Gulfstream’s New G500 & G600

G600 aerial view

Well, my educated guesses weren’t too far off the mark.

So what shiny new baubles did the aerodynamic elves at Gulfstream unwrap for all us airplane geeks today? In short, two smaller versions of the G650. They’re being called the “G500″ and “G600″, and they’ve got the wider cabin, higher speed, and fuel efficiency of their big brother, but at a lower price point for those who don’t need 7,500 nautical miles of range. In some ways — the cockpit avionics, for example — they even surpass the 650. Of course, if there’s a place you’d expect a new model to outshine one designed a half-decade earlier, it would be the panel.

My first impression is that Gulfstream is being very smart. For one thing, production of the legacy models will continue. If the market wants them, why not give buyers the option? (In fact, quite a few of the orders announced today were for those “old” airplanes.) Leaving them in production is also the conservative choice, something a commenter on yesterday’s post suggested GAC’s board of directors might have been quite interested in.

Everyone is referring to this as a “clean sheet design”, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. The G650 was a true clean sheet, but these airplanes appear to take significant technology and design elements from that predecessor, including the airfoil design and 36-degree sweep. AIN reported that the new aircraft are expected to have a “high degree of systems commonality with the G650″. As a pilot, I’m hoping that includes the type rating.

This must take quite a bit of wind out of the sails at Bombardier and Dassault. GAC is using the same strategy Douglas employed against Boeing at the start of the jet age: let the competitor introduce their product first, then improve upon their specifications. They’re even using Bombardier’s model nomenclature, where the aircraft’s designation provides an approximation of its range. From the Falcon they’ve taken the side stick and improved upon it.

Gulfstream calls their iteration an Active Control Sidestick, or ACS. I was glad to hear it will provide physical feedback from control inputs made from the other side of the cockpit. Seems to combine the best of what you get with a traditional control column while still providing the legroom and other benefits of a side stick. I’d be curious to know if they had tactile feedback in mind prior to the Air France 447 crash. Airbus has used side sticks for a long time, but a common complaint from detractors is the lack of feedback to the other pilot on what his cohort is doing with the flight controls.

This rendering is the new G500, but the design lineage clearly comes from the 650.

This rendering is the new G500, but the design lineage clearly comes from the 650.

Gulfstream may also to be ahead of the Falcon 5X and other competitors in terms of timeline. What appeared to be a completed G500 taxied up to the ceremony under its own power. Normally, a new aircraft is announced long before a flyable copy is built, and even longer before a painted, finished-looking example shows up with engines running. That’s one of Gulfstream’s strengths: they have a good reputation for not only supporting their products better than anyone else, but also not making promises or commitments without delivering on them. If anything, they under-promise and over-deliver — something as rare in the aerospace world as it is in the software industry.

In a move that bucks recent trends in aircraft manufacturing, GAC is taking production of many major assemblies in-house rather than sub-contracting to companies like Spirit AeroSystems. Companies like Boeing have been doing the exact opposite, creating intricate and extensive subcontractor networks. Of course, the travails they’ve had with the 787 argues against following suit. Moving in-house should also reduce production time, logistical hassles, and allow more direct control over quality. For example, you can see a certain waviness to the fuselage skin of early G-IVs. While it never presented any performance penalty or safety issues, that sort of fit & finish issue wouldn’t be acceptable in today’s more competitive market.

One of most significant changes concerns the powerplant. For half a century, everything they designed in Savannah featured a Rolls-Royce engine, but the G500/G600 will be propelled by the new Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW800 series geared turbofan. Primary features are low operating cost and the elimination of mid-life inspections. While fuel efficiency isn’t much better than the BR725 engines on the G650, lower noise signature and emissions are also important for global acceptance these days. Noise in particular will continue to be a limiting factor at many of the places Gulfstream owners want to take their airplanes.

It’s curious that they decided to re-use the G500 designation. Until today, G500 was the name given to a G550 variant. Of course, it did about as well as the G300/400, which is to say most buyers stepped up to the newer and more full-featured version of the aircraft.

From what I’ve seen so far, these two aircraft look like winners. They’ll undoubtedly steal everyone’s thunder at the upcoming NBAA convention. If you want to read more on the G500/G600, I recommend AIN’s coverage, this AviationWeek article, and of course Gulfstream’s dedicated site.

P42: The Mystery Ship

Gulfstream G450

Various sources are suggesting that Gulfstream Aerospace will reveal the much anticipated P42 aircraft project in the coming weeks.

If “P42″ doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. Most people who fly Gulfstreams for a living probably haven’t heard of it either. But among those who follow the nitty-gritty details of the industry, most believe it’s going to be the successor to the G450 line, an design which (sans avionics upgrades and a few minor changes) has been in production since 1985. Thirty years is a long time for any model to remain viable in the competitive world of new aircraft sales, and it speaks volumes about the quality and capability of the product that it’s been king of the hill for so many decades.

It’s All in the Timing

Assuming P42 is indeed a G450 replacement, one wonders “Why now?”. I think the answer is that Gulfstream faced no serious competition until recently. While there have been higher flying, faster, and larger models for a long time, it’s only now that those elements are becoming available in a single design at a competitive price point and operating cost.

Falcon and Bombardier present the primary challengers, having recently announced the development of airplanes with the cabin size, speed, and range to threaten sales of a model Gulfstream has been building for decades. While GAC could have chucked the 450 design a long time ago, the smart move is to leave an airplane in production as long as it continues to sell. The proof is in the numbers: there are about 850 Gulfstream IV/450-series aircraft in service, and the order book is still quite full.

Of course, you remain successful by staying ahead of the Joneses, and that’s what P42 is all about. AIN hinted at this in their EBACE convention coverage earlier in the year:

General Dynamics chairman and CEO Phebe Novakovic said last month that 60 percent of Gulfstream’s order intake during the first quarter was for the G450 and G550. And in the fourth quarter of 2013, China’s Minsheng Financial Leasing placed a 60-aircraft order with Gulfstream estimated at about $3 billion, the bulk of which is for G450s and G550s.

But there is trouble looming on the horizon for the legacy large-cabin Gulfstreams. The $45 million Dassault Falcon 5X, announced in October at the NBAA Convention, took direct aim at the G450. The 5X, which is expected to enter service in 2017, offers a range of 5,200 nm, 700 nm more than the G450, and a 98.4-inch cabin cross section that largely matches that of the G650, Gulfstream’s widest jet. Striking another blow, Dassault launched a Falcon 7X derivative (8X) here at EBACE that similarly challenges the G550.

“But don’t think for a minute that Gulfstream is idly sitting by,” business aviation analyst Brian Foley told AIN. “Gulfstream has plans to respond to Dassault, but it’s a balancing act as to when you make an announcement. Too soon, and you hurt sales of your existing products; too late, and it appears you’re hastily reacting to the market.”

Whatever P42 turns out to be, it’s going to represent a major shift for Gulfstream. Most of the existing fleet is related to a half-century-old derivative of a turboprop. The changes and updates to that line, while significant, have also been incremental. A bigger wing here, new avionics there, engine upgrades or a longer fuselage from time to time. The big question is this: will P42 be a clean-sheet design, or a derivative of the G650?

I’m guessing it’s the latter. Once the G650’s technology has found success in the marketplace, why not leverage that investment by offering models to suite different mission requirements and price points? It not only amortizes the billion dollar development cost, but also ensures a greater likelihood of success. Gulfstream has done this before, and not just with the G-IV/SP/300/350/400/450/etc line. Their G280 has been successful in large part because they mated a scaled-down G550 airfoil to a stretched G200 airframe.

Agent 86 Would Be Proud

Whatever P42 is, one of the program’s most impressive aspects thus far is the cone of silence that surrounds it. With more than 13,000 employees situated at facilities around the world, Gulfstream Aerospace is not exactly a small enterprise. In addition, they work closely with Honeywell, Rolls-Royce, Parker Aerospace, and countless other suppliers and subcontractors. Collectively, tens of thousands of individuals probably have exposure to and knowledge of P42, yet even in our ultra-connected world, a place where everyone totes around a 24/7 internet connection and high-resolution camera in the palm of their hand, the vault door has remained firmly closed. That’s impressive.

Compare this to the sieve-like atmosphere at Apple, where the whole world seems to know about products while they’re still on the drawing board. Is it just the fact that jets are “big money”? I don’t think so. The unit cost might be high, but the volume is incredibly low when compared to the millions of products a firm like Apple will sell in a single week.

Your Father’s Oldsmobile

Speaking of older technology, I was re-living the 1969 landing of Apollo 11 via firstmenonthemoon.com, and as always where Apollo is concerned, I was fascinated by the computing power — or more accurately, the lack thereof — in that project. The outdated iPhone any schmoe can grab for nearly free these days has infinitely more muscle than the IBM/360 mainframe which guided humans to a smooth lunar landing.

(By the way, if you’d like to get an in-depth look at what all those blinking lights on the mission control consoles really did, I highly recommend this Ars Technica article.)

Apollo mission control console. The displays were just that: displays. All they did was broadcast a picture of textual data which could not be processed or changed. Note the lack of a keyboard to interact with the computer!

Apollo mission control console. The displays were just that: displays. All they did was broadcast a picture of textual data which could not be processed or changed. Note the lack of a keyboard to interact with the computer!

But what really got me was the realization that from a chronological and computational power standpoint, the Gulfstreams that I fly are more closely related to that Apollo-era hardware than they are to today’s computers. The first moon landing was in 1969, just sixteen years before the G-IV went into production. Yet that airplane has been flying for nearly thirty years.

While the airframe itself belies the aircraft’s age, the avionics don’t. When asking to extend a centerline or compute a VNAV flight path, there’s enough time to grab a sip of coffee before the system displays a solution. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you. The Honeywell SPZ-8400 is capable of doing everything a more “modern” avionics suite does, from VNAV approaches and WAAS to TAWS, GPWS, TCAS, and all the other bells & whistles. But it’s like using any other computer more than a few years old: the lack of power can be clearly felt.

The presence of older technology in avionics is not limited to business jets. I recall that the space shuttle had some pretty ancient stuff in it as well. When the orbiters received their glass cockpit avionics upgrades in the early 2000s, the five General Purpose Computers which form the heart of the shuttle’s computer system were mild upgrades of the existing AP-101 units. Even the “new” boxes weighed in at sixty-four pounds a piece and drew 600 watts each.

It’s worth noting that the AP-101S shares the same system architecture as the IBM/360 mainframe from the lunar program. If the shuttle was flying today, it would undoubtedly be using those exact computers, partly because of the difficulty and expense involved in certifying space-worthy hardware. But also because if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Perhaps that will be the legacy of not only the long-lived Gulfstream II/II/IV/V/x50 airplanes, but the upcoming P42 mystery bird as well.

We Don’t Train For That

Gulfstream G550 simulator

The tragic Gulfstream IV accident in Boston has been on my mind lately, partly because I fly that aircraft, but also because the facts of the case are disquieting.

While I’m not interested in speculating about the cause, I don’t mind discussing factual information that the NTSB has already released to the public. And one of the initial details they provided was that the airplane reached takeoff speed but the pilot flying was not able to raise the nose (or “rotate”, in jet parlance).

My first thought after hearing this? “We don’t train for that.” Every scenario covered during initial and recurrent training — whether in the simulator or the classroom — is based on one of two sequences: a malfunction prior to V1, in which case we stop, or a malfunction after V1, in which case we continue the takeoff and deal with the problem in the air. As far as I know, every multi-engine jet is operated the same way.

But nowhere is there any discussion or training on what to do if you reach the takeoff decision speed (V1), elect to continue, reach Vr, and are then unable to make the airplane fly. You’re forced into doing something that years of training has taught you to never do: blow past V1, Vr, V2, and then attempt an abort.

In this case, the airplane reached 165 knots — about 45 knots beyond the takeoff/abort decision speed. To call that uncharted territory would be generous. Meanwhile, thirty tons of metal and fuel is hurtling down the runway at nearly a football field per second.

We just don’t train for it. But maybe we should. Perhaps instead of focusing on simple engine failures we ought to look at the things that are causing accidents and add them to a database of training scenarios which can be enacted in the simulator without prior notice. Of course, this would have to be a no-jeopardy situation for the pilots. This wouldn’t be a test, it would be a learning experience based on real-world situations encountered by pilots flying actual airplanes. In some cases there’s no good solution, but even then I believe there are valuable things to be learned.

In the case of the Gulfstream IV, there have been four fatal accidents since the aircraft went into service more than a quarter of a century ago. As many news publications have noted, that’s not a bad record. But all four have something in common: each occurred on the ground.

  • October 30, 1996: a Gulfstream IV crashed during takeoff after the pilots lose control during a gusting crosswind.
  • February 12, 2012: a Gulfstream IV overran the 2,000 meter long runway at Bukavu-Kamenbe
  • July 13, 2012: a G-IV on a repositioning flight in southern France departs the runway during landing and broke apart after hitting a stand of trees.
  • May 31, 2014: the Gulfstream accident in Boston

In the few years that I’ve been flying this outstanding aircraft, I’ve seen a variety of odd things happen, from preflight brake system anomalies to flaps that wouldn’t deploy when the airplane was cold-soaked to a “main entry door” annunciation at 45,000 feet (believe me, that gets your attention!).

This isn’t to say the G-IV is an unsafe airplane. Far from it. But like most aircraft, it’s a highly complex piece of machinery with tens of thousands of individual parts. All sorts of tribal knowledge comes from instructors and line pilots during recurrent training. With each anomaly related to us in class, I always end up thinking to myself “we should run that scenario in the simulator”.

Cases like United 232, Apollo 13, Air France 447, and US Air 1549 prove time and time again that not every failure is covered by training or checklists. Corporate/charter aviation is already pretty safe… but perhaps we can do even better.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Back to the (Supersonic) Future

Spike Aerospace S-512

Despite wars — both hot and cold — abroad and social upheaval at home, the 1960s must have been an incredible time for those in and around the aerospace industry.

Over the course of a single decade, the United States went from being unable to reliably launch a rocket (nearly half of the twenty-nine attempts in 1960 were failures) to putting men on the moon and bringing them back to Earth in one piece. In the realm of atmospheric flight, the 1960s saw the development and construction of the first supersonic passenger aircraft, the stratospheric cruising and futuristic-looking Concorde.

That was a half-century ago. I wonder, who could have predicted that the year 2014 would see the U.S. unable to launch a man into space on its own? Or that Concorde would be a dusty museum piece replaced by aircraft which lack the speed, altitude, and glamor of that legendary delta-winged craft? Anyone prescient enough to make that call would have been laughed out of the room. By 2014 we were going to be colonizing Mars!

While the march of computer technology has certainly eclipsed anything we could have dreamed of in the 60s, aerospace has, in many ways, stagnated. Visit any airport this side of Mojave and tell me I’m wrong.

Business Aviation Leads the Way

The space program has some promising “green shoots” with the Orion/SLS program and the emergence of third-party spaceships from companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. When it comes to atmospheric flight, the most exciting developments are no longer taking place at Boeing or Airbus. Over the past couple of decades, competition and market demand for ever more capable business aircraft has revolutionized that segment of general aviation. The VLJ sector has brought small, quiet, efficient business jets to market, while on the ultra-large cabin side, today’s airplanes fly higher, faster, and further than ever before.

But we’re pressing up against the limits of what’s possible through the continuing evolution of current designs. It begs the question: what comes next? I believe we’re headed back to the future. I’m talking about the return of supersonic aircraft to general aviation. Well, perhaps “return” isn’t the proper word, because GA has never had them. More like the return of supersonic passenger aircraft. There’s nothing on the horizon in that department from the airlines, but for the corporate/charter folks, there is plenty of research and development taking place.

Spike Aerospace has designs on one, and Gulfstream worked with NASA on a project called Quiet Spike in 2006 and 2007 where they retrofitted an F-15 with a 24 foot-long retractable nose spike to experiment with reductions in the sonic boom footprint. The goal was to find ways to make transonic flight possible over the continental U.S.

What's stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15?  A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

What’s stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15? A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

The Quiet Spike project has/had an offshoot called the Gulfstream X-54, which could very well be in development at this very moment. The X-54 is rumored to be an experimental stab at overcoming the challenges of domestic supersonic passenger flight.

Sukhoi also partnered with Gulfstream on a potential Mach 2+ business jet called the S-21 in the early 90s. They determined that there wasn’t enough of a market to proceed. But that was twenty years ago.

The Marketplace Is Ready

So what has changed to make supersonic flight a potential reality for passengers? After all, we’ve had supersonic aircraft since the late 1940s, and airliners capable of the feat for half a century now. A level of skepticism is understandable, especially in an industry known for physical vaporware, but I believe the elements are now in place to make this a reality.

For one thing, Gulfstream is now owned by General Dynamics, a conglomerate with deep pockets and significant experience with supersonic flight. If you were going to partner a bizjet manufacturer with organizations that could help it overcome the technical hurdles of a Mach 2 passenger aircraft, could there be any better synergy than Gulfstream, General Dynamics, and NASA?

Then there’s Gulfstream itself, which has become one of General Dynamics’s primary revenue sources. As always, just follow the money. In years past, the idea of a $120+ million corporate aircraft wold have been laughable. Airliners didn’t even cost that much. But today, Gulfstream is building $75 million business aircraft and buyers are lined up around the block to purchase them. Boeing manufactures corporate versions of the 747 and 787. Airbus has the ACJ. Clearly, price is not a show-stopper. With that in mind, maybe there is a market for a supersonic airplane.

From a technical standpoint, you can’t go much faster without exceeding the speed of sound. We are already flying around at Mach 0.9 and the G650 was dive tested to Mach 0.995, where plenty of transonic airflow must have already been present.

Profit and Loss

The primary reason I’m bullish on supersonic passenger flight now is because it makes far more sense for the corporate/charter market than the airlines. An airliner needs to make money for the owner. That’s their business, and the only reason those aircraft exist. If the jets don’t turn a profit, the airline goes bankrupt. As glamorous and enchanting as Concorde may have been, it was a money loser. And with fuel prices headed skyward faster than a ballistic fighter jet, the economics only got worse as time went on.

Corporate airplanes don’t have to make money. They aren’t profit centers in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end: a way to get more business done. Supersonic speeds would allow the transcontinental traveler to quite literally put more than 24 hours into a day. Imagine being able to hold a lunch meeting in Europe and have another one in North America on the same afternoon. Take a look at a map of the sheer number of aircraft crossing the Atlantic on a given day. It’s dramatic.

There’s another reason supersonic bizjets could work when an an airline version would not. Airliners carry hundreds of people and tons of cargo, catering, baggage, etc. A typical business aircraft might have 4-5 passengers on board, so there’s far less need for a big cabin or massive payload capability. The one thing every Mach 2 design has in common is the general shape: long and very slender. A space that would be cramped for 100 airline guests would feel far more luxurious if it was only occupied by a half-dozen businessmen. The needs of the corporate/charter market are simply a far better match for a supersonic design.

In conclusion, all the elements necessary for a successful supersonic business aircraft are in place. Now someone just has to build it. Between their Sukhoi partnership, the NASA Quiet Spike research, and the X-54, Gulfstream is obviously serious about taking the next step. They have General Dynamics’ resources, large market share, and deep-pocketed clientele.

My prediction: Gulfstream Aerospace will deliver a supersonic bizjet within the decade.

The Contract Pilot

Gulfstream G650

As much as one may love flying, it can be a tough career choice. Many pilots struggle through the food chain only to end up discouraged, if not downright hating their job. We’re all aware of the reasons: low pay, long days, little respect, too much time away from home, difficult working conditions, commuting, regulatory hassles, bankruptcies, furloughs, and ruinously expensive training.

Quite a list, isn’t it?

Ours is a small community; word gets around, and it begs the question, how many have bypassed a flying career altogether because of it? I once read a survey suggesting that most pilots would not recommend the field to their children. Of course, many vocations are in this rickety boat. Even formerly high-flying professions like physician and attorney have lost their luster. The message: “it ain’t what it used to be”.

On the other hand, life is often what we make of it. From bush flying to firefighting, there are many different gigs out there for those willing to take Frost’s road-less-traveled. For the past three years, for example, I’ve been flying as a “contract pilot” and truly enjoy it.

The Contractor

It’s kind of a generic term, since anyone who flies as an independent contractor rather than a traditional, W-2 employee fits the definition, but I’ll focus on Part 91 and 135 corporate/charter flying because that’s what I know best.

Contract pilots function as a kind of overflow labor. Operators might need temporary help in the cockpit for a variety of reasons: a full-timer is sick, on vacation, leaves the company, times out due to regulatory limitations, or is unavailable for some other reason. God forbid, maybe they ran into trouble with a checkride or medical exam. Perhaps a trip requires multiple pilots due to length or logistics.

Some companies find it advantageous to run tight on full-time labor and supplement with contract pilots since there are no annual costs for training or benefits. They only have to pay contractors when they’re actually used, so as the flight schedule ebbs and flows, they can gracefully scale their workforce up or down without the inefficiency of, say, leaving full-time, salaried pilots sitting at home for an extended period.

For the pilot, there are both pros and cons to life as a contractor.

Gulfstream G650

The Pros

  • You’ve got some control over your schedule and can decline trips. I really hate doing that, because a) I don’t want the company to stop calling me, and b) you never know when things will slow down, so it’s smart to sock away some acorns for the winter. But if you’ve got a big vacation planned or your best friend is getting married? You’re ultimately in control.
  • We can work for multiple operators, which can provide a bit of protection if the flying slows down at one company.
  • You aren’t tied to a seniority system. If you’re an experienced captain at company A, you needn’t start over as the lowest-paid right seater at company B.
  • Contractors earn far more per day than full-time employees, and therefore needn’t work as many days to reach a given income level. That means better quality of life, especially if you’re married and/or have kids.
  • Contract pilots are typically paid by the day. I might have a five day trip consisting of a flight to Hawaii followed by three days on the island before flying home. That’s five days “on the clock”. It can be a more lucrative system than one where you are compensated based on flight hours. Operators are essentially purchasing your time.
  • You’ll travel the country, if not the world. Instead of a few major airports, on larger aircraft like the Gulfstream, you’ll see places you’d never dream of. Though I haven’t been there — yet — North Korea and the South Pole have both been on the table. (Random note: Jeppesen does publish charts and procedures for Pyonyang!)
  • I always get an honest sense of gratitude from the operators for whom I fly, because by definition I’m helping them out when they really need a pilot. For example, I recently got a call from a Part 91 Gulfstream operator whose pilot broke his arm in the middle of a trip. I airlined out the same day and flew that evening’s leg to Las Vegas, keeping the aircraft on schedule.

The Cons

You knew there had to be a few, right?

  • Contractors inherit all the hassles of being your own boss. Does anyone work harder? From providing your own benefits (don’t get me started about healthcare) to paying self-employment taxes, it’s not always the carefree work-and-go-home experience of a full-time employee.
  • You pay for your own training. On a jet, the annual recurrent training costs run in the thousands. I currently allot $15,000/year for recurrent training and associated costs (airfare, hotels, food, incidentals) on my airplane. The expenses are deductible, which helps a bit, but I figure my first month’s work each year is spent digging my way back to financial “zero”.
  • You can’t control when the phone rings. That can mean short-notice trips and/or weird hours.
  • It can be hard to plan your life out when you never know what days you’ll be working. I average about 10 days a month away, so my philosophy has been to just plan my social life as usual, and make sure people know I sometimes have to reschedule or cancel.
  • Work can conflict with itself. I’ve had three operators call me for a trip on the same day. I can only be in one place at at time, so I “missed out” on two of them.
  • No guarantee of work. But then, history has shown that there are no guarantees in life or aviation for anyone, are there?
  • It can be tough getting started. As with many careers, the best entrée is knowing someone who can get you in the door. Initial start-up costs of obtaining a type rating can be a major barrier.

Gulfstream at Sunset

I like contracting because when a trip is offered I know it’s because the operator wants to use me rather than has to use me. Contracting represents some of the best that flying has to offer: adventure, interesting destinations and passengers, phenomenal aircraft, and decent pay for the work I do.

So why don’t more people jump into contracting? Awareness, for starters. Not everyone knows about this little niche. Also, it can be tough to break in to the business. You don’t have to know someone on the inside, but it certainly helps.

The initial expense is probably the largest impediment. The best compensation is found on the larger aircraft, and that means an expensive type rating funded solely by the contractor. Some pilots speculate on their ability to get work by obtaining the type before they have a job to use it on. Unless you’re well-heeled, that’s a big financial risk, but it works out for some people.

There is a rather circuitous way around the type rating burden: start off as a salaried employee and switch to contracting after a couple of years. That way the operator pays for your training and in exchange you accumulate a significant body of experience on the airplane.

FAA to the Rescue! Not.

I should note that contracting in the Part 135 world is a bit harder than it used to be. In the old days, if you were typed and current on an aircraft, you could fly for any charter company that operated that kind of plane. It wasn’t uncommon for a contract pilot to fly for several operators. A few years ago — for reasons no one has been able to adequately explain — the FAA essentially did away with that capability.

Today, a five-figure recurrent only entitles you to work for the certificate holder under whom you trained. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran of ten years and 10,000 hours in a Gulfstream IV; if you went to recurrent on Company A’s OpSpec, as far as the FAA is concerned, when you move to Company B you are completely unqualified to operate a G-IV on any Part 135 flight until you’ve been through another recurrent… at your own expense, of course.

At first, this seemed like a potential deal-breaker for contract pilots, but it can help as much as it hurts. Just as the change make it harder for a contractor to work for multiple operators, it also makes it more challenging for that operator to replace a contract pilot since a successor wouldn’t be legal to fly until they went back for recurrent training.

Lock and loaded

Walking the Aviation Tightrope

Contracting does have something in common with scheduled airlines: it’s not right for everyone. If you’re the type that wants a fixed schedule or has to know exactly how much your bi-weekly paycheck is going to be, this ain’t the place. In addition to all the attributes of a good corporate or charter pilot, contracting requires the ability to run a business and cope with uneven income. Some months will be fantastic. Others, not so much. Even when business is slow, though, I get something valuable: more time at home with friends and family. Like I said at the top, life is what you make of it.

But the ability to earn a six figure income right off the bat while working a relatively small number of days? For me at least, it’s more than worth it. What I want in my flying carer is sustainability, the capacity to survive on this aviation tightrope, and ironically that’s what contracting provides. I want to fly without hating it, and that means avoiding the soul-crushing schedule and monotony of many professional flying jobs.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.