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Want to build time fast?  Do you get a sense of accomplishment when you complete a project?  Are you ready to travel and not content in your local practice area?  You may want to pursue aerial survey flying as your first commercial flying job.  In the First Flying Jobs series, we have already discussed earning a paycheck as a CFI and being a “right-seater” at a Part 142 Training Center.  If you’re curious on how to get to this point, be sure to check out From Intro Flight to Your First Paycheck, so you know how to become a commercial pilot.

What is aerial survey flying?  Fortunately for you, the brand new commercial pilot, people and companies need pictures taken of the Earth.  While new technology such as satellite imagery and drone photography have emerged as viable methods of accomplishing these tasks, there is no substitute for an aircraft with a camera mounted on it.  Many classes and categories of aircraft are utilized including balloons and helicopters, but, for the purposes of this discussion, we will concentrate on fixed-wing, single and multi-engine land aircraft.  After all, you’re trying to get a jet job, right?

There is enormous demand for this type of flying.  Countless big industries use aerophotogrammetry for accomplishing their projects: oil and gas exploration, mining, transportation, geophysics, and even archeology, to name a few.  Also, it’s important to note that many companies require more than photos; aerial survey jobs may measure magnetism, gravity, infrared, gamma, or ultraviolet radiation.  With so many iterations of projects, we will focus on the type of flying.


What are the benefits of aerial survey flying over other first flying jobs?

The Variety of Aircraft

There are lots of aircraft flying survey.  As one friend so succinctly explained, “if they can cut a hole in it and mount a camera, it can be a survey plane.”  This means everything from a Cessna 172 to a Learjet can fly survey.  There are piston singles, multi-engine piston aircraft, turbo-prop, turbojet, and turbofan aircraft.  You will likely start out in in a Cessna 172, but don’t be discouraged.  Sure, everyone would like to advance in aircraft when they advance in their career.  That is a natural feeling and desire.  Starting in a Cessna 172, however, is one of the reasons that make this career option feasible for the newly certificated commercial pilot.  If your company operates a variety of aircraft, you may be able to move up faster than you expect.  In survey flying, transitioning to more advanced aircraft may be more possible than other flying jobs and only limited by the diversity of your fleet.

Lots of Flight Time

For aerial survey photography, at least, sun angle drives the amount of usable daylight that you can work on a project.  More sunlight in the summer means more flight time.  But take heart!  You can still fly plenty during the winter.  Estimates from survey pilots range from 80 – 100+ hours per month depending on a variety of factors including time of year, weather, mechanicals, and basic job availability.  The flying may be somewhat monotonous when you are working the project.  Typically, the weather must be VFR, and you fly a GPS tracked line for a fixed distance specified by the customer.  It may be half-a-mile or 100 miles.  It is not unlike tracking a GPS navigation course or an ILS localizer.  However, getting to the project may be a different story.  Pilots may need to reposition aircraft across country for their next project.  This can be an opportunity to build some quality IFR experience and enjoy some real traveling.  Also, unless the job is very close to the airport, you will likely need to get to the job site to start your day or after refueling.  I just heard that hobbs meter click!

Working With a “Crew”

Ok, so he’s no Goose, but it’s nice to have someone else along for the ride.  Often, survey operations require a camera or equipment operator to accompany you and manage the technology.  Though he or she may not be a required crewmember per the regulations, or even have an aviation background, they are undoubtedly your teammate.  Considering you hope to fly a two (or more!) crew aircraft, this is a good chance to practice.  Pay attention to your interactions; there will certainly be lessons-learned and examples of teamwork that you can leverage in future situations or even interviews.  Employers of choice value your ability to work well with others, lead when necessary, and just generally be a good teammate. This may be more important than perhaps any other quality.  Start developing it early.

How about the pay and schedule?

Being away for extended periods is the potential “con” associated with the “pro” of traveling.  Contracts can be virtually any length: weeks, months, or even a year.  Common schedule structure can be 8 days on and 6 days off.  Another version of this setup is 4 weeks on and 2 weeks off.  There are many ways to structure this with weekends-off, personal days, and vacation. Ultimately, this will be determined by you and your employer.  For someone with a family obligations, this can often be a stressor.  Strongly consider this aspect before accepting any job offer.

Similarly, the pay can be structured a variety of ways.  I won’t offer specific numbers as pay can vary widely from employer to employer, particularly in a rapidly shifting job market.  I would like to offer some thoughts on different pay structures, however.  As opposed to a CFI, you are not home every night.  Even if you are not flying, you are on duty.  If you are sitting on the ground due to inclement weather, you will retreat to the Courtyard in Sheyboygan, not your home. You likely do not have the same ability to pick up extra flying on the side. Nor can you pick up a couple of shifts at the hardware store to make ends meet if necessary.  These factors can be problematic if you are paid for straight flight hours.  Even being paid well on straight flight time can create a “feast or famine” situation.  In my opinion, more stability is gained with a flat rate plus bonus plan.  Under this plan, you are paid a flat rate whether you fly or not (so you can live), and you can earn a variety of bonuses which incentivize you to fly more.  Some examples of bonuses can be for flight time in excess of a preset number of hours or completing the project.

Where do I sign up?

Here are some of the aerial survey operators.  Refer to their own websites for additional information about their companies, fleets, projects, and opportunities.  In no particular order, the links below go directly to the career/employment/jobs page for the associated company.


Skylens Aerial Imaging

Landcare Aviation Inc.

JAV Imagery LLC

Sandhills Aviation

Williams Aerial & Mapping

Keystone Aerial Surveys


Surdex Corporation

Aerial survey flying is a great initial commercial pilot job.  Little time is required to start, it’s excellent for time-building, and offers some solid (if occasional) true cross-country experience.  You will have the chance to problem solve on how to operate in or near busy airspace.  You will make real go/no-go decisions based on weather that may differ at your departure airport and project site.  It’s a real flying job!  You may stay here long-term, or perhaps you will get your time and move on.  Either way, your first flying job will set the tone for your career.  Professionalism, technical proficiency, and an attitude of service will go a long way if you want to advance in aerial survey or find that next job.  Indeed, the people you meet during this phase of your aviation journey will pay attention to these qualities.  Like I said before, start developing these qualities early.  If you take aerial survey seriously, they will take you seriously.  Just have fun while you’re doing it!

What are you waiting for? Put in that application!

Are you going to pursue this route?  Are you, or have you been, an aerial survey pilot?  Please leave your experience or plans in the comments below.

As always, GoEightOh!