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In the world of aviation, there isn’t just one type of pilot, just like there isn’t just one type of doctor. The title of “pilot” is an umbrella term that branches out to refer to a very diverse array of roles in aviation. You will find that different pilots are trained to fly different types of airplanes, for very specific purposes, oftentimes with varying degrees of niche skill sets.
Pilots can be classified into two main categories: commercial and non-commercial. Within each category, there are a myriad of classifications specific to aircraft type and capability, the conditions of flight (such as altitude, weather, and terrain being overflown), and the purpose of the flight.
Aviation is extremely diverse. In just a mere century since the first flight, the role of the aviator has evolved and expanded to encompass and fulfill a wide variety of functions in society. Let’s explore the different types of pilot roles that exist today, and what kind of pilot you can become. (On a related note, have you ever wondered how hard it is to become a pilot?)
With a minimum of 40 hours of training, you can earn a Private Pilot License. This entry-level license is your ticket to allow you to fly most basic single-engine aircraft, with passengers, for any non-commercial purpose. All flights must be conducted under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), which means that you cannot fly through clouds, and must be able to take off, navigate, avoid other aircraft, and land while being able to look out the window.
One variation of the Private Pilot License is the Sport Pilot Certificate. (The terms “certificate” and “license” are often used interchangeably in aviation parlance, and will be used interchangeably in this article.) It is similar to the Private Certificate, but it comes with greater limitations: The aircraft you fly must be either a one- or two-seater, must have a takeoff weight that does not exceed 1320 pounds, and does not exceed a max airspeed of 120 knots. Ultralight or glider aircraft will typically fall into this category. Obtaining a Sport Pilot License only requires 20 hours of training, and does not require a medical exam (which is required for a Private Pilot License). You must maintain visual contact with the ground, you may not fly through clouds, and you may not fly at night.
The Recreational Pilot Certificate is another alternative to the Private Pilot License. As with the Sport Pilot Certificate, it has a lower barrier to entry, requiring only 30 hours of flight training. But it comes with limitations and restrictions as well: You may not fly more than 50 nautical miles from your home base airport. You cannot fly more than 10,000 feet above sea level or 2,000 feet above ground level (whichever is higher in elevation). Similar to the Sport Pilot Certificate, you must maintain visual contact with the ground, you may not fly through clouds, and you may not fly at night.
The Instrument Rating itself is not a “type” of pilot license. It is more of an “add-on” to your existing license, that unlocks the ability to fly through clouds, through low-visibility conditions, flying by reference to instruments only, without the need to maintain visual reference outside the window. It also allows you to fly above 18,000 feet above sea level. The Instrument Rating is an implicit prerequisite for flying most high-performance aircraft and is a practical necessity for most commercial operations. It cannot be obtained “by itself”, as it is not a standalone certificate, the way the Private, Sport, or Recreational License are.
As the name implies, this rating allows you to fly aircraft with multiple engines. It is not a standalone certificate, but is an add-on to your existing license.
This endorsement allows you to fly aircraft with retractable landing gear, variable-pitch propellers, and complex wing flap configurations (beyond the standard wing-flaps found in a basic single-engine aircraft). It is not a standalone endorsement, but an add-on to your existing license.
As the name implies, this add-on endorsement allows you to fly your aircraft at higher altitudes… Namely any altitude above 25,000 feet above sea level. This endorsement exists because the requirements for supplemental oxygen, cabin pressurization, and the knowledge of how to deal with in-flight emergencies with regards to loss of oxygen/cabin pressure, are essential in this regard.
Seaplane Type Rating
If you want to fly an airplane that is capable of taking off and landing on water, then you will need to get a Seaplane Type Rating, which can be obtained either as part of your Private Pilot training or as an add-on to your existing license.
Commercial Pilot License
The Commercial Pilot License is your ticket to being able to earn money and be compensated for flying, for commercial purposes. Both the Private Pilot License and the Instrument Rating are prerequisites for obtaining your Commerical Pilot License. Other endorsements, such as the ones for piloting multi-engine, high-altitude, or complex aircraft, are not required in and of themselves for the Commercial Rating, per se. However, as a practical matter, you will need to obtain those endorsements, if you want to be able to make practical use of your Commercial Rating. Otherwise, with just your commercial license, you would be relegated to flying single-engine basic trainer aircraft.
The rest of the sections below will cover the various types of pilot roles that fall under the umbrella of commercial operations.
Certified Flight Instructor
One popular career path for commercial pilots is to become a Certified Flight Instructor. You basically get paid to teach other people how to fly, and help them get their own pilot license. While many pilots may choose to become Certified Flight Instructors as a career choice, there are many other pilots who view flight instruction merely as a stepping stone to help them build up the hours and gain the experience needed in order to pursue more advanced careers in aviation.
If you have ever seen those airplanes towing banners in the sky with advertisements or special messages on them, yes, that is a type of job for pilots. Additional training may be necessary in order to receive authorization to perform either of these types of jobs, but a Commercial Rating is required at a minimum.
Writing messages in the sky using smoke trails can also be a lucrative way to make easy money as a pilot. Some training would obviously be required in order to learn how to write in the sky. You must have a Commercial Rating in order to sky-write. Proper spelling and good penmanship are also required (pun intended)!
Sightseeing / Aerial Photography Tours
Aerial sightseeing is a popular pilot job. Depending on where you live, flying tourists for hire, to checkout city skylines or famous landmarks can be constantly in demand. However, these types of jobs are heavily tied to the economy, so you might see a slowdown in aerial sightseeing tours during a recession. But when times are good, this can be a lucrative venture to get into as a pilot.
Medical Air Transport / Air Ambulance
Typically, when most people think of an air ambulance, they think of helicopters. Indeed, helicopters can airlift you to a nearby hospital. But in some exceptional cases, where you need medical transport faster, for father distances, or for some reason, flying in a helicopter would impose undue additional risks for the patient (such as lack of a pressurized cabin, limited space for storage or to manage or administer care to the patient in flight, adverse weather conditions that would prevent the safe completion of a helicopter flight, and cost (it may cost less to operate an airplane than a helicopter under certain circumstances), then a medical air transport airplane would come into play.
Reconnaissance / Cartography
Surveying the land after a natural disaster, or conducting aerial reconnaissance are both examples of essential activities employed by governments and agencies, for logistical planning, civil engineering, disaster recovery, and the like. Although these days, drones are doing a fair share of the reconnaissance work, there are still ample opportunities for manned-flight reconnaissance missions.
Search And Rescue Operations
Both helicopters and airplanes can be used in search and rescue operations, depending on the terrain and the distance over which the operations are being conducted, be they over plains, mountains, or even over open water. Seaplanes might be more conducive for operations over open water, especially if a landing is warranted. Helicopters would be ideal if they need the flexibility to be able to land anywhere. Airplanes may be used if either a landing is not anticipated or required unless it is possible to land in an open field where the operations are being conducted, if no airport is nearby.
Law enforcement at all levels of the government is necessary and is in need of pilots. Whether for transporting government officials, transporting law enforcement personnel, or carrying out law enforcement activities such as apprehending and transporting criminals, aviation plays a hand in law enforcement.
While ferrying would-be parachute jumpers to altitude doesn’t require any special rating or endorsement apart from a Commercial Rating per se, it is essential that jump pilots be very well versed with the FAA rules and regulations concerning parachute operations, and all of the pre-flight planning, preparation, and emergency procedures that concerning the flight.
The application of insecticide or fertilizer over a field of crops, delivered from an airplane is what is known as crop dusting. Crop dusting has been around since the earliest days of aviation, and still continues to be an agricultural necessity, even to this day. All you need in order to become a crop duster is a Commercial Pilot’s License. What makes crop-dusting unique amongst other types of pilot jobs is that it requires you to fly at very low altitudes above the surface of the other. Typically, low altitude flying is prohibited in areas with a residential or commercial population. Factors such as wind shear and ground-effect can also impact the safety of crop-duster flying.
There is a need to ferry passengers and cargo to and from remote areas that are out in the wilderness, far removed from civilization, that are generally inaccessible by highways and roads, and oftentimes are even deemed inhospitable. One such example of bush flying in North America includes remote areas of Alaska and Canada. In many cases, bush flying may even require the use of a seaplane, if the area is remote enough that it is separated from the mainland by a body of water. More often than not, takeoff and landing operations must be done on grass strips or in open fields, as there are no paved runways or airports in these remote regions of the world.
Stunt Pilots / Aerobatic Flying
The thrill of watching stunt pilots perform aerobatic maneuvers in the sky has been a form of entertainment since the dawn of aviation. There is something enthralling about gazing up and watching airplanes race through the sky. Equally thrilling, then, is the thrill of performing aerobatics as a stunt pilot. This affords you the opportunity to get paid for pushing the envelope of high-performance aircraft for the amusement of others. While there is no formal FAA rating for aerobatic flight, a Commercial Rating is required, at minimum. This is not only because you get paid for this type of flying, but also because aerobatic flying involves abrupt changes in aircraft airspeed, altitude, power, and orientation, and unusual flight attitudes that are not used in “normal” flight. Manveuers such as steep turns, spins, spirals, chandelles, lazy eights, and eights on pylons, stalls, slow-flight are all covered as part of your Commercial training. While these do not prepare you directly for aerobatic flight, they do provide a basic foundation to prepare you as such.
How do we make sure that airplanes are able to operate safely properly? How do we gauge and measure the performance characteristics of an airplane? Somebody has to go up and test it out, right? Test pilots are a staple of the aviation industry. Somebody has to be willing to take the risk to test out aircraft before they can be certified for carrying passengers and cargo and complying with government-mandated airworthiness directives and certification standards. There will always be a need for test pilots, not only to test new innovations and design concepts in aviation, but to certify existing airplanes as being safe for flight.
Airline Transport Pilot
Each of the above commercial pilot jobs requires only a Commercial Rating (in conjunction with all of the aforementioned add-on endorsements as appropriate).
However there is an entire arena of commercial aviation jobs that require another level of pilot certification, and that is the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating.
The ATP rating is a step above the Commercial Rating (which itself is a prerequisite for the ATP rating). The ATP rating allows you to fly large jet airplanes for high-stakes commercial operations.
In the next few sections below, we will delve into some of the commercial operations that require an ATP rating.
The ATP rating has a very high bar for entry: You must have accumulated a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight experience before you can get your ATP rating.
Mainline Passenger Airlines
All of the major commercial airlines that transport passengers domestically across the country or internationally across the world, require an ATP rating.
Regional airlines are essentially similar to mainline airlines, except that they are commissioned to operate within a limited geographic range, serving only specific “regions”, as opposed to the entire continent or the entire world. That being said, the jet airplanes used in regional airlines typically carry fewer passengers and are equipped to fly shorter distances. Regional airlines are also typically cheaper for consumers and offer less in terms of amenities and services than a mainline airline would.
As an alternative to flying for the airlines, there are an abundance of pilot jobs in corporate aviation. Corporate aviation means that you fly exclusively for executives or employees of a specific corporation… or in some cases, a limited number of corporate clients with whom there is a contract to provide services drawn up. You fly corporate personnel on private jets for business meetings or for any other business-related purpose. Corporations may avail themselves of private jets as a perk, which affords them more privacy, greater comfort, greater efficiency, and less hassle, avoiding the rush of the commercial airlines.
Flying for charter operations is similar to corporate aviation, in that you are piloting smaller, private jets, for a limited, exclusive number of passengers. The difference is that charter operations are available to be reserved by anyone, and not exclusively by a specific corporation. Anyone who wishes to book a charter airplane for themselves, their friends, and their family, may do so. But it comes at a price, as flying via charter aircraft is generally be more expensive than flying on a commercial airliner.
The ATP rating is required not only for ferrying passengers but also for transporting large volumes of cargo. All of the major mail and parcel delivery services that transport large volumes of shipment by air on large cargo jets, require their pilots to have ATP ratings.
The military itself has an abundance of opportunities for would-be pilots and experienced pilots to utilize their aviation skills for the defense and service of their country. The military is where you get exclusive access to fly high-performance aircraft that are not available to the general public! Fighter jets, military cargo jets, stealth bombers, spy planes, helicopters, and the like. In conjunction with learning to fly weaponized aircraft that can travel at supersonic speeds, you also receive combat training. Military aviation experience can go a long way in helping you build hours toward future commercial aviation jobs, once you eventually leave the military.
Here is a resource that you might helpful, if you have ever wondered what are the steps involved in becoming a commercial pilot.