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So You Want to be a Contract Pilot


Considering the chaos of 2020 that created havoc in the aviation industry, a lot of pilots found themselves without a job and wondering what to do next. Being in the contracting game for over 7 years, I found the market slowly flooding with quite a few aviators wanting to try their hand at contracting. First and foremost, it is hard to break into this particular avenue in aviation successfully, and it takes a certain type of self-managed person to do it properly.


Let's start with an easy list of contract pilot pros and cons:


PROS:

Scheduling is a very smiled upon aspect for contract pilots, The simple two-letter word becomes part of your working vocabulary again; the word “No” simply stands for Next Opportunity. If you have a family event, a previous commitment to another client, or simply just need to give yourself some downtime, you can mark your calendar to be unavailable, if necessary. The flip-side of this, is that contract flying jobs are very much feast or famine. You have to be smart with how you manage your money, because you don't have guaranteed work month-to-month. On a good note, if you are really good at what you do, the phone will never stop ringing. Contract pilots, more often than not, will find themselves with too much work at times than not enough.


CONS:

Contracting is not for everyone. You have to have a business mindset and a self-motivated attitude to get started. Keep in mind that you have to put aside money monthly to pay for things like recurrent training, and invoicing apps like QuickBooks, because you will be doing your own paperwork from here on out, you also have to provide your own benefits such as paying into a Roth IRA for retirement or figuring out health insurance. These subject will be covered later on.



TOTAL OUTLOOK:

One of the greatest pleasures in contracting, is that you rarely go to the same place twice. Because you’re able to work for multiple owners and operators, the destinations are constantly changing. The caveat to flying for multiple operators is that it truly falls on you to get back to the basics.


When you first show up to a new serial number that you haven't flown, or meet a new Aircraft Manager, it’s important to give yourself a good amount of time to check the proper documentation of the plane; request ahead of time copies of the aircraft insurance to make sure you are, in fact, covered under their Open Pilot Warranty. It is also imperative to pay close attention to details such as making sure the plane is clean and stocked as well as checking the Avionics for database updates and so on. That all falls on you as a contractor. At the end of the day, they can hire a new pilot, but you can't get a new certificate or life, if something were to happen.



ENTREPRENEUR SKILLSET:

If the airlines aren’t for you, and you enjoy being your own boss, ask the right questions, are an organized pilot, and present yourself well, your phone will ring off the hook with opportunity. Remember, each operation you contract with, will look very different. There are no standard operating procedures so being a chameleon, with strong CRM skills is detrimental to a safe and efficient flight. You will deal with various personalities, by flying with different crewmemebers, greeting all sorts of customers and working with various aircraft managers; some greatly organized, some by the seat of their pants. The strong point in mixing it up like this is, you are able to take the good parts of each operation and tailor yourself to your own optimal operation. You also will get a taste of what not to do, and how not to act as well.


BRANDING:

If you're planning on taking on your own Aviation business full-time, it's important to set yourself up with your own unique branding that reflects your professionalism and personality. Designing something as simple as a logo, making simplified business cards, living by your own design slogan, and creating a business oriented email will help you continue to develop your professional demeanor.




SAMPLE DAY RATES


IMPORTANT NOTICE:

The daily rates listed below are sample ranges.

These rates are for simulator trained and current contract pilots.

This is "information only" tool.

This is NOT an attempt at "price fixing”.

Pricing may range in comparison to locating of work being sought.

Samples below are listed from personal experience through AubreyAire LLC.

It is the responsibility of the contract pilot to negotiate his/her daily rate with the customer in advance of work performed.




PRE-CURSERS:


LOCATION RESEARCH:

It's important to research your local area and see what Aircraft's are commonly flown and what requirements you meet in order to fly those planes. It's also important to research what the day rates are and your location for contract pilots. I have found that these tend to vary across the nation. For example pilots are paid almost double in the California area due to location living costs. But if you are flying in a smaller town, they may not pay as much as a bigger city. The biggest piece of advice I can give you here is, do not undercut yourself and know your value.


CURRENCY & TRAINING:

While most old-school pilots frown upon paying for your own initial or recurrent

training, providing this for yourself has many assets to your contracting game. Paying for your own training allows you to have control over your schedule, is a hefty tax write off, and keeps anyone, such as aircraft owners or aircraft managers from "owning you". Thus the flexibility of your own personal time becomes in fact just that, yours! The importance of the training facility you choose should coincide with common insurance acceptance and practices.

Two commonly approved facilities are:





CONTRACT & CLARIFICATION:

Jumping right into a trip without any predisposed clarifications, can leave you in a frustrated situation. Creating your own Flight Crew Services Agreement, can help clarify roles, responsibilities and understandings of hiccups you may face along the way. Highlighting topics such as what is financially covered, what uniform is proper for their company, and more detailed situation such as 24 hour cancellation fee, weather cancellation fees, per diem allowance and coverage of expenses on the road and so on.


INSURANCE COVERAGE:

When you accept a new contract trip, you will most likely be required to fill out an insurance form to determine if you meet the Open Pilot Warranty. An open pilot warranty is a clause in many aircraft insurance policies, which allows pilots with certain minimum qualifications to fly the aircraft on an occasional basis without being specifically endorsed on the policy as a Named Pilot.

If this is an aircraft you will be contracting on regularly, you can ask to be "named" on insurance which may allow lesser experience comparative to what the OPW requires.

NOTE: Being approved under this policy only protect the aircraft owner and the aircraft itself in the event of any loss occurred.

Its imperative to understand that pilots are exposed in a few different ways:

  • Bodily injury

  • Property damange

  • Aircraft damage

Check the insurance document for details about "named insured" and who is protected as named insured. Unfortunately I have not been able to find a separate insurance offered for personal pilot protection. Daryll Hyde, Aviation Insurance Expert, wrote a really good article explaining this conundrum in detail and options available. You can read it here.


GET NOTICED:

While social media can sometimes have a bad rap, it is important to find Facebook groups, or job boards that you can post your information and location on, as well as research what kind of job needs are in or around your area.


GET ORGANIZED:

Personal

Technology is a beautiful tool to used for contracting. Theres a method to the madness to stay on track and organized.

  • Keep digital copies of your training records, pilot certificate, government ID and medical certificate.

  • Fill out and keep a PDF copy of a generic insurance form.

  • Fill out and keep a PDF copy of a current 1099 tax form.

  • Save digital copies of your training manuals and books from school to reference on the road

Aircraft

  • PDF photos of Airworthiness, Registration, Insurance, and latest maintenance for each tail number you will be flying.

  • Create an “Airplane Cheat Sheet” that you can note details for that specific plane such as owner information, aircraft manager information, fuel amount, fuel burn, fuel cards/discount programs, tire pressures, type of avionics, if the plane provides headsets, and any unique quirks to that specific serial number. I create this, so I am not constantly bugging the manager asking the same questions over and over.

  • Find a good flight plan filing system that you can set up multiple aircraft with. I use fltplan.com . This program gives me a decent idea on fuel burn and also allows you to set up a customized weight and balance.

  • Set up a calendar for yourself and color code it with location specifics. A good format to use would be the airport identifiers of each destination for that day, then in the notes section add what FBO, name of lead passenger, copilot contact and show time.

  • Typically, an aircraft manager will have a trip log sheet for expenses, aircraft time and fuel burn etc. You can create your own in case they don't provide you with one.

  • During the trip, snap photos of each receipt put on a company provided card, then add the completed trip sheet to the top at the end of the day for an easy, paper free transaction.

  • If you are providing your own personal card, set yourself up in the same manner: snap a photo of each receipt, then when it comes to invoice out for your trip, create an itemized invoice. Quickbooks is a good tool which also helps you categorize info for taxes and write-offs with ease at the end of the year.




COST OF RUNNING YOUR OWN CONTRACT PILOT BUSINESS:

While all of the steps below aren’t fully necessary to contract here and there, if you are planning on long-term contracting, getting into aircraft management or acquisitions, these steps will keep your books, finances and scheduling clean, plus they are all tax write-offs.


OTHER COVERAGE & FINANCE MANAGEMENT (1099 EMPLOYMENT)

Health insurance: This portion can be tricky if you don't have a spouse that you can be named insured with. It would be beneficial to see what independant health care plans are avialble in your area.


Retirement: The easiest way to set up a retirement plan as a freelancer is to contribute to a Roth IRA to get started. doing this has other tax-benefits as well.


Budgeting and taxes: Since being self-employed in this manner, you become a 1099 employee. A 1099 worker is one that is not considered an “employee.” Rather, this type of worker is usually referred to as a freelancer, independent contractor or other self-employed worker that completes particular jobs or assignments. Since they're not deemed employees, the person paying you does not take out any taxes. This is where managing your money is crucial. When I get paid, I put back a percentage of my earnings into a savings account:

  • 25% - Taxes

  • 10% - Training

  • 5-10% - Retirement


FINAL NOTES:

There is so much more information out there than everything stated above. This information is just to get you started, from the authors persona experience. In summary, contract flying can make you a very wealthy, self-managed aviator. It does take a little financial finesse to set yourself up safely and properly however, if you stay consistent at paperwork organization, and work your way into your aircraft specific niche market, 6 figures is pleasantly on your horizon. Good luck!


MORE RESOURCES:


My friends Max and Dylan with 21.five Podcast has a really good episode interviewing a long time contractor with simply a huge wealth of knowledge. check it out if you are still collecting all of your data for your new endeavor into the world of contracting.

CHECK OUT EPISODE 56





COMING SOON:

If you would like access to any documents discussed in this article, check out the Collecting Copilots digital downloads. A package is offered that will include:

  • Start up Checklist

  • Flight Crew Services Agreement

  • Airplane Cheat Sheet

  • Flight log & Expenses report

  • Budget Template



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