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10 Different Types of Pilot Jobs

Cole Porter’s musical Anything Goes tells us “There’s No Cure Like Travel.” The Broadway adaptation of Catch Me If You Can croons about the “Jet Set.” Either way, there’s no denying the travel-heavy high-flying pilot life is attractive. But which form of “The Pilot Life” is right for you?

On the one hand, there’s certainly a degree of overlap between all types of pilot jobs. Obviously all require an in-depth knowledge of flight theory, hundreds of hours of practical experience logged in the air, and a keen understanding of every last piece of flight equipment onboard.

That said, the equipment those pilots have onboard may change from aircraft to aircraft and job to job. Sure, they’re all pilots, but the men and women piloting mainline airliners, crop dusters, corporate jets, and fast fighter jets all lead very different lives and pilot very different types of planes.

Pilots have to become quite specialized in the field in which they plan to serve. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to pull off some of the most popular piloting jobs.

This article is mainly aimed at people wanting a job as a fixed-wing airplane pilot. We also have an article specifically for helicopter pilot jobs, as well as the best aviation non-pilot jobs.

1. Mainline Pilots

One of the great allures of being a pilot is being able to travel the world. For almost anyone else, going from Boston to Berlin to Beijing and back again can be a hugely exhausting and expensive process. For mainline airline pilots, however, it’s literally all in a day’s work.

That said, these long-range flights can still be tiring and take their toll on the pilots who undertake them. That’s why regulations stipulate that pilots must take a break every eight hours. If you’re taking a transcontinental flight (say, Los Angeles to London) you’ll likely have at least two pilots.

While their work may be tiring, there is no doubt that it’s rewarding – and lucrative. Not only do mainline pilots get to see the world, they get to do so while taking home a six-figure salary. Mainline pilots can make between $100K and $200K, with some earning even more than that. 

2. Regional and Domestic Flight Pilots

Pilots in cockpit of DHC-6 Twin Otter
Editorial Team Pilots in cockpit of DHC-6 Twin Otter

This type of pilot job is much like the ones listed above. The main difference tends to be the range and arduousness of the flight path. As the name implies, many of these piloting jobs are more domestic in nature, or extend over a region, such as the American Southwest.

That said, some of these pilots do indeed handle some international flights which come into airports within their target regions. For example, in addition to the American Southwest, Southwest Airlines handles flights to parts of Mexico and the Caribbean.

As with their long-range mainline pilot counterparts, regional and domestic flight pilots often earn high salaries which can stretch into the six-figure range. In addition, regional, domestic, and mainline pilots often get bonuses. In 2018 Envoy air offered signing bonuses of $45K for new pilots.

3. Cargo Pilots

Boeing 747 Singapore airlines cargo
Editorial Team Boeing 747 Singapore airlines cargo

These are the UPS, FedEx, and Royal Mail workers of the air travel world – sometimes literally. After all, big domestic and international shipping companies such as these often need to ship their packages overseas to make deliveries, and they hire pilots to do it.

As with other piloting jobs, cargo pilots have to work long hours to make those deliveries on time. That said, they can also enjoy the security of working for an established delivery company, with all the benefits that entails, such as a healthcare plan.

Furthermore, the corporate structure means that cargo pilots enjoy a reasonably favorable pay scale. Pilots at the low end make around $51K, while the median pay sits around $94K and pilots at the high end can make as much as $162K. 

4. Military Pilots

military pilot using ipad in cockpit
Editorial Team Military pilot using iPad in cockpit

If you have a passion for flying planes as well as serving your country, you might consider pursuing a career as a military pilot. Of course, unlike other piloting jobs, this will require enrolling through the armed forces in your country and following their training program.

This means being fit enough to join the military. All pilots are subject to basic health requirements such as ensuring that they have good eyesight. That said, military branches such as the USAF or RAF have even more strenuous requirements.

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Military pilots are obviously the only ones on this list who are trained in combat. They also often get to fly the latest military aircraft. Vitally, flying in the military can also help military pilots accumulate flight hours, which can then count towards their civilian pilot license and future pilot jobs.

5. Agricultural Pilots

Crop Dusters Flying side by side
Editorial Team Crop Dusters Flying side by side

These are some of the most underrated piloting jobs. While they may not get the same amount of press as military jobs and they don’t have the perk of travel like mainline pilot jobs, they are nevertheless vital jobs. 

After all, our crops have to be watered and dusted somehow, and crop dusters make this process proceed far faster and more efficiently than would be the case otherwise. They are thus an invaluable part of our modern agricultural industry, especially in states like Kansas and Iowa.

An agricultural pilot can make between $40K to $50K, with the potential to make more as they become more experienced. There is also the potential to increase their pay by forging connections and contracts with farmers.

6. Government Service Pilots

Pennsylvania State Police Helicopter
Editorial Team Pennsylvania State Police Helicopter

As with military pilots, these are pilots who devote themselves to the service of their government. Pilots who work for the government can fly with many different agencies, including the FAA, FBI, DEA, Homeland Security, the National Guard, Coast Guard, State Police, and more.

The nature of the work these pilots do will obviously vary as well. If you are working for the Coast Guard, for example, you may be called upon to fly over and survey large swaths of the coast for damage or danger.

As with the nature of the work itself, government service pilots can expect to see some variation in their salaries, albeit not as much as the private sector. That said, as general estimates go, these pilots often make in the high five-figure to low six-figure range.

7. Personal Pilots

Pilot and copilot in cockpit of corporate jet
Editorial Team Pilot and copilot in cockpit of corporate jet

Maybe you aren’t living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but those that do may well be willing to let you share in it as their personal pilot. There is no shortage of private planes out there, and personal pilots are most often the ones at the helm.

That’s due in large part to the fact that the top private planes, made by companies such as Cessna and Gulfstream, are complex jets. In addition, businesspeople, actors and actresses, athletes, models and others rich enough to afford these jets are often too busy to pilot them themselves.

Then again, they may also simply wish to kick back, relax, and enjoy being chauffeured through the sky. Many celebrities with private jets purchase or convert them into luxurious affairs. As you might expect, pay and perks vary depending on the client.

8. Fire Fighter Pilots

Few piloting jobs are more important than these. After all, for all our differences, few things are more indiscriminate in the way they target and destroy lives than out of control wildfires. As we have seen in California, Brazil, and Australia, these fires can quickly destroy huge swaths of land.

One of the most important factors in helping keep these fires in check is the effectiveness of firefighting pilots. These pilots fly over large wildfires and dump massive quantities of water and flame retardant on them, thereby helping fight the spread of the flames.

This is a great example of a job which is made worthwhile by more than its salary, which would tend to be on a government pay scale. These are jobs where you can really make a difference by helping save people’s homes, lives, and livelihoods.

9. Flight Instructor Pilots

Flight instructor in Piper Warrior III
U.S. Air Force Flight instructor in Piper Warrior III

Are you an experienced pilot? Do you love piloting for the sake of it? Are you fond of teaching? If so, you might want to consider a career as a flight instructor. These jobs play a hugely important role in shaping the next generation of budding pilots. 

As with many of the piloting careers on this list, you’ll want to decide whether you want to be an independent flight instructor or work for the government in a military or other capacity. The latter type of jobs are generally filled by those with past military experience.

This is another example of a piloting job where the pay can vary pretty widely. If you are just starting out or work for a small flight school, you may only make around $30K. The high end is around $111K, with the median pay rate hovering around $65K.

10. Test Pilots

Editorial Team Pilot testing iPad on Kneeboard

This job is perfect for those who wish to combine their love of flight with a passion for the latest tech and techniques in the world of aviation. Test pilots are tasked with taking the latest experimental and recently improved aircraft for a spin.

Of course, there’s much more to it than that. You will also need to talk with the engineers and flight teams to give feedback as to what it’s like to fly these planes, and input on how the experience could be improved. As such, engineering as well as flight skills are often requested.

This is another example of a job that can carry over into the private as well as the public sector. In the case of the latter, you’ll likely be working for the military, while the private sector likely means working for an aeronautics company. Top test pilots can make up to $110K.

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