posted by Jill Henning on January 11, 2024

This article about chief pilots originally appeared in the NBAA Jan/Feb issue of Business Aviation Insider publication.

Business aviators who aspire to become chief pilots should keep in mind that the job often comes with an array of added responsibilities that they may not be prepared for – unless they start planning now.

The best professional aviators wouldn’t begin a long flight without a detailed plan. There are just too many variables along the way that can take you far off course. It’s the same for a business aviation career: Leaving your ultimate success to chance is not a wise strategy.

For example, take the goal of becoming a business aviation chief pilot. It’s an enviable goal. But it’s also one that’s shared by a lot more candidates than there are positions to fill. Your success lies in taking steps now to be the one best prepared when the opportunity arises.

Your preparation starts with clearly understanding what the title of chief pilot really means in today’s flight operation.

“It can vary a lot from organization to organization. Sometimes, in a smaller flight department, the chief pilot also serves as the director of aviation, so they have to be experienced in leadership, strategy, planning and budgeting,” explained Jennifer Pickerel, vice president of Aviation Personnel International (API). “It can get complicated and time-consuming. You often spend more time at your desk than in the airplane.”

Ryan Ferguson, director of aviation services for a large med-tech company’s flight operation, shared a traditional situation. “All of our pilots report to our chief pilot. He is responsible for maintaining standards, updating our flight operations manual and crewing trips – including purchasing fuel and off-site hangar arrangements.”

Opportunity Doesn’t Always Knock as Planned

If you’re thinking: “That’s no problem. There’s time to get prepared.” Well, maybe not. And just like in a flight path, things can change quickly along your career path.

“Some find themselves in the ‘hot seat’ almost exclusively because of their seniority. The current chief pilot leaves, and they are suddenly and unexpectedly asked to step into the role,” said Ivan Luciani, lead captain for Metrojet Ltd. “Sometimes these pilots assume a role they neither wanted nor are prepared for.

“Unfortunately, being a highly experienced and qualified pilot does not automatically translate into being a highly effective chief pilot,” he continued. “A good chief pilot also needs to have a strong set of managerial and leadership skills to be successful.”

But leadership skills aren’t always required for a typical business aviation pilot’s recurrent training routine.

“I often caution both candidates and employers alike that just because someone is a great pilot, that doesn’t mean they’ll be a great chief pilot,” Pickerel said. “It happens all too often. That kind of promotion is an easy step for the employer, but it can fail. Despite the good intentions on both sides, it can fail.”

She explained that a pilot’s genuine desire to lead people is very difficult to interpret and quantify. It’s not there in black and white, like ratings or hours in a logbook.

“People always say that leading is the hardest – and most annoying – part of their job, and not everyone is comfortable with that, especially if the responsibility is suddenly handed to them,” Pickerel added. “Today, you have to have a genuine desire to want to be involved with mentoring, developing, and yes, dealing with nagging and whining. It’s often your job to identify and fix the motivations behind these situations.”

Again, though, each situation is different. In some larger flight departments, a director of aviation will assume much of the team leadership responsibilities. But, still, people will be people.

“We want our chief pilot to be focused on flight operations and not have to deal with distractions that aren’t directly related to those responsibilities,” Ferguson said.

Prepping for a Promotion

The Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared,” works for prospective chief pilots as well. As Luciani wrote in his book, “An Aviator’s Journey – tales of a Corporate Pilot,” “’I was a manager while concurrently performing line pilot duties. Spending time in the trenches with the pilot group gave me the opportunity to see first-hand what worked, what did not, and most importantly, what needed to be done in order to make it work.’”

Too true. Every situation you find yourself in, whether it involves providing a sympathetic ear for your co-workers or dealing with a remote aircraft on the ground (AOG), should be looked upon as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. In fact, there’s a lot more to the job than you may realize. (For details, see the sidebar to this article.)

“We recently went through the process of appointing a new chief pilot,” Ferguson explained. “And there were a huge number of prerequisites to even be considered for the role: excellent airmanship, attention to detail and the appropriate experience for the operation were the basic starting points.

“Beyond those critical foundation blocks, we also required a person who could grow beyond his or her skill set and recognize that the team’s performance was the primary focus,” he added. “To this end, we’ve invested in leadership training, coaching and exposure to the very best strategic and tactical minds in the business.”

You Can Always Go Solo

While the situation Ferguson described is ideal for anyone aspiring to be a chief pilot, the reality is there are some flight departments that don’t have such a well-orchestrated succession plan. But that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your career goal.

“If you feel stymied in your current company and there’s no clear path to move up, my advice is to take any professional development opportunity you can get,” Pickerel said.

“Becoming a CAM can connect you to a network of peers who have also been on that journey and who want to help you ascend in your career,” said Jo Damato, CAM, NBAA’s senior vice president, education, training and workforce development.

“Attending the NBAA Leadership Conference or participating in a leadership-focused NBAA Professional Development Program can have the same advantages,” Damato said. “Find a peer who can do some lateral mentoring with you. They likely need you as much as you need them. Trying to tackle new challenges alone can be daunting and intimidating. Use all of your resources to help set yourself up for success.”

Pickerel encourages people to perform volunteer work as another way to develop leadership skills. “And if it’s involved with aviation – all the better. Companies and recruiters take that kind of thing very seriously,” she added. “You can gain valuable experience while seeing if you like leading people. If it’s not for you, passing it on to someone else is easy. There’s no downside to it.”

Not everyone in the left seat dreams of being the chief pilot. And that’s OK.

“Everyone must understand that there’s nothing wrong with being satisfied with what you are doing right now,” Pickerel said.

“Successful companies need doers even more than leaders. If you love being a great captain, then you and your employer can’t ask for anything more than that,” she added. “It’s okay to explore other avenues for your career; just do it with your eyes wide open to all possible outcomes. As they say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’”

Review NBAA’s CAM Program at

What Defines a Chief Pilot?

If becoming a chief pilot is indeed the job of your dreams, then you need to be prepared for all that the title brings with it. Often, the act of piloting itself becomes a secondary job responsibility. For example, in many smaller flight departments, the chief pilot may also have to handle aviation manager duties.

Make sure you understand the full scope of the responsibilities that come along with the job before you accept the promotion.

So, what are some typical responsibilities of a chief pilot? According to the NBAA Management Guide, they include:

  • Staying abreast of business aviation developments, including regulatory changes that will impact operations
  • Establishing, supervising and arranging training programs
  • Coordinating, scheduling and budgeting for training
  • Instructing crews to use standard operating procedure manuals
  • Ensuring standard operating procedures are kept current with company guidelines
  • Preparing and distributing periodic reports and statistics
  • Assisting in preparation of budgets and financial forecasts
  • Reviewing the current budget implementation
  • Evaluating expenditures

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  • Excellent observations on the responsibilities of Flight Operations Management. Too often, pilots aspire to the Chief Pilot position for the sole reasons of prestige & income. As so aptly pointed out in the article, occupying any position of supervisory responsibility in a Corporate Flight Department takes preparation, interpersonal skills, & a genuine desire to sustain a culture of performance, teamwork, effective leadership, safety, service, & economic efficiency. It takes an honest interest in regulatory & technological developments to help guide how they are dealt with. Success takes an outlook that favors good reasoning & interpersonal skills rather than a propensity to argue with subordinates.

    • Hi Jim,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment on the article about Flight Operations Management responsibilities.

      I completely agree with your insights, emphasizing the importance of preparation, interpersonal skills and a genuine commitment to fostering a positive culture. Your points about the significance of staying informed on regulatory and technological developments resonate well with the challenges in this field.

      Let’s continue the conversation on how these principles can shape effective leadership in the aviation industry.


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