How to Start Your Own Helicopter Charter Business

A guide for the folks who really want to know.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of blog comments and e-mail messages from wannabe helicopter pilots. They’re seeing the reality of the current helicopter job market: too many entry-level pilots, too few jobs, low starting pay, and training that’ll cost them $60,000 to $80,000.

On Job Markets & Flight Schools

They might be reading about this in a post that remains the most popular of all time on this blog: “The Helicopter Job Market.” I wrote this piece just over two years ago, in March 2007 at the height of Silver State’s rise to power as a helicopter flight school. I was tired of seeing young guys (mostly) get conned by promises of $80,000/year jobs that just didn’t exist for newly minted commercial helicopter pilots. I wanted to warn them, but without actively speaking out against Silver State and the companies that had adopted their strategy to turn a quick buck. In all honesty, I didn’t want to get sued. I just wanted readers to consider reality before signing on the dotted line.

We all know what happened to Silver State. It was a Ponzi scheme of sorts that built a massive flight school on the money of tomorrow’s students. When students stopped signing up — due to their inability to get financing or a case of the smarts — and bills came due, Silver State collapsed, leaving many students in debt without their certificates and hundreds of low-time pilots looking for work. It’s a tragedy, not only for the people scrambling to pay the cost of the flight training they may or may not have gotten, but the dumping of so many low-time pilots on the job market made it easy for employers to pick and choose and drop pay rates. The best of the desperate got the entry level jobs they wanted. The others were left out in the cold.

And when the economy began to tank, even the employers cut back. Big seasonal employers at the Grand Canyon and Alaska hired fewer pilots than ever this year and even employers in the Gulf of Mexico began laying off pilots.

The Do-It-Yourself Alternative

Some wannabe pilots think there’s another way to build a flying career, a sort of do-it-yourself method.

Maybe they see from this blog that I didn’t go the usual route — that is, private pilot to commercial pilot to certified flight instructor to get that first 1,000 hours to get an entry level job, etc. Instead, I got my commercial ticket and started my own helicopter charter business. Then I got a bigger helicopter and a Part 135 certificate and, for all appearances, seem to be happily raking in the dough while flying around in my own helicopter.

That’s what they see, anyway.

Lately, they’ve begun commenting on this blog and sending me e-mail, asking for advice. While requests for advice from new or wannabe pilots aren’t anything new, what is new is that the advice they want is about how to start their own helicopter charter companies. Apparently, they believe that since they won’t be able to easily get a job, they will be able to start their own business as a kind of “shortcut” to the career they want.

Here’s My Approach

So I’ve written this blog post to answer these questions from my experience. Here’s my step-by-step approach. If you’re looking for the secret of my success, you might want to print this out for future reference:

  1. Spend $50,000 to learn how to fly helicopters and get a commercial helicopter license.
  2. Spend another $30,000 to $50,000 to build time so you can fly safely under most conditions.
  3. Spend $346,000 or more to buy a helicopter, about $10,000 per year to maintain it, and $12,000 to $32,000 a year to insure it.
  4. Spend 4 to 24 months preparing the paperwork and working with the FAA to apply for a Part 135 certificate. Then take and pass a Part 135 check ride. Then repeat the check ride process every year.
  5. Spend another $10,000 to $30,000 on advertising and marketing.
  6. Take lots of calls from people who can’t understand why you can’t fly them around for the cost of fuel or want you to fly them for free or are trying to get you to donate to their charitable cause. Then get the occasional call that leads to real work for someone who appreciates what you do and understand what it costs.
  7. After ten years and close to a million dollars spent building and maintaining your business, sit back and watch your investment in time and money languish in an economy where few people want to or can spend money on your services.

Get the idea?

At the Big Sandy Shoot
My $346,000 investment, parked at an event in the desert.

There’s an old saying: “The best way to make a million dollars in aviation is to start with two million dollars.

I’m not complaining. It’s nice having a helicopter. It would be even nicer if I could afford to fly it whenever I wanted to.

But the simple reality is that starting a helicopter charter business is a huge money suck. My aviation business spends more money than most pilots earn each year. If I didn’t have another good source of income, I wouldn’t be able to afford having this business at all.

In Conclusion

If you think that starting your own helicopter charter business is a quick and easy, money-saving way to build a career as a helicopter pilot, think again. It’s neither quick nor money-saving.

But sure. It’s easy. Just add time and money.

43 thoughts on “How to Start Your Own Helicopter Charter Business

  1. Unfortunately every word you wrote is true. It is very hard to encourage young, talented pilots to follow the route you and I have followed. I know your story and I know of no one who has worked as hard as you have to build and support your business. You provide a wonderful service- one that is fun, but most of all safe and reliable. You have been shunned by the town you live in and all because you are a woman who is not afraid to speak up and voice your opinion. In a town where tourism is all important, the powers-that-be have decided that your service is not worth encouraging and promoting. The local Chamber of Commerce which is supposedly set up to encourage ALL businesses big and small has gone to the point of black-balling you. (although no one would admit to that!) I, for one, am saddened that your business, which could be such a spectacular addition to any vacation, has not been promoted more by a Chamber which receives, without question, huge sums of money to promote local businesses. Years ago you ran the local airport and did an admirable job. Now, no one else wants to run it, and the town has taken over the mishandling of it. Now, Wickenburg charges among the HIGHEST fuel prices in the entire state. Those used to the local politics know that in this town, money is king.

    I applaud you, Maria, and yet, hope there are a few determined young aviators out there who will remain fixated on their final goals and follow their dreams.

    • But Jim, we both know that there are few customers for my business in Wickenburg. The town is a retirement community. Heaven knows what we were thinking when we moved here. One thing’s for sure: the best way to feel young is to hang around older folks.

      My business is not in Wickenburg. It’s in Phoenix. It’s not with folks who live here. It’s with tourists and vacationers and photographers who want to enjoy Arizona for what it is. These people have never heard of Wickenburg, other than as a stop for gas or a big Coke on their trips between Phoenix and Las Vegas. And that’s okay with me. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not missing anything.

      Oddly enough, my business is featured in the May 2009 issue of Arizona Highways. Ten pages of great prose and incredible photos about what I do. And guess what? Nowhere in the article does it mention that I’m based in Wickenburg.

      Like I said, that’s okay with me.

  2. I camped out on the couch after a nice dinner and barely keeping from dozing off when I noticed my AZ Highways sitting on the end table.

    I usually read it from front to back and as I was reading the Editors comments through half closed eyes a familiar name popped out at me that immediately got my attention.

    Well, so much for reading front to back, I turned immediately to the article “A Better View” and spent the rest of the night going back and forth through the pages looking at the pictures and re-reading the article.

    The rest of the magazine will have to wait for another day.

    Congratulations, looks like another job well done.

  3. Maria,

    Thank you so much for sharing this information. I just found this via Google. I am a freelance writer and my husband is an Army helicopter pilot. He wants to start a helicopter charter business but it is kind of overwhelming. I don’t know anything about it but I am going to surprise him for Christmas this year with a draft of a business and marketing plan and by starting a savings account for his helicopter.

    Do you offer consulting? I would be very interested in this, and as a fellow freelance writer I won’t balk at several digit rates.

    Thanks for offering this information.

    Good writing and good business,

    – Jessie Fitzgerald

    • Jessie: You are kidding, right? My point is that it’s extremely expensive to start a helicopter charter business and the chances of success are low. And sorry, I don’t do consulting. Best of luck!

  4. Thanks Maria for sharing your experience in your write up. It is a candid expression of the realities in the aviation industry. However,I will appreciate if you can give me information on the basics of how to set up a helicopter operation. I have decided that this is what I want to do and burnt all bridges.

    • John: I’m pretty sure that’s what this post was all about. You did note the numbered step-by-step instructions under the heading “Here’s My Approach,” didn’t you? Those are the steps I followed. Have you got $500,000 to $1,000,000? That and about 10 years of your life should get you started, too.

      As for burning bridges, that’s seldom a good idea.

      Good luck!

  5. Maria, I am from Mongolia and want to open helicopter charter business here. I would like to know where to start calculation for feasibility of this business in my own country. Moreover, could you kindly share your idea on how to choose proper helicopter and where.

    Regards,

    Altan

      • You’re kind of a bitch, why don’t you offer help to people instead of worrying about there competition. You sure don’t look like you have that money, how about offering help instead of telling people they can’t do it.

        • Wow. You really crack me up. I guess you didn’t READ the entire post. People like you don’t. People like you skim to get the gist and then ask others to explain it to them.

          But I have another special reason for not helping you: You’re an asshole. Who else would have the nerve to insult someone he wants help from?

          Don’t bother replying. It won’t appear here.

  6. Hello Maria,

    I have read all of your blogs and wannabe pilots and their dreams and aspirations. I will tell you of my plans, and I am sure you will shoot them down like a kamikazee pilot barreling down at your aircraft carrier. I saw and understand your step by step approach to the biz. It sounds as if you discourage the thought of anyone even pursuing the dream. like its a complete waste of time. My best friend and I are recently both divorced, and have no pilots license..period, starting from scratch with our good credit and 401k in tact, we wanted to go to panama…the country and start this Helicopter tour business…very little to no competition. We wanted to start an exciting business and this seemed the one. We are willing to hire a pilot for us initially and front the startup, then get our license along the way…what do you think? Hold on….let me get my boxing head gear on, and my bullet proof vest, and my sport cup…hold on…there, got my hockey mask on now too…ok Maria…give it to me…dont hold back! Tell me what I dont want to hear, but need to hear…you got any positive advice as well? thanks

    Mark the wannabe heliciopter tour guy

    • Mark: You must think there’s a reason I’ll shoot you down. I’m a realist. Is that why you think I’ll shoot you down?

      This post explains my “formula” — what worked for me. If you’re prepared to do something like what I did — and move to Panama — you should be good to go.

      I assume you’ve been to Panama and know the market down there? Regulations regarding helicopter operations? Business ownership by non-citizens? Pilot certificate requirements? Tax issues? Maintenance issues?

      If so, I can’t shoot you down because you obviously know more about the situation than I do — I don’t know squat about Panama. Good luck!

  7. @Mark

    Mark,

    There are basically five commercial operators here and all do tours. (Which leads me to think you need to do a little more market research?)

    Most are doing fine with all the construction, real estate and other projects. Aircraft used are Bell 206s, Robinson R44s, various Eurocopters and Agustas.

    Your biggest hurdle is getting a commercial certificate. That can, and does, take years plus you cannot fly commercially until you have it. To get it, you need a hangar or rent one, ops manuals, seemingly endless forms to fill out, etc.

    Did I mention the need for a good aviation attorney that knows their way around Aeronautica Civil? A must have.

    There are ways to make money and get flying here. Just don’t be an operator at the beginning.

    Now, if you really want to explore this further, contact me through my website — http://www.aircharterpanama.com.

    Regards,

    Hunter

  8. Hunter: Thanks for addressing Mark’s comments. I wasn’t kidding when I said I knew squat about Panama. Maybe one of these days I’LL look you up. While being an owner has its perks, I think it would be a lot easier to just be a pilot and let someone else deal with the headaches of ownership and business management. Thanks for stopping in!

  9. @Maria Langer

    Thanks Maria. Come on down and enjoy the scenery. Panama is an outstanding place to fly. Every now and then, I am pressed into English speaking tour guide for the charter operator I represent — who happens to be my wife — and every single time I go up I see something new. The clients seem to enjoy the flight very well. I tend not to talk all the time and let the scenery say the obvious. Safe flying! Regards, Hunter

  10. Jujubeans: I didn’t mention leasing a helicopter because my short experience with leasing — three months — was not enough to pass judgment on it. I do know that I got an unusually good lease deal that did not require a monthly minimum. If there had been a monthly minimum, I would have been working my butt off to pay the helicopter’s owner rather than build my business.

  11. Well unfortunately those who fail in the aviation industry never did a detailed feasibility study and usualy loose sight of a deciplined managerial strategy and end up finally drop the ball. You can be very successful in this industry but you must have strong finacial contingency backup at the begining, a sound management team and the ability to maintain market and operational cost analysis situation awareness at all times.

    • John: I pretty much agree. But I also believe that most businesses that fail are underfunded from the start and simply don’t realize that they’re likely to lose money before they start making it.

  12. I want to start a helicopter business with the purpose of transpotation and tourism at a strategic location that has no short-cut roads from land as it is all mountanious. My question is “how many people can fit into a helicopter as it will fly like an airbus?” And how much space needed to maintain a helicopter? (I have a 5 acre land can it be enough as a port?

  13. A friend of mine is setting up a helicopter charter business in Nigeria. From my knowledge he has limited information and havent done any business before. He is young, resourceful and with enough money to set it up. What advice do you have for such individual? He is asking me to help with research on the business when I stumbled on this site. Please comment

    • Hi Linda, did your friend ever start his helicopter charter business in Nigeria?
      As of Jan 2012 (time of your post) I know of 2 individually owned helicopter charter companies (with the exception of Bristow Helicopters, which serves the oil and gas industries) I was wondering if his was one of them. If not, does he still plan on starting? It would be nice to talk with him, just to rub minds and share possibilities.
      I am originally from Nigeria (born and raised), currently a US Citizen and active in the US Army. I am also a pilot but I do not fly for the Army.

  14. Maria….
    I am an Ex Indian Army pilot, retired a Colonel and I now fly and work for a charter operator in India. You have been absolutely candid and straight forward in your remarks and I respect your sentiment… It’s your first hand experience … so it’s the Best. I myself am working towards this … for two years now, after I left the Army…and trying to understand the industry. It is difficult, but not impossible… we would be a bunch of Ex Army veterans …bums for years in the Army and now working on this. We believe that with good teamwork … it will see good time. Sure will keep blogging you…. Wish Good Luck for us.

    • I definitely wish you good luck. I think the key is to move forward slowly and build your business at a pace you can afford. Most businesses fail because they’re underfunded; you need to know for sure that you can make those helicopter loan or lease payments at least a year into the future, even with ZERO revenue. Don’t spend a ton of money on advertising, either. Most of that simply doesn’t pay off. Word of mouth, networking, and a good Web site is worth far more than print ads, paid web links, etc.

      Best wishes for success!

      • Thanks…Maria…For Good Wishes and tips. Could agree more with you on the pace and focus. Here in my part of the Globe, our spoken reputation sells more in our kinda work… I am sure it must be the same there in Arizona. That goes for the chopper pilots’ jobs and even the clients’ expectations of operational excellence… Moreover, my experience tells me that we fliers ourselves can get more business than some MBA jerk speaking jargon and getting some impractical ideas that only SOUND BIG and deliver nothing. Finally the product in our work is delivered by the Flier…and that calls for personal unquenching thirst for delivery of operational excellence….. What do you say? :) :)

        • Agreed. It’s the pilot who performs the service. A pilot with a financial stake in the outcome of every flight is far more likely to do his/her best to deliver the best service possible.

          • You couldn’t encourage me more… Maria… Thx. Grt to hear these words from you with a first hand …… HANDS ON experience with a jump and leap into an adventure like this… Thanks…really and sincerely…. will keep in touch with you for advice… hope that’s okay. Regards.

  15. Really enjoyed all the comments from your blog but cant understand the infatuation with the “tourism” industry!!?? Ten or twenty years ago it may have been something lucrative. But in todays day and age with the economy as it is and with most people that cant pay the hundred bucks to fly for 15minutes, it is a dying form of income for us helo pilots. I am a retired military helo pilot with over 12,000 hours of flying everything from power lines to my last gig of 2 years of law enforcement support in Afghanistan, and the money is in those programs that are “forced” on us and other companies by the federal government…the power, oil and gas industry. Not near as exciting as flying tourists around but very lucrative!! Sorry for the long intro but my question is, who did you go with for the lease and can you give me either on line or off, the requirments they had for the initial lease? Thanks again and looking forward to hearing from you..
    Alan

    • I’m definitely not infatuated by the tourism industry. Frankly, I’m downright sick of people trying to weasel down my rates or get a 10-minute flight for $25. What an incredible waste of time. I field, on average, 5-10 tourist calls a week and seldom fly more than 2 flights in the same time. I no longer do flights less than an hour long and that was probably the best decision I made for my business. I’ll let my competition scrape the bottom of the barrel.

      No, the real money (for my business, anyway) is in aerial photo/survey and agricultural work. Anything that can get me 10+ hours of flight time in a week works for me. (I’m a small business owner and don’t need more.)

      The 3-month lease I had back in 2004 was for a friend’s helicopter. It was a great deal for me but a bad one for him — although his ship was already paid for so he didn’t lose any money. (He just didn’t make as much as he could have.) I don’t remember the details. Nowadays, you can expect to have to meet a monthly minimum for hours flown and will likely have to provide insurance, as well as pay for maintenance. It all depends on which leasing company you go with.

  16. Yeah, The work I tried to get on a 135 ticket was slim….however, the corporate sector was my life line. I met up with some top exec’s and they ended up using me for everything from personal transport to the shore houses and such to the corporate commercials. My ship is now too small (the 44) and I need to move up.
    This is the scariest moment in my business life…what to move up to. The 44 was economical and fuel friendly…the next ship wont be.
    I guess I am asking for suggestions. What can haul 4 passengers and be cost effective? I fly the Philadelphia, Jersey shore and Chesapeak area. Any personal experiences would be a help. Thanks.

  17. Hi,
    I’m a Contractor. I’ve been running my business for 6-7 years now and am burnt out. I have the opportunity to go to a helicopter school through College of the Sequoias, and have it all paid for, a 10 month crash course. I’m very excited about doing it, the school says 2 out of 3 students get to work at the school after graduating training other students, which doesn’t make much money, but it’s a little, and you get more flight time in. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the best way to land a job, the best field, what I should really expect to make the first year, after 5 years, and maybe ten years… and how likely it is to find a job. I am highly competitive, and am natural at running machinery, just would appreciate your two cents for the best way to start making money as a pilot! Sounds like you think starting your own charter business is the way to go….. haha, just kidding :-)
    Thanks a bunch!
    -Buddy

  18. I think this is a good way for interest by air cropt . my dream,s are purchese a helicopter for wonself what you think about this and you have any idea for this how we can purchase

  19. Sheesh Maria I feel sorry for you. You write all that above and the point is clear in my opinion and then you get a bunch of folks asking you to direct them how to start a helicopter business. I read all the follow up post and found myself asking the same question as you did: “are you kidding…didn’t you just read what she wrote?”

What do you think?