Whether seeking a career as a professional helicopter pilot or pursuing a private rotorcraft pilot’s license, flying helicopters is like nothing else you have ever done or will ever do. And, it is never too late to begin. New people are entering the field every day-from their late teens to their 50s and older. And, it should go without saying-women pilots are every bit as welcome and have the same opportunities as men.
Flying helicopters is exciting, challenging, empowering and just plain fun. But, like any worthwhile goal, the achievement of your rotorcraft pilot’s license(s) requires dedication, commitment, hard work, and, depending upon your financial condition, a level of sacrifice.
There are generally two paths to pursuing a career flying helicopters: the civilian path and a military career. If you’re thinking about the military option, please contact a recruiting office nearby and get the details from them. Read the small print carefully. Please realize, however, that as a military pilot, you are a military officer above all, with all of the attending duties, responsibilities and commitments first, and a pilot, second. This page will describe the civilian career path.
All professional helicopter pilots must at least be in possession of a Commercial Rotorcraft License. Nearly all, however, have also attained their Certificated Flight Instructor’s (CFI) credentials (for reasons that will soon become clear) and many have their instrument rating as well. So, how do you get there from here?
The typical license progression moves through Student, Private, Commercial, and CFI. Many will acquire their instrument rating between Private and Commercial. The instrument rating, though not mandatory for some jobs, is increasingly becoming either a significant benefit or requirement for many of the better jobs. It will also make you a better pilot.
Flight training, for all levels of licensure, requires both ground and flight training. There are a number of flight training schools around the world that provide this level of training. Helicopter flight training is expensive! Much more expensive than fixed wing (airplane) training. Why? Because helicopters are expensive machines to acquire and operate and insurance costs, already high, have risen steeply since 9/11/2001. Many find that flight training in the U.S. is somewhat less costly than training elsewhere, but numerous options exist. This article will focus on U.S. flight training.
All pilots, from student on, are required to pass an FAA structured medical exam provided by an FAA approved physician. In addition to normal, healthy body function, hearing and vision are also tested. No, you do not have to have perfect, uncorrected vision to be a pilot. But, your vision must be correctable with lenses to a relatively high level. Color perception is also important. For most people, the physical will not be a problem. However, certain, red flag areas do exist: history of drug abuse, psychological disorders, certain heart problems, and anything that may imply lapses in consciousness. If in doubt, contact an FAA approved physician and discuss your problem. Often, things can be resolved satisfactorily.
Hours and Dollars
For every level of license there are FAA minimum flight time requirements. In the case of the Private Pilot License the minimum hours are, for almost everyone, very unrealistic. The FAA requires that you have 20 hours of dual instruction and 10 hours of solo to qualify for your Private License. However, 30-50 hours of dual is much more true to life and many take a little more.
You can expect to spend somewhere in the range of $200/hour for flight time with an instructor, and $150-$175 solo time. Ground time is usually in the range of $30 - $40/hour. If you do the math, you will find that it will cost about $10,000 to $15,000 to get your Private Pilot’s License. These numbers vary depending upon your geographic location, flight school, ability and helicopter model.
A commercial rotorcraft license requires that the pilot have 150 total hours, minimum, and 100 PIC (Pilot in Command) time. PIC time is earned flying solo in the pursuit of your Private License and any time, after attaining your Private License, where you are acting as the pilot of the helicopter-even while receiving flight instruction. Again, just doing the math, you will spend approximately another $18,000 to $20,000 getting your commercial ticket. If you already have a fixed wing license, some of that time can be applied to your rotorcraft add-on license, saving you some time and money. Now, here comes the part about why almost everyone gets their flight instructor rating.
Most introductory pilot jobs, besides flight instructor, require the pilot to have somewhere between 500 and 1000 hours piloting the helicopter, with most leaning towards the 1000 hour+ side. The most cost-effective way to attain those hours is as a flight instructor. Flight instructors commonly have about 200 hours when they begin flight instruction. In some models of helicopter, you are required to have 200 hrs before you may instruct. Flight instructors are required to have a minimum of 200 hours. From that point on, you are technically employable as a CFI. Now, you may work as a CFI to earn the necessary hours to be competitive in the general helicopter pilot marketplace, while actually getting paid to fly.
All told, it may cost you somewhere between $38,000 and $50,000 to get to your CFI rating and start getting paid to fly helicopters. Not cheap. You could get an excellent college education for that price, and you may want to think about that. You do not have to have a college degree, yet, to get a job as a helicopter pilot. But, a college degree never hurt anyone in any career pursuit.
But, if you’ve got the desire and made up your mind, that’s what you’re facing. Yes, you will be spending a lot of money, but you’ll also be learning an entire world of new things and you’ll discover things about yourself, in the process, that you had no idea existed. And, you can do it on your own time-table. Some are able to find the time and money and just blast through from student to CFI, non-stop. This process can take as little as a year to two years depending upon how often you fly each week, and the number of times you fly each day. Others, pay as they can, taking longer to complete the process. There is no right way or wrong way to become a helicopter pilot and no penalty for taking longer to get there.
Flight Schools, Financial Assistance
Flight schools providing the spectrum of helicopter pilot training are scattered around the country. Check the link at the end of this page to locate some of the schools known to PHPA, though PHPA is not in a position to recommend a particular flight school. You need to do your homework. You should interview your flight school and potential flight instructor carefully, making sure they’re right for you. You’re about to enter into a long-term relationship and spend a bunch of money. Do it wisely.
You basically want to make sure that you end up with a good feeling about their training regimen (carefully orchestrated and laid out rather than off the cuff), safety record, maintenance capability, pilot management, etc. You want to make sure that your instructor’s personality fits yours and that you will enjoy spending hours and hours with them. If possible, ask the local FAA if they have any knowledge of the school that would be pertinent to your decision. They may avoid making specific recommendations, but you may get a feel for their opinion. If you ask them specific questions, they should give you direct answers.
Some loan programs are available, usually at a higher than average interest rate. Check with your flight school. One potential loan program to investigate may be the Career Training Loan from SLM Financial Corp. (a Sallie Mae company) at www.slmfinancial.com. We are not aware of any scholarship programs that help you get your Private Pilot’s License. However, once you have your private, at least one scholarship program does exist-for members of the Whirly-Girls (The International Female Helicopter Pilot’s Association). This is truly an awesome group of women and if you are a woman, you should join-period. It is available to women helicopter pilots in possession of a Private Pilot’s License or higher. The opportunity to network and learn from a great group of inspirational peers is tremendous. You can find out more about the Whirly-Girls at www.whirlygirls.org.
Flight training is conducted under one of two sets of regulations, known as 14 CFR Part 61 and Part 141. If your flight school has the ability to do both, it may save you a little time and money along the way.
One more thing. Since you have to build hours between your Private and Commercial License anyway, one way to do that is by earning your instrument rating. It will cost a little more, but you’ll have a valuable new tool when it comes time to look for a job. For those who want to go, "all the way," then earning your instrument instructor’s certificate (CFII) after you get your CFI will take you that much farther.
Helicopter Pilot Careers
Working as a helicopter pilot can take you into many different industries, all over the world. Helicopter pilot opportunities include training, offshore support, fire fighting, law enforcement, agriculture, pipeline and utility support, sightseeing, executive transport, fishing, EMS (Emergency Medical Services), search and rescue, logging, test piloting, and more. It can be a rewarding and satisfying career path.
It is very difficult to quantify helicopter pilot’s salaries. Salary levels vary greatly by industry, country, qualifications and experience levels. However, salaries and benefits are on the rise. And, the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association is actively involved in helping pilots everywhere earn higher levels of compensation for a job well done.
PHPA membership is available to anyone with an interest in helicopter piloting including student pilots. If you do decide to enter this exciting field, please join PHPA and add your voice to the thousands of helicopter pilots making a difference for each other.
Best of luck and clear skies!