Cockpit Chronicles: Landing an airline pilot job just got harder, but here’s one way to do it.

Last year H.R. 5900 was signed into law requiring the FAA to set a new 1,500 hour minimum flight time requirement for any new airline pilots including small companies hiring co-pilots for their 19-seat airplanes.

The law is mandated to take effect by August of 2013 and was one of the recommendations to come from the Colgan Flight 3407 accident in Buffalo, even though both accident pilots had more than 1,500 hours at the time of the crash, with the captain having logged 3,329 hours and the first officer 2,200.

In the past, major airlines culled their aviators from the military and regional airlines. As hiring tapered off, military pilots went to the much lower paying jobs at the turboprop and small jet operators.

Today, fewer pilots are leaving the military, instead opting to make it a career. Furthermore, Air Force Magazine reported:

USAF is already training more UAV pilots than F-16 pilots. Within two to three years, Air Force officials predict, drone pilots will outnumber F-16 pilots, numbering as high as 1,100.

Airlines don’t recognize this as piloting experience, though. Fortunately, these pilots may be able to move on to a flying position after three years in the service, which brings them three years closer to the twenty years needed for retirement, something that may affect their decision to move on to the airlines.

As the military pool of pilots dries up, most new hire classes will be filled with high-time regional airline pilots. But with the 1,500 hour requirement for new co-pilots, (what had been a typical minimum experience at the major airlines) these smaller companies are going to be competing fiercely for new pilots.

So while it’s going to be more difficult to get to the 1,500 hour point, once you get there, the job market will likely be far less competitive.

But getting there won’t be easy. I’ll share with you how I would go about it if I were starting today.For a college-educated new pilot to finish their basic requirements which include a commercial flying license with multi-engine and instrument ratings, and perhaps a flight instructor certificate, they’re looking at a minimum of $40,000 worth of debt, not including their college expenses. After making it through the training, they’ll still only have 250 hours at this point.

Traditionally, these pilots would then become flight instructors in order to build flight time for a few hundred hours. But now they’ll need to extend that employment until they reach at least 1,500 hours. And instructor jobs will be far more scarce, especially as their students drop out after they realize what a daunting (and expensive) task is ahead of them.

If our 250-hour pilot can’t find an instructing job, they would have to spend at least another $125,000 renting a single-engine airplane ($100 an hour for 1,250 hours) until they reach the new minimum flight time requirement.

Let’s add that up, shall we?

$80,000 for a 4-year college degree in whatever subject they choose.

$40,000 to reach the old minimum ratings and flight time.

Another $125,000 to reach 1,500 hours of flight time.

That works out to $245,000!

Now, I find it hard to believe that anyone would be willing to invest that much money to land a $24,000 a year commuter airline co-pilot job, even one that offers a chance to make $80,000 after upgrading to captain after a number of years.

There’s no doubt in my mind that some shortcuts will need to be made. Airlines will likely reduce or drop altogether the requirement for candidates to have a college degree, for example. They’ll also lobby the FAA to allow them to hire pilots with less than 1,500 hours if they’ve gone through an aviation university, perhaps.

Regular readers of the Cockpit Chronicles know that I love my job. I can’t imagine doing anything else. But would I recommend this to anyone given the added expenses involved?

That’s exactly the question (edited for brevity) that Jeffrey asked this week:

Hey Kent,

I’m a student at a Community College in North Carolina and I hope to have an associates degree by July. The few questions I have to you are about aviation and where I should go from this point forward.

1. After earning my instrument rating and racking up a total of 165.4 hours what is the next step for me? I’m really unsure where to go from here and what to do. Should I cut my losses in aviation and change career goals?

My main concern would be a loan for the commercial training which would be at least a twenty thousand dollars to get my commercial single and multi and CFII rating. That would then put me owing thirty thousand dollars in loans. I do realize that in aviation the money is not great especially for someone first starting out. I’d have to endure several years of low pay as a flight instructor and then several more years as a first officer with low pay. I’m not sure that’s something I want to do. I completely understand that money isn’t everything but I’d like to be able to live on my own one day and be able to be happy doing what I am doing with my career choice.

2. Would you recommend this industry to anyone that is in my shoes right now? The price of gas is likely causing fewer people to fly. I’m just unsure of the current state of the aviation industry. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

With 164 hours, you’ve already invested a sizable amount of money to get where you are right now. There are three things that will all happen in the next two years that should give you some hope.

First, the lack of movement at almost every airline is about to change on December 12th of 2012. That’s the date when pilots will start hitting the mandatory retirement age again after the number was raised from 60 to 65 back in 2007.

Next, new flight time and duty regulations are set to be announced on August 8th of this year that will likely cause airlines to hire more pilots. In their response to the rule, American Airlines claimed they would need 2,300 more pilots to fly their existing schedule. Currently, American has about 9,500 pilots plus another thousand on furlough.

Finally, the 1,500 hour requirement will likely discourage many potential pilots from putting in the investment and years of training required.

But if you can get to that magic 1,500 hours, you’re going to be in an enviable spot in a few years.

Would I do it? Heck yes. It’s still a great job, and I can’t see myself doing anything else. Although, in fairness not all pilots agree, most notably Sully Sullenberger, that this is still a viable career.

So here’s how would I do it today, assuming I couldn’t find an instructing job, since flight instructors will be staying around until 1,500 hours, creating a logjam at that position:

First, get your ratings. You’ll need a Private, Commercial, Multi-engine, and Instrument licenses, or ‘ratings.’ Each has different flight time requirements, from 40 hours for the private license to 250 hours for the commercial rating.

In order to get from 250 hours to 1,500 hours I would buy an inexpensive airplane to build up flight time, reducing my cost per hour down to as little as $30 to $50, which might cut the $125,000 in half or more after selling the airplane 1,250 hours later. Airplanes generally don’t depreciate much, although it’s a buyers market right now in this economy.

Here’s an example airplane, a Cessna 172. If that link should break, just go to and look at the listings for Cessna 152s, 172s, a Cherokee 140, or, if you’re more the type to drive a Mini or an MG, by all means look at the Luscombe, Aeronca Champ, or Cessna 140. All are relatively good values (under $20,000 or $30,000) even if the Luscombe and Champ are more than sixty years old.

You’ll have some great experience, and wonderful memories to go along with that flight time.

The author building time in a 1946 Luscombe that helped him land his first flying job.

So Jeffrey, I think you should stick with it. As someone once said, “The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places.”

Let’s just hope your future parking place will be at a jetbridge.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.