So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 9: Pay Your Dues

There’s no automatic in, no fast track to the dream jobs.

The thing that bothered me most about the Silver State debacle was the way the company misled potential students in their sales seminars. Radio commercials would lure people in by claims that anyone could become a helicopter pilot earning $80,000 a year. The combination of cool job and big paycheck was enough to get dreamers in the door. The seminar, which often included helicopters on stage and pilots strutting about in flight suits, visualized the dreams, making them tangible. With bank representatives standing by to guarantee financing, is there any wonder so many people signed on the dotted line?

The trouble is, although Silver State (and some other organizations) made it sound as if all you need is a commercial helicopter certificate to qualify for a high-paying dream job as a pilot, in reality, you need a lot more than that. All your certificate gets you is a chance to get your foot in the door. You’ll need to pay your dues to earn a good job as a pilot.

Paying Dues

When I say “pay dues,” I mean that metaphorically. You’re not actually paying money — you’ve already done enough of that to get your certificates, haven’t you?

I mean working in one or likely more less desirable jobs in order to build the experience you need to qualify for better jobs. Like a recent college graduate climbing the corporate ladder, you can’t expect to get the CEO job while the ink is still wet on your diploma. Instead, you start at the bottom and work your way up.

The goal of paying dues is to build experience. In the world of flying, experience has several components I can think of: time, skills, aircraft, and confidence.

Building Time

At its lowest level, experience can be quantified by stick time: total time, total helicopter time, and PIC time. The vast majority of non-entry level employers won’t even look at your resume unless you have at least 1,000 hours of PIC time; that number varies depending on the job market and availability of pilots.

Most pilots build time as flight instructors — which is why it’s so common to get a CFI rating as part of pilot training. So the first job you’re likely to have is as a CFI, sitting in the same kind of helicopter you probably trained in while someone sits beside you, learning to fly.

I can make a valid argument about why time built as a flight instructor isn’t worth as much as time built actually flying missions. In fact, I made this argument in a blog post I wrote back in 2009. Unfortunately, unless you have access to a helicopter and an opportunity to fly real-life missions, you’re not likely to build much of your early time that way.

The point is, flight time builds experience. No matter how that time was built, a pilot with 1,000 hours PIC has more experience than one with 300 hours. Be prepared to take any job you can get to start building that time.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re interested in adding bulk time to your log book, don’t pay an organization for the privilege of doing so. There’s at least one company out there using low-time pilots to fly relatively dangerous missions. That company is not only getting the pilots to pay them $200/hour (or more) to fly but is also collecting money from clients for the missions being flown — a practice known as “double-dipping.” Legitimate employers don’t charge their pilots a fee to fly; they pay their pilots. They also don’t ignore manufacturers’ safety notices regarding qualifications for missions being flown.

Building Skills

You might think that building time leads to building skills. It does — but only to a certain point. Look at it this way: If you do the same thing over and over, you’ll likely get pretty good at it. But you won’t get very good at anything else.

Take, for example, a flight instructor job. You’ll get good at hovering and preventing student pilots from crashing while trying to hover. (I can still remember how good my CFI was at steading the helicopter when I was learning to hover.) You’ll get good at performing basic, advanced, and emergency maneuvers to private and commercial standards. You’ll get good at doing traffic patterns and planning the same cross country flights to the same handful of airports.

While there’s nothing wrong with those skills, there are a lot more skills that a commercial pilot needs in his bag of tricks. Landing direct to fuel at an unfamiliar airport, avoiding the flow of fixed wing traffic — in other words, stay out of the traffic pattern. Planning cross country flights over unfamiliar areas with multiple stops at unfamiliar airports. Landing off-airport someplace other than at the same handful off practice areas. Calculating weight and balance and performance for a wide range of flight profiles. Dealing with demanding passengers, unreasonable air traffic controllers, obnoxious airplane pilots. Making changes to a flight due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances. These are the kinds of skills you build by flying real missions.

And then there are the specialized skills. Landing in snow or on water. Conducting photo and video flights. High altitude operations. Sling loading, long line work. Fire suppression by bucket or snorkel/tank setup. Spraying crops, drying cherries, preventing frost damage. Search and rescue. Flying with night vision goggles. These are the skills that are hard to build because they’re part of jobs that require experience. But these are also the skills that lead to high-paying pilot jobs.

If you have an opportunity to get real training in one of these skill areas, it might be worthwhile to pay for it. For example, if a flight school offers a long-line course and you want to get into fire suppression work, having that course on your resume might help you get your foot in the door for a job that’ll get you the experience you need to move in that direction. But again, don’t get suckered into a “job” where you pay to sit beside someone who is “training” you while actual work is being done for clients. Instead, look for a course that combines ground school with flight time where you manipulate the controls beside a flight instructor. In other words, real training.

Learning Aircraft

Your stick time in different aircraft is also an important part of experience. You’ll likely start out in a small piston (reciprocating engine) helicopter, like a Robinson or Schweizer or Enstrom, but the real jobs — the ones that come with big paychecks — are usually in far more impressive aircraft.

They say that if you can fly an R22, you can fly any helicopter. I think that’s true — to a certain extent. Small helicopters with their limited control systems and squirrelly flight characteristics offer challenges you won’t find in larger helicopters. They also can offer opportunities to learn how to deal with limited performance in challenging conditions. But, at the same time, larger, more complex aircraft have their own challenges to learn through experience.

The biggest aircraft distinction is piston vs. turbine engine. That engine difference leads to two major concerns:

  • Start-Up. If you screw up while starting a piston helicopter, it won’t start. If you screw up while starting a turbine helicopter, you could have a hot start that melts the turbine, leaving the helicopter disabled (or dangerous to fly).
  • Power. If you pull too much power in a piston helicopter, you’ll likely get a low rotor warning. If you pull too much power (torque) in a turbine helicopter, you’ll over-torque and damage the transmission. (Either way, if this happens in flight you could have some serious problems.)

Beyond that, the only differences are in the systems you need to learn to understand how the helicopter works, do a preflight/postflight, and troubleshoot problems. Still, the differences are considerable.

Another example might be hydraulics. An R22 doesn’t have a hydraulic system, so there’s no worries about hydraulic failures. A larger aircraft does. But not all aircraft hydraulic systems are equal. I’ve been trained to deal with hydraulic failures in Robinson R44 and Bell 206L helicopters and can confirm that a lot of upper body strength is required to control the helicopter and land safely without hydraulics. I’ve also heard that even more strength — possibly more than I possess? — is required to deal with a hydraulics failure in a Eurocopter AS350 (AStar).

Obviously, the more aircraft you’ve flown, the more prepared you are to deal with issues that might come up in flight. For that reason, the more aircraft types a pilot has flown, the more marketable he is.

There are opportunities to pay to fly specific aircraft models. For example, there’s a guy in the Los Angeles area who does ENG work and will let you fly his turbine helicopter on assignment with him for a fee. And even I offer long cross-country flights twice a year to pilots interested in building 10-12 hours of R44 time over two days. Is this worth it? It depends on your need. If you just want to get familiar with an aircraft or you only need a few hours of flight time to qualify for something else, it might not be a bad idea. But if you need 50 or 100 or 500 hours of experience in an aircraft make and model, do you really want to pay for it? Wouldn’t it be better to take a less attractive job and get paid to fly that aircraft instead?

Building Confidence

I hesitated to include this because I don’t want readers to confuse confidence with over-confidence. There’s a fine line between them and being on the wrong side of that line can kill you.

Simply stated, the more you do anything, the more confident you should be that you can do it successfully.

Example. Do one autorotation. Do you feel confident you can do one perfectly every time you try? Probably not. Do 150 autorotations in a month. How do you feel about it now?

Of course, it’s not enough to perform a maneuver or task multiple times to feel confident about your ability. You have to perform it successfully. The higher the percentage of times you successfully perform a maneuver, the more confident you should become about being able to perform it successfully in the future. You can do 150 practice autorotations in a month and if more than half of them are bad — wrong airspeed, miss the spot, etc. — you shouldn’t be nearly as confident as if you nail it 90% of the time.

Off-airport landings is a good example from my own flying. I do a lot of off-airport landings — in fact, in the work I do each summer, I’d estimate that 95% of my landings are off-airport. Years ago, I was a nervous wreck when landing on anything that wasn’t paved and level. But now, after so many landings on all kinds of terrain and surfaces, I’m pretty confident in my ability to find and land on a suitable landing zone where I need one. But that doesn’t mean I’ll try to set it down anywhere. I still go for the smoothest, most level surface I can find. I set it down slowly and I fly it all the way down to the ground. If I don’t like the way it feels, I’ll pick it back up and move it — sometimes only a foot in one direction — until I feel good about where I’m parked. I’ve done this solo and with a ship full of passengers, front-heavy or side-heavy. I’m confident I can do it.

Over-confidence occurs when you think you can do something better than you actually can. Instead of putting real effort into it, instead of concentrating to complete the task with all of your attention, you become complacent and go through the motions without thinking. That’s when things go wrong and accidents happen.

Work Your Way Up

The better a job is, the more experience you need to get it. That’s why you’ll need to work at possibly low-paying, low-interest jobs before you can qualify for more interesting or lucrative ones.

This is normal in any industry or career path. You should not expect it to be different for a flying career.

A career conscious pilot will keep this in mind with every job he gets. I remember a fellow pilot at the Grand Canyon when I worked there in 2004. He told us, from day one, that his goal was to build 500 hours of turbine time in that job. While the goal was achievable, he put himself on the fast track to make it happen. If he was idle and another pilot wanted to give up a flight, he’d take it. If he had a day off and another pilot who was scheduled to work wanted the day off, he’d swap. As early as July, he’d built the 500 hours he wanted — most other guys were lucky to reach that milestone by the end of the season. He stuck around, of course — we were under contract for the full season — but was the first pilot to leave for a better job when we were released.

The point is, it’s not enough to just get a job and go through the motions. You need to use each job as a stepping stone for your ultimate goal. Look for jobs that’ll get you the experience you need; work hard to put yourself at the front of the pack to get that experience. Yes, you might wind up doing a job you hate or working in a place you’d rather not be. But the quicker you do it and get it over with, the quicker you can qualify for the job you really want in the place you want to be.

Next up: why the learning should never end.

12 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 9: Pay Your Dues

  1. Was Silver State Helicopters a scam on the students, banks and the industry, or did it just fall prey to bad economic times like so many other businesses? Should the owner be in jail or bankruptcy court? I don’t know the answer but I agree with you about their misrepresentating the job market. We who love flying helicopters have sacrificed a lot to do what we do. That’s a given. New students should accept that. The military has flooded the market with helicopter pilots since the Korean war. That’s not an all bad thing, as the military development of helicopters have led to a strong civil helicopter market and the pilot jobs that go with it. In most cases it pays a living wage, and for the higher paying jobs, the experience requirements go up with the pay check. A word of caution to the new pilots trying to build time. Don’t sacrifice safety to squeek out an extra hour or two in your logbook. It could cost you big time. An accident on your record will over shadow a lot of hours in your logbook. Prospective employers don’t want to see just HOURS, they want to see ACCIDENT-FREE hours. And don’t stretch out a flight for that extra tenth of an hour or two in your logbook. Your boss will catch on to that eventually as those wasted hours cost your employer in fuel and maintenance expenses. My advice is to give an honest days flying without flying more than you can safely handle. Oh, and don’t pad your logbook. There’s more Parker Pen time out there than you can count.

    • Silver State was a Ponzi scheme — they paid yesterday’s bills with tomorrow’s revenues.. When higher interest rates made financing impossible for students and the revenues stopped coming in, the whole thing fell apart. Whether it was an intentional scam or the owner simply thought he could ride the wave forever is something for the courts to decide.

      Good point about accident-free hours and Parker time.

  2. Maria,
    I just went through your 9-part series. It was very helpful and informative. Your insight into age was especially helpful. I am 41 and going to retire from my current career and become a pilot. I dont need to make a fortune. Like you i have a bit saved away. I am looking for something I will realy enjoy and i can make a living off as well. I think I am going to take the dive and do it. Thank you very much as now I have a much better feel for what I am getting into. Too Old, and Too Big…..haha

    • Troy: Not too old, but if you weigh in at more than 220 pounds, you’re just fooling yourself if you think you can start a career as a helicopter pilot and actually get anywhere with it. That’s the unfortunate truth. But if that’s your situation, use this as an excuse to trim down! Not only will you get a great career, but you’ll be doing something for your health and future, too. Good luck!

      • I am about 195 at the moment and pretty fit, but I could drop 10 lb and be pretty comfortable. Hopefully a target of 185 would work. I live in Tokyo now and am also banking on a the move Colorado for a more healthy daily routine. Hopefully this all works out.

        One more thing. Your honesty and frankness, seems quite sincere, and it very helpful in managing my personal expectation. For that, thank you very much.

        • Oh! I think you’ll be okay to start; if you get down to 185, you’ll be in decent shape. Go in with the right attitude and pay your dues with a smile on your face and you should do fine. Good luck!

  3. My 18 year old son wants to go to Guidance Helicopters here in Prescott, AZ where we live which is a very good school from what I hear. The AS program costs $148,000 (2 years).We’ll have to finance 95% of it which scares me to death, but that’s all he’s really interested in doing.I hope I’m doing the right thing. We really don’t prefer the military route which would save alot of money. Your 9 steps were really informative and refreshingly honest. Th.ank you

    • You’re financing 95% of $148K for your son? Wow. Nice parent. Sure hope your kid appreciates your enormous sacrifice for a career where competition for jobs is up, hiring is down, and starting salary is commonly under $25K a year — if it’s possible to get a job at all.

      Have you ever considered asking him to share the cost of this education? I’ve noticed that when kids have a financial stake in their futures, they take it more seriously and try harder to succeed. After all, it’ll be YOU paying off that loan year after year when he’s struggling to get his start as a helicopter pilot. And despite what you may have heard, the $80K/year helicopter pilot jobs are far and few between — and usually require thousands of hours of experience.

      Sorry if I sound so discouraging, but it really kills me to see parents shell out thousands of dollars and go into deep debt to finance an education for an 18 year old kid who just wants a “cool” career. A better decision might be for you to finance an aviation-related BS degree at Embry Riddle (in Prescott) and let your kid pay for his helicopter flight training. Then at least he’ll have a degree that’ll get him a job and a personal financial stake in his helicopter training.

      • Actually, I’m happy to hear your “discouraging” news. I’ve been looking for someone with experience who could tell me the realities of the job situation out there. The financial/admissions person told us he would pull $80000/year after completing 2 years instructing at @ $20000/year. I agree that he should have a financial stake in this and that he’ll appreciate it more and work harder if he has some skin in the game. At 54 I also need to think about my future retirement. So thanks for the reality check. I think I’ll let him work this out for himself. I’m willing to help him out, but I’m going to limit how much I’m willing to spend/borrow to a less frightening dollar amount.

        • Yes, it will take him 2 years of instructing to build the time he needs to get an “entry level” job as a pilot. I don’t really think it’s fair to include the instruction (CFI) job as entry level — it’s really below that, since you can’t get any other job until you have about 1,000 flight hours. A decent pilot has about a 50% chance of getting a flight instructor job at the flight school he gets his certificates from. After all, they can’t hire all of their “graduates.” That job normally pays by the hour. The busier the flight school, the more hours, the more pay, the faster he can build that 1,000 hours. But $20K is probably fair as an estimate of annual salary.

          Then comes the real entry level job — not the $80K job. Entry level is normally tour-related: Grand Canyon and Alaska are popular because they’ll take low-time pilots. Some folks might get on board in the Gulf of Mexico flying to/from oil rigs right after a CFI job; many of them will be flying second seat (co-pilot). All of these entry level jobs are likely to pay under $40K/year. If I annualized my 2004 Grand Canyon job’s pay, it came out to about $30K; of course, that job was seasonal and didn’t run a full year. I grossed just under $20K for April through September.

          Whoever told you to expect $80K within 2 years is lying, plain and simple. Challenge him to put you in touch with 3 pilots who are pulling in $80K/year right after a CFI job.

          The $80K jobs are mostly firefighting and utility pilot jobs. This is specialized work that requires a lot of experience and specialized training. Long line mostly. There are some law enforcement jobs that might pay in the $50K to $60K range, but many of them require the pilot to be with the police or border patrol. There are some high-end charter pilot jobs out there, but again, that requires experience, as well as professional connections. Movie flying is notoriously difficult to get into. Electronic news gathering and medevac is a bit easier, but again, it’s not going to pay much more than $50-$60K a year, if that. For all of these jobs, they’re looking for pilots with at least 2,000 hours of experience, of which 500 or more hours is in turbine helicopters. Medevac requires instrument ratings and a lot of night flying experience. Most of these jobs also require travel or at least relocation.

          So generally speaking, an above average pilot who was able to get work flying at all would not see a job paying more than $50K for at least four to five years after first getting his certificates. Or he might never see it. Or he might completely luck out and be one of the few pilots that does extraordinarily well. I don’t know any of those people — and I know a lot of pilots.

          Pilot jobs are not for people who want or need to make a lot of money. They’re for people who love to fly. The reward is in the work; the trick is to find a job with the kind of work you love to do. (Hint: Flying European tourists over the Grand Canyon 12 times a day didn’t do it for me. It got old after about a month.) If you’re good and a team player and have the right attitude, you can do well. But you’ll never get rich as a pilot. The trick seems to be to make enough money to pay off the loans that got you the job.

          And yes, I can tell you horror stories about certificated pilots unable to get the entry level jobs they need to move ahead. One guy who was my CFI for instrument training was out of work when his flight school went under. Last I heard, he was working in a convenience store. He couldn’t get a job as a pilot. Another guy who flew with me on a long cross-country flight was waiting more than six months for his flight school to give him a job as an instructor; they kept hiring other people in the meantime but he kept waiting. It’s not the rosy career path the flight schools will have you believe.

          I think limiting your involvement is a great idea. I also think it might be a good idea for him to take one or two sample lessons to see if he really likes it.

          And ask your son if he’s seen the video embedded here: http://www.aneclecticmind.com/2009/06/23/the-truth-about-flying-helicopters/ — and whether he knows what it means. It’s a humorous look at what it’s like to be a helicopter pilot. Funny, but true.

          Good luck to both of you!

  4. You sound like a great parent indeed. I agree with Maria in that he will appreciate his accomplishments more if he is vested in his education. The degree program will give him a chance to interact and network with others having similar interests while working towards that degree. Good luck. It won’t be easy, but then again if it was, everybody would be flying helicopters. The reason that the pay is so low as Maria mentioned is because all of the military pilots getting out. He won’t get rich flying helicopters, but if he minors in business administration, he might do like Maria and run his own business. You can do the bookkeeping for him:-) Blue skies!
    Mike

  5. I subscribed to your blog, I’ve been looking for some upfront talk on the subject of becoming a commercial pilot, this site helped me probably the most out of the bunch of forums, channels etc.

    I’m 21, been researching, doing homework and exploring avenues for a career I want to focus on for over a year now.

    Just thought id say thanks for confirming a lot of information and answering a lot of questions for me which helped me make a decision

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