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Arguably among the most frequently sought after inquiries when it comes to aviation are questions surrounding how much money you can make as a pilot, and what it takes to become one. While the answer varies and depends on what are your short-term and long-term goals as a pilot, one thing must be made crystal clear:
It is illegal to be compensated monetarily for flying, with just a private pilot license. “Flying-for-hire”, charging a fee to transport people and goods, and profiting financially from flying are all examples of prohibited activities, except unless you hold a valid commercial pilot license.
Having said that, it is possible to make money with a private pilot license, but just not through any of the aforementioned, conventional means described above, in the previous paragraph. Realistically speaking, if you are eager to start making money as a private pilot, before you have had a chance to earn your commercial pilot license, then your options will be relegated to those which are incidental to or tangential to flying, but not directly from flying in and of itself.
In fact, let’s take a look at what the FAA regulations specifically state about the circumstances and the conditions which must be met, under which a private pilot may legally be compensated for hire:
Flying For Compensation or Hire Is Prohibited For PPL Holders
According to 14/61.113 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs):
(a) Except as provided in paragraphs (b) through (h) of this section, no person who holds a private pilot certificate may act as pilot in command of an aircraft that is carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire; nor may that person, for compensation or hire, act as pilot in command of an aircraft.
This language is unambiguously clear.
However, if you read on, in paragraph (b), the FAA enumerates a list of exceptions, under which a licensed private pilot may fly for compensation or hire, as long as certain conditions are met:
(b) A private pilot may, for compensation or hire, act as pilot in command of an aircraft in connection with any business or employment if:
(1) The flight is only incidental to that business or employment; and
(2) The aircraft does not carry passengers or property for compensation or hire.
Examples of the above exceptions might include flying while on the job or business, but you are not being paid for flying, or for carrying passengers or cargo. For example, your employer or your business requires you to travel from point A to point B to attend a meeting, but you did not get paid for flying. The purpose is to get to a specific destination, but not to engage in an activity in which flying in and of itself has a profit motive.
PPL Holders May Not Pay Less Than Pro-Rata Share Of Flying Expenses
The FARs further go on to make it clear that you cannot “indirectly profit” from carrying passengers, by stipulating that the pilot cannot pay less than their fair-share of the flight expenses.
(c) A private pilot may not pay less than the pro rata share of the operating expenses of a flight with passengers, provided the expenses involve only fuel, oil, airport expenditures, or rental fees.
What this means is that if a flight costs $99.00, including rental and fuel, and you are carrying two passengers with you, you, as the pilot must pay at least $33.00 toward the flight. Your passengers may not pay you or reimburse you for more than their equal share of the flight, which would be $33.00 each.
So did you profit off of this flight? No. You did not come out ahead financially.
But did you save money on this flight? Yes. You did not have to bear the full cost of the flight on your own.
Now, on this $99 hypothetical flight, if you, as the pilot, were to pay $31 for the flight, and each of your passengers paid you $34 each, then that would be illegal, because you will have profited $2 more on this flight, than your own fair share of the costs.
This is the FAA’s way of closing any type of “loophole” whereby a private pilot could claim to have come out ahead financially while carrying passengers. As long as you do not pay less than your fair, equal share, of the costs of the flight, you can share the costs of a flight with your passengers.
PPL Holders May Fly For Charitable, Non-Profit, Community Events
Private pilot license holders are allowed to fly for charitable, non-profit, or community events, as long as certain conditions are met.
If you fly for such an event, you of course may not be compensated for it, if you hold only a PPL. However, the same rules described in the previous section above about being reimbursed for your pro-rata share of the flight expenses, apply to charitable / non-profit / community event flying.
Furthermore, the beneficiary of the event must not themselves be in the business of air transportation.
Additionally, there are a whole host of requirements that the event must comply with.
Furthermore, there are a whole host of minimum flight experience requirements for the pilot-in-command.
There are also a number of requirements for the type of aircraft and the conditions of flight.
All of the requirements for carrying passengers for a charitable, non-profit, or community event can be found in § 91.146 of the FARs.
Flight Expenses For Search and Location Operations Are Reimbursable
If you ever find yourself answering the call of duty and are enlisted to engage in aerial search and location operations for a local, state or federal agency, then, as a private pilot, you may be reimbursed for the operating expenses of your aircraft, in connection with such flights. The FARs clearly spell this out in § 91.146 :
(e) A private pilot may be reimbursed for aircraft operating expenses that are directly related to search and location operations, provided the expenses involve only fuel, oil, airport expenditures, or rental fees, and the operation is sanctioned and under the direction and control of:
(1) A local, State, or Federal agency; or
(2) An organization that conducts search and location operations.
Again, you are not being compensated for flying for-hire. Rather, you are being reimbursed for the expenses that you will have incurred during flights for this specific purpose.
Aircraft salesmen may conduct demo flights to potential buyers
While you are prohibited from being compensated for flying for-hire, you can be compensated for conducting demonstration flights for prospective buyers. You can carry prospective buyers as passengers, in an effort to persuade them to purchase the aircraft. (This would be similar to a car salesman driving a car to showcase it to you, in the hopes that it will convince you to buy the car.)
Notice here that you are not conducting a commercial flight, with the intent of transporting passengers or cargo from point A to point B, with the expectation of being compensated for it. Rather, you are being compensated for conducting a demo flight to showcase an aircraft for a potential buyer.
Here is the exact wording from FAR § 91.146:
(f) A private pilot who is an aircraft salesman and who has at least 200 hours of logged flight time may demonstrate an aircraft in flight to a prospective buyer.
As noted above, there’s a catch. The privilege of being able to conduct sales demo flights with a PPL, comes with an experience requirement: You must have logged at least 200 hours of total flight time as a PPL before you can conduct such flights.
Private pilots can be compensated for glider towing
There is one type of flight operation that private pilot license holders are allowed to be compensated for, and that is glider towing.
This one exception is clearly spelled it in FAR § 91.146:
(g) A private pilot who meets the requirements of § 61.69 may act as a pilot in command of an aircraft towing a glider or unpowered ultralight vehicle.
When you are towing a glider, you are neither being compensated for carrying passengers, nor cargo. So if you are looking to make money with your private pilot license, then glider towing is one exception to the rule.
However, you must meet the following experience and training requirements, before you can legally start towing gliders, as enumerated in FAR § 61.69.
The FAA even clearly and explicitly allows private pilots to be compensated for glider towing, as per this FAQ page on their website.
Private pilots can be compensated for conducting test flights
In addition to glider towing, as covered in the above section, there is also one other type of flight operation that private pilot license holders are allowed to be compensated for, and that is conducting test flights.
After all, somebody has to test the airplane out to ensure that it complies with all airworthiness standards, meets the manufacturer’s intended performance specifications, and is safe to operate, right?
See here below, the ruling from FAR § 91.146 concerning the permissibility of conducting test flights as pilot-in-command:
(h) A private pilot may act as pilot in command for the purpose of conducting a production flight test in a light-sport aircraft intended for certification in the light-sport category under § 21.190 of this chapter, provided that –
(2) The person has at least 100 hours of pilot-in-command time in the category and class of aircraft flown; and
(3) The person is familiar with the processes and procedures applicable to the conduct of production flight testing, to include operations conducted under a special flight permit and any associated operating limitations.
Just to be clear, the above ruling clearly indicates that private pilots may conduct production flight tests in light-sport aircraft. Therefore, this does not apply to any aircraft, such as Cessnas or Pipers, or any other type of aircraft for that matter. It is limited only to light-sport aircraft.
As indicated in the ruling above, there are pilot experience requirements as well as certain equipment requirements for the aircraft in question.
Private Pilots Can Offer Ground Instruction (But Not Endorsements)
As a private pilot, you can also become a ground instructor. You can teach ground school classes to prospective pilots. However, this comes with a caveat: You cannot personally endorse students to take an FAA written knowledge test or an FAA checkride, with just a private pilot license. The ground instruction you provide cannot be logged as instruction that would count toward the requirements for obtaining a pilot license.
You would need to become a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) in order to be able to issue endorsements. However, providing general ground instruction in and of itself, any private pilot can do.
Private Pilots Should Obtain A Commercial License In Order To Be Paid
Indeed, the FAA does make provisions for pilots to be compensated for their pro-rata share of flight expenses, or to be reimbursed for their flight expenses, or to even be compensated for very specific niche types of flight operations, in the scenarios described above.
Having said that, if you truly want to say that the sky is the limit (pun intended), when it comes to being compensated for flying, then it would behoove you to go out and get your commercial pilot license (as well as an instrument rating, since the former alone will only get you so far without the latter; there is nothing worse than being a commercial pilot who is grounded due to inclement weather due to not having an instrument rating).
However, if you are a private pilot, and you are itching to put your pilot’s license to productive use, build up some flight time while saving money, or pursuing some niche flight jobs, then it may be worth your while to pursue one of the opportunities enumerated by § 91.146.
Disclaimer: This article does not constitute any type of legal advice. The information provided in this article is based on a non-authoritative interpretation of the contents of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) that are freely made available to the public. Consult with a flight instructor at your local flight school for more information.