Becoming a Helicopter Pilot

I first wrote this in 2003, when I was having grand delusions of becoming a famed pilot/aviation magazine columnist. I even submitted this to a couple of pilot mags, but they wisely refrained from stopping their presses to publish it. :) Almost everything in it still holds true, however, so I’m posting it now. Enjoy!

Becoming a helicopter pilot

Most of the fair readers happening by these words are pilots, whether licensed or getting there. Some of you may be fortunate enough to fly for a living, and some may fly for an air taxi or air carrier service. But not many of you, I’ll wager, get paid to hover before you take off, or land on 24-foot long airstrips, or fly for weeks on end without even seeing a runway; in short, fly helicopters. It’s fascinating flying; here’s how to get there, and what it’s like once you do.

First of all, it’s a great time to become a helicopter pilot: for over twenty years, the vast majority of (especially upper-level) helicopter flying jobs have been filled by pilots who learned to fly during the Vietnam War. Most of these pilots are now in their fifties, however, and beginning to retire. In five to ten years, a major shortage of pilots is predicted, but effects of the aging pilot population are being felt even now: flight time minimums for pilot jobs have lowered significantly over the past ten years, and are expected to continue to do so. It’s therefore taking far less time for new pilots to move up the career ladder.

But let’s begin at the start: helicopter pilots start out much the same as their fixed-wing brethren: they get ratings. Like airplane pilots, helicopter drivers either join the military, or go to a civilian flight school. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The military used to be the favored way of becoming a helicopter pilot; the training was considered excellent, pilots didn’t have to pay for their training, and after six years (the minimum military commitment for pilots), they entered the civilian flying world with at least a thousand hours of turbine-engine time, much of it night and on instruments. (More about valued helicopter types and totals of flight times later.)

Military budgets have fallen precipitously in recent years, and due to its increasingly high-tech (and expensive) fleet, the military is also having a more difficult time paying for helicopter hourly operating costs. In short, the military seems to be taking fewer applicants, and unless they stay in the military for many years, the ones that enter the job market after military pilot training often have fewer than one thousand hours of flight time, which is the bare minimum for most higher-echelon flying jobs. In addition, many are finding it difficult to transition from high-end multi-engine military turbine helicopters with two pilots, two engines, autopilots, and flight computers to entry-level single-engine, single-pilot, VFR-only civilian birds.

For this and other reasons, many new pilots are taking the civilian route. For some, civilian flight training was always the only choice, and this is mostly due to the more stringent medical requirements the military has for its flight school candidates. The condition that disqualifies most prospective candidates is poor uncorrected eyesight: although, even for a first-class medical, the FAA requires only vision correctable to 20/20, the military requires that applicants have (depending on which branch of the military one speaks to) no worse than 20/40 to 20/100 uncorrected vision, correctable to 20/20.

One of the main disadvantages of a civilian helicopter flight education in the past has been the cost. Until the 1980’s helicopter flight training cost as much as three to four times per hour as a comparable airplane, with most of that due to helicopters’ higher maintenance cost. With the introduction of the Robinson R22 in 1979, however, the helicopter flight training industry was given a reliable, low-maintenance helicopter, which significantly reduced rotary-wing cost per hour. A Cessna 172 with instructor today rents for about $100 per hour, while an R22 with instructor is approximately $200 per hour, down from approximately $300-400 per hour (in 2003 dollars) from the early 1980’s.

Changes in helicopter flight training regulation have also altered its cost. In the past, most potential rotary-wing pilots were advised to get their fixed-wing private license first. Since only 150 hours were required for the helicopter commercial pilots license, and only fifty of those were required to be in helicopters, it made a lot of financial sense to do as much of it in airplanes as possible. In the last ten to twenty years, however, non-flight instructing helicopter jobs for new commercial pilots have become increasingly scarce (mostly due to insurance requirements), and new helicopter pilots almost have to become flight instructors as their first job.

The FAA still requires only fifty hours helicopter, and 150 hours total, to become a commercial pilot, as well as a helicopter flight instructor. It requires substantially more to instruct in the Robinson R22, however, which is by far the most common training helicopter, and by far the most common helicopter new instructors will teach in. The minimum for R22 instructors is 200 hours total helicopter time (no fixed-wing time required), and 50 hours in the R22. As expensive as this might sound, it’s a definite improvement, as helicopters in general, and the R22 in particular, are very sensitive machines and require some getting used to, especially for those transitioning from fixed-wing flying.

The 200 hundred hour helicopter time requirement has increased the total flight training cost, however. Helicopter instrument flying also has added to the cost: in the past, helicopters have not been frequently used in the IFR system: they usually fly less than 2000 feet above the ground, below most instrument flight routes, and are allowed per FAA regulations to fly at much lower weather conditions than airplanes and still be VFR. That’s still the case today, but the IFR system is slowly becoming more helicopter-friendly, with point-to-point GPS routes, and approaches to the off-airport sites that helicopters fly to. In short, the instrument-helicopter rating is becoming a required rating for rotary-wing pilots, and many pilots who graduated from civilian flight schools without instrument ratings are finding that they have to go back and get them (at a higher total flight training cost) in order to obtain the jobs they want.

In summary, then, most prospective pilots who train in the civilian world first get their private helicopter rating (approximately 60 hours helicopter flight time, minimum 40). They then add on the instrument- and commercial-helicopter rating (minimum, and seldom exceeded, 150 hours). After that is the certificated flight instructor and flight instructor-instrument ratings (another 20-30 hours). They then (usually) pay to rent an aircraft for the extra hours they need to get to 200 hours. With books, ground school, flight costs (approximately $160 per hour solo, $200 per hour with instructor, and $240 per hour dual in an instrument training helicopter), this comes out to $40-60,000. This may seem like a hefty price, but it’s actually about the same as that required to obtain the comparable airplane ratings.

At 200 hours, it’s time to go to work. Although, every once in a while, a boat-picture taking, traffic-watching, or tuna fish-spotting helicopter flying job becomes available, the vast majority of new civilian-trained (as well as some recently-discharged military-trained) helo drivers start out as certificated flight instructors (CFIs). Flight instruction in the rotary-wing world is much like that of the fixed-wing: instructors who wish to eventually work as another type of pilot will work approximately 1-2 years, making $20-40,000 per year, with usually no benefits, and one day off per week. Flight times for CFIs are usually 50-100 hours per month, depending on location (as in airplanes, pilots who work for schools in areas with good year-round weather usually fly more). Instructors give primary, commercial, and instrument training, teach ground school, and endorse students to solo and take written and flight tests.

In the fixed-wing world, most flight instructors start becoming employable to other portions of the industry at 1000-2000 hours total flight time, with the more time in multi-engine airplanes, the better. On the helicopter side, the total flight time is about the same: the bare minimum for most non-instructing helicopter flying jobs is 1000 hours helicopter time as pilot in command. The “gravy” time is different, however: most new helicopter pilots strive for turbine time instead of multi-engine time. Although there are many multi-engine helicopters out there, they don’t demand the same increase in professionalism that multi-engine vs. single-engine airplanes require. But piston-engine-powered helicopters vs. turbine-powered ones do, and turbine time is looked on by helicopter pilots and operators much the same way multi-engine time is by those who fly and operate airplanes. Many helicopter pilots choose to remain instructors, and as in airplanes, that’s a perfectly respectable career. Unlike many other segments of the industry, flight instruction never gets dull: a pilot might work with a student on hovering in the morning, teach aerodynamics ground school until noon, sign off a solo after lunch, work on instrument procedures in the afternoon, and finish up with a dual night cross country. Due to the pilot vacuum created by retiring Vietnam pilots, an instructor can expect to move up relatively quickly in the ranks: veteran CFIs often work as chief instructors, company check pilots, FAA designated pilot examiners, or flight school owners, and can expect to make at least $40,000 per year, often with benefits added.

Many pilots, after working for years in other parts of the industry, often go back to instructing part- or full-time. Instructing keeps pilots sharp, and no other job gives the satisfaction of helping someone completely new to helicopters become a polished, professional rotary-wing driver.

Once pilots reach 1000 hours, and are interested in other types of helicopter flying, they have quite a few options to choose from. In the airplane world, the highest pay (and highest esteemed) job is with an airline. There are almost no helicopter airlines, however. Local regulations (engendered by perceived noise and safety issues) usually preclude scheduled air transportation between any other points than airports. Once a runway is required, airplanes’ lower cost per seat-mile make them less expensive, and therefore preferred, for scheduled air transportation. There are a lot of civilian operations helicopters excel at, however, and for pilots, they can usually be boiled down into nine groups: news gathering, tours, utility work, logging and firefighting, offshore support, EMS, public flying, and corporate flying.

Electronic news gathering (ENG) is a job for which medium time (1000 hour) pilots are often qualified. The ability to circle slowly and hover over a breaking news story is ideal for news organizations, and many have their own specially-outfitted helicopters (with cameras, transmitters, and recorders on board) and pilots on call to capture live stories. ENG pilots get lots of variety, covering many different stories. They often become very familiar with their flight routes, usually flying in the same (most likely large metropolitan) area.

Unfortunately, since news can happen at any time, most pilots are on 24-hour call, which gives relatively little down time. A variety of helicopters are used in ENG, from four-seat piston-engine helicopters to seven-seat turbines. Pilots can expect to start at $30-40,000 per year, often with benefits included. Flight times are based on how much the associated news organization budgets for aviation, and can range from an hour or two every few days to hours every day.

Scenic tours are another popular job for helicopter pilots. The best view of many natural wonders can often only be had by helicopter, and the air tour industry has evolved to fill that need. In the U.S., there are currently four main sites: the Grand Canyon, Hawaii, Niagara Falls, and Alaska. (There is a move to add helicopter tours to amusement parks, although, to the author’s knowledge, there is only one that currently has a helicopter specifically designated to it.) Air tour flying is usually seasonal, with summer being the heavy flying season; in winter, often no flying is done at all.

In many segments of the industry, pilots fly passengers who are very familiar with helicopters and the unique perspective they provide, but that’s not the case in the air-tour industry. The vast majority of passengers are first-time, and many never even been in a helicopter before. Most passengers, therefore, whatever their thoughts upon climbing into the helicopter, are nothing short of enthralled once they climb out; very few other types of flying provide that kind of job satisfaction.

Since air-tour flying often has lower flight time minimums (as low as 1000 helicopter hours), and is usually seasonal (and hence temporary), many medium-time pilots use it to build total and turbine time. (The vast majority of helicopter air tours are done in turbines.) Flight time and pay vary widely depending on location, but a good average for the on season is probably four hours a day, and $2000 per month. Benefits are sometimes included.

Utility flying is that done in support of gas pipeline and electric companies. Utility pilots fly power- or pipelines to check for breaks or leaks, and ferry workers from substations and plants to parts of lines that need maintenance.

Since much utility flying is done low and slow (to adequately check line integrity), this type of flying is often considered riskier than other types of helicopter jobs. It does, however, provide an excellent opportunity to excel in precision flying, and power- and pipeline pilots are skillful indeed. Starting pay is $30-40,000, usually with benefits included. Work schedules can vary, from weekends off, to seven days of work followed by seven days off.

Logging pilots transport cut trees from timbering areas to log collection points, while firefighting pilots transport water or flame retardant from fire bases to fires. Logs (or flame retardant buckets) can weigh many hundreds of pounds, so logging or firefighting is usually done in very large turbine helicopters. Logging ships usually grab a log (or logs) with a claw attached to a line suspended under the helicopter, while firefighting ships suck up water or flame retardant, usually also using a bucket or hose attached to the helo. Due to the complexity of the aircraft flown, and the precision required in these operations, logging and firefighting are usually done with two pilots. Routes are usually very short, with the distance between the timbering and collection point (or base and fire) often less than a mile. For some pilots, this seems like repetitive work, but both types of pilots are well-compensated; topping out at around $100,000 per year (often with benefits included), these pilots are among the most well-paid in the industry. They also have one of the most fascinating schedules of any helicopter job: many pilots will fly for six months, nearly nonstop, followed by six months completely off.

Becoming a logging or firefighting pilot is hard to do, however. Most companies require pilots to already have hundreds of hours of experience in flying external loads (logs or buckets) as well as in the specific helicopter type the company uses, which is extremely expensive to obtain privately. Some companies hire copilots who receive their required flight times while on the job, but even copilot positions can have substantial minimums. As Vietnam pilots continue to retire, logging and firefighting should become easier to break into.

Offshore support companies provide transportation between coastal bases and offshore oil and natural gas platforms. In the U.S., this usually means the Gulf of Mexico, although there is some work done on the West Coast, including Alaska. A variety of aircraft are flown, from five seat, VFR, single-pilot Bell 206’s to twin-turbine, IFR, dual-pilot Sikorskys so big they’re FAA-required to have a flight attendant on board. Most flying is done over water, and although only float-equipped helicopters are used, this is a disincentive to some. Depending on the operator, starting pay is $30-40,000 per year, and can top out at over $80,000, with flight times varying from an average of one to eight hours a day. Benefits are usually included. Most positions are seven and seven or 14 and 14; pilots work a week (or two), followed by one to two weeks completely off. Offshore flying therefore often allows a pilot to live in one place, and work elsewhere; an opportunity not available with most other types of helicopter flying.

Many offshore companies have relatively low flight requirements; as low as 1000 hours helicopter time, and a helo instrument rating. For many pilots, this is their next job after flight instructing. In addition, many pilots, due to the 7/7 or 14/14 work schedule, relatively high pay, opportunity to fly different helicopters, and freedom to live elsewhere than the work location, find themselves staying in the offshore industry.

EMS (Emergency Medical Service) pilots are basically aerial ambulance drivers. Along with a nurse, paramedic, or doctor (or combinations of the three), they fly from accident scenes or outlying hospitals to major hospitals, transporting patients for whom the delay caused by ground transport could be fatal. Because of the very real difference EMS helicopters make in patients’ lives, aeromedical flying can provide incredible job satisfaction. The pay doesn’t hurt either: $30-40,000 to start, topping out at $60-80,000, with benefits.

EMS flying does have its disadvantages, however. The desire to save a life, as well as the fact that many EMS operators only get paid if they fly, can put pressure on pilots to accept flights in poorer weather than they would prefer. Flight times are also relatively low, at about 200-300 hours per year. And although most EMS pilots have a 7/7 schedule, pilots must live close to their bases.

Public flying is that done in support of the government: either military or police. Military flying, of course, can only be done by military pilots. Candidates must pass a stringent military flight physical, as well as various assessment tests, to be considered for flight school, and many potential pilots wash out before finishing. A minimum commitment of six years is required, and pay varies widely depending on rank. Many different types of flying jobs are possible, including scouting, attack, “black” operations, and logistics support. Flight times are relatively low; as little as 100 hours per year, but pilots fly turbine helicopters exclusively, and benefits are excellent.

Flying a police helicopter includes responding to scene calls, chasing suspects, and aerial patrol. Flight hours, work schedule, pay and benefits vary widely, depending on the type of police organization (state, county, or city), as well as the size of the area: in general, police flight departments of larger cities have higher pay, better benefits, and often a more flexible work schedule. Pilots must usually live in the same area they fly in, and are often on 24-hour call. Though being a police pilot has a lot of job satisfaction, it’s not easy to become one; almost all prospective pilots are culled from the ranks of current police officers (often with no prior flight experience). The police department then trains the prospective pilot at its own expense, and as one might imagine, competition for a new pilot slot is intense.

Corporate pilots are attached to the flight department of a major corporation, and fly for it exclusively, ferrying VIPs and cargo. Many corporate pilots are dual-rated in helicopters and airplanes, as most flight departments that have helicopters have airplanes as well. Corporate pilots usually have a nicely varied workload, with a mix of short- and long-haul and fixed- and rotary-wing flying. Most corporate pilots are well paid (some topping out at over $100,000 per year), and receive excellent benefits. Many pilots are on 24-hour call, however. Obtaining a corporate job is difficult, as well: since pilots will be flying VIPs, many many flight hours are required, especially hours in more difficult-to-obtain multi-engine turbine helicopters, as well as at night, and in IFR. Excellent people skills, as well as a high degree of professionalism, are also a must.

That about sums it up. In short; helicopters are a great way to earn a living. The industry is opening more every year to new pilots, flight training is not the egregious expense it once was, and there are lots of jobs available, in lots of different fields. So, get out there, jump in a helicopter, grab some ratings, and find the job you love!