I Want to be a Pilot, But I Need Cash Now – Part 3

By Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer

Good Morning TPN! We’ve been looking at how you could use a job as a CFIG or SPI to start earning money to fly with far fewer than the 250 hours needed to obtain a Commercial ASEL rating. (If you need to catch up, here are links for 

Part 1: https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-1

and 

Part 2: https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/i-want-to-be-a-pilot-but-i-need-cash-now-part-2.) 

In this part, we’re going to look at some ways to make any flight training program more affordable.

Before we go any further let’s get one thing straight: I’m not going to give you ways to skip steps or get by without hard work. I believe that in the long run those things don’t exist in aviation. If you want to be a professional pilot, you’ll have to put in a lot of hard work whether you fly for the military or do the all-civilian route. Don’t let yourself get worked-up by this…enjoy the process as much as possible. You’ll be glad you didn’t cut any corners. (I’ve written about his before here: 

https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/dear-baby-pilots.)

We’re going to look at three primary ways to reduce or cover the costs of flight training:

  1. Preparation
  2. Scholarships
  3. Aircraft Choice
  4. Day jobs

These aren’t the only ways to reduce costs, but I think they have the potential to give you the best return on investment. Feel free to add your other ideas in the comments section.

Preparation

We’ll see that preparation is a way to cut costs, but I also assert that it’s a necessity if you want to be a professional pilot.

In a flight training program, you get billed by the flight hour. You also have to pay your instructor an hourly rate for flight and ground training. You won’t enjoy paying those fees now, but we’re trying to get you to the instructor’s seat yourself. Once you get there, you’ll realize how much work instructing is, and you’ll be thankful for students who are willing to pay you for your time, even if it’s just teaching on the ground.

One of the most obvious ways to reduce the costs of your flight training is to spend fewer hours receiving ground and flight instruction. Unless you’re God’s Gift to Aviation (and you aren’t, obviously, because I am) you’re probably not going to get done in fewer hours because you’re just that good. You can, however, reduce your training time through preparation.

If you’re hurting for cash, why would you ever pay an instructor to “teach” you something that you can read in a book yourself? The FAA offers an entire library of ground training materials for free. (https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/handbooks_manuals/) There is no reason why you can’t or shouldn’t read the appropriate materials, cover to cover, more than once, before you show up for Day 1 of any flight training program. I recommend you go and download the free PDF versions of:

If you’re serious about using the glider flying strategy in Part 1, I also recommend you just pick up and devour a copy of The Soaring Flight Manual, https://amzn.to/2U3y6Im(Please note that this is an Amazon Affiliate Link, TPN does make a small commission for recommending this book…but we only recommend things that we love!)

You also can’t go wrong by reading Everything Explained for the Professional Pilot, https://amzn.to/2HNTn28,  though these last two aren’t free. (Please note that this is an Amazon Affiliate Link, TPN does make a small commission for recommending this book…but we only recommend things that we love!)

You’re welcome to show up at flight training without knowing anything covered in these books and an attitude of, “Okay, teach me.” Your flight instructor will be more than happy to spoon-feed that knowledge to you…and charge you by the hour for that service. Or, you can save yourself hundreds of dollars by learning this stuff on your own beforehand.

Showing up with basic knowledge already in place has additional benefits. Instead of wasting everyone’s time explaining the difference between MSL and AGL, your flight instructor will be able to use your ground training time to cover advanced topics. These things are more useful and more interesting…they’re things that a lazy student couldn’t even comprehend until he or she had already spent hundreds of dollars being taught the basics.

Like it or not, studying all of those basics beforehand will also make you fly better and save you money in the air. Part of being a pilot is knowing how the aerodynamics of your aircraft affect what’s going on, and knowing how your instruments are working. I’ve spent hundreds of hours teaching people to fly and I promise that you’ll understand things easier and more quickly if you’ve done the studying first.

This saves you money because if your knowledge is weak, your instructor will have to waste your time explaining these concepts while you’re flying through the air behind by a motor that is happily converting your hard-earned dollar bills into airspeed and noise. You’ll be sitting there frustrated both that you did the last maneuver incorrectly and that you’re having to pay to listen to your instructor talk while that motor is droning away. That frustration will cause you to absorb the information poorly. The total effect of this situation will be that you have to spend more hours flying before your knowledge and skills are good enough to pass a practical exam. We’re trying to save money here, so don’t choose this less effective path!

You can read the FAA’s library for free starting at any age. However, once you finally get to start your flight training, you can maximize your learning through study and practice after flying every day. There is no training tool more valuable than a chair in your house. After each and every flying lesson, you need to go home, sit in that chair, close your eyes, and “chair fly” through everything you just learned. If it helps, dress up as you do in the airplane with your headset and kneeboard. You can even make buzzing noises to simulate what you hear from the engine. The more your chair flying is like the real thing, the more valuable it will be. If you’re embarrassed for your family or roommates to see you practicing like this, then drag your chair into a closet or practice in the bathroom with the door locked. I’ve used chair flying to great effect for my entire flying career. I can tell in a matter of moments at the start of a lesson whether a student has been chair flying.

Chair flying is essentially getting free flight experience. Yes, it’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s far better than sitting on your couch drinking beer and watching reruns of NCIS. If you’re serious about a career in professional aviation, and/or serious about saving money, you absolutely must chair fly.

I promise that if you do nothing more than read the free materials I’ve listed above and use chair flying, you’ll save hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on your lifetime flight training costs. I realize that flight training is ridiculously expensive these days, but you don’t get to complain about that unless you at least put these two strategies into practice.

Scholarships

Preparation is nice, but it feels like one of those indirect benefit kinds of things. A much more tangible way to reduce your flight training costs is to get scholarships.

Yes, there are flight training scholarships out there – a lot of them!

Some flying scholarships are limited to earning specific ratings. Some are targeted at specific demographics. However, many organizations that sound like they’re demographically-oriented offer their scholarships to anyone. If I were a pilot trying to reduce the costs of flight training, I’d apply for every scholarship I could find. Here’s a list from the WAI’s Great Lakes Chapter with 8 pages of aviation scholarships! 

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1deovD6ja8gV_os1R5sKuRge2PfbuB5yD/view?fbclid=IwAR2uRw0y9xoXM8GYUbicNvjdCMF0DytfRGWeHIWh_LOzPkav0gAccE5u0Ko

(Thanks to TPN Member Dave Mauer for posting this, along with some great advice, in the Aviation Career Mentorship Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/712299128906093/permalink/1515418098594188/)

If you are serious about getting someone else to pay for your flight training, you should be using every spare minute to apply for these. Each of the following questions should have an easy answer:

“Should I turn on the TV, or fill out another scholarship application?”

“Should I go drinking with my friends, or fill out another scholarship application?”

“Should I ask to work one extra shift this week, or spend those hours filling out scholarship applications?”

“Should I spend the next hour scrolling through my Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat feed, or fill out another scholarship application?”

You can’t count on winning a scholarship, but even getting one could go a long way. If you’re serious about your future, choose how you spend your time now accordingly.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that becoming a military pilot is equivalent to winning a multi-million dollar flight training scholarship. The military isn’t for everyone. While the training and experience you get there is valuable, you pay dearly for it.

I spent 11 years as an active duty Air Force pilot. If all I spent at work was 40 hours per week on average (yah right!) this means I spent at least 22,000 hours at work there. For all that time, I only accrued roughly 3,200 military flight hours. That’s more than six hours of not flying for every hour I spent in the air. I feel like many jobs offer more flying in exchange for less pain.

Although military aviation isn’t for everyone, it’s more accessible than it’s ever been. After 18+ years at war and organizations that have habitually made the mistake of placing far more emphasis on the non-flying parts of the job than on the flying (at a ratio of 6:1 or worse,) many of us have just decided to leave. It doesn’t hurt that the airlines are hiring like gangbusters either. The Air Force admits that they have a problem (they were 10% short on pilots a year ago, and things haven’t gotten better.) The Army refuses to even acknowledge the fact that they have a problem, and the results will be catastrophic if they’re not careful.

While all my doom and gloom is trouble for the military, it’s the best possible news for you – it means that you’ve never had a better chance of getting hired if you want to go that way. If you’re interested in serving your country, you’re willing to be flexible on where you live for a few years, and you feel a little adventurous, then the military could be a great option for you. I recommend applying to every Guard or Reserve unit accepting applications in places you’d like to live first. This is, hands-down, the best way to be a military pilot. If that doesn’t work out, consider applying to a program that will make you a pilot on active duty. The nuts and bolts of getting there are another topic for another day though. (For immediate reference, https://bogidope.com/ isn’t a bad place to start.)

Hopefully, you noticed that I talked about preparation before I talked about scholarships. It’s nice to be able to spend Other People’s Money. However, if you aren’t willing to put in the right preparation, even winning a bunch of scholarships may not be enough to ensure your success. Make sure you’ve made a serious start on your preparation before you start filling out scholarship applications.

Aircraft Choice

As pilots, we all have a weakness for beautiful aircraft. Clean lines, new paint, extensive avionics, big motors? Yes please! If you’re trying to earn your ratings without breaking the bank, you need to change your mindset on this stuff for a while. Yes, you can accomplish all your required training in a factory-new Cirrus SR22GTS with gorgeous glass displays, a fancy autopilot, and an all-airframe parachute. You’ll enjoy flying that airplane. However, you’ll also run out of money very quickly.

If I were starting from scratch today, I’d look for a school with the oldest possible aircraft (as long as they were safe, airworthy, and reliable.) I’d go out of my way to find something with round dials, rather than glass. For gliders, I’d try to train in an SGS 2-33 instead of a Blanik or anything made out of fiberglass. For LSAs, I’d look for a 1940s era Champ or Ercoupe before considering anything built after the Sport Pilot rule took effect. For normal category aircraft, I’d take an ancient Piper Cherokee or C-172 over something new any day.

Flying these aircraft will cost you less money overall, and they’ll make you a good pilot. You’ll have to learn to fly by looking out the window, instead of spending more hours staring at a rectangular piece of glass.

The caveat here is that an operation with just one or two older aircraft might not be that busy. If you’re hoping to instruct at the same school or club where you get your training, you may need to pay extra to fly their shiny planes. In the long-run, it’s more important to make sure you can end up teaching at an operation with lots of students than one where you can save a few bucks on your own training.

If you’re serious about the glider or LSA paths, this concept also suggests another exciting possibility: you could buy an airplane for building hours. Be careful here, owning an airplane is more expensive and problematic than you think. (I’ve been learning that lesson for the past 10 years.) However, if you can acquire an older, less-expensive airplane or glider in good shape, and you actually fly it enough, you can potentially save some money for the training and time-building portions of your pilot development.

If you get the right plane and you find the right people, you may be able to rent your aircraft out to others or form a partnership. I’ve tried this and found that it works well if you know and trust the other pilots. My plane basically covered its own costs for a year, meaning I got to fly it for nothing more than the price of gas. It was very nice. If you buy a 2-place glider or an LSA, you could also start using your own aircraft to instruct as soon as you earn your CFIG or SPI rating.

Aircraft ownership is really it’s own separate topic that I’ll write about here someday. For now, if you’re seriously thinking about buying an airplane, please contact me on the TPN Community Page or Facebook and we can have that discussion.

Day Jobs

No matter how motivated you are, you can only fly so many hours in a day. If you’re planning to focus your life on earning your pilot ratings ASAP, you might as well fill some of those extra hours with other paid work to help fund your flying addiction.

There is no shortage of part-time work in the world, and most airports offer fun aviation-related opportunities. If I were starting from scratch, I’d beg the nearest aircraft maintenance shop to take me on as a shop assistant, even at minimum wage. That job would teach you skills that are truly invaluable to a professional pilot. However, there’s another type of job that I think an entrepreneurial pilot could use to make a lot of money. I’m thinking about ground instruction, and specifically: teaching ground school to Part 107 drone pilots.

If you’re like me, you’d always rather be flying a real aircraft than playing with drones. However, the market for drone instruction is nearly limitless, and I think it’s vastly under-served right now. The scheduling and infrastructure requirements for this type of instruction also make it the perfect compliment to a regular CFI job.

In the interest of keeping things clean, I’m going to end here for today and promise to cover this idea in Part 4 of this series. Check back here for that soon.

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