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Is Aerial Surveying a Good Fit for You?

One popular option for time building among commercial pilots is flying for an Aerial Survey Company. There are several types of surveying outfits you can look into, but no matter which route you go, survey work provides a unique flying experience the CFI world does not.


Perhaps the largest appeal of survey work is that the pilot does not need to be a CFI nor do they need their multi engine rating.


However, I have found it helps with the application process to have both.


I began my hour building as a CFII at a small part 61 school in Alaska, transitioned to aerial survey work that took me all over the western United States, and currently instruct once again as a United States Air Force Initial Flight Training Instructor Pilot.


I want to share with you my experience as an aerial survey pilot to answer any questions you might have on the field and provide some honest insight to the lifestyle.




Below is my experience: the good, the bad, and the reason I am no longer surveying.

My specific survey work was single pilot, solo crew ops, operating both the camera and navigation/flying aspect at the same time. I took the position with a 9 month schedule, on the road with no time off for the duration of that period. In between assignments, I was responsible for keeping track of maintenance, organizing and reserving hangar space, and ferrying my plane from location to location.


My company provided the planes while the cameras and project assignments came from a larger company we were subcontracted too. The camera company would assign projects in various states, often covering hundreds of square miles at a time. I would receive my assignment, build a flight plan to an airport in a central location for the project and ensure that I was in location in time to film during a block of time called the sun window. The project consisted of a group of "lines" with varying altitudes and ground speeds needed to capture the target images. Image quality depended on the clouds, shadow angle from the sun, and amount of roll/bank induced.


I began surveying in a C172 in Alaska. The camera equipment onboard was older and the projects tended to be flown at lower altitudes.






Single Engine Survey Work:

Pros:

- Lower altitudes needed made navigating clouds and finding the sun angle easier

- More flight hours per project due to slower airspeeds

- Shorter T/O and landing distances provided more options for project basses/ fuel stops


Cons:

- Older equipment (light bar) for navigation purposes

- Less advanced technology for entering lines and submitting work

- Less fuel endurance and more refueling stops/ engine shutdowns throughout the day

- Rudder work heavy and no auto pilot lead to achy knees after a 12 hr day

- Camera equipment took up most of the cabin space limiting size of travel bag and space to spread out in flight



After a few months, I was promoted to a slot flying the PA44, which lead me to the lower 48 states.




Multi Engine Survey Work:

Pros:

- Multi Engine time building looks great on a resume

- High Performance and complex aircraft experience

- More advanced equipment to operate cameras

- More advanced technology for entering / suspending lines and submitting work

- More room in cabin to spread out, bring snacks, pack more in your suitcase, leg room


Cons:

- Older equipment (light bar) for navigation purposes

- Less advanced technology for entering lines and submitting work

- Less fuel endurance and more refueling stops/ engine shutdowns throughout the day

- Older plane with poor climb performance lead to difficulty maintaining altitude at higher altitude projects

- More parts means more work required, ie more grounding for maintenance



As a whole, survey work had its highs and lows. Here's my opinion on the gig:


Pros:

- When the weather was good, it was easy to build 100+ hrs a month

- Could file IFR and fly at night between projects

- Ferrying between locations required actual cross countries and more "real world" experience

- Limited interaction with a supervisor, and solo pilot ops allowed for a true "work for myself" feel

- Solo pilot ops helped me gain confidence in myself as PIC and lead to some of the coolest experiences I've had flying yet: picking a pop up IFR clearance to fly through actual IMC, sightseeing over the San Francisco Bridge and Hollywood sign, and having major airlines get re-routed for "picture taker" in busy class Bravo airspace ... and so much more

- Constantly moving from project to project allowed me to see different places and get out and explore in a lifestyle similar to that of a flight attendant or mainline pilot.

- Every project was in a new location with unique airspace. I had to coordinate with multiple ATC controllers, military branches for restricted sections and navigate complicated airspaces. My coms, navigation, and flight planning skills were strengthened through this job.





Cons:

- When the weather was cloudy, rainy or low visibility at all, I couldn't get the flying in

- No auto pilot and long days lead to fatigue, particularly in hot weather / turbulent winds

- Long flying days to film as much of the sun window as possible, leading to 13+ hr days in the summer

- Tight budget restrictions on hotels and rental cars lead to staying in sub par accommodations and not having the ability to get a rental car in some locations

- Living out of a suitcase meant packing light, carrying around dirty laundry, skipping most household items/ toiletries for daily use, and repeating outfits constantly

- Living out of a suitcase made eating healthy and working out extremely difficult. No ability to grocery shop or meal prep and overspending on door dash etc to eat on your hotel bed and trying to make minimal equipment in a hotel gym work, leading to extreme weight gain

- Constantly moving from project to project made making social plans impossible and if I would have been in a relationship at the time, would have lead to never seeing my significant other. I spent a long time not seeing friends or family while on these projects.






The reason I walked away from the survey industry after 6 months:

_____


Don't get me wrong, some of my favorite moments in my career so far came from my time surveying. I started to fly in actual IMC as a solo pilot in a multi engine aircraft; my current favorite feeling in the world. I learned how to navigate and hold in some of the busiest airspace in the US. I met some of the coolest people and visited some of the most unique FBOs. There are many memories I wouldn't change for the world.


That being said, I learned something the hard way that ultimately made me grow as a pilot.I want to preface my story by saying, my experience is unique and could be mainly due to the management my company at the time was under. Even though the experience was difficult, it improved my airmanship overall.


Without getting into too much detail, I found myself in a situation where my safety was put in jeopardy and my ability to make a no-go decision was not only questioned, but reprimanded. Something broke on the plane, that may not have been "required" but due to the weather and my location, made me uncomfortable ferrying the plane to a maintenance location in the condition it was in.


I found a mechanic on sight that was willing to expedite the work if we overnighted the necessary part, I called my boss and made the decision not the ferry the plane and asked for the part to be shipped.


I was met first with stone cold silence then the head of our maintenance staff raising his voice and yelling at me. Both men were questioning my abilities as a pilot and my knowledge of the aircraft in general. I was reprimanded as an "inexperienced pilot". It was the most uncomfortable situation as a commercial pilot I'd found myself in yet.


In a short window, I had to ask myself what kind of pilot and professional I want to be. I decided the job was not conducive for the type of aviator I want to be. I gave my notice and parted ways.


_____



In summary, I caution anyone looking into survey work to do your research about the company. Survey gigs tend to have a stigma of pushing their pilots to fly long hours, difficult conditions, and in aircraft that aren't the most maintained or updated.

I think the risk can be mitigated if you have a strong systems background and are willing to stick to your guns when you don't feel comfortable. However, I highly recommend you know your regulations through and through. Be prepared to walk away if your concerns aren't answered or corners are cut.


Talk to previous and current employees. During your interview, remember you are also interviewing them to see if they are a good fit for you. Ask what they would do if you found yourself in a similar situation. Be aware of what it takes for you to personal feel that your mental and physical health needs are being met.





And if you do choose to go the aerial survey route, soak it all in. Embrace everything new and scary because it is shaping the future aviator you will become.


Lean on your support system, whoever that might be and take plenty of pictures... Like your job depends on it ;)









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