So You Want to be a Contract Pilot? (Part One)

by Clint White


In this new age of working, the phrase “gig economy” is used quite a bit. Like UBER or LYFT or a number of other freelance services, the idea of an “on demand” work schedule is supposed to be the new and hot “thing”. However, a small, but growing group of pilots have long been engaged in “on demand” flying for many years. While they can't necessarily have instantaneous schedules or get called out on an phone app (yet), they do want the freedom to work in various places without being tied down to a single employer and able to maintain flexibility in their lives. It can be a good living for some, but it takes time and strategy to execute effectively. Many pitfalls can and have beset contract pilots. Being an “independent contractor” can be a fraught with danger if not done correctly.

This article in a series of blogs I plan to write, will talk about the contract pilot world. As a contract pilot myself, I will talk much about the things that I've done right and some of the hard lessons I have learned.

Want to be a contract pilot? Let's begin….

  1. Know your market and marketability: Some contract pilots are more in demand than others. Your thousands of hours in that Diamond Jet (as an example) may not get you those coveted contracts like the person who has the same experience in a Gulfstream (in demand). While area and market are often unique, flying is a worldwide endeavor. Demand for certain pilots and ratings can vary, but in general the bigger the “iron” you fly, the more marketable you are. Especially in this worldwide general aviation market.
  2. BE CURRENT: When was the last time you went to school for your recurrent?. If it's been a few years then you are overdue to go back. Most companies hiring contract pilots want ONLY current and qualified pilots. First of all, they aren't about to pay for your schooling (more on that in another blog), their insurance companies are NOT going to cover pilots that don't have the latest and most current training in the last 12 months (some go as far out as 24 months for the SIC). Under FAR Part 91 your training will work for any of your contracts. Things get a bit more difficult for PART 135 these days in that your training has to be SPECIFICALLY for THAT company (at your expense). So the 135.299 you just got the other day for company A does NOT let you contract for company B.

    Another note: DON’T and I repeat DON’T go out and get a NEW type with Zero experience. It really doesn't matter that you spent 30k for a G-V type. The insurance companies and potential contractor are simply NOT going to hire you if you have NO TIME in the type. Save your money and concentrate on the aircraft you have experience in if you find they are marketable.
  3. REALIZE THAT THIS IS A BUSINESS: As an “independent contractor” you are now going to be responsible for pretty much EVERYTHING!. That means taxes, training, healthcare and other items that an employer is responsible for are now are on your shoulders. It's up to you to make sure that the contract you are about to sign is valid, legal and has all the right wording. You may have to hire an aviation attorney. You MUST look at your contract flying as a business unto itself and structure it that way. The more orderly and thorough you are, the less likely you are to make mistakes along the way. Mistakes that can be VERY costly. You also need to look at your cash flow both in and out, so on top of all of the above you need to be an accountant as well (unless you hire one.)
  4. Create Your “Brand”: You will quickly realize that you are not the only contract pilot in the world or in your chosen aircraft. You might have the training and the time, but what really makes you stand apart from the rest? Employers take very little time to read resumes, but in the contract world, a good relationship and reputation will bring in repeat business. It's goes without saying that your resume should be organized, free of errors and accurate, but you also need to be able to present skill sets that go beyond your resume when the employer talks to you. It might just get you the job. Your contract piloting is a business and its best salesman is you, since you are selling yourself.
  5. Advertise: What company doesnt advertise? Very few. You need to get your name out there, NO ONE is going to come knocking on your door without a concerted effort on your part. That means putting yourself out there! Sign up for under the contract tab and/or other websites. GET OUT AND NETWORK. I've always said that aviation is a very small world. You will often meet the same people again and again so it is helpful they know your face. We live in a world of text, email, FaceTime, etc, but a face to face conversation STILL has the power to land you business and contracts.
  6. FINALLY BEFORE TAKING THE LEAP DECIDE IF THIS IS “RIGHT” FOR YOU: Not everyone has an entrepreneur mentality and that is ok. Contract flying can come with vast swings in both income and expense. There may be times you might be away from your family for long periods of time, sometimes in dangerous places in the world. It can honestly get downright scary sometimes when it's been a while since you last worked and the bills are coming due. Many find the security of a steady paycheck, healthcare and regular work just fine for them and especially their families. Take a good hard look at yourself, especially if you are quitting a job to fly contract and make sure it's the right decision for you and your family.

OK! Got all that! So now it time to take the leap in to the wonderful world of contract flying! In the next blog will talk about how to set up your business, expenses and whether or not you should go it alone or sign up with a contract pilot company.

Questions…Comments Please add your thoughts below. We would love to know