Tampa Bay Soaring Society. (https://tbss.us/?page_id=149)

Those initiation and semi-annual fees seem expensive for most pilots. Glider clubs do things this way because they’re non-profit organizations. These fees cover maintenance for the facilities, the tow plane(s), and the gliders they own. If you want to, you could look at the $250 semi-annual fee as your aircraft rental rate. (Fly the glider 125 hours per year and you’re only paying $2/hr to use it. You can’t beat that rate with a stick.)

So, how about costs to get a Private, Commercial or CFIG rating? Let’s assume that you’re going to head to Zephyrhills early in the late spring or summer and do all of your training at once before you have to renew that semi-annual fee. For your Private Pilot certificate, we’ll assume that you can accomplish all necessary training and get all your hours in the 30 flight minimum required by the FARs. Unlike powered flight, I feel that this is reasonable. You’ll notice that there isn’t a line-item for a medical certificate on the list because glider flying doesn’t require one, ever.

While this certainly isn’t cheap, it’s not half-bad for a Private Pilot certificate in this day and age. If you’re already a licensed pilot, you’re eligible for a glider certificate after only 3 hours of flight time including 10 solo flights and 3 with an instructor. Realistically, I’d plan on doing about 10 flights with an instructor in addition to your 10 solos. It’s still cheaper than starting from scratch though.

If you’re the club’s only student, you could feasibly do 4-6 training flights per day. If you can find a club that flies every day, you could complete a Private Pilot course in about a week. TBSS usually only operates on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. You have a few options here: First, you could find a different operation that operates every day. Second, you could find a part-time job to do in the area on your other days. You could probably make enough money to cover the cost of your training. Third, you could talk to the club and see if they’d be willing to fly extra days. The instructors and tow pilots at clubs like this are frequently retired or otherwise available, and it’s not uncommon for them to make special arrangements for a special student like you.

Now that we’ve looked at the costs to get a Private Pilot certificate, let’s look at total costs to get to our goal: both Commercial and CFI certificates. You’ll remember that the only requirement for a CFIG is 15 hours in gliders, less than the 25 required for the Commercial anyway. We’re going to assume that you accrue this while preparing for your Commercial rating and that you combine your flight training to cover preparation for both Commercial Pilot and CFI exams. (Much of the CFI practical exam consists of performing the same maneuvers to essentially the same standards anyway. The biggest difference is that a CFI has to be able to talk through what she is doing while she flies. There will also be a little bit of the examiner playing a dumb student and you recognizing/correcting errors. You’ll need to train for that, but you should have time to cover it during hours/flights required for training anyway.)

Once you’re a Private Pilot, the plan here is for you to fly on your own until you have the 25 hours and 100 flights required for your Commercial. If you have good weather, you could potentially reach 25 hours long before you have 100 total flights. Our plan is for you to take advantage of and enjoy the opportunity to ride some thermals and get some long flights. We assumed it took you 30 flights to get your Private, so you’ll split your remaining 70 flights between regular 3000’ aerotows, and cheaper 1000’ pattern tows.

So there you have it. With an investment of $5800 you can potentially be a rated as a Commercial Glider Pilot and CFIG. Now, you can turn around and start earning that $20/hr yourself. So what does that look like?

If I were pursuing this path, I’d find an operation that has a lot of student activity. Many clubs have far more student demand than instructors available. If possible, I’d find an operation that flies every day and start working there as an instructor the day I finished training. If this was my primary path to becoming a professional pilot, I’d consider moving so that I could walk or ride a bike to that job.

Another option would be to take a CFIG job at a glider flying organization that only flies part-time. This would give you more options when looking for an organization to teach at…allowing you to pick one located somewhere with good options for simultaneous non-flying employment. Your day job would pay the bills while your flight instructing would be mainly for free flying…any money you make there is just icing on the cake.

The SSA has an interactive map showing most US glider operations. (https://www.ssa.org/WhereToFly) I’d call around and find one that could get onboard with my overall plan. I’d also pick a place that has good weather for the majority of the time that I plan to spend there. (Minnesota is an outstanding flying state, but very little glider flying gets done there in the winter.)

Either way, the plan would be to do as much teaching as possible while working toward your Commercial ASEL rating. Looking back at 14 CFR 61.129 we see that you can use a lot of glider time toward your Commercial ASEL experience requirements. I think the limiting factor is that you need 100 hours in powered aircraft. Between doing a Private Pilot ASEL add-on and an Instrument Rating, you could get pretty close to that 100-hour mark. Then, you could potentially use up to 150 glider hours to put you the rest of the way toward the 250 you need for your Commercial ASEL rating.

Many of those 150 hours would come from teaching. However, you would also take advantage of having access to gliders on good weather days and go for longer/cross-country flights on your own. You could potentially log a few flight hours per day for the cost of a $40 tow. Many glider clubs will even let their instructors have a free tows every once in a while to stay proficient. There’s a good chance you could get that flying for free. Though I can’t speak for them, I could potentially see a club like the TBSS waiving the $250 annual fee for an active CFIG contributing valuable service to the club as an instructor.

As a CFIG, you could do a few training flights in the morning, then take the glider out on your own in the afternoon once the thermals start kicking. (You could also throw one of the junior club members in the other seat and help introduce some young people to flying for free while you’re at it. You still get to log the entire flight as PIC, or log it as free flight instruction for the kid and help someone else get started on his or her own path.) That’s a whole day of flying and you’ve made money when it’s all said and done.

If this was my plan, I’d get the Commercial ASEL rating as soon as possible and start looking for work as a powered airplane pilot. My first choice would be flying the tow plane for the glider club. Tow pilots are generally as sought-after as CFIGs and now you’re getting paid to fly a powered aircraft. Zephyrhills airport has an active parachuting operation right next door to the TBSS, and I’d look for something like that too. I’ve noticed similar pairings of neighbors at many airports throughout the country.

From this point, you’re mostly like every other pilot pursuing an aviation career. The differences are that you saved at least $10K by starting as a CFIG, and you now have access to very cheap flying when the weather is good. You can continue using long glider flights and glider flight instruction to work toward the 1500 hours you need for your ATP while flying powered aircraft for money as well.

I’ve interacted with several glider clubs throughout the country and found them to be very welcoming to enthusiastic, hard-working flight instructors. Many long-time CFIGs own shares in nice cross-country/racing gliders and never get to fly them because they’re too busy instructing for their club out of a sense of obligation. They love having eager young instructors help carry the student load…allowing them to go fly their own gliders for fun.

By starting your flying career at a club like this, you can start earning money to fly very quickly. These jobs range from full- to very part-time, giving you many location and scheduling options. Not only does this type of flying pay better than renting Cessnas to bore holes in the sky, it’s a fun type of flying that challenges you and rewards you more as your skills increase. During seasons of good weather, you can potentially log huge amounts of flight hours for very little cost. If you’re just starting an aviation career, and you’re interested in flight instructing, I highly recommend you look into teaching in gliders.

I hope this gave you some ideas and inspired you to do some research. In the next part of this series we’ll look at using a similar strategy to become a LSA CFI. It’s more expensive and requires some more hours, but might be a good choice if you have easier access to an LSA operation than one flying gliders.

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