Becoming a Professional Helicopter Pilot
Pursuing a Career as a Professional Helicopter Pilot.
by Charlie Duchek, former Chief Pilot - Midwest Helicopter
Copyright 1999, Revised and Updated: April 2009
Not to be Copied or Reprinted Without Permission
So You Want to Become a Professional Helicopter Pilot?
Many people have dreamed their whole lives about flying helicopters for a living. There are few more exciting, challenging, or interesting jobs anywhere. Most people who do it love aviation and would not trade it for any other career. But because it IS a very desirable job, there are many people (perhaps like you) who aspire to fly helicopters as their life's work.
Realistically, it's not easy, quick, or inexpensive to gain the flying experience required to "get your foot in the door." If it were, there would be tens of thousands of helicopter pilots out flying for a living. And that's not the case. It's very important to understand that earning a Commercial Pilot certificate and other advanced FAA ratings is just the first step
down the road to becoming a Professional Helicopter pilot. But don't be discouraged!
What are the opportunities? What are the requirements? How long does it take? Where do you start? What does it cost? What kind of salaries do pilots earn? These are not simple questions with simple answers, so bear with me and read on.
Career Job Opportunities
There are some truly exciting jobs open to helicopter pilots. In the civilian area, there are opportunities with law enforcement, TV and radio news, traffic reporting, hospital patient transport, aerial photo, agricultural spraying, offshore oil work, heavy-lift, sightseeing, fire fighting, fish-spotting, pilot flight training, and corporate transportation -- just to name a few.
State and Federal governmental agencies also employ helicopter pilots for conservation, forestry, survey, research, search and rescue, etc. U.S. agencies like Customs, the Border Patrol, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), the FBI, and others hire (and sometimes train) professional helicopter pilots.
In the military area, all branches of the Armed Forces train helicopter pilots for a wide variety of jobs. The Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard all use helicopters in their day-to-day missions not only for combat and troop transport, but for search-and-rescue, anti-submarine patrols, and moving troops and material. First of all, however, you must understand that becoming a professional in ANY field requires a substantial investment of time, effort, and money. Careers that demand a college degree or extensive training in any skill or trade require years of effort, study, and often a substantial investment. Lawyers, scientists, engineers, and countless other professionals have to invest many years and tens of thousands of dollars in their educations just to meet the minimum entry-level requirements for their chosen life's work.
Craftsmen in the skilled-trades must do likewise and serve long apprenticeships (often at relatively low pay) to gain the experience needed to succeed. Becoming a professional helicopter pilot is no different. You must not only invest time, effort, and study in earning your ratings, you must then build flying "time" and experience (often referred to as 'paying your dues') in the helicopter in order to meet entry-level job requirements.
Two Alternative Routes to Go: Military or Civilian
In general, there are two routes to go: the military route or the civilian route. If your goal is to become a career military helicopter pilot, your first step is to visit with recruiters for the Armed Forces to explore the opportunities available at this time. The Services have restrictive educational, age, height, eyesight, and physical requirements that often do not apply to civilian helicopter pilots. Military training is excellent, but getting into one of the military's flight training programs is not easy, simply because there are a lot of applicants competing for a small number of flight training slots. Many of the Armed Forces require you to have a 4-year college degree to be admitted to flight training. In any case, some people have found that earning a civilian helicopter pilot rating FIRST is often a major advantage in being accepted into a military flight school, as long as they can meet the other requirements. It certainly puts one way ahead of those aspirants with NO flight training. But check with the recruiters about this route. Policies and rules for admission change constantly. Of course, there is no free lunch. In exchange for your training, all of the Armed Services will require a commitment on your part to serve for some number of years after you complete their flight training programs, even if you don't intend to make the military your lifetime career.
For most, civilian helicopter pilot training is the fastest and most logical option, but not the least expensive. In the United States, there are many excellent helicopter schools like Midwest Helicopter. In order to become a professional pilot, you must first earn your Rotorcraft-Helicopter Private Pilot Rating (or license) and then your Commercial Pilot Rating. (Please carefully study this Website at for the minimum requirements and costs to obtain those ratings). If you start helicopter pilot training "from scratch", you need a minimum of 150 hours of helicopter flying time and you will invest about $40,000 to $45,000 in your education and training for that Commercial license. (For just about the same investment and in the same 150-180 hours of training, you can also earn your Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) Rating, which we strongly recommend that you do). If you also earn your Instrument and Instrument Instructor (CFII) ratings, you will spend in the neighborhood of $55,000-$60,000 for all those ratings. See the link on our home page on "Training Programs and Rates." Midwest Helicopter offers a "Professional Pilot Program" for those seeking all the ratings we recommend to be the most employable you can be. (See more information under our 'Training' page on our site.
Special Message for Fixed-Wing Pilots
Note: if you already have at least 65 hours of Pilot-in-Command time in airplanes, you can earn a helicopter Commercial Pilot "Add-On" rating for approximately $20,000-$25,000. However, you will end up with a total of about 80-90 hours of helicopter flying experience as opposed to the 150 hours for the "normal" Commercial Helicopter Pilot. However, most employers and insurance companies don't give you any credit for your fixed-wing flying time and experience when you are seeking employment. Most are only concerned with your total hours of helicopter time and experience. So you might have 500 hours of airplane time and 200 hours of helicopter time, and they will only consider the 200 hours of helicopter time if you are applying for a helicopter-only position.
The Hardest Part: Obtaining Funds. Where Can You Get the Money$ ?
Where can you obtain the funds for your flight training? That's one of the most difficult issues for some pilots. Unfortunately, there are very few grants, scholarships, or other forms of "free" financial assistance available for pilot training. Even "student loans" available to college and university students seldom cover pilot training UNLESS YOU ARE ENROLLED IN AN AVIATION-RELATED COLLEGE PROGRAM LIKE THE U.V.S.C. PROGRAM OFFERED BY MIDWEST HELICOPTER (See more information below). Unless you have sizable funds available, financing pilot training is a problem that most pilots have to solve on their own, or with help from relatives or friends. (A note to Military Veterans covered by the G.I. Bill: The G.I. bill does not cover any costs for your initial Private Pilot Helicopter (or Airplane) Rating. For "advanced" ratings like Commercial Pilot, CFI, etc., the G.I. Bill usually covers 60% of your training expenses, the other 40% is your responsibility. Check with your local Veterans Benefits Administrator for details. Their toll-free number is 1-888-GIBILL-1 (1-888-442-4551)
Click Here for More Information on G.I. Bill Benefits
Generally, you will find it very difficult to borrow money from most banks or other financial institutions for pilot training. Most will treat is as an "unsecured" loan, and in most cases, it's difficult to get a unsecured loan for any significant amount. There are some private businesses that will make loans for flight training.
One company that Midwest works with is Pilot Finance Co. of Chicago, IL. You can link to their website and get more information from them at www.pilotfinance.com
The Aircraft Owner's and Pilot's Association (A.O.P.A.) also offers pilot training loans through the MBNA Bank. Click the link below for information A.O.P.A. Flight Training Funds Program:
Grants, Scholarships or Other Sources of "Free" Funds for Helicopter Pilot Training
It is not easy to find money for flight training. But that is a good thing in some ways. The bad news is that there are few (if any) grants or scholarships for beginning helicopter pilots that we at Midwest Helicopter are aware of, and we have been in this business a long time. The good news is that there are few (if any) grants or scholarships for beginning helicopter pilots that we are of. What do we mean by that?
We mean that the people who make the effort to earn or find a way to finance their own helicopter pilot training have an edge over those who don't. If there WERE a lot of grants, scholarships, or easy loans, then there would be a HUGE NUMBER of people training to be helicopter pilots so the competition for jobs would be fierce. Since it takes a lot of personal sacrifice to do it, there are consequently fewer people with the drive, desire, and commitment to become helicopter pilots. Work at it, find a way, and you'll be successful. Unfortunately there aren't many people or institutions out there to help you. In this industry, you have to do it on your own and "pay your dues."
Flight Experience and "Building Flight Time"
It is extremely important to understand that obtaining the Commercial and CFI ratings does not automatically make you employable or guarantee you a job. Most employers (driven by their insurance companies) demand at least 175-200 hours of flight experience to be considered for employment at an entry-level position.
Most entry-level jobs consist of flight training, aerial photo work, sightseeing rides, etc. Note that many Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies and other Government agencies require less experience than employers in the Private Sector, and often those agencies will pay for beginning, advanced, or continuing training. Most helicopter pilots enter the profession as flight instructors (CFIs), which helps them earn money while "building time" and flying experience. Unfortunately, becoming a professional pilot of any kind demands flying experience or "hours." The more flying experience you have, the more employable you are. The highest paying jobs go to those, in general, with the most flight time.
And getting that experience (or "paying your dues") requires a serious investment of time and money. The good news is that 5 or 10 years ago, helicopter pilots needed about 500 hours of flight experience as a practical matter in the "real world" to be employable. Now that number is down to about 175-200 hours, as I mentioned above. The "better" paying jobs may require 500-1000 hours of flight time, and the "best" paying (and most prestigious) civilian jobs, like EMS (Emergency Medical Service) piloting jobs often require 1500-2000 hours or more, with minimum amounts of "turbine-time" or experience in flying helicopters with jet or "turbine" engines, in some cases.
The name of the game is accumulating flight hours and experience. Pilots call this "building time." How do you "build time" to qualify for the better and higher-paying jobs in the industry? Typically, a pilot will try to get an entry-level job at a flight school as a Helicopter Flight Instructor (CFI). These are lower-paying jobs but allow a pilot to gain valuable flight time and experience that someone else is paying for. A CFI might only be paid $20-$30 per hour of flight instruction, but can "log" an hour of flight experience as a flight instructor (at the student's expense) that might otherwise cost $200.
Many flight schools also perform aerial photography and offer tours or rides, allowing low-time Commercial pilots to gain even more flight time and experience. Other pilots have even purchased their own helicopters and offered flight instruction, aerial photo, sightseeing, etc. to "build time." It's expensive, but not as expensive as renting a helicopter from a business that has to cover overhead, salaries, etc.
And, if you look around on the internet and in helicopter magazines, there are often opportunities to build time by paying a company to "ride along" and fly with another pilot on a pipeline or power line inspection contract. These companies often charge you much less to build flight time in that way than you would pay to rent an aircraft. If you train with Midwest, we can guide and advise you on a number of ways to build your flight time for the better jobs out in the "real-world."
The Dream of Becoming an EMS (Emergency Medical Services) Pilot
Probably one of the most sought-after helicopter piloting jobs is flying for a hospital helicopter transport service. To many, an EMS piloting job is the pinnacle of success. These jobs are exciting. EMS flights often involve saving lives or transporting critical patients for emergency treatment. There is a tremendous amount of prestige, pride, and satisfaction in these jobs. The pay is some of the highest in the industry. The hours are often desirable, too. EMS pilots usually work like firemen, a few days "on-duty," then a few days "off-duty." When a pilot is on-duty or on-call, he or she normally lives with the medical crew and the helicopter. The crews are often called to emergencies on a moment's notice, often to accident sites where critically injured patients are picked up, stabilized by the medical crew, and transported immediately by air to a trauma center. As mentioned above, however, you must have quite a bit of experience to qualify for an EMS helicopter piloting position. EMS (Emergency Medical Service) piloting jobs often require 2000 hours of flight experience or more, with minimum amounts of "turbine-time" (or experience in flying helicopters with jet or "turbine" engines). Most EMS jobs also require a pilot to have at least a Helicopter Commercial Certificate and an Instrument Rating (see below).
The Helicopter Instrument Rating: Now Effectively a Necessity
To be employed as a professional airplane pilot, an instrument rating is mandatory, because airplanes (large and small) often fly in clouds or in limited-visibility weather conditions and land at airports specially equipped to make landing in "bad" weather. That's not necessarily so in flying helicopters, however. Many career jobs don't require a helicopter instrument rating. Unlike small airplanes, very few small helicopters are equipped for actual flight in the clouds, or in what's called "IMC," Instrument Meteorological Conditions. Most helicopter missions are not into airports with "instrument approaches," but rather into off-airport landing sites. You might be very surprised to learn that a high percentage of older helicopter pilots don't have an instrument rating.
Today, however, most EMS jobs, jobs flying off-shore to oil rigs, and Corporate helicopter jobs DO REQUIRE an instrument rating. Should you obtain an instrument rating somewhere in your training? Nowdays, it is probably a very good idea (if not mandatory), since more and more professional positions are making an instrument rating a condition of initial employment. The best time to get your instrument training is when you are working on your Commercial Pilot Certificate. Since you need 150 hours of flight time for the Commercial, why not dedicate 40 hours of that required training time to obtaining your helicopter instrument "ticket?" It will never hurt you in your career. Sometimes it depends on what your career goals are. Are you shooting for a job that might require an instrument rating or not? All U.S. military pilots currently undergo mandatory helicopter instrument training.
Career Change and Age Issues
I receive a very large number of e-Mails from people asking "how old is too old" to get started on a career path to becoming a professional helicopter pilot. I myself did not start training until I was 40 years old, and did not start flying full-time (when I started Midwest Helicopter) until I was 47. Is that too late? I don't know. That's a personal decision that each person has to make. Are you in good health? Will you most likely be in good health for some time in the future? Do you have the financial resources and time available to obtain the minimum number of helicopter hours (about 200) in a reasonable period of time, or will it take you many years, like it took me? It's my opinion that somewhere around 45-50 is where a person starting from scratch might begin to question whether or not it's a good idea to pursue flying helicopters for a living or as a professional career. Many of the e-Mails I get are from people who hate their present jobs and believe flying helicopters would be an interesting and exciting career, which it is. There's nothing wrong with a career change, but approach it with your eyes wide open, knowing that it won't be inexpensive, quick or easy, as I explain here. But if you're over 50 and want to go for it, don't let me stop you. You only go around once in this life. Don't let me or anyone else tell you what to do or when to do it!
Physical Size / Height / Weight Issues: Robinson vs. Schweizer Training Helicopters
The most common primary flight training helicopter is the Robinson R-22, which is the aircraft most people learn in, and the one of the two types of helicopters we use here at Midwest. There is a 240-pound seat weight limit in the R-22 for safety reasons. The Robinson R-44, Enstrom, Schweizer, and Bell-47 Helicopters can accommodate larger pilots but it normally costs a little more to train in those aircraft. If you are a larger person than about 200-210 pounds and 6 feet-2 inches or taller, you might find it harder to become employed as a Certified Flight Instructor in an R-22, because you would be limited by weight-and-balance issues as to how large your own flight training students could be. And, a few companies (like EMS operators) might have a maximum weight limit (like 200 lbs) as a condition for hiring because of weight and balance issues in the aircraft they fly.
The Future Job Market
What does the job market for helicopter pilots look like in the future? According to most of the trade magazines, future prospects for employment are very good. Many of the best civilian helicopter jobs are now held by pilots trained by the Armed Services for the Vietnam war. The Services trained tens of thousands of pilots for that conflict. Returning pilots were very experienced and often had thousands of hours of flying time.
However, most of these "baby boomer" pilots are now in their late fifties and early sixties and or retiring or will be retiring in the next 5-10 years. The services have not trained nearly as many pilots since then, and many of the pilots they have trained are getting out of the service with only a few hundred hours of experience, making civilian-trained pilots more attractive and competitive in the helicopter job market. The military services are also requiring pilots to stay in longer and giving them more incentives to stay in the Services and make it a career, so fewer are opting to leave the Armed Services. So pilots with fewer hours of experience will become more employable as the pool of "high time" pilots shrinks. (See salary information below).
Where Can You Obtain More Info and Data on Salaries for Helicopter Pilots?
Click on the Link Below.
CFI Jobs and Other Job Placement Issues
Many flight training schools will imply that they will not only help you find a job when you finish their "program," but also give you the impression they have an "in" with large helicopter employers and imply that you are virtually insured a good-paying starting position when you "graduate" from their training programs.
Others will lead you to believe that if you go through their entire program, they will hire you as an on-staff Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) and Commercial pilot as soon as you graduate. You will be told that they hire only from their graduates, and they might very well. HOWEVER, be VERY, VERY CAREFUL in what you are told and "sold" and what you believe. Think about it! I don't know of ANY school that can hire all of their Flight Instructor graduates. And if they have an experienced staff and low turn-over, why would they hire a low-time CFI / Pilot if they don't need additional staff? No one grows that quickly. As with looking for a job in any industry, YOU have a bigger vested interest in finding YOURSELF a job than the training facility does.
Most reputable flight-training facilities can give you a lot of good advice on how to go about looking for a job, where to look, current aviation job web-sites, and where the demand is at the point in time you are employable. You find they won't put many of their promises in writing. Let the buyer beware!! Remember the old saying that "if it sounds too good to be true . . . it probably is."
Summary of My Opinions
The purpose of this article is to give you realistic and honest advice about how to begin a career as a Professional Helicopter Pilot. The information here is based on our experience at Midwest Helicopter and our opinions. Don't make any decisions based just on our opinions and recommendations alone. Seek out other opinions and talk with experienced helicopter pilots for their input. But BE CAREFUL! As in any profession, some unethical operators might paint an unreasonably optimistic picture for you just to sign you up and take your money.
But don't be discouraged. Like anything else worth doing, it take time, effort, investment, and commitment. If you're fairly young and have always dreamed of becoming a professional helicopter pilot, YOU CAN DO IT! It's not inexpensive, quick or easy, and it's not for everyone. You have to love to fly helicopters, as I and most helicopter pilots do.
If it were cheap and easy, everyone would be a helicopter pilot, just because it's one of the most challenging, exciting, and enjoyable careers you could pursue. You'll probably never become rich, but you won't spend the rest of your life in a job you don't like, just because that job was easy to get and keep.
Charlie Duchek, former Chief Pilot and Flight Instructor for
Midwest Aeronautical Training, Inc. d/b/a Midwest Helicopter, Inc.
Copyright March 2009
Other Questions? Call Midwest Toll-Free at (866) 532-5613