Looking for an exciting aviation career? Forget airplanes and fly something that doesn’t need a runway! A career as a helicopter pilot will afford you the ability to travel all over the world and get paid to do things that seem like they only come out of the movies.
But the first step – you need to get your commercial helicopter license.
If you want to fly helicopters, getting a commercial helicopter license is more or less mandatory unless you’re swimming in money. Unlike general aviation airplanes, helicopters cost much more to rent (around $250/hr just for a two-seater) and have more stringent insurance requirements. And this is after the more expensive training. This makes helicopter flying a hobby for the rich, whereas the rest of us need to find another way to fly them. But why complain about an opportunity to get paid to do it?
What You Can Do With Your Commercial Helicopter License
Many helicopter jobs require a fair amount of time in the cockpit to be eligible. But it is possible for you to start making money almost immediately after getting your commercial helicopter license.
Some schools have tour operations going on in addition to flight instruction, and pilots can start flying tours in piston helicopters after receiving their certificate.
Many commercial helicopter students will also go directly into flight instructor training, and this is a great way to build hours for a couple of years before transitioning to jobs in larger turbines.
From there, your imagination is the limit. Fly medical supplies into the African bush. Drop off scientists in the Arctic. Fight fires. Make movies. What do you want to do?
Steps in Getting Your Commercial Helicopter License
The first thing you should do is research schools. And don’t pick a school based on the price! This can get you in trouble with substandard training and/or safety.
You should be prepared to move if needed – don’t pick a school just because it’s close to home either. You should actually make visits out to these schools and interview the staff. Ask about their safety record, job placement opportunities after training, and get some feedback from some of the other students. Check out their equipment also, both simulators and the actual aircraft. Are they clean and in a presentable condition? This reflects greatly on the school. Some schools may have financing available either directly or offered through a third party, and you should inquire about this too if you’ll need financing.
Once you decide on a school, the next step is the actual training. If you already have your private helicopter license or are starting from scratch, be prepared for a lot of study and hard work! You should really put as much focus as you can into the training – this will set you up for success further down the road.
Here are the requirements for your commercial helicopter license, straight from the Federal Aviation Regulations:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Be able to read, speak, and write English
- Be endorsed from an instructor who certifies that you are prepared for the written knowledge test
- Pass a written knowledge test
- Be endorsed from an instructor who certifies that they conducted your required training and that you are ready for the practical test (the check ride)
- Meet aeronautical experience requirements outlined in the regulations (flying time and conditions)
- Pass the practical test (check ride)
- Hold at least a private pilot certificate
- Comply with all applicable Federal Aviation Regulations
The aeronautical knowledge required for the test includes things like airspace definitions, aviation weather, emergency procedures, aircraft systems, and so on. You will learn all of this in ground training and/or a home study course.
Your are required to have at a minimum 150 hours of flight time (aeronautical experience) that includes:
- 100 hours in powered aircraft, 50 of which is in helicopters
- 100 hours of pilot-in-command time, which includes:
- 35 hours in helicopters
- 10 hours cross-country flight in helicopters
- 20 hours of training which includes:
- 5 hours training of flying the helicopter by only reference to instruments
- One 2-hour cross-country during the day, longer than 50 miles
- One 2-hour cross-country during nighttime, longer than 50 miles
- Three hours preparing for the test with an instructor within 2 months of the practical test
- 10 hours of solo flight (an instructor may also be present) which includes:
- One cross-country, landing at three points, with one segment longer than 50 miles
- 5 hours of night flying with 10 takeoffs and 10 landings
The numbers may seem big, but it goes by fast! You can also combine certain requirements, like doing some of your instrument flying training during one of your cross-country flights. So long as you have the total 150 hours of flight time, you’re good.
Costs for Getting Your Commercial Helicopter License
This is a common question for students seeking their commercial helicopter license, but it’s not an easy one to answer based on all the variables.
For one, fuel costs vary around the country. Second, different operators are looking for different profit margins and this has a big impact on the variation in pricing. Third, other operating costs are factored in also, such as the school’s hangar rental, insurance premiums, employee wages, etc.
And finally, a lot of it depends on YOU. The minimums are just that, minimums. Don’t be upset if your instructor won’t sign you off at exactly 150 hours! It’s very rare for a student pilot to get signed off at the bare minimum. And instructors won’t just keep you flying so that they can make a buck – they were in your shoes once upon a time also and want to keep costs down for you.
One great way to keep costs down is to keep your training consistent – don’t take breaks for weeks at a time because that will set you back slightly with each break. Flying a few days a week is a great pace – enough to keep you on top of your training but not too much to get burned out. It is reasonable to get your license in approximately 9 months at this pace, starting from zero experience.
If you’re looking for a ballpark figure, a private pilot license will cost you around $12,000-$15,000 and a commercial helicopter license on top of that will cost another $30,000-$33,000. So, somewhere between $42,000-$48,000. Again, that varies greatly from school to school and with student progression.
After You Get Your Commercial Helicopter License
Don’t stop there! As we mentioned previously, working as a flight instructor is a great way, if not the best way, for new commercial helicopter pilots to build hours required by other employers. Flying as an instructor also makes you a better pilot. It’s great résumé fodder when you go for that next job.
Having an instrument rating is another piece of the puzzle that employers are looking for. While most helicopter pilots won’t actually fly in instrument meteorological conditions during their careers, having instrument training again makes you a better pilot and shows employers that you’re dedicated to becoming the best pilot. It’s another great investment that will pay dividends in the future.
And never stop studying! The brain can only hold a finite amount of information, not to mention that a lot of that information changes with the industry.
The bottom line: getting your commercial helicopter license requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but you’ll have one of the most satisfying, intense, fun jobs that you can imagine!