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:
- Spend $50,000 to learn how to fly helicopters and get a commercial helicopter license.
- Spend another $30,000 to $50,000 to build time so you can fly safely under most conditions.
- 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.
- 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.
- Spend another $10,000 to $30,000 on advertising and marketing.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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.