What’s the best path for newly qualified pilots?

This is an article I wrote for Aerotime, you can find the original article here.

Starting a career is difficult, no matter if you are a doctor, a lawyer, or a pilot. It all comes down to making choices – first employer, first country of work (staying at home or going overseas?), and so on. Today we have Kirsty Ferguson, an interview coach with 18 years of experience, who shares her advice for newly qualified pilots.

I’m a newly qualified pilot, what direction should my career take?

Instructor, General Aviation or Regional and Mainline Airlines are the usual choices for newly qualified pilots.

There is no right or wrong choice as to the direction your career should take.

There are, however, positives and negatives to each path.

A great deal depends on what you, as the pilot, are motivated by on a day-to-day basis and the experiences you wish to cultivate.  I would encourage you to have a good think about that and write down your goals and core motivations as this will help you when making your decision about where to start your career.

My business, pinstripe solutions, has been supporting pilots for over 17 years worldwide, to reach their career goals and secure the roles they want.  I call on all of this experience to provide you with a few more facts that may help you with this momentous decision…

My new book www.thealbinochameleon.com will also help you to define those motivations and goals I spoke about earlier.  It’s inspiring and informative.

Keep in mind, most, but not all pilots strive for one key goal; to achieve their Jet Command on either a Narrow Body or Wide Body aircraft.

Let’s look at each career path in a little more detail, keeping in mind that differences exist between regions and countries.


Many flying schools offer their graduates, Instructors roles, after they qualify.  I suppose it is a bird in the hand situation, why wait for an offer from an airline if you get straight into an instructors role and start building hours without the grueling airline recruitment process.

Often getting that first job offer is difficult with, depending upon the region, hundreds of newly qualified pilots vying for GA or airline positions.  There is career progression in Instructing, usually through 3 stages culminating in gaining the highest level of Instructor Rating.  Opportunities to contribute to the ground school and theory syllabus add to the role.

Often ad hoc charters are part of the flying schools services, providing an additional level of experience and customer interaction.

What are the negatives?

You may be limited to one region or airspace with most of your flying, therefore ultimately lacking some diversity in your experience.  Your student will be conducting most of the hands-on flying so this may restrict the speed at which your hours can be logged.  The aircraft at your disposal will be singles or twins thus no long-term progression to the large aircraft types.

Over my 18 years in the industry, I have noticed that it is a harder sell, coming from an instructor background when applying for the major airlines, even when they meet the minimum requirements.

General Aviation:

Again GA is highly contested, with hundreds of graduating pilots looking for a start, highly contested but certainly not impossible.

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What do I mean by GA? Well, they are smaller operators who run general charter or scenic flights, aerial survey, aeromedical and executive charter or search and rescue to name a few types of roles.  The aircraft will be single and twin-engine right up to the smaller turboprops and sometimes the smaller corporate jets.  Mostly single-pilot operations, some multi-crew, but pilots still need to build time to meet the minimum requirements for the larger multi-crew aircraft.

GA provides you with a wider diversity of flying and usually a greater degree of hands-on flying.  You are face to face with customers and will need to manage the daily challenges of on-time performance, non-controlled airspace, operational support and in-flight failures.

Most smaller operators offer a few different aircraft types, but it will be necessary to move employers to continue to progress to larger types.  From my experience, GA pilots have between 3-6 different employers in their journey to build hours and to reach the minimum airline requirements.

Kirsty Ferguson

Regional and Mainline Airlines:

Most pilots want to end up on jet, and settle into a secure airline that provides career progression and stability.   You can achieve this with either a Regional Airline, who traditionally offer the larger turboprop aircraft or medium-sized regional jets or a Mainline Airline who will offer domestic and international destinations and Narrow and Wide Body Jet roles.

These airlines can offer two differing cadet or trainee programs.  One, the Ab Initio cadet program requiring zero flying time or experience, and the Advanced Cadet Program that requires a CPL but limited flying hours, let’s say under 800.

Some airlines fund the training; others have repayment schemes for your endorsement costs.  Most provide a secure Second Officer or First Officer position upon passing the training.

Applying to the airlines is something you must be prepared for.  They have rigorous recruitment/assessment processes that can include; Video Interviews, Psychometric Testing, Group Exercises, Planning Exercises, Panel Interviews and SIM tests.  If you decide this path is right for you, ensure you have done adequate preparation to ensure you perform at your best.

So let’s assume you are into an airline, your career plan should include 3-6 years as an SO, 6-15 as an FO before reaching command as an average.  Often airlines have more than one fleet type, so a little diversity exists to move between fleets, taking in to account your seniority ranking, the expansion of each fleet and route structure as to the frequency of those opportunities.

What’s the downside?  Not much really, the recruitment process is tough, and starting as a Second Officer on a Wide Body Jet is a hands-off role, so no flying for you for a few years, not everyone would be happy with that.  Starting as a First Officer straight out of training puts you on a Turbo Prop or Narrow Body Jet and will mean you will fly the aircraft right from the start.

The key requirements a pilot should consider when selecting an airline to apply to are:

  • Stability and growth of the airline
  • A young fleet and new technology
  • Regular progression and supportive team culture
  • The highest standards around training
  • An exemplary safety record

Any pilot role other than with a major airline is usually a stepping-stone to a jet career unless you aspire to stay within a regional or instructing environment.

The experiences you will acquire outside the major airlines, however, are some of the most interesting flying one can undertake.

So, what will you decide?

In reality, you could sample it all.

Exciting times, big decisions to make.

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