Search the hashtag “pilots of Instagram” and you’ll be greeted by an endless amount of images of pilots in uniform posing it up.
Pilots are hugely popular on the social media platform, with some garnering more followers than Hollywood stars.
One of the most famous is Patrick Biedenkapp, or PilotPatrick, who has nearly 800,000 followers. PilotAmireh, Anas Amireh, isn’t far behind, with just under half a million.
In fact, Amireh, who also has a popular YouTube channel, says he often gets recognized by his followers while he’s flying, or even when he’s on vacation.
“Almost every country I go to, there are people who know who I am,” he tells CNN Travel. “My followers come and want to take photos, which is really cool and I share stories with them.
“When I was in New York, I went to Times Square and after five minutes a guy came up to me and was like ‘Hey Pilot Amireh.’ The world is so small.”
But why are Instagram users so captivated by pilots?
Pilot Raymon Cohen, who flies private jets and has over 80,000 Instagram followers, believes it’s due to the inaccessibility of the cockpit, adding that there’s been a definite shift since changes were made to the security of cockpits after 9/11.
“People are not welcome in the cockpit anymore, so it’s like a big secret,” says Cohen, whose Instagram handle is PilotRaymon. “Now this [following pilots on Instagram] is one of the only ways people can see what’s happening.”
Far from just admiring eye-catching images on their feeds, many of the users who follow pilot Instagrammers are looking for specific information related to aviation, from how to become a pilot, to questions related to safety, as well as airplane turbulence.
Cohen and fellow pilot Instagrammers are often contacted by young people keen to pursue a career in aviation but concerned about flight school fees, which can run up to at least $80,000 for those with no previous flying experience.
Michelle Gooris, whose account Dutch Pilot Girl has drawn around 267,000 followers, is acutely aware that many of her followers are looking for advice about aviation, and tries to make her posts as informative as possible.
“I’m more focused on providing information and shedding light on the aviation industry,” says Gooris, pictured above while in the cockpit. “I think that my audience prefers this.”
Gooris notes that the majority of her followers are male.
“I think it’s because most pilots are still male. Only a slight percentage of women want to do this job, or think that they can do this job.”
A 2019 survey conducted by the Red C on behalf of Aer Lingus polled 500 adults aged 18 to 30 and found that twice as many of the males had considered a career as a pilot.
“I’ve found that people are still often genuinely surprised when they see a female pilot,” says pilot and Instagrammer Maria Fagerstrom, also know as Maria the Pilot.
“But that’s only because we are a minority in the industry. Of all the pilots out there, 95% of them are male, and I’d would love to see that female ratio increase.
“I will continue to spread any message that brings people attention to that, because I think by regularly promoting flying as a career option to young girls we can close the gender gap – together.”
Like Gooris, Fagerstrom puts a lot of thought into how her posts come across and would never want to give followers the wrong impression about how pilots spend their days.
“I always try my best to post content that I would personally find valuable, and that I’d engage with myself,” adds Fagerstrom, who has been flying commercially since 2015.
“Either it’s informative, like a quick fun fact, or it could be a self-improvement tip. It could also be something fun, light and easily absorbed.”
But managing a popular social media platform that focuses on the “pilot life” isn’t as simple as just taking pictures between flights and hitting the “share” button.
Pilots have to be extremely careful about what they post online as airlines tend to have very strict social media guidelines.
Each airline has different rules. For instance, some allow pilots to take photos during the cruise part of the flight, while others insist on no photography at all.
“As long as people follow those rules, there shouldn’t be a problem,” says Gooris.
The consequences of breaching guidelines were laid bare when a Chinese pilot was grounded soon after a photo of a woman sitting in an airplane cockpit emerged on social media in 2019.
While the image was not uploaded by the pilot, the woman shared it on Chinese social network Weibo, along with the caption, “[I am] super thankful to the pilot! I am really so excited.”
The incident sparked fury and ultimately led to the unnamed pilot being suspended from flying duties “for life” as a consequence of violating civil aviation rules.
Although Cohen, who is from the Netherlands, doesn’t work for a commercial airline, he’s still subject to a high level of social media scrutiny and avoids posting anything that could create problems.
“If I’m not sure about posting something, I just delete it,” he says. “I think if I’m already having doubts [before posting], then surely I shouldn’t post it. Besides, I have so many nice pictures. It’s OK if I delete a few.”
But in an ever competitive social media landscape, are they ever tempted to post something risque in order to outdo other accounts?
“No one wants to risk their main job for something they do on the side,” adds Gooris, who is also the author of the ebook “Become An Airline Pilot.”
While different airlines have different policies, the majority ask that pilots avoid referencing the airline they work for on their accounts.
However, some give a select few pilots permission to do so.
Amireh, from Jordan, previously found himself in this position, but admits it caused issues with some of his colleagues.
“Nobody’s allowed to take pictures,” he says. “They [the airline] have very strict rules. We have [around] 40,000 employees and just a few guys are allowed to do this. So you can imagine how many eyes were on me.”
While he was grateful to be selected, Amireh says he’d avoid aligning himself with a particular airline in the future.
“When I was not using the airline logo, I had less trouble,” he admits. “I think it’s way better to stay with your identity [on Instagram] as a pilot without linking yourself to an airline long term.”
Authenticity is also a major factor when it comes to keeping people engaged and ensuring a level of trust between users and the pilots they follow.
In 2017, Instagram user PilotGanso came under fire due to some outlandish images on his feed, including one that showed him leaning out of an airplane window while flying.
After many of his followers pointed out that the image had clearly been altered, the Brazilian pilot began specifying which of his photos had been manipulated.
“Photoshop mode ON,” he wrote below a photo that had aroused suspicion, while adding, “I have to let you know that photo is fake guys, just in case,” to a separate image.
Although maintaining a popular social media account while having such a demanding job may seem like a challenge, Gooris says she finds it quite easy to separate the two.
“When I’m working, I forget that I have an Instagram account and a YouTube channel. I barely talk about it unless people specifically ask me about it. The influencer stuff is something I do on my off days.”
However, Fagerstrom, who has around 524,000 followers, admits that she finds it hard to switch off and feels as though she has to constantly post content in order to keep users interested.
“The downside of being an Instagrammer is that it’s difficult to take a break from from it, especially if you’ve built your small business around yourself,” she says via email.
“Because of the algorithm, it’s damaging if you’re not present every day and being consistent in your postings online, even on the days you’re not really up for it.
“It creates a feeling that you’re never good enough, never productive enough, and never creative enough.”
While pilot Instagrammers are still among the most-followed people on Instagram, Cohen says he’s noticed there was slightly less engagement on his page at the beginning of the pandemic, but puts this down to the fact he wasn’t flying as much rather than a lack of interest.
“I had less pictures of flying. And the main reason people follow me is because I’m a pilot, not because they want to see pictures of me in my garden in shorts or at a barbecue.
“So I saw that it stagnated a little bit. It goes up and down.”
A number of pilots, including Amireh, have been made redundant from airlines during the Covid-19 pandemic, while others have seen their schedules scaled back considerably.
Cohen says that young people constantly ask him whether they should go to flight school within the next year or so given the impact coronavirus has had on the aviation industry, and he tries to answer as honestly as possible.