Helicopter Pilot Careers: What Jobs Are Out There?
Wondering what’s available in helicopter pilot careers? Don’t worry, there’s no shortage these days. With the current cadre of Vietnam War-era pilots retired or retiring and an absence of younger military pilots filling their place, there are plenty of helicopter pilot careers available.
Being a helicopter pilot isn’t just all about flying helicopters. Helicopter pilots have a lot of responsibility, an indication of all the difficult training required to get to where they’re at.
Helicopter Pilot Duties
As a helicopter pilot, you’ll be ultimately responsible for the safety of your crew and your helicopter. You’ll have to check cargo & passenger manifests to make sure that it doesn’t exceed the limits of your helicopter. You’ll have to study the weather and be familiar with FAA restrictions, using these skills to plan your flights. You’ll need to carefully inspect your helicopter both before and after the flight to make sure it’s in a safe, flyable condition. There is usually paperwork required after each flight, a requirement of both the FAA and most likely your employer. But there’s a whole lot of fun flying in between!
Helicopter pilots aren’t just helicopter pilots when they go to work. Part of being a licensed and employable helicopter pilot means passing an annual physical exam and staying out of trouble with the law.
Starting Your Helicopter Pilot Career
The helicopter pilot career ladder is more or less set in stone for new commercial pilots building flight time, but after that, it’s like a “choose your own adventure” book with the variety of missions that helicopters fly.
Helicopter flight instructors are always in demand and every helicopter pilot is an instructor at one point in their career. As a new commercial pilot with your instructor license, you’ll be passing down your recently acquired knowledge to new pilots. In doing so, you’ll be building valuable flight time. This flight time is necessary before moving on to other helicopter careers. Being a helicopter instructor also makes you a better pilot. You’ll need to refine your maneuvers in order to demonstrate them to new pilots. And those new pilots will present you with situations that really make you think on your feet!
Other than acting as a flight instructor, flying tours is probably the other helicopter pilot career that almost all helicopter pilots will eventually perform. The exciting thing about tours is the wide variety of locations available. And these locations are not the boring ones – they’re places like Kauai, the Grand Canyon, Alaska glaciers, and Lake Tahoe. Not to mention all of the international destinations! Every day you’ll be flying over scenery that tourists are paying top-dollar to experience. This is a great intermediate helicopter pilot career and aids in building flight time fast. Many pilots are ready to move on to higher-profile helicopter pilot careers after only one busy tour season.
Advanced Helicopter Pilot Careers
Building time as an instructor and tour pilot is necessary for many turbine jobs. One of the most rewarding civilian helicopter pilot careers is in the emergency services field. Whether it’s fire, medical, or law enforcement, you’ll go to bed satisfied knowing that you saved lives that day. These jobs are very demanding and will really put you to the test.
Wildfire helicopter pilots are often out in the field for weeks at a time during fire season, away from family and friends, flying through smoke all day and all night.
Emergency medical services pilots are on standby, watching TV, reading, or sleeping when the call comes in – then at the drop of a hat are required to pilot their helicopter through fog to land in an area just slightly larger than their rotor diameter, surrounded by telephone wires, and take a patient to a hospital.
Law enforcement pilots almost always need to spend some time on the street initially, meaning you’ll first have to go to a law enforcement academy. Do well on the ground and you’ll quickly find yourself in the air performing a variety of law enforcement tasks, which include highway patrols and search & rescue.
Outside of the emergency services sector, there are more helicopter missions than could possibly be covered here.
Some other examples of helicopter pilot careers:
- Getting footage for news outlets, also called Electronic News Gathering.
- Livestock mustering. Herding cattle in the cockpit of a helicopter rather than on the back of a horse!
- Aerial photography & cinematography. Some of the best footage in movies and television shows is shot from helicopters!
- Utilities surveying. Gas companies, telephone companies, and power companies require their transcontinental lines to be surveyed on a regular basis. Sometimes you’ll need to position your helicopter right next to tall wires so that a serviceman can make repairs in the air!
- Many helicopters are often used for personnel transport. This could be taking workers out to offshore oil platforms or chauffeuring the executive of a large national bank.
- A few more jobs would include agricultural crop spraying, logging, aerial construction, and heli-skiing.
Helicopter Pilots Are Totally Unique
Being a helicopter pilot is not like being an airline captain. Some jobs will allow you to settle in one area for life, but these helicopter careers are usually rare. More often than not you’ll be chasing jobs as old ones get phased out and new ones come up. You’ll have as much opportunity for diversity as you want to take. Some helicopter pilots have said that they’re the type of people who get restless staying in one spot for too long, and that’s why they chose a career as a helicopter pilot – the lifestyle perfectly fed their urge to travel, be on the move, and/or be challenged with new jobs regularly.
If this sounds exciting to you, now is a great time to start researching flight schools to begin your helicopter pilot career!