Planning Your Helicopter Pilot Career
Dr. Mary Ann O’Grady
Whether contemplating a helicopter pilot career or seeking a private rotorcraft pilot’s license, flying helicopters is like nothing most students have ever done or will ever do during their lifetimes. Prospective pilots of both genders are entering the field every single day from their late teens into their 50s and older. Earning a helicopter pilot’s license may be an exciting and challenging endeavor, but just like any other worthwhile endeavor, the achievement of earning that rotorcraft pilot’s license(s) requires a great deal of commitment, dedication, hard work, and a financial investment. On more than one occasion, it has been suggested that a rotorcraft pilot does not actually fly his or her helicopter, but rather they think their helicopter since this skill requires a major amount of eye-hand coordination but with minimal physiological movements.
In general, there are two paths to seeking a helicopter pilot career, and they are the civilian flight path or a military career. If you are contemplating the latter option, check for additional information which may be available through a university that offers flight training. For the purposes of this article, the focus will remain on the civilian flight path.
For the purpose of licensing, all professional helicopter pilots must hold a Commercial Rotorcraft License. However, almost all of these pilots have also obtained their Certificated Flight Instructor’s (CFI) credentials and many also have obtained their instrument rating. The typical licensing progression for professional helicopter pilots moves through Student, Private, Commercial, and CFI but many of these pilots will earn their instrument rating between the Private and Commercial certifications. The instrument rating may not be mandatory, but it is increasingly becoming a major benefit or requirement to access better jobs while creating a safer pilot overall. For all levels of licensure, flight training includes ground school and a demonstration of the practical application of these skills, and helicopter flight training is substantially more expensive than fixed wing or airplane training. This is due to the high cost of acquiring or purchasing, operating, maintaining, and insuring helicopters.
Although these costs had been historically significantly higher than fixed-wing flight training, they have risen more steeply since 9/11/2001. All pilots, from student on, are required by the FAA to pass a structured medical exam that is administered by an FAA approved physician which includes measuring healthy body function in addition to a hearing and vision testing. Although vision does not to be perfect, it must be correctable with lenses to a relatively high level, and color perception is also important. Certain red flag areas, such as a history of drug abuse, psychological disorders, heart problems or conditions that would cause a lapse in consciousness also raise cause for concern during FAA medical exams.
For each level of helicopter pilot license, there are minimum FAA flight time requirements. For example, the Private Pilot License requires a minimum of 20 hours of dual instruction and 10 hours of solo time; however, 30-50 hours of dual time is much more realistic to ensure pilot competency. In general, flight time with an instructor costs in the range of $200/hour, and $150-$175/hour solo time with ground time costing approximately $30-$40/hour. These calculations suggest that it will cost between $10,000 and $15,000 to earn a private pilot’s license for rotorcraft. In comparison, a commercial rotorcraft license requires that the pilot has a minimum of 150 total hours, and 100 hours of (PIC) Pilot In Command time. This can be earned by flying solo in pursuit of the Private License and any time thereafter when acting as PIC even when receiving flight instruction. Calculating these figures indicates that the cost of obtaining a commercial rotorcraft license costs an additional $18,000 to $20,000. Fixed wing pilots have an advantage here because a portion of their time can be applied to their on-add rotorcraft license which saves them time and money.
The benefits of making such a large investment in pursuing a dream of flying helicopters for a living are substantial. One big benefit is the diverse range of career opportunities for qualified rotorcraft pilots depending on geographical locations: aerial photography and filming, aerial stock mustering, scenic “joyflights” or discovery flights for the tourism industry, bushfire fighting, powerline surveys, marine pilot transfers, search and rescue (SAR), police air work, emergency medical service (HEMS), corporate flights and general charter service, agricultural crop spraying and livestock herding, media news and traffic reporting, and offshore (oil industry) services. Helicopter pilots are also in demand globally, so employment options exist virtually anywhere on the planet with a variety of salary ranges and an optimistic projection for employment in the future. However, keep in mind that accessing a current monetary exchange rate is usually a wise idea when considering employment in a foreign country. Also, verify the requirements for helicopter pilots’ licensing since they may be different in foreign countries from the FAA requirements in the United States.
Typically the work activities dictated by a helicopter pilot career in business, leisure or emergency response jobs would include: checking weather conditions, airspace restrictions and route planning; filing flight plans with authorities; calculating fuel requirements, weight and balance; conducting a flight check on the helicopter’s equipment and instruments; performing safety checks; and gaining clearance from ATC (air traffic control) for takeoff. During the flight, pilots are required to communicate, navigate and aviate or fly the helicopter, and post-flight they are required to complete all paperwork prior to preparing for the next flight including the duty hours log. There are strict guidelines governing the maximum number of flying hours, but the flight duties may include flying days, nights, weekends or a combination thereof since corporate or business flying often demands “standby” status. Some jobs requiring longer distances may involve overnight stays away from home that may or may not include paid allowances for these overnight stays or visits to more inhospitable areas. Although those that choose a helicopter pilot career enjoy the challenge, they soon realize that much of their flight time is spent in a cockpit where the conditions tend to be cramped and noisy, and when working as an offshore pilot or as a pilot in a similar environment, they are expected to don a survival suit. So, it is wise to consider not only the work activities that are a good fit for a helicopter pilot career but also the working hours and conditions before submitting that employment application.
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