Where have all the pilots gone- and why does the number of student pilots keep falling? The answers to these questions weigh heavily on aviation’s future. Who will fly tomorrow’s Business Aviation fleet when today- finding excellent candidates takes so much more patience- effort and regulatory obligations than a generation ago?

Dave Higdon  |  01st November 2011
Back to Articles
Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

Read More

Pilot In Command:
Cockpit staffing challenges are changing.

Where have all the pilots gone- and why does the number of student pilots keep falling? The answers to these questions weigh heavily on aviation’s future. Who will fly tomorrow’s Business Aviation fleet when today- finding excellent candidates takes so much more patience- effort and regulatory obligations than a generation ago?

With several thousand aircraft units forecast for delivery over the coming years by various established market analysts – many of these will belong to owners who need pilots. Better than half the total number (make that 25-000- per the predictions) will need professional crew. And these numbers are exclusive of what the commercial carriers expect to hire to accommodate their own growth expectations.

So- where will all these pilots come from? How will the community make them? How will we get them from zero to turbine-qualified without bankrupting many of them? Once we’ve identified and hired our prospective PIC- how do we train and qualify them for our own operations? Let’s work backward through the issues.

Would you be looking to train your pilot in FAR Part 91 or Part 135 operations? The answer to this question sets the stage for the training required of new recruits- as well as standards for recurrent training (the first hurdle after a candidate clears other hurdles to get hired).

The Part 91 operator faces the easier task. The pilot essentially needs only to meet aircraft- type qualification- currency and instrument proficiency as a Part 91 pilot. For the flight department operating under Part 135 (for on-demand charter and air-taxi)- a more-complex set of requirements apply. The company must train the pilot to its operational standards- to follow its operational specifications and in the specific aircraft to be flown. The time required varies with more time required to qualify the pilot on multiple aircraft – at least when sitting in the left seat.

The right seat (occupied by the First Officer/Second-in-Command) at least allows some flexibility- both in the experience level required and the training that applies. The applicable FARs set only a floor for training and qualification- however. Operators are free to impose a higher standard as long as the standard is equitably applied. Currently- the FARs require a right-seat pilot to show a minimal 250 hours PIC-time along with appropriate licenses and ratings for the aircraft. But there may be changes pending here.

In every aircraft accident- investigators delve into the pilot’s qualifications. For commercial operators- in particular- training and experience come into play. When the probable cause calls into question the crew’s training and experience- you can expect critics and lawmakers to weigh in with their views.

As an example- the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air de Havilland Dash 8 near Buffalo- New York- sent some members of Congress on a quest to force the FAA to require more experience for co-pilots. The most-ardent of these lawmakers wanted 1-500 hours to become a new minimum – six times more than the current 250-hour minimum for some cockpit jobs.

Somewhere in the tug-and-pull of the FAA responding to the proposed law- the formation of an industry/regulatory group and the passage of a continuing-funding extension for the FAA- a compromise was struck allowing the FAA to retain flexibility in balancing various proposals and ideas against need and practicality- leading to the proposal expected about the time the NBAA convention opened in Las Vegas.

That proposal - according to The Wall Street Journal - was expected to propose 700 hours as the new bar to clear for flying as second-in-command. Such a change will undoubtedly impact some candidates for commercial cockpit jobs- the airline-school graduates who’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars to train to the old standard.

For FAR Part 91 operators- however- such a rule change won’t impact their ability to hire for their cockpits. Some may find higher- time candidates who’d been looking for an airline job- instructing or flying light charter while they worked toward the magic number of turbine hours many airlines seek – but who are not yet near the new 700-hour mark.

Regardless of the operation and the type of training required- however- there’s another player in this game: Insurers. Depending on the operation- insurers already influence hiring through rate differences for crew with the bare minimum 250 hours- with breaks often coming at 500 hours and 1-000 hours total-time – and breaks for the same amounts of time in-type.

Flight departments remain free to set their own minima- experience levels often keyed to their insurer’s requirements for initial and recurrent training. Beyond finding candidates with the required degree and type of flight experience- operators face other regulations for hiring and training pilots- though.

Hiring an aviator today involves security and background checks unheard of until a decade ago; for Part 135 operators and all operators flying airplanes above the 12-500- pound MTOW break that the FAA set between small and large airplanes- the requirements go deeper.

Further- operators - regardless of their operation type - must now permanently maintain records on their crew and their training. Merely getting a pilot candidate into a training program to add a rating- up the license type or train in aircraft weighing more than 12-500 pounds at take-off requires clearing through the TSA.

Although there’s a website to help- the instructor or instruction company must also verify the pilot’s identity. Fingerprints- submitted to an approved vendor to check them against watch-lists may come into play. But none of these rise to the level of challenge that merely finding and qualifying ready candidates is becoming.

Adding to the complexity- the security protocols for instructors and students remains in effect for every new-rating or new-aircraft training need. Even if the pilot is working with an in-house instructor who knows the pilot to add a type rating for a company-owned airplane- the security requirements remain.

Today funding- training- qualifying and (in many instances) security to clear pilot candidates involves more challenges than at any time since World War II - the era when the Civilian Pilot Training Corps (CPTC) and its wartime successor trained hundreds of thousands of pilots until the peak of about several million pilot-qualified men and women.

The CPTC itself spurred considerable growth for General Aviation’s OEMs: historical names like Aeronca- Piper and Stearman (a Boeing division)- Taylorcraft- Stinson and Waco. The program created pilots and instructors and - in turn - mechanics and technicians.

Once the war ended the budding aviation manufacturing community found scores of willing applicants for every pilot opening; airlines- too. And many of those returned aviators linked up with returned mechanics and technicians and started their own businesses. It was their devotion to aviation that laid the foundation for the decades of success and growth General Aviation experienced through to the major collapse of the early 1980s.

Beyond World War II- the Cold War- Korea and Vietnam all helped keep flowing the pipelines of government trained professional aviators and mechanics – until that is the sequential draw downs that started upon America’s exit from Vietnam in the early 1970s and continues yet today with the termination of advance-training support under the World War II G.I. Bill.

Today- as aviators retire from flying for hire or from non-commercial flying jobs- the flow of replacements amounts to a trickle. A new G.I. Bill does- however- provide support for returning veterans who want to seek a flying or a maintenance career. Whether it contributes at levels comparable to the past is in serious question though.

The issuance of pilot certificates is off nearly two-thirds in the past 20 years. The entry-level license-the private-pilot certificate – dropped to a decades-old low at 15-000 in 2010. The percentage of those with ambitions to go further is not- fortunately- down as much as new pilot starts - but it’s still at a level that challenges flight departments to fill slots.

The military makes fewer than ever and the airlines compete for the best of a pool of would-be First officers willing to spend $50-000-$75-000 for their own training- and the level of turbine-time needed to be considered today. Meanwhile- the expected proposal to increase the time required to sit in the right seat of a cockpit will increase the obstacles to a job- raise the costs to the candidate and put a significant segment of pilots who were previously in the making off-limits.

Overall- the aviation community needs to reverse its decline- which means spurring thousands more each year to take up flight training – and keeping them engaged to completion. Out of any 100 who start most fail to complete- dropping out for a variety of reasons. Let’s look at the challenges step-by-step.

A managing instructor in a fight-training operation recently staged an impromptu career seminar on the ramp at his home field. It followed a lovely flight on a balmy summer evening as we prepared to hangar his personal airplane (a simple piston-single used predominantly for personal travel but also flown in everything from instruction to off-airport bush work – even on-demand charter).

The seminar began when a CitationJet taxied by. “How do I get a job flying one of those?” one awestruck bystander whispered. The instructor/aircraft owner smiled and offered: “You start by learning to fly its little sister – this airplane. This is a challenging airplane to fly. That jet is easy by comparison. It’s more complicated to operate- but the same to fly. This piston single can teach you to fly everything else.”

Everyone has to start somewhere – they always have. Tomorrow’s corporate pilots still have to start with the Private Certificate- typically in a single- with the Instrument Rating next- followed by the Commercial- then maybe the ATP. The problem is that they don’t generally need all those ratings and certificates to fly business aircraft…not as much as they need experience - and the correct experience at that.

The costs of earning a Private Pilot Certificate can easily run into the low five figures – particularly for student pilots pursuing the license in a piecemeal- budget-driven manner. Students who take more than six months typically spend more because they need to fly more hours to refresh themselves of the prior lesson – before moving on to new areas of learning.

Although 40 hours – 20 dual- 20 solo – is the FAA minimum- Private students outside dedicated programs (or flying less than weekly) often exceed 65- 70- 75 hours before passing the check-ride. The Instrument Rating requires another 40 hours minimum – and here’s where the old standards break down in the art and science of navigating inside the eggshell.

Analog or Digital? Either can get you through the training; but one ups the chances of getting a turbine-cockpit job. Somewhere along the way the corporate-cockpit candidate could have $65-000-75-000 or more invested in the training and practice needed to meet standards. But the reward of a business-flying career can be high.

An old friend who hopes to soon retire from his military flying job sought input on finding an airline job some months back. Through one issue or another- this highly experienced- transport-category-qualified aviator seemed to always fail one element of the many involved in an interview. For every interview he secured- he found a dozen candidates also competing for a smaller number of hiring slots. Approximately 30 percent of the candidates would go home happy; the rest would not. “Have you got any tips?” he asked.

My friend’s face contorted as if he’d just tasted sour milk as it was suggested that he call a contact in need of a good jet-qualified pilot to fill his corporate flight department. “Those guys don’t make any money- they don’t get to go anywhere interesting- and you can kiss off any international travel-” he replied. To be so involved in aviation- yet so misinformed…

The job opening started at $55-000 – less than his current salary- but not by much – with the potential to make nearly $100-000 in under five years. The path to progress is better than that found flying common carrier. Corporate flying- as it stands- is not a well-understood or well-known avenue to many pilot-training prospects.

As it turned out- the bystander who asked about flying the CitationJet needed little extra detail to convince him. He began flight training a week later - in the Cessna 172 single-piston belonging to the managing flight instructor. His goal is to occupy the right seat in a CitationJet in two years time - and he’s motivated enough to make it…

Do you have any questions or opinions on the above topic? Get them answered/published in World Aircraft Sales Magazine. Email feedback to: editorial@avbuyer.com



Bombardier Global Express XRS 1
Bombardier Global Express XRS
Make offer
Daher Kodiak 100 1
Daher Kodiak 100
Please call
Cessna Citation XLS+ 1
Cessna Citation XLS+
Price: USD $7,400,000
United Kingdom
Bell 412EP 1
Bell 412EP
Make offer
loder image