Surveyor Pilot


Have you ever wonder who shoots aerial photographs; the kind used to create maps, identify natural/man-made features on the ground or take fully-documented photos of a specific property? Well, the person who does is an aerial photographer, and the person who flies them for hours at a time is a survey pilot.

Typically flying single or twin-engine propeller aircraft with enough fuel capacity to stay aloft for many hours, survey pilots are a unique breed. Their job is to precisely locate and then fly over the target site; often repeatedly. The photos are shot through a downward-looking camera mounted beside or behind the pilot’s seat, with the aerial photographer sitting nearby and deciding when to click the shutter.

Survey piloting often requires the pilot to navigate to their target location using an electronic map linked to real-time GPS tracking. Once there, the pilot often has to fly patterns; such as flying one direction over the site, making a 180 degree turn and then flying the other direction to cover the site in photographic strips. The number of turns and runs depends on how large the target site is.

A successful survey pilot loves to fly and doesn’t mind going back and forth in patterns. They also need to be very good at keeping their aircraft at the required headings and altitudes at all times and work well with their aerial photographer, who literally calls the shots.

How to Learn

There are a few ways to learn to become a survey pilot. All begin with the notion of obtaining a private pilot’s licence.

The traditional way to learn to fly is by enrolling at a flight school; either close to home or in another location. Training is usually full or part-time based on the student’s personal schedule, the training program and financial resources. The learning includes in-class training (ground school) and in-aircraft training (flight training).

Flight hours also matter. They are the amount of time the student spends flying. Many aviation jobs require licenced pilots to have accumulated a specific minimum amount of flight hours before they will be considered for employment.

Across Canada, community colleges and universities are now teaching students to fly on a full-time or part-time basis; often in partnership with local flight schools. This option can offer an aspiring pilot a faster route to their licence, by fitting more education and training into a shorter time. But unless the student has access to some form of educational subsidies, the cost will be comparable over time to the flight school.

Employment Prospects

Many graduated pilots work as flight instructors to build up their flying hour totals to qualify them for piloting jobs. Once they have acquired a certain number of hours, many instructors may be eligible to be hired as survey pilots. It can be a good entry-level position and a steppingstone to other piloting jobs.

Salary Prospects

Typically, survey pilots earn approximately $40,000-$60,000 per year. Salary may vary depending on the position and company.


Depending on the educational choice, training to be a commercial pilot can cost anywhere between $50,000 and $75,000. These costs are for the basic training and Integrated ATPL.

Some provinces do offer subsidies/grants to help students pay for pilot training. Student loans may also be available from financial institutions.

Need More Information?

Visit the Pilot Career Centre Canada for information about about flight training, how to choose a flight school and listing of schools across Canada.

The Government of Canada also offers guidance on how to select a flight school and the steps needed to start training.

See the FAQ page for answers to common aviation training questions or contact us.