So, you want to be a helicopter pilot...


A lot of people ask me, "How can I become a helicopter pilot" I have answered most of them in the same way over and over again. I just figured I should post some general information to help people decide if that is what they really want to do. There are a lot of things to consider before you make a career decision like that, and there is a lot of things you need to know first. Please take the time to read this before you e-mail and ask questions. I am pretty sure your answer is already here somewhere.

1. How do I get started?

Well, you have to decide first how important it is to you. Do you want a lifestyle where you will be "On the road" all of the time? Piloting usually means having to travel a lot. Helicopters however, typically have about a 2-hour fuel load, and they generally fly 100 to 120 Knots indicated airspeed. So, unless you refuel a lot, you probably will never be too far from your home base. That is not always the case, but it is a general rule. So, you may ask, why I am concerned with being "on the road"? First, if you break down somewhere or get weathered in, you have to stay away from home. That does not happen too often, but it does happen. Mission requirements may call for you to go to a remote location, so that also means staying away from home. Most importantly however, is that helicopter jobs as a rule are not the most stable forms of employment. Many last 2 years on average. The next one may require you to pack up and move across the country with a real short notice. It is usually not a lifestyle conducive to owning a home and raising a family. Some pilots live in one area for a long time, doing Medevac, or working for a News Station. These jobs are very rare. Once someone gets into a position like that, they are most likely going to stay in it for as long as they can. You may have to wait until they die or retire before another position like that opens, especially in a place where you want to live.

2. How do flying jobs pay?

Usually, not really well. Civil helicopter operators have a very high overhead. Between the initial cost of a helicopter, maintenance, fuel, and you the pilot, the cost factors are really high. Since there are more qualified pilots than there are jobs, operators can afford to pay less to you to keep their costs down. The other costs are more fixed (Fuel may fluxuate in cost, but the need to buy so many gallons per hour is a fixed situation) and they can do little about them. Since there is more of a job shortage than a pilot shortage, a lot of pilots will work for less money so they can keep doing what they enjoy. If the operator can find someone who will work for less, they will hire them before hiring you. It is simply a matter of economics for the operator.

3. How much does it cost to learn to fly a helicopter?

I was priced $170 per hour here in Oklahoma for a non-turbine helicopter (Early 90's prices), just so I could get current (And it takes going up for at least 1 hour every 90 days to stay current). It may be cheaper elsewhere. I have to contrast that $170 per hour to $45 per hour in a fixed wing airplane. I can get almost 4 hours in an airplane for the price of 1 hour in a helicopter. When you start talking about 30 to 50 hours of training just to get your license, it really starts adding up. My best suggestion would be to learn to fly a fixed wing first. That way you learn how to make radio calls, navigate, and generally get an "Air Sense" at a much cheaper rate. Then transitioning to a helicopter will take a lot less of that costly time, and in the end, you will have two ratings.

4. How about the military?

That is the absolute best way to learn. Military pilots spend their day in a flight school environment. They fly, and go to school for flight at the same time. They do not have to worry about paying for lessons, having to go to work, or other distractions. They are full time, hands on students at the best flight schools money can buy. The best part is that they get paid to learn. All of the military flight schools I know of teach under stressful environments. This makes sure you can REALLY cut it as a pilot, and when you are thrust into an emergency procedure, you will tend to go right back to that training that you learned under stress since an emergency is quite stressful in itself, and your mind will usually function automatically. If you stop to think during an emergency, you may waste precious time. Emergency procedures need to be second nature, and the atmosphere you are taught in while in the military helps you to do things automatically. No one will argue that military pilots are the best in the world. If you don't believe that, just ask one.

5. What about trying to fly for a police department?

Most police departments want you to be a "Street Officer" first. They usually select their flying officers from the pool of beat cops, and not from a pool of qualified pilots. They are more concerned with the ability to be a police officer than a pilot. They figure that they can train you to be a pilot, but to be a police officer with experience is more valuable to them.

I never understood this logic, but I do understand that they use the flight detachments as an incentive program for their line officers. I believe more people have the ability to become a police officer than to become a competent pilot. I spend my free time with a lot of law enforcement people, so I do not want you to get the idea that I dislike the police. In fact, I like them very much, and know many very well. I just do not believe the practice of choosing pilots from the line officer pool makes much sense, when you have so many competent and qualified military trained pilots available to choose from.

The problem here is safety and experience. Some police pilots display little of either. In 2009, I went to a college football game in another city and the local police helicopter was flying low and slow over the football field. He had a near zero airspeed, was about 100 feet above the stadium, and had a tailwind. His aircraft was a single engine Bell model. If he lost his engine, lost tailrotor effectiveness, or got into settling with power, there would have been no way to make a safe landing, and many people would have been killed or severely injured. I did some research on the issue and I found out that the aircraft is called a "public aircraft" while performing a law enforcement function, and neither the aircraft nor the pilot of public aircraft needs to be certified. I have seen law enforcement pilots do some pretty dangerous things in the past, but I never knew that they did not need certification or any formal training. This specific incident, the pilot did not maintain safe altitude or airspeed making autorotation impossible. Instead of protecting people in the stadium, he was endangering the 80,000 people below. I know a few police pilots and some are really good. However, the majority are not military trained and lack the requisite experience and knowledge that comes with the best possible training in the world. Here are some links to some information about "public aircraft" from the NTSB , the House of Representitives , and more from the NTSB.

Police departments are not run by pilots, they are run by street officers who worked their way up the ladder to positions of leadership. They do not understand the safety issues involved in aviation, because most have no experience in aviation related matters. Often budget concerns are the most important factors, and safety is a lower institutional priority. If you read some of the information in the links provided, concerns over budget seem to be the factors most often considered and discussed. Unfortunately for all concerned, this situation puts less experienced people in the air, endangers the people on the ground and reduces the avenues for properly trained, experienced pilots to gain employment.

6. Why did you give up flying?

The truth is that I did not give up flying, but I no longer pursued it as a career. I still have a private fixed wing and commercial rotary wing license, but I am only using them for recreational flying now. My issue was that I got out of the Army when a lot of other pilots were getting out, and frankly, jobs were really scarce. It took a long time for me to find a civil job, and it did not last long. The pay was not great, and I realized from day 1 that I was easily replaceable. They must have received 6 to 10 resumes a day, just to fill the position that I was in. Here I had 1800 hours of some pretty amazing flight time, numerous military decorations, combat time, and 5 safety awards, but I felt like I was just another new guy who had to start over from scratch. Since I changed careers, I make more money, spend more time with my family, and feel fortunate that it happened sooner than later.

Many jobs now require 2500 - 5000 hours of flight time. Most employers will not touch you with less than 5000 hours for insurance reasons. If you are lucky enough to get a job with as many hours as I had, you were going to have to pay your dues for quite a few more years before you had 5000 hours(It took me 6 years to get 1800 hours, and that is A LOT for a 6 year Army pilot), and could get a better job. Many times I had friends who told me to lie about my flight time just to get a job. While the employer may never have found out, I would have to have lived with the fact that I misrepresented myself to get the job. That is something I find very difficult to live with. Also, I would have to live with the fact that if they ever found out, I could lose my job and possibly my career. Once people find out that you lied about flight time, you usually gain a reputation you can not shake. Believe me when I tell you that you don't want that kind of reputation in this kind of business.

7. What happens if you have a severe health problem?

You lose your career. If you have a family history of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, or a number of other ailments, you risk losing your career to a health related problem. I knew an Army pilot who had just gotten his fixed wing transition, had a lot of rotary wing time, and was in great physical shape. He exercised regularly, ate well, and even ran 5 miles a day. His EKG came back with a small abnormality while taking his annual flight physical. The doctors were concerned and asked him to fly back from Korea, and check into the Army hospital in San Antonio. There they ran a group of tests. They all came back negative until the very last one, which showed that even though he was in great physical condition, he had 4 blockages around his heart. They gave him emergency heart bypass surgery and forever grounded him from flying. He had spent his whole Army career waiting to become a fixed wing pilot, and just as soon as he got what he always wanted, his career was taken away. There was no way he could have ever known what was going to happen. He did everything he could to remain in good physical condition. His genetic makeup was the one obstacle he could not overcome. Some people can fly until they are old and never have a problem. Some get to a certain age and lose the ability to continue to fly due to health problems that they can not control. Every pilot risks their career on maintaining their health. Once it is gone, so is their career, and if they have nothing to fall back on, then they will have a rough time changing careers.

8. Why all the "gloom and doom"?

It is not "gloom and doom", it is reality. If you want to go into this business, you had better do it with your eyes open! I only wish that someone had told me something before I set my sights so high and had to come face to face with reality. Not that I would have given up my Army career for one moment. I really loved the experiences I had and I would recommend military service to anyone who is willing to take orders and serve their country.

9. So, what would you recommend I do?

I suggest that if you really want to fly and you can join the military, then do it. You gain so much from military service; Amazing life experiences, the best friends in the world, the opportunity to get an education in a very specialized field, and responsibilities far beyond your imagination. I was responsible for many lives; The crew of the aircraft, the passengers aboard, the crews and passengers of other aircraft in formation with us, and the people on the ground. Everyone depended on me to do things right and to get them home safe. People instantly respect you for the wings on your chest and the bars on your shoulders. They know that you are competent, or you would not be there. The military definitely has its advantages.

10. What if I want to fly without joining the military?

Learn in a fixed wing airplane. Then, if you really want to fly helicopters, do it. My best suggestion is to get a good education first. Make a lot of money and buy your own airplane. Fly for fun, and fly when YOU want to. Recreational flying is the best flying and it never turns into a "job". No one tells you when or where. You go when you want to and land when you are tired. The best thing is that no one is trying to kill you while you fly. Even if you join the reserves, you have to be aware that you can be called up at any time, and people may just want to shoot you out of the sky. Civilian flying is not as exciting, but at least no one is shooting at you. It is just you and your machine, dancing across the sky. It just does not get any better than that.

I hope that this has given you an insight into what it takes to have a career in helicopter flying. I do not claim to have all of the answers, I can only impart my experiences to you. I am sure that in some places it is easier to get, and hold on to, a flying job. I can only tell you what I have known to be true. I wish anyone who really wants to fly all the best, and if I can give you any more of my first hand knowledge, feel free to e-mail me and ask.

Update: 7/11/00 (An excerpt from an e-mail from Brad Roberson...

Just an update for you if you want to be a little more accurate on your FAQ page. Due to fewer pilots getting out of the service recently and also due to the fewer number of hours pilots are flying in the military the hour requirements to get a decent job (for a helicopter pilot, anyway) have dropped quite a bit. Pilots can now get hired for offshore work with as little as 1000 to 1500 hours. The magic number for EMS (my field) seems to be about 3000 hours although I know some EMS pilots that were hired with just over 2000. The company I worked for before my current job even had a $100 bounty for any referral they ended up hiring. Some of the requirements that seem to come up more often now than total time is experience in a given specialty (long-line experience, seismic etc.) or experience in a given type of aircraft.

Mountain time is often a requirement difficult to fulfill. The outlook is getting better for those that have the experience as far as getting a good job, just too bad the pay isn't keeping up with the supply/demand aspect of it. I, too, always recommend to those that want to fly helicopters to get their airplane ratings first. A couple of jobs that I tell them they may end up starting with are flying for TV stations, flying tours or, as always, instructing. Just thought you might want an update from someone in the industry since you haven't been involved with it for a while.

Editors Note: The flying jobs he mentioned with the Television stations are some of the hardest jobs to get, because they are enjoyable and most people who are doing them are not going to quit any time my opinion.

Television stations also have their pilots do some pretty dangerous things in the spirit of getting the story at any cost. Our local stations fly very close to lightning, tornadic activity, hail, and high wind / turbulence to bring the viewing public immediate images of severe weather.

Update: 6/25/06 (An excerpt from an e-mail from Steven Morris):

Ran across your 'The Helicopter Page' and thought I would comment. I am currently looking for a job. I have a commercial rotorcraft ticket along with an instrument rotorcraft ticket + 1300 hours and 50 turbine and can't find a job. I thought the UPDATE comment should be updated to provide that things are NOT getting better and in fact are getting worse. In many cases they want a MINIMUM of 1500, 200 turbine and some now even want specific time in a particular model. On the interviews I have been able to garner they already had the deck stacked with ex ex-military, ex-oil, ex-ems and in case 3 of the applicants already knew the Chief Pilot. Guess who DIDN'T get the job!!??

These companies somehow think that their future employees are available in premarked,prewrapped, prehoured packages that just "drop of some shelf" somewhere and come to work.

This whole situation reminde me of the old I would like to give you credit but I can't so once you get some credit then come back and we'll be glad to give you some.

Anyway, just thought a NEWER update might stop someone from believing they are going to just go out and get a flyin' job - they really need a dose of REALITY!!

steve m.

Update: 3/2/10 (An excerpt from an e-mail from Peter St Croix of Canada):

I just want to add to your site. I am a Canadian commercial fixed wing and rotor wing with ATP on both and over 12,000 hrs combined. Never an accident or incident of any kind. It has cost me a fortune to get where I am, but I am no longer employed and the future is very grim for any experienced pilot. I love flying and that passion is the way people become career pilots. But the reality is you still have to pay bills and support your family. This career is the last career you should consider if you want a financially secure future. Less then ten percent of pilots make it into the high paying airline jobs and get to keep their position for life. It would make more sense to get a real career and buy your own airplane or helicopter and have fun and enjoy you financial future with your family.

Capt. P. St. Croix

All E-mail excerpts were reproduced with the authors permission.