Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot?


A few years back I hired a helicopter pilot to fly myself, my wife, and my brother through the Royal Gorge in Colorado. He started the flight gently enough, skimming over the treetops we approached the gorge. That didn't last long. He took us almost straight up as we got close, and then turned around and dropped us a thousand feet in a few seconds. When we leveled off we were down near the bottom, flying just over the Arkansas River, watching rafters wave at us as they bounced through the rapids.

If that sounds like fun, a career giving such sightseeing tours might be a good one for you. But that's not the only way to make money as a helicopter pilot. Some of the other possible positions are as a medical flight pilot for hospitals, an "eye in the sky" pilot for television news programs, a police surveillance pilot, a helicopter flight instructor, and an offshore support pilot (bring men and supplies to oil rigs in the oceans).

Then there are test pilots who try out new helicopters (I just saw an ad for one of these positions as I was preparing this page). That may sound scary, but sightseeing flights have their risks as well. Our pilot for that trip through the Royal Gorge had a few scars, which I am told were from a crash.

Helicopter pilots are also needed for agriculture tasks, executive transport, aerial surveying, search and rescue, photography, traffic reporting, logging, and for dropping people off at remote fishing and hunting locations.

Be sure you like flying a helicopter before committing to it as a career though, because it can be very expensive to get started, as you will see in the "requirements" section below. It is not the same as flying an airplane (although if you get certified for both you can make even more money). Take an introductory flight lesson to see if it is something you want to pursue. This should cost around $200 or less, and should last about thirty minutes.

How Much Can You Make?

According to Salary.com, most helicopter pilots make between $70,000 and $106,000, but this is a very rough estimate, since what you make depends on what kind of flying you do and for whom. You will make less working a seasonal job that does sightseeing flights for tourists, for example, and much more if you work as a full time flight instructor.

Many positions require more than just certification. There are often minimum requirements for fight-hours, for example, or requirements for certain types of experience. So you may make as little as $25,000 annually in some jobs when you start. But these positions will give you the hours in the air that you need to apply for better ones.

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If you choose to give sightseeing tours you can make make more money with your own business than as an employee. On the other hand, you'll have a large investment (and probably a lot of debt) for a helicopter. Also, if you have an accident that wrecks your helicopter, you will have lost your income until you can buy a new one.

Join an association and spend some time talking to other pilots to see what opportunities are out there. Some positions that pay well, like doing offshore oil-rig support flights, might pay well, but may not be advertised. You have to hear about them from others in the industry.

Qualifications / Requirements

You need a "Student Pilot’s Certificate" to start lessons, and for that you need to be 16 years old, able to read, speak and understand English, and have a third-class medical certificate. The latter requires passing a physical exam administered by an FAA-authorized aviation medical examiner. To be a commercial pilot you need a second-class medical certificate (also from a doctor who is a FAA-authorized aviation medical examiner). That one must be renewed every 12 months.

The first major step is to get you private pilot certification. Of course to make money flying you generally need to be a commercial pilot. To get become a commercial helicopter pilot you then need to meet a slew of requirements related to training, cross-country flight training, takeoffs and landings, a certain number of hours of pilot "in command" flight time and so on. In the resource section below you'll find a link or tow to sites that will spell out all the details.

First Steps

Find a good helicopter flight school near you (see the resource below) and call them up to see what they offer and what the cost will be. Ask about financial aid options. The alternative is to join the military and get paid to be trained and certified (if you survive).


http://www.phpa.org - Website of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association, where you can get information by email for free or join the organization for about $35 annually.

http://www.helicopterschoolinfo.com - This site has a lot of good information, including the specific requirements for various types of certification.

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Every Way to Make Money | Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot?