Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot?
By Steve Gillman
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.
Ways to Make More | Related Opportunities
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 Pilots 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.
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).
- Website of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association,
where you can get information by email for free or join the organization
for about $35 annually.
- This site has a lot of good information, including the specific
requirements for various types of certification.