Is Your Future Up In The Air?

What does a professional helicopter pilot look like? A buttoned-down ex military man with a crew cut, starched collar with a steely gleam in his eyes? A former hippy candle maker with a bushy beard and wrinkled clothing that still smells faintly of patchouli? A 40-something former pipefitter with two kids in college and a mid-life crisis?

The truth is, there is no single type, color, creed or sex who has the tenacity and singleness of purpose to do what it takes to eventually grab the brass ring. We’ve seen all ages and professions (okay, no lion tamers so far) come through the school. Some work hard, apply themselves and eventually succeed; others don’t. The fact is no one but you can determine whether or not a flying career is your future.

So before you rearrange your life, go in debt to your eyelids and possibly alienate family and friends, think about what you’re planning to do. Certainly a helicopter pilot career can be challenging and rewarding, but are you cut out for the job? It’s one thing to be excited and motivated after taking a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon or Kauai’s Na Pali Coast; it’s another thing entirely to be in the pilot’s seat, in bad weather, responsible for a multi-million dollar aircraft and a dozen lives.

There’s no way this or any other guide can definitively answer the question. The only way to know if you have what it takes to become a professional pilot is to ask yourself hard questions and then listen carefully to your heart for the answers.

Here, then, are some issues for you to consider before you pull the trigger:

And by this, we don’t mean, “Do you have that much money in the bank?” Face it: most of us would be hard pressed to come up with 70-thousand dollars, even if we spent every spare moment helping out at the car wash and collecting empties for recycling. Conventional wisdom dictates that you take out a loan and then pay it back over the course of the next dozen years. But the fiscal conservatives among us will argue that the money, or most of it, should be saved ahead of time to lessen the subsequent debt burden.

Raising the cash necessary for training can be the single hardest thing to accomplish on your road to becoming a pilot. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice: talk to other pilots and ask them how they did it. Search on line for scholarships and grants, research which lending institutions will offer you the best interest rate, and don’t give up. The path you’re about to choose requires a steadfast resolve and now is the time to develop character.

You’d think that most people would have carefully weighed their options and figured this out by the time they’re ready to start their flight training but sadly that is not the case. Sure, flying a helicopter is fun and challenging but it also is laden with responsibility and can be dangerous. Are you psychologically prepared for a job that places your life and the lives of others on the line? Will you be able to remain calm in turbulent weather or if you have an in-flight emergency? Captain Chesley Sullenberger demonstrated that he had the right stuff when he made a dead stick landing in the Hudson River; imagine the consequences if he’d frozen at the controls.

We had a student sign on for the full professional pilot program and take out a big loan only to discover in his first few flights that the little Robinson R-22 scared the hell out of him. Do yourself a favor and consider all your options before signing on; make certain that this is what you want to do above all else.

Okay, you’ve had your heart-to-heart with yourself and all our negative haranguing can’t seem to dissuade you from your chosen course. Good. And if you’re young and single and independently wealthy, there’s not much else to consider. But if you have a partner and/or you’re depending upon family to help you financially, it’s essential to have them supportive of your goal. We had one student whose mother would call almost weekly to check on the safety of her son, “He’s not doing anything dangerous is he?”

As a matter of fact, practicing autorotations is statistically one of the more dangerous things you can do in a helicopter, but it’s safer than not doing them and hoping you’ll never have an engine failure. Helicopter flight training is potentially hazardous. The mother simply wanted reassurance that her son would live to see his next birthday. He did and now he’s flying for ERA in the Gulf of Mexico.

If your wife or girlfriend (or husband or boyfriend) is adamantly opposed to your flight training it’s going to make a difficult task nearly impossible. We had another student who was at the top of his game and when he began instructing, he showed that he was a lion for work: he’d be at the school for very long days, nights and weekends too, to get his hours. His wife was not happy with his direction and schedule and eventually asked him for a divorce. Make sure your support network is just that: supportive of your desire to become a professional pilot.

Strange question, and for most people, this is not an issue. But you owe it to yourself to ask whether or not you are suited to the task at hand. Just about any instructor you can ask will know of someone who had not soloed after well over 100 hours of instruction. Flying a helicopter requires greater skill and mental alertness than driving a car and look at how many truly bad drivers there are on the road. This is not to discourage you but to ask you to honestly assess your motor skills and aptitude. If you find it difficult to chew gum and walk or are vexed by the TV remote, perhaps you should consider another line of work.

The science and math of helicopter flight are pretty straight forward…just be aware that there is a whole lot of material to digest. If you haven’t been to school in a while or if you never got along real well in the halls of academia, you might want to consider whether or not you’ll have the patience, resolve and academic wherewithal to plow through dozens of books and stay on course. This is especially true when it comes time to build your Certified Flight Instructor book, the collection of materials you will use to train students of your own. Collecting and organizing this material requires a steadfast and dogged effort and is not for the weak of spirit.

By now you’re starting to get the idea that becoming a professional pilot is work, lots of hard, brain-numbing work. What planted this idea in your mind to begin with? If you have wanted to fly helicopters since you were knee-high to a tadpole, then there’s a good chance you’re prepared to give the training process all your energy. But if this is a lark, an idea proposed to you by a friend or acquaintance that sounds like more fun than hanging drywall for a living, take a deep breath and understand what’s involved. Being a professional pilot is more than a career…it is a passion, a way of life. It requires sacrifice, both personal and financial, and it will require every bit of determination you can muster.

We see students of all stripes come through the school; all are anxious to start flying and enthusiastic about their training. But as the weeks go by it becomes clear which students are truly prepared for the training, those who are dedicated and motivated, and those who are not. If you choose to become a pilot, place everything else on hold while you train. To do anything less is doing yourself a disservice.

Our intent here is not to necessarily discourage you from becoming a pilot but to give you a clearer idea of what’s involved in the flight training process. If you are satisfied that your answers to the above questions make you a good candidate, then by all means enroll in a flight school and get started. Flying helicopters for a living can be an enormously satisfying and rewarding career. Your helicopter is waiting.

Helicopter Careers

In a perfect world, flight instructors would be the grizzled veterans of the helicopter world, multi-thousand hour pros with twenty or thirty years of flying under their belts. The fact of the matter is that the least experienced pilots are the ones training even newer pilots.

Flight schools (and their students) simply can’t afford to pay someone 90-thousand dollars a year to instruct, so it falls to the freshly minted CFIs of the world to teach the next generation of pilots how to fly. Of all the jobs listed here, flight instruction is the only one available to pilots with 200 hours total time.

A new CFI’s first few instructional flights are truly pucker time: you’re turning the controls over to someone who doesn’t know how to fly and it can be nerve wracking as well as scary. But flight instruction is one of the only options available to new pilots to build those all-important hours. Likely this will be your first job as well.  And just think of the stories you’ll have by the time you’re done.

Ever since 9/11, there has been a greater emphasis on using helicopters in law enforcement. But the trend towards outfitting local police and sheriff departments with helicopters began well before then. That’s because as these aerial units are put to work, municipalities across the country have come to realize and appreciate their incredible utility. Also, many outfits received Army surplus helicopters free from the Fed, in which case starting an aerial unit was a no brainer. In larger cities, it’s not uncommon for a police department to have a half-dozen or more helicopters. L.A.P.D. has something like twenty helicopters.

Most of these units require that you first become a police officer before flying for the department, but it’s not impossible for a civilian to find one of these jobs. Some departments will contract outside pilots to fly for them, perhaps requiring attendance at the police academy or engaging in daily police work prior to climbing into the cockpit. One prospective pilot who wanted to fly for a police department in the Northeast was required to become an officer first and discovered that he actually liked police work more than flying. Go figure.

The work can be exciting, as you would expect, but it also entails many hours of relatively dull flying. Unlike many commercial pilot jobs, the law enforcement pilot will enjoy a variety of missions and an occasional shift that he or she will tell their grandchildren about.

These are the people who make other pilots jealous: their work seems to change by the day. One minute they’re out looking for a lost hiker, the next they’re dipping their Bambi bucket into a swimming pool and zooming up to drench a ridgeline fire. It is demanding work that requires a pilot with lots of experience…and it’s a role custom made for helicopters. Imagine plucking an exhausted swimmer out of flood waters and out of trouble, or radioing ground units to get them into better positions to fight a brush fire. This is useful, life-saving work.

Many fire departments, like their police counterparts, require that you first become a fire fighter before flying for the department. While it’s a reasonable requirement, it certainly raises the bar for individuals interested in this line of work. After all, passing the exams and getting hired by the fire department in the first place is no slam dunk. But for the right candidate there is no finer job.

What’s it like to land on top of a skyscraper in New York or Montreal or Munich? What’s it like to be on call for captains of industry, high profile politicians and successful entertainers? The executive charter pilot works in a rarified environment, a world where precious minutes count and where the clientele is well heeled, well informed and often quite demanding. The job is not without its challenges: some people do not like to take “no” for an answer, even when the weather is clearly atrocious and flying anywhere would be folly. On the other hand, you’d be flying some of the most sophisticated, well-equipped and well-maintained aircraft available.

There is an example of two people who flew for a wealthy individual and seemed to have it made: the client owned a large estate upon which sat a smaller house that he let them live in, rent free. He paid them well and asked only that one or the other of them would be available 24/7 to fly either his MD Explorer or his Lear jet. It seemed an idyllic situation: they didn’t fly all that much and had loads of free time, or so it seemed.

Only, as they explained after they’d both left the job, it wasn’t all that great.

“Well, it’s true,” one said, “We didn’t fly all that often.” In looking back, they’d flown just a few days the previous month. But they were constantly on call. The owner might call them at six o’clock in the evening and say, “We’re taking the Lear to Mexico City tomorrow at daybreak. Set it up.” So, there was no true relaxation, no down time. The novelty of flying a wealthy man around soon wore off and within eighteen months, they’d both quit.

The truth is, every job in the world has its good points and bad and there is no perfect situation. This one seemed so and it probably could have been close to Nirvana for the right individual. As is true with so many jobs, it’s all in what you’re made of and what you want out of life.

Television stations in the nation’s larger metropolitan areas, say the top 75 markets in the country, commonly employ a news gathering helicopter as part of their arsenal. News ratings depend upon getting the story on the air first and nothing beats a helicopter for getting to the scene ahead of everyone else.

Flying a news helicopter can be a rewarding career; just ask the men and women so employed. For some smaller stations, where the task of reporting is sometimes left to the pilot, the job offers a unique combination of duties: communicator, journalist and aviator.

The big draw to flying a news bird is, of course, the rush of being the first on the scene of a breaking news story. Whether it’s an earthquake, tsunami, car chase, hostage situation, structure fire, train derailment or other disaster, you’ll have an aerial view, great camera shots and the inside scoop on the story as it happens. Imagine the thrill of having your shots make it on to network news.

More likely, however, your days will be filled with the ordinary: traffic and weather reports. Generally, news pilots are expected to cover morning and evening rush hours and to be on call in the middle of the day in order to handle any breaking stories. You’ll log plenty of hours and get to know the freeways in your city very well.

Sometimes, in order to maximize resources, radio stations will also contract with the news helicopter to provide traffic and news reports. Having done this myself, I can attest to the fact that it can be fun chatting on the air with your local DJ and being recognized in the community as a trustworthy source. The work schedule for a news pilot however, by definition, means long days. Add to that the fact that many, many pilots are drawn to news due to the perceived celebrity, and this translates to lower pay. And the vagaries of television news today, what with declining viewership, revenues and budgets mean that this is not the most secure position you can find.

This is not a job for a pilot fresh out of flight school. The world of the EMS pilot is at once tremendously rewarding and exceptionally challenging, with pilots regularly facing dangerous conditions in order to save lives. EMS pilots are generally considered to be among the elite of all helicopter pilots given the nature and the stakes involved in their work. Most major cities and many rural areas are now served by EMS helicopters. The job is exactly what you would expect: take the call, get airborne as soon as possible, land in an unfamiliar and occasionally hazardous spot, then get the victim(s) back to the trauma center as quickly as the laws of physics allow.

Often the EMS crew is called to an accident scene where the pilot must analyze in moments the safest approach, avoid obstructions and put the aircraft down safely no matter the wind, weather or the time of day or night. And while it is understandably satisfying for these pilots to be instrumental in saving lives, they regularly put their lives and the lives of their crew at considerable risk. EMS accident statistics back this up: EMS flying has received intense scrutiny in recent years as the accident and fatality rates have soared.

Still, the attraction to this job is undeniable. EMS pilots in general fly top notch equipment and work in a professional environment. One drawback is the relative lack of flying: calls are typically infrequent and the flights are brief. A friend of mine who flies EMS often comments that he’s not flying enough to stay sharp; the company recently increased its allocation of training flight hours.

EMS pilot requirements are among the most stringent in the industry with employers looking for pilots with at least 2,500- 3,000 total time with a minimum of 1,000 hours in turbine helicopters. Big pluses to the job include plenty of downtime, with more than adequate vacation days, with a steady schedule and secure work environment.

The oil and natural gas industries are perhaps the largest employers of helicopter pilots in the world. Every day, in near and far parts of the globe, hundreds and hundreds of helicopters are ferrying workers to oil rigs or geologists to exploration sites. The industry has a seemingly insatiable demand for more air lift capacity, primarily with medium and large helicopters, and presents an ongoing employment opportunity for pilots.

Naturally, the industry is vulnerable to global demand for natural resources and the price swings inherent therein. The price of oil peaked in July of 2008 at $147.29 a barrel. At that time, the oil companies couldn’t pump oil from the ground fast enough to meet demand and cash in on the situation: they were hiring pilots at an unprecedented rate. Since those halcyon days, however, a newly sober industry cut back on hiring pilots and even resorted to layoffs. All things are cyclical, however, and as the price of a barrel of oil rises once more, so do the employment prospects of pilots wanted to break into the industry.

As the situation stands in November of 2009, operators are requiring a minimum of 1,000 hours PIC time but this requirement changes with conditions and needs. Occasionally you’ll see companies asking for 1,250 or 1,500 hours, at other times they may actually relax their minimums to below 1,000 hours. You’ll also need an instrument rating.

It takes a special breed of pilot to fly scenic tours. Certainly the job sounds romantic, being able to cruise over the south rim of the Grand Canyon, land on the Mendenhall Glacier or to explore Kauai’s magnificent Na Pali coast. And the work is not particularly demanding as the course is set in advance and is generally flown in good weather. The reality is, however, that flying a tour helicopter means following the same route and saying the same things over and over again, as many as eight times a day (or, in the case of helicopters flying around the Statue of Liberty on an eight-minute mini tour, dozens of times daily), and the life of a tour pilot can be monotonous.

Tour pilots must be personable, engaging and provide passengers with an historical and informative tour. The more entertaining the tour, the better tips the pilot receives. Don’t expect to earn the same money flying tour over Dubuque as you would London.

Chiefly used in Northern Australia and in the American Southwest, mustering cattle by helicopter started becoming popular after the Vietnam War. Ranchers discovered that, in many cases, helicopters were more efficient and cost effective herding cattle than riders on horseback. Farmers likewise discovered that helicopters could deliver fertilizers and pesticides more effectively than fixed-wing aircraft.

In both applications, the nature of the work requires pilots to have above average situational awareness: in ag work, there is always the specter of power lines and other obstructions; for cattle operations, pilots are also working close to the ground but they have stubborn cattle to contend with in hot, dusty conditions among spindly trees that are often hard to see against the ground or other trees. The prospect of a tail-rotor hitting something is very real. It helps to be familiar with the local terrain, have a keen sense of where the wind is coming from, and to be able to handle the aircraft equally well in calm or gusty conditions.

If it sounds dangerous that’s because it is. To top it off, the pay isn’t all that great. But, these jobs could be just the thing for the adventurous pilot who wants to build hours. These days, the most popular aircraft used in mustering is the Robinson R-22, primarily because it’s cheap to acquire and maintain. The venerable Bell 47 still soldiers on in ag work because of its payload capability.

The use of helicopters for fishing support goes back to the early days of helicopters themselves. As soon as the Bell 47 and the Hughes 269 were available in the commercial market, they were seen as an excellent aerial platform to improve the efficiency of fishing boats, reducing trip lengths and increasing the profitability of this activity. Today, fishing fleets are mainly serviced by Hughes 500, Bell 206 Rangers, Robinson R-22s and R-44s, and the old Bell 47.

It’s not easy work and the crew, often non-English speaking, will sometimes hold the pilot personally responsible if there are no fish to be found. Landing on a tuna boat in rough seas with unpredictable wind is risky and demands all of your skill and concentration. Then again, fish spotting jobs are frequently available to pilots with 500 hours total time or less. What’s more, many boats employ JetRangers and Hughes 500s, affording relatively low-time pilots the opportunity to log all-important turbine time.

With the advent of Extreme Logging on the Discovery Channel, helicopter logging has gained wider public exposure. The method is being used increasingly in response to the growing environmental controversy relating to traditional logging methods. Helicopters are able to lift trees up and out of the site without incurring as much damage to the flora and fauna as experienced with conventional methods.

The chief drawback to helicopter logging is the expense: an Erickson Skycrane can cost $5,000+ per hour. With this sort of an hourly cost all other operations are designed to maximize production during the flying time. Lifting trees is intense and sometimes hazardous work. Often, pilot crews swap out every hour in order to maintain maximum concentration.

As you would imagine, it requires a rare combination of visual acuity and a deft sense of control to skillfully manipulate the 200-foot long line required to haul trees and other equipment from remote locations. Long line and heli-logging pilots are highly skilled and have an exceptionally smooth control touch that comes from years of experience. Operators look for pilots with several thousand hours of time and long-line experience.

But, if you don’t have your heart set on flying a Skycrane or S-61, you can gain valuable experience with a logging operation flying smaller helicopters that are often used in a support role ferrying ground crews to and from the harvest site and performing other tasks as needed.

If there is one helicopter job that gets most pilots salivating, it’s the prospect of flying for Hollywood. Imagine watching a James Bond film with your girlfriend and being able to say, “Yeah, that’s me flying the bad guy’s helicopter…check out this next stunt.”

But we won’t pretend to tell you how to land one of these exceptionally sought-after jobs. It seems you have to be born into a movie pilot family or get recommended by the Pope or something. So, it’s fun to fantasize about flying for the movies but these jobs are not for mere mortals.

Aerial photography jobs, on the other hand, are available in every community across the country. There will always be developers, real estate agents, engineers, scientists, advertising people and others who want to get aerial images that only a helicopter can provide. Beware, however, that aerial photography missions can be quite demanding: flying low and slow is a great recipe for trouble. Try to have at least 500 hours in your logbook and be well practiced in settling with power before you attempt these missions.

The Border Patrol, funded in 1924, is charged with regulating traffic across the country’s borders. Until recently, most of the patrol’s work was focused on stopping illegal immigration and alien smuggling. As with so many things 9/11 changed all that. Now, Border Patrol’s focus has shifted toward prevention of terrorism through working to stop the flow of terrorists and terrorist weapons into the country. Border Patrol works to secure the 6,000 miles of international border with Canada and Mexico, and the 2,000 miles of coastal waters around Florida and Puerto Rico.

Helicopter jobs are available for pilots with a minimum of 1,500 hours experience and an instrument license. Operating chiefly over unfavorable terrain, pilots are tasked with spotting suspicious activity and border incursions.

Pipeline, power line, fiber-optic line patrol and general utility work are ideal applications for helicopters. Visibility is excellent and the aircraft’s ability to fly low and slow, or hover and land make the helicopter the best for these specialized tasks. The helicopter’s ability to land immediately to evaluate possible leaks, washouts, or other activity near or on the right-of-way is a valuable assessment and prevention tool.

In pipeline and power line inspection jobs, pilots are tasked to fly along the lines, sometimes with a specialist on board, looking for damaged equipment and for potential failures that may disrupt the power or gas/oil supply to each company’s clients. Helicopters are also used in conjunction with high-pressure sprayers to remove dirt and encrusted grime from electrical pylon insulators to improve transmission efficiency.

In general utility work, pilots are often tasked with sling loading air conditioning units, microwave repeaters and other equipment to the top of high rise buildings and otherwise inaccessible ridge lines. As you can see, there is a huge variety of applications for helicopters, the workhorse of the skies. In addition to the above, there are helicopter jobs such as marine patrol, forestry, geological/seismic, heli skiing, bank pick-up…the list is endless. Helicopter jobs are as varied and diverse as the many tasks needing to be done…and there’s no rule that says you can’t do many of these jobs over the course of your career.

There’s no need to choose now. The first task, after securing appropriate financing for your training, is to select a school that will best suit your needs.

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