The Pilots of Aerial Work Aviation

In the Aerial Work aviation world, a special aircrew profession within this community genuinely enhances the capabilities of manned and unmanned aircraft. This profession is the Aerial Work or Multi-Mission Pilot. If you're interested in this distinctive & specialized aviation profession, Patrick Ryan will steer you through this fascinating career field and the world of multi-mission operations.

Patrick Ryan  |  23rd May 2023
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    When someone says "Pilot," you usually think of recreational pilot, executive jet pilot, or airline pilot. However, there is an airman many don't think of, which is equally important within the pilot world. This pilot career path is the Aerial Work or Multi-Mission Pilot career field. 

    Even though you'll see pilots operate across the spectrum of aircraft, from wide-body transport jets to recreational drones, there is a pillar of aviation that consist of an exceptional group of pilots. These pilots have a unique focus and purpose of using aircraft for a specific utility reason vs. for recreation or transporting people & cargo from A to B. 

    With the expansion of new technology, aircraft have expanded beyond traditional capabilities, providing unique services that didn't exist thirty years ago. Also, along with these new systems or capabilities, a new type of crewmember is required to operate such a kit, the Aerial Work Pilot. 

    So, what is this unique group of pilots, and how do they contribute to Aerial Work aviation? First, let's start with the baseline of "What is Aerial Work or Multi-Mission Aviation?"

    What is Aerial Work Aviation? 

    The short answer is that Aerial Work (AW) operations are civil aircraft used for specialized services in many "dull, dirty & dangerous" utility applications. In other words, aerial work aviation essentially flies everything recreational, scheduled carrier, and air charter operators don't. 

    As a side note, you'll see other terms with the same meaning in periodicals and marketing material, like "Multi-Mission" and "Special Mission," which can cause confusion. However, these terms are synonymous with the ICAO and other Civil Aviation Authorities' definitions of Aerial Work Operations. Nevertheless, Aerial Work, Multi-Mission, Special Mission, and other terms define Aviation's third pillar, i.e., General Aviation (GA), Air Transport, and Aerial Work.  

    What is the History of Aerial Work Pilots? 

    In fact, the Aerial Work sector has a longer historical tradition than General Aviation, airlines, or air charter operations. Today's aerial work operations and the pilots who fly them can trace back to the mid-1800s when Gaspard-Felix Tournachon "Nadar" first took aerial photographs of Paris from a hot air balloon. From there, many types of AW applications started to develop and expand. 

    Following World War One, with excess aircraft and a large pool of unemployed flyers, pioneering pilots began using airplanes for Aerial Work, which offered a cheap and easy way to make a living. Like with the drone phenomena of today, many saw the utility of using aircraft for many utility applications. 

    Throughout the 1920s and 30s, aircraft manufacturers continued to produce better and more capable aircraft which expanded the lift and range of aircraft. Plus, the ability to carry new specialized equipment that the forefathers of aviation could only dream of. All of which allowed AW pilots to push into new fields of service. 

    After World War Two, Aerial Work operations and the AW Pilot career field continued to grow with an even more significant surplus of aircraft, a growing world economy, and a global manufacturing capacity. In addition, mass-production techniques like those of the auto industry reduced the cost of GA aircraft, with platforms such as the Cessna 150/152 and BrittenNorman BN-2 Islander seeing widespread use. Because of this, aircraft and their pilots became increasingly used in specialist aerial work roles.

    What Defines an Aerial Work Pilot? 

    In its basic form, an AW Pilot is an individual operating an aircraft or an unmanned platform for specific academic, commercial, public safety, or defense purposes. When participating in any flight activity, the Aerial Work Pilot accomplishes specialized tasks that are not considered recreational or air transport. In addition, AW Pilots are remunerated or hired for their services. 

    Alongside this, and besides ensuring the safe operation of an aircraft, AW Pilots apply particular knowledge and skills to accomplish tasks that are in addition to aviating, navigating, and communicating. Some of these specific tasks or duties of an AW Pilot are: 

    • Installing, testing & maintaining specialized systems and equipment
    • Managing non-traditional aviation aircrew and ground personnel
    • Extensive coordination with end-user or customers requiring their specific services
    • Working with hazardous material
    • Operating in dangerous environments
    • And many more activities outside of piloting a recreational or transport aircraft… 

    Additionally, the AW Pilot career field is not universal, i.e., an aerial firefighting pilot has different training and operating requirements than an aerial mapping & survey drone operator. In other words, the many different Aerial Work sectors have their own unique culture, professional jargon, expectations, etc. 

    Also, besides full-time AW Pilots, there are many part-time AW Pilots. Usually, these pilots are volunteers, real estate agents, scientists, photographers, archaeologists, etc., participating in AW flight activities and leveraging unique aircraft or equipment capabilities to fulfill or support their primary jobs. Either way, they're part of the Aerial Work pilot community.

    What Do Aerial Work Pilots Do? 

    Of all the different types of applications or services that fall under Aerial Work or Multi-Mission operations, without a doubt, Aerial Work Pilots are the mainstay. Generally, you'll see AW pilots operate both manned and unmanned aircraft in the following universal industry sectors day & night and around the globe: 

    • Agriculture • Environment Management
    • Construction and Land Development
    • Energy
    • Humanitarian Aid
    • Public Safety • Advertising
    • Education • Recreation
    • Maritime Management
    • Animal Management
    • Meteorology
    • Defense
    • Media 

    As mentioned, each service sector and the pilots who fly in these sectors have their particular missions, stakeholders, ancillary systems, and equipment. Even though many of these services sometimes utilize or prefer the same type of aircraft and equipment, the cultures, training, and standard operating procedures can be relatively different between these industry sectors. 

    Specifically, regarding the spectrum of Aerial Work applications, many AW Pilots specialize in one or several similar sectors but rarely operate across the full spectrum of AW operations. Some of these specific Aerial Work sectors include:

    Civil (Commercial Providers)
    • Mapping and Surveying
    • Pipeline Monitoring and Inspecting
    • Photography and Cinematography
    • Broadcasting
    • Advertisement
    • Glider Towing and Skydiving Hoisting
    • Crop Dusting, Monitoring, and Seeding
    • Pilot and Crew Training 

    Public Safety (Commercial and Public Providers)
    • Police Patrol and Surveillance
    • Fire Fighting
    • Search and Rescue
    • Ambulance and Medical Evacuation
    • Emergency and Disaster Relief 

    Defense (Commercial Providers in Support of Public Contracts)
    • Research and Flight Testing
    • Pilot and Crew Training

    Additionally, most AW Pilots work for specific government organizations or commercial firms specializing in such sectors versus directly with end users. An example of these types of jobs Aerial Work Pilots support every day are:

    Flight Inspection – In the Flight Inspection (FI) sector, FI or Check Pilots inspect, calibrate, and validate many aspects of the navigational aids and airway procedures currently operational worldwide. Their duties include "measuring" aeronautical facilities and systems plus "assessing" aeronautical procedures and the flying environment. 

    The experience level of a Flight Inspection or Check pilot averages between 8,000 and 10,000 hrs. The minimum requirements for hire include 1,500 hrs total time, a valid commercial pilot, an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate with a multi-engine rating, and an instrument rating. In some cases, 500 hrs multi-engine time and a type rating in a particular aircraft.

    Airborne Law Enforcement – Regarding Law Enforcement (LE) or Police Aviation operations, LE pilots are usually police officers or constables assigned from within their department or agency to become aircrew members. The pilot executes the law enforcement mission onboard the aircraft along with a non-rated Tactical Flight Officer (TFO), i.e., the "Mission Commander." In some cases, both crew members are pilots and decide which one will perform the TFO role or are dedicated assignments.

    LE Pilots are responsible for the aircraft's safe operation, and the TFO is the crewmember who links with ground units and coordinates with other public safety command centers simultaneously. Besides managing airto-ground communications, the pilot and TFO also manage or operate various specialized sensor systems and capabilities onboard the aircraft. 

    Aerial Cinematography – In the Aerial Cinematography sector, AW or Camera Pilots provide a filming technique that uses the full spectrum of aircraft to gain an elevated perspective. It allows filmmakers to access entirely new environments from previously inaccessible vantage points to film large-scale environments and cost-effectively achieve stunning and dramatic visual storytelling. 

    Camera Pilots fly the aircraft carrying the aerial camera or crew. Together they shoot the aerial sequences that form part of the finished feature film. Also, Camera Pilots are responsible for flying any aircraft that appear as action props. Their duties may involve performing difficult stunts requiring a high degree of expertise.

    Camera Pilots may also perform aerial unit director roles, scout for locations, work out aerial action sequences using models and storyboards, and direct these sequences from the back of the aircraft or piloting. Plus, the Camera Pilot may also carry out the duties of the aerial coordinator, which include performing more logistical tasks such as finding suitable aircraft and crew within a given budget and schedule.

    Again, the above are just samples of three specific sectors in a much larger group of Aerial Work services that manned & unmanned Multi-Mission pilots support, along with flight training, aerial broadcasting, glider towing, and many more…

    What are the work conditions of an Aerial Work Pilot? 

    AW Pilots work in various conditions, depending on their industry sector. In general, the working conditions improve as a pilot gains experience and can have a wider choice of who they fly for and what sort of flying that agency or company does.

     The workplace varies from working for a regional aerial service firm on a part-time basis to working full-time in a large organization where a pilot has a career path and other additional duties. 

    Most AW Pilots have a variable work schedule, working several days on and several days off based on tasking, availability of assets, and weather. In addition, many pilots spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of the diverse locations of projects. When AW Pilots are away from home, the agencies or companies provide lodging accommodations, transportation between lodging and the airfield or launch/recovery location, and an allowance for meals and other expenses. Like Air Transportation, AW organizations operate flights all day and night, so work schedules are often irregular.

    What is the Future of Aerial Work Pilots? 

    Today, with the expansion of newer designed manned and unmanned platforms, smaller robust digital systems, and lighter composite materials, the Aerial Work sector is growing in line with many other industry sectors. In the early days, the Aerial Work sector could not afford the analog age technology in terms of cost and weight, which resulted in limited aerial services. 

    However, with this transition from an analogy to a digital technology world, the Aerial Work community and the Pilot profession have expanded along with it, i.e., a never-ending need for ever more specialized aerial support and services. 

    Because of this, there will be a higher demand for pilots to go beyond having basic airmanship skills. Instead, they must specialize in the "Art & Science" of a specific industry sector, e.g., Surveying & Mapping, Search & Rescue, Agriculture, Forest Fire Fighting, Photography, etc. Additionally, the entry requirements and training for such flying jobs will increase as new innovative, sophisticated methods, equipment, and systems evolve. 

    As you can see, the Aerial Work Pilot profession is not a recreational or air transport occupation but one with a particular purpose. Still, it's a growing career field, especially in the commercial, public safety, and defense sectors. 

    Because Aerial Work aviation has multiple numbers of different industries and missions to support, AW Pilots, beyond basic flying skills, are diverse in their knowledge and expertise, i.e., definitely not a "one size fits all" crew position. 

    However, as a whole, the Aerial Work Pilot community, like those pilots in the GA and Air Transport communities, are the mainstay of getting work done from the sky around the clock and the world!


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