A photo from March 2018 appears to show Patrick Biedenkapp, an airline pilot who shares photos and videos with 522,000 Instagram followers as @pilotpatrick, hanging ten out a cockpit window with a selfie stick mid-flight. His hair, shirt, and sunglasses seem undisturbed by the wind.
Some commenters expressed adoration for Biedenkapp, a German with a well-behaved blond coif and an immaculate complexion, while others were skeptical. They questioned how he took the photo or outright accused him of posting a fake. He didn’t answer their queries or clarify where the photo came from. However, the airplane manufacturer Airbus, which is tagged in the photo, did.
“The image is clearly photoshopped and is not a real in-flight photo,” a representative told the Daily Beast.
Biedenkapp is part of a larger trend: airline pilots as Instagram sensations. Madeleine Schneider-Weiffenbach, who posts as @pilotmadeleine, boasts 1.1 million followers. The #pilot hashtag has 5.2 million tagged posts. Anas Amireh, who flies Airbus A350 planes out of London, has 390,000 as @pilotamireh followers and several dedicated fan pages. There’s enough pilot enthusiasm to sustain two huge accounts run by pilots named Maria — @mariathepilot, 462,000 followers, and @pilotmaria, 535,000.
“Everyone always wonders how pilots fly planes from Point A to Point B and what do we get to see/experience,” Amireh said via DM. “You can easily see this when you are looking at your passengers while they are boarding and the first thing they try to get [is] a closer view of is the flight deck.”
Dozens more have follower counts in the lesser hundreds or tens of thousands, and big-name airlines like Emirates and Lufthansa command millions. The appetite for aviation content, it seems, is vast.
Maria Petersson (@pilotmaria), who’s worked as a pilot for the past five years, said half of her travel is personal and half is for pilot work. While she’s working, she says, she doesn’t have much time to take photos except during the cruising section of the flight, and when she’s not, she pays for all her flights herself. She started the profile as a way to update friends after moving to Sicily to take her first job as a pilot.
The pilots’ photos can give the impression that a pilot’s life consists of looking hot in a uniform in sundry glamorous destinations. All beach, no office. The skill and training that being a pilot requires imbues thirst traps on hotel beds with an air of professionalism—if you were a pilot, you too might happen to be half-naked on a layover between flights.
As Business Insider wrote of @pilotmadeleine in 2017, “There's no shortage of lifestyle bloggers travelling the world, sharing their wanderlust-inducing pictures on Instagram to hoards of followers. But few of them have the knowledge of the globe that a pilot does—and a view from the cockpit.”
Or the Daily Mail: “Perks of the job! Stunning German pilot becomes the latest to flaunt her globe-trotting lifestyle in envy-inducing snaps.”
“People also like pilots because of the cool pictures we can post in our uniform, or even some topless shots for those who are in great shape!” said Paul Thon, a student pilot who posts as @paul.thepilot to 31,100 followers.
Petersson tries to warn her followers that all is not always as it seems. The path to becoming a commercial pilot for an airline involves trade school that can cost over $100,000, hundreds of hours of flight training, a tight job market, and routines that sometimes require waking up not long after you’ve gone to bed.
“People seem to see both jobs as easy and glamorous, but in reality being either one is hard work. I try to be as honest as I can about both, being a pilot nor travel is very glamorous,” Petersson said. “Being a pilot is hard work, early mornings, sweaty days, food prepping, getting your workout done at times your rather be sleeping, et cetera.”
Konstantinos Lambrou, who posts as @146bpm to 42,000 followers, assured his future passengers that he and other Instagram pilots he knows follow the “sterile cockpit rule.” It’s an informal standard adopted by the FAA that demands that crew members only perform essential duties below 10,000 feet. Even above that level, Lambrou said he doesn’t take pictures unless his co-captain has full control.
The pilot lifestyle lends itself well to being an influencer—travel the world and stay long enough in each locale to snap a selfie at sunset. Who goes more places than the people flying the planes?
“The misconceptions [about being a pilot and an Instagram influencer] are similar. We often think a pilot only travels for free, gets a good salary and gets plenty of holidays,” Thon said. “The reality is that we wake up early in the morning, have a lot of pressure on us, and the salary for a beginner pilot is quite low considering that most of us are heavily in debt.”
Fans eat it up, real or not. One commenter wrote to @pilotmaria “On one of your flights thx for letting me see the cockpit wanna be a pilot when I grow up cause of you!” @pilot_lindy (131,000 followers) offers a step-by-step guide of how to become a pilot on her blog. Every pilot who spoke to the Daily Beast said they receive dozens of DMs a week asking how to become a pilot.
Amireh said, “People came to the airport to tell me that they entered the flying academy or already became pilots” because of his page.
Instagram is a newly vital part of the travel industry as the social network swells beyond a billion users worldwide. Destinations with a good photo location can become overwhelmed with tourists if even a single Instagrammer with a large following snaps a picture there. Businesses know it: luxury hotels have dedicated pages for influencers to apply as advertising partners.
So pilots often act like typical Instagram influencers. They post sponsored content, recipes, and fitness inspiration. They’ll promote hotels or incorporate a skincare product into their routine. @pilotmadeleine and @pilotmaria sell Adobe Lightroom presets, electronic kits that auto-edit photos in Lightroom to follow a certain aesthetic. The former’s are so popular that she’s created a separate profile for them that’s gained tens of thousands of followers.
It’s unclear whether major airlines condone or even allow influencer activities like sponsored posts. American Airlines, the largest in the world, pointed to its social media policy when asked about pilots posting ads — employees are held both personally and professionally responsible for the content they post, leaving the final judgment up to interpretation.
The company did not respond to further questions about whether this policy precludes pilots creating sponsored content while on the job, as Petersson did with an ad for Breitling watches in a cockpit. She flies for the airline Next Generation, which did not immediately respond to request for comment, and said she earns more money from Instagram than she does as a pilot. Her work as an influencer allowed her to pay off $100,000 in student loans from pilot school.
Three of the other largest airlines in the world—Delta, United, and Lufthansa—did not respond to request for comment.
It’s easy to interpret an Instagram star’s photos as evidence of a carefree life, whether they’re a pilot or not. The realities are often more inelegant. One blogger couple made waves in 2015 for revealing that they financed the travel showcased on their Instagram account by scrubbing toilets for food, not even scraping together enough for bus travel. Other would-be influencers have gone into debt to make it big on Instagram.
“Most travel influencers aren't spending weeks and weeks at a given destination. It's more like a few days or even hours,” said Rachel Coleman, social media director at the travel booking site GetYourGuide and former director of social media at Conde Nast Traveler.
Petersson wrote in a 2018 blog post, “This isn’t a pilot’s life, it’s social media,” disclaiming to her followers that collaborations with brands like GoPro afforded her free, glamorous travel, rather than her job as her handle would suggest.
“Pilot life is hard work, the company that I fly for we don’t even do layovers,” she wrote. “We get 25 minutes on the ground at our destination where we set up everything for our return flight and if we’re fast enough manage to snap a selfie out through the window.”
The post echoes a widely covered exit from social media by a 19-year-old Australian model, Essena O’Neill, in 2016. She abandoned accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, clearing them of any content, and changed her Instagram bio to read, “social media is not real life."
Petersson told her followers it’s unrealistic to act on the aspirational nature of her posts: “I am writing this post because I don’t want anyone to invest between Euro 60-120,000 on a pilot training and think that you will be doing exactly what I am doing.”