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Using a Contractor in the Right Seat

What you need to know when using a contract pilot to serve as a temporary second-in-command.

Using a Contractor in the Right Seat

Nov. 13, 2017

For most business aircraft operators, flying with two pilots in the cockpit is standard procedure. However, what happens when an operator wishes to employ just one full-time, qualified pilot? If the sole flight department employee does not want to be alone in the cockpit, he must identify, interview, evaluate and sign up a temporary second-in-command.

Single-person aviation operations are not the only ones that employ contract pilots. Most flight departments – even ones with many fulltime pilots – utilize contract aviators to cover for staff on vacation, sick leave or away for training. And these operators usually seek to develop a cadre of qualified cockpit crewmembers to use on a regular basis.

Of course, finding a well-qualified, experienced, presentable and available contract pilot often is not easy. But given adequate time, a chief pilot or department manager can usually locate a suitable contract pilot. Aviation employment agencies certainly can help, and many flight department managers rely on word of mouth from fellow operators at their home airport.

Besides having the proper qualifications – type ratings, total hours of flight experience, etc. – contract pilots need to meet the hiring company’s other expectations. Experts recommend that managers be upfront with candidates: tell them what you need, which can include helping with flight planning, catering, passenger care, staying with the aircraft until it is fully secured at the end of the flight and going the extra mile to make the entire process is a success. Also, before taking on a contractor, check with your aviation insurance broker and human resources department to ensure that the candidate meets their requirements, too.

Finally, remember that potential contract pilots are checking out your flight department, too. How is your reputation among your peers and others who work with the department? Finding the right match between flight department and contractor is a two-way street.

Once hired for a mission, temporary cockpit crewmembers often undergo an initial ground-based training program in the operator’s aircraft, including review of SOPs and safety management system principles, as well as guidance on the care of passengers.

But even when one suitable contract pilot is found, an operator cannot rely on a single contractor to be available for all flights. Contractors often have chosen their professional lifestyle so they can cherry pick the trips they want, not necessarily the ones with which you need assistance. Therefore, several qualified and reliable contractors must be recruited to avoid scheduling disruptions.


James Liddle, an experienced flight department manager, says, “Choosing a contract pilot is not always easy since they come in all shapes and sizes – out-of-work business pilots who take contract positions in hopes of finding a permanent job, moonlighting business pilots looking for extra money in their spare time, ex-airline pilots wishing to continue flying part-time, junior time-builders, and professional contract pilots. This makes the resume review and interview very important. Many candidates will not be type-rated in your aircraft, or even very experienced in it. Acting as a flight instructor throughout the flight increases both risk and workload for the PIC. Verified reputation and valid references are important.”

A Washington, D.C.-based manager of a one-man flight department insists on type-rated and current contractors. “It is too easy to become legal in the aircraft via FAR 61.55, yet not be fully trained, qualified or current. And the second-in-command type rating is all too easy to obtain. I insist on current, PIC, type-rated pilots. You must be able to rely on the SIC to carry their load.

“Many single-pilot departments hope that one day they can convince their owners to hire a really good contract pilot who has flown with the company a number of times,” he continued. “Unfortunately, many really good contractors wish to remain contractors since they value their personal schedule and do not want to be tied down to a fulltime job. Their superior job performance and reputation permits them to remain in demand; reputation is very important in the contractor business.

“I always provide contractors with our standard operating procedures, normal checklist and safety management system prior to the flight, with instructions for the contactor to become familiar with them. Then, on the day of the flight, I ask the contractor to come in early [so we can] go through normal procedures in the parked aircraft. But, even with all of this preparation, flying with a contactor for the first few times is always fatiguing, regardless of how good they are.”

I always provide contractors with our standard operating procedures, normal checklist and safety management system prior to the flight, with instructions for the contactor to become familiar with them.
– Manager of a One-Man Flight Department

Kellie Rittenhouse, director of aviation for Hangar Aviation Management LLC, uses both permanent and contract flight crews for her clients’ aircraft. She uses a specialized personnel agency to find and vet her crews. Over time, the agency working with Rittenhouse has filled the cockpits of her clients with compatible and professional flight crews, both permanent and contract personnel.

“We are more concerned with the entire person, not just their technical competence, although that is quite important,” explained Rittenhouse. We look for fully dedicated persons, not just pilots. Do they integrate well with the passengers, other crewmembers, and our office and maintenance staff? Do they add value to our operation? Teamwork and customer service are important aspects of their job performance.

“Professional competence and recurrent training are essential,” continued Rittenhouse. “We fund the contractor’s recurrent training. Intra-crew harmony is a key to a smooth and safe operation. We have a safety management system and ensure our pilots use it. And we don’t worry too much about the contractor’s expenses. We look for personal integrity in all our employees.”

For minimally staffed departments, even with extensive preparation and precautions, the concept of working with a different copilot for most or all trips can be challenging and creates considerably more work for the full-time pilot/manager. Therefore, full-timers may want to convince the boss that safety risk factors increase with a series of strangers occupying the right seat. But by applying the principles of effective cockpit resource management, quality passenger care and using a strong safety management system, you’ll be in a good place when using a contract crewmember.

Review NBAA’s resources for using independent contractors at



This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Business Aviation Insider. Download the magazine app for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.