Real Pilot Experience

Not all flying hours are equal.

A fellow helicopter pilot and I often debate the merits of the current system of pilot experience building.

In the U.S., a pilot generally gets his (or her) private, commercial, and CFI ratings, often picking up an instrument rating along the way. He then spends the next 500 to 1000 hours as a flight instructor, teaching other people how to fly under the close supervision of a chief flight instructor. With the golden number of hours — 1,000, for most helicopter pilot jobs — logged, the pilot goes on to an entry level position in a company where he’s closely supervised by a chief pilot who calls all the shots. Through the logging of time in various aircraft, the pilot works his way up to better-paying, more challenging jobs.

Parked in an Orchard
My helicopter, parked beside a pond in an orchard, waiting for rain during cherry season.

My friend and I didn’t follow this typical career path. Instead, we learned to fly, bought our own helicopters, and started our own flying businesses, learning through more varied experiences in a much shorter time. We both worked closely with the FAA to get our Part 135 certificates and pass annual check rides and inspections. And we generally agree that the hours we’ve logged are “worth” more than those logged by a typical pilot on the typical career path.

Now I know that the mere idea that all logged hours are not the same will bother a bunch of readers who are pilots on that typical career path. So I’ve decided to provide a comparative list of experiences based on real-life pilots so you can objectively consider my argument.

I recently had the opportunity to fly with two relatively new helicopter pilots. And a year ago, I flew with another one. I spent more than 14 hours of flight time with all three of them. Here’s how their experience stacks up against mine.

Them Me
All three of these guys had private, commercial, and certified flight instructor (CFI) endorsements. At least one also had an instrument rating and a CFII rating. I only went through Private and Commercial helicopter training. I never became a CFI and although I started work on an instrument rating back in the beginning of 2008, I haven’t finished it.
All three of these guys had right around 300 hours of flight time. The vast majority of that time was in Robinson R22 helicopters — although I think one of them might have had most of his training in Robinson R44s because of his size. (He wasn’t fat, but he was very tall and with height comes weight.) Virtually all of their flight time was built with a CFI in the seat beside them, flying within 50 miles of the airport where they learned to fly. I have about 2,100 hours of flight time these days, built in Robinson R22, Robinson R44, and Bell 206L helicopters, with a tiny bit of stick time in a Hughes 500 and a Bell 47. I’ve flown in nine states, including Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. I’ve flown over deserts, mountains, lakes, forests, canyons, and coastlines.
All three of these guys built their flight time in basic and more advanced training. That’s 300 hours of hovering, flying traffic patterns, practicing autorotations, and performing other textbook maneuvers to textbook standards. They flew mostly during the day in good weather, at or near sea level. When (or if) these guys get jobs as CFIs, they’ll build their next 700 hours of flight time sitting in a seat beside a variety of student pilots, handing the controls only until the student can perform basic maneuvers without assistance. Then they’ll keep the student pilot out of trouble by being ready to get on the controls while daydreaming about their next flying job — the one that might actually pay them enough money that they can afford to pay their rent. I built my flight time with about 200 hours of basic and advanced training followed by an enormous amount of cross-country flying — including far more solo flight time than the average pilot — and flights for hire. The for-hire flights include short rides, sightseeing tours, photo flights, aerial survey flights, video flights, air-taxi flights, wildlife survey flights, cattle spotting, and cherry drying. I’ve flown in perfectly clear daytime weather, under (and over) low clouds, around thunderstorms, through rain showers, and into the complete darkness of a remote desert night. I’ve landed on and off airports, from sea level to over 10,000 feet density altitude.
These guys have always flown under the close supervision of a CFI or chief flight instructor, following the rules laid down by their flight schools. Decision-making was likely limited to go/no go decisions that were likely based on conservative guidelines; in other words, if there’s a real go/no go decision to make, don’t go. About 1/4 of my flight time was flown under the close supervision of a CFI, chief flight instructor, or chief pilot. The rest of it was flown under my own supervision. I made all the decisions that needed making, from how much fuel to load and where to seat the passengers to what route to take and where to stop for fuel to how to find my way around the unforecasted thunderstorm in my path. And go/no go, of course.
All three of these guys are qualified to teach student pilots how to fly helicopters. I’m not.

What bothers me most is that limited experienced pilots are the ones teaching people how to fly. Then, after logging hour after hour of doing the same thing in the same basic conditions, they’re more qualified for a job than someone else with “better” experience but fewer hours.

Is there something wrong with this situation?

I’m not complaining about not being able to teach. I don’t want to. I like life far too much to put it into the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to fly. I just question the wisdom of using our least experienced certificated pilots to teach non-pilots how to fly.

Spraying with a Helicopter
An experienced agriculture pilot sprays wax on Apple trees from a JetRanger in Washington state.

When I was an 800-hour pilot, it bothered me that a typical 1,000-hour pilot on the typical career path was considered more experienced than I was. I was willing to prove that I was an as good — if not better — pilot than he was, but no one wanted to give me the opportunity. Sure, he can do autorotations better than I could — after all, he’d been doing them every day for much of his 1,000 hours of flight time. But how was he on off-airport landings? Planning cross-country flights? Landing at unfamiliar airports? Flying around or under or through weather? Managing power with a full load of full-sized passengers at high density altitude? Simply feeling the aircraft as an extension of his body that gave him the ability to fly?

That’s water under the bridge now. I’ve built my time and now qualify for a wide range of jobs. And if I get my CFI — which I expect to this winter — I could probably be a pretty good flight instructor.

But for now, I’ll just continue on my own career path. It may not be typical, but it’s challenging. And every flight offers the possibility of a real learning experience.

6 thoughts on “Real Pilot Experience

  1. Very well thought out piece Maria. The same arguments abound over the other side of the pond in JAA land – the path is very similar. Its a path which, should I choose to fly commercially, I will be have to traverse.

    If I were working towards my commercial licence I would be whats known as an “hour builder” over here, trying to fill the gap in hours requirement from post private to being eligible to start practical commercial training.

    I see so many of my peers fill these approx 90 hours of flight time with the same standard flights – airfield to airfield, and not far between; and nearly always the cheapest way possible. On the other hand I have made a conscious effort to do more and more challenging things, a lot of off airport stuff / flying the heli-lanes over London often, long distance stuff etc.

    The real challenge for the industry is that the experience is not quantifiable easily – whereas straight hours are! When we get into this debate over here, we normally get stuck at the “how would you change it?” question!

  2. I would recommend NOT getting your CFI… I had one, and let it slide while working at LifeNet in E25 almost the first year I was there…

    I was requested to work OT and instead of taking the FIRC, I let it slide… now my only regret is, I already had it, and it took me a lot to get that rating, it was the hardest one of all… and I just let it slide away… I should have at least kept it current, even unused… however…

    Since you’ve never obtained it, and really have no need for it… I really recommend the Instrument rating more than a CFI… the better knowledge you have about the IFR system, the better off you’ll be in the “real” world of aviation, which you are already in, and with as much flying as you do… and the “possibility” of IIMC… you’ll be better prepared to get out of it…

    I to this day, wish I had more IFR experience, and actual IMC flight time… I only have 5.2 actual in a Bell 222 with my friend Scot… we flew Coca-Cola’s 222 from Minneapolis St. Paul, back to Atlanta Georgia… we hit weather about 40 miles south of MSP… so we landed in Winona, filed IFR from the taxiway, and went on our merry way… some of the best flight experience I’ve ever had… of course an executive IFR equipped 222 with an auto pilot made the job

    much easier…

    My point is, not having the actual IFR experience has kept me from getting other jobs… but not the CFI… I don’t want to teach… and I don’t think you do either. I may go and get my fixed wing instrument and just fly some actual IFR for the experience and knowledge… good safety practice as well.

    Nice article, I liked the comparison parts… M

  3. First, I agree with you that the industry is backwards. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to take pilots that just barely learned how to fly themselves, and put them in the position of teaching new guys to fly. Flight instructor positions should be for pilots with thousands of hours of experience and they should be paid some of the highest wages, in my opinion.

    I’m a full-time CFI/CFII, but I don’t really fit the “typical career path” mold you lay out in your blog. My career path has been sort of a combination of yours and the “typical” one. Yes, most of my flying is spent teaching the same maneuvers within 50 miles of the same airport, but not all of it. I have a friend that I fly with who, like you, owns an R44. I’ve flown in all the same states you have, and 3 different countries. I’ve conducted aerial photo missions, sightseeing tours, etc. over mountains and lakes and in high DA and through bad weather, just like you. And although that experience is valuable, I think you’re downplaying the value in the experience one builds as a CFI.

    A good instructor allows his/her students to make mistakes. I think if you gave instruction a try you’d see just how much you can learn about your machine and about flying by watching students chase RPM in autos, botch approaches, droop the rotors on hot days, and the hundreds of other common student mistakes, even with your hands off the controls. You learn to feel when things are going wrong 3 steps ahead of when they do. There is no better way to know the machine you are flying than to flirt with the edges of the envelope and you get to do that day after day, because as an instructor your primary job is recovering from mistakes that, had you not been there, would have destroyed the machine and/or killed your student.

    Not to downplay your “path”, but I know pilots like you that skipped the CFI ticket and damaged helicopters and nearly lost their lives by making incorrect inputs during emergencies simply because they only practiced those EP’s during their private/commercial training and then once a year just before a BFR.

    I guess my point is that there is value in every minute we’re in the helicopter, whether we’re teaching someone how to hover or flying across multiple states. Don’t assume that another pilot’s “career path” is better or worse than yours simply because it is different. At the end of the day if you kept the rotor side up and performed the mission safely who cares how you got there.

    • Vegas Pilot:

      You list the things you’ve done, supposedly as a CFI. I challenge you to find a half dozen CFIs with the same experience during their first 1,000 hours. That’s the amount of time most pilots remain working as CFIs — after that, they’re outta there, starting their “real” career. How many hours do you have? I find it tough to believe that a flight school would give the kind of missions you list to a pilot with fewer than 1000 hours. I won’t even do recurrency training with a CFI that has fewer than 1000 hours.

      In any case, your experience as a CFI is not typical. Most of the CFIs I’ve flown with over the past few years were nearly clueless about real life flying, doing nutty things like being afraid to land with a 4 mph tailwind (low density altitude, light aircraft), planning cross-country fuel stops 3 hours apart in an R44, using the altimeter to lock in flight altitude (on a cross-country flight over descending terrain), doing traffic patterns to land at an untowered airport, doing something contrary to ATC instructions without telling ATC, and landing at the approach end of a runway and then hover-taxing a half-mile to the midfield destination.

      What bugs me is how these guys, with 1000 hours spent mostly sitting in a cockpit either preventing someone else from killing themselves or watching them fly, can equate that time with 1000 hours spent mostly doing real-life missions. That’s my point.

      And yes, I’m deeply offended by your suggestion that “skipping the CFI ticket” is a cause of bent aircraft. Pilots like me? How do you know? How do you know about the kinds of flying I’ve done? The emergencies I’ve been in? The way I’m able to perform, year after, on difficult missions and on check rides? You suggest that I need to be a CFI to learn my aircraft better. I know my aircraft by putting it to the test, day after day, and being responsible for the way it performs and the souls on board on every flight.

      Why are you still a CFI? Is that the end of your career path? If so, great — we need experienced CFIs to train new pilots. That’s my other point. But just because you’ve had good experience as a CFI doesn’t mean everyone does. And it certainly doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t make flight training a part of our career paths are any less of a pilot than you.

  4. First, my comment was not meant to offend you. When I said, “pilots like you” who “skipped the CFI ticket”, I was not trying to imply that you would handle an emergency incorrectly as they had, although I may have come off that way (unintentionally).

    You’re right, I don’t know what kind of flying you’ve done. I don’t know your personality, how you handle stress, what kinds of good and bad decisions you’ve made in your past, what you did before you started flying, and a million other bits of information about you which all factor in to your ability to safely pilot a helicopter. This is why I don’t assume you’re a more or less competent pilot than myself (or anyone for that matter). That was MY point. What I mean is, just because I’ve seen pilots which took a similar path as yours and caused damage to an aircraft because they panicked during an emergency they had little practice with does not make me pass judgment on all pilots that skipped the CFI ticket and assume they’ll all handle situations the same way (and write a big blog about it). I don’t care what path you’ve chosen, military or civilian, CFI or private owner, if you can fly the mission you can fly the mission.

    You’ve flown with some CFIs that have done some bonehead things, as I’ve flown with non-CFIs with equal logged time (1,000+) that have done some bonehead things. The overall tone of your blog (the way I perceived it) is that all CFIs are equally as incompetent as the ones you have flown with, that none of their time in the helicopter is as valuable as YOUR’s, and I suppose that is what prompted me to comment. I’ve flown with some CFIs that I would consider to be outstanding pilots, even without all of the fun long cross-countries and commercial operations that I’ve been fortunate enough to take part in (and like you, I’ve also flown with some CFIs that I wouldn’t trust my life with).

    Overall, I think we both agree on at least one thing… its hard to compare pilots by the amount of time they have scribbled in their logbooks. But these arguments that “even though we have the same amount of time, I flew Blackhawks in Iraq and you’re a Robbie Ranger flying patterns, so I’m a better pilot” or “I’m a CFI and you’re a private owner, so I’m a better pilot because I’ve done more autos” are silly. As I said in my first comment, if you can perform your job safely, who cares how you got there. Most employers aren’t going to hire the kinds of incompetent pilots you’ve flown with even if they meet the time requirements.

    Anyway, I hope you don’t take any of this personally. I enjoy reading your blogs, but felt obligated to defend the “CFI path”, probably because I am one (although you’re right, my experiences are not that of a “typical” CFI).

    • Vegas Pilot: I probably overreacted. I’m so tired of being pigeonholed in the “private owner” category of pilots, where we’re automatically assumed to be bad pilots because no one was watching over our every flight for our first 1,000 hours. The truth is, when I got my first commercial job at the Grand Canyon, I could fly at least as well, if not better, than at least half the former CFIs there. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with my flying skills and I’m just plain sick and tired of people assuming there is just because I wasn’t a CFI. I guess I’m oversensitive.

      You didn’t mention that you’d flown in the military. I think that makes all the difference in the world. The flying you did was serious flying on serious missions flying serious equipment. This gives you an advantage that the average CFI (or private owner, for that matter) will never have.

      But I do think that the kind of experience I’ve had over the past 12 years is superior to most low-time (less than 600 hours) CFIs. These guys are simply not getting the career skills they need from their employers to become good commercial pilots. It’s not always their fault. While the truly outstanding pilot/CFI will get additional attention and a better variety of missions from his employer, there simply aren’t enough of these missions to go around. The flight schools in Arizona, for example, don’t even offer services like charter, aerial photography, survey, etc. to the general public. There’s no opportunity for their CFIs to take on some of these missions. Instead, these guys sit left seat in a Robbie for 800 or 1000 hours, doing traffic patterns and practicing maneuvers. This is not real life flying. I believe that real life flying is what gives pilots the skills they need to build their careers.

      I hope you can see this from my point of view — even if you don’t agree. I don’t mean to say that all CFIs lack real-life experience. But I’ll say that at least 80% do. These guys need to take a more active role in their own career development, by standing apart from the herd with good flying and communication skills. They need to get the attention of flight school management so they’re offered the missions that require more than a warm body in the left seat.

      As for you, I think you have a real future as a commercial helicopter pilot. Not only do you have above-average experience (based on what you’ve told us), but you have the ability to communicate and argue a point without being offensive or obnoxious. Is it maturity? Your military background? Or just your intelligence? Doesn’t matter — it’ll serve you well in the future. Best of luck; would love to meet you in person next time I get to Vegas.

      As for me, I’m sorry for overreacting. If you only knew the kind of comments and e-mail I get around here….

What do you think?