So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 10: Network

Who you meet, how you meet them, and what they think of you can impact your flying career.

[Note: Hard to believe that nearly four years have gone by since I wrote most of this series, but I find that the older I get, the faster time flies. I’d planned on writing additional parts, but life got in the way. I’m ready to continue now and, with four years to think about it, I’m pretty sure I’ve got some good content to add.]

Networking is an important part of building any career, including flying helicopters. The people you meet can help — or hinder — your career advancement.

How Networking has Helped My Flying Career

I’ve been flying helicopters for about 15 years now and have accumulated a modest 3,200 hours of flight time, mostly in my R44 and the R22 I owned before it. I’ve been networking with other pilots, owners, and operators since I realized I wanted to build a career as a pilot and it has paid off.

It’s networking that got me an interview with Papillon at the Grand Canyon back in 2004. What I said at the interview got the job.

It’s networking that got me started as a cherry drying pilot back in 2008. I met a pilot doing this kind of work and when he needed a pilot, he remembered and called me.

It’s networking that got me started doing frost control work back in 2013. I spoke to another pilot doing that kind of work and asked him if he knew of any jobs. He gave me the phone number of an almond grower and gave me the information I needed to write a mutually beneficial contract with a new client.

It’s networking that gets me just about all of my new business. Other than maintaining a website for my business, I don’t advertise anymore. I get new clients through word-of-mouth. When I want to explore the possibility of a rides gig, I look through my address book for friends and acquaintances who might have the connections I need to get a toe in the door.

And it’s networking that makes it relatively easy to find new pilots to work with me for cherry drying. I start my search by asking around. I remember the pilots I like — and the ones who rubbed me the wrong way — and make offers — or ignore requests — accordingly.

How to Network

Networking is actually kind of easy. Just meet and talk to new people involved in the industry. Need some ideas to get started? Try these:

  • Get to know other pilots at your flight school or job. Don’t be shy. Socialize. The guy you see in the pilot lounge at your flight school today might be someone working at the Gulf when you’re looking for work — and give you the contact you need to get an interview there. The CFI leaving to work at Papillon next week could be the chief pilot at a charter operation in a few years.
  • Join a helicopter organization. HAI and Whirly Girls comes to mind — although I admit that I don’t belong to either one of them for reasons I’d rather address in a separate blog post. These organizations are full of helicopter pilots and others in helicopter-related jobs. You can meet other members at events.
  • Attend helicopter aviation conferences and seminars. HeliExpo is an obvious suggestion, but other helicopter organizations and publications (such as Vertical Magazine) also sponsor events. And don’t forget the FAA! The Wings program occasionally has lectures for helicopter pilots; try attending one.
  • Aircrane
    I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with the pilot of one of these. Don’t you think it might be interesting to learn more about his work?

    Attend helicopter-related events. I’m thinking of helicopter fly-ins and other airport events. Although relatively rare, they do exist and they’re often full of helicopter pilots who are friendly and enthusiastic. I can think of three pilots I’m still very good friends with who I met at a helicopter event at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, AZ years ago. One of them has worked for me drying cherries here in Washington.

  • Visit pilots at work. Years ago, on a road trip in Idaho, I passed a field filled with helicopters — a fire base. A Boeing Vertol 107 was parked there and I, a new pilot at the time, wanted to see it close up. I drove into the base, parked, and tracked down the pilot. Because he wasn’t busy, he very graciously took me aboard his ship, showed me how the snorkel pump worked, and let me sit in the co-pilot seat while he sat next to me and explained the mind-boggling array of switches, circuit breakers, and gauges. Although my goal that day was not to network with other pilots, I could easily have done so — there were a dozen or so waiting around for a fire call. Of course, if the base had been active, I would have stayed away. But there’s no reason you can’t visit pilots on duty but not actively working. Think of EMT and ENG bases, too. Often, the pilot is just sitting around, waiting for a call and wouldn’t mind a visitor. Just make sure you’re welcome before you barge in.

The Role of Social Networking

Social networking takes all kinds of networking to a new level. You can network 24/7 with pilots all over the world through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and online forums. Helicopter-specific groups on Facebook, for example, is a good way to share stories, photos, and questions with other pilots.

I’ve met more than a few helicopter pilots on Twitter and Facebook; while my social networking hasn’t advanced my career — or theirs — yet, who’s to say it won’t? In the meantime, I’ve gotten a ton of solid advice from pilots with far more experience than I’ll ever have. That, and the real-life friendship with some of these people, is worth the time and effort I put into online social networking.

Don’t Be a Dick

But be careful! Your activities — both online and in the real world — can come back to haunt you. It all depends on how you approach networking, how you treat your fellow pilots, and what your attitude is or seems to be.

I blogged about a pilot who proved what an inconsiderate and dangerous asshole he could be back in 2009. I’d flown into Sedona, AZ with my brother and his wife and a helicopter pilot didn’t like where I parked. He retaliated by hover-taxiing right past my family, within 15 feet of where they were standing, when he had several other safer departure routes. I reported his action to the airport management. When I reported him to my POI at the Scottsdale FSDO, I was told that he’d caught by an Inspector being rude to the receptionist. The Inspector had attempted an attitude adjustment, but I doubt he got anywhere with this particular jerk.

As regular readers of my blog know, I absolutely abhor online forums. The reason: every single discussion turns into a nasty exchange of inane comments, normally prompted by the comments of a troll who has to prove how smart he is by saying something that gets under the skin of someone else. The replies are fired out fast and furiously and inevitably turn mean. Why people put up with that crap is beyond me. I seldom find any content worth reading in an online forum. But that’s likely because I lack the patience necessary to wade through the bullshit for the gems hiding underneath. Unlike the trolls that haunt these forums, I have a life.

I remember the names of the assholes I meet in this industry. I remember the trolls in the forums, too. And I have a lot of friends in the industry. And we talk.

And what we share affects hiring decisions. Just saying.

I wrote a bit more about attitude in Part 5 of this series.

Networking Works — But It Can’t Work Miracles

I’ve had a good amount of success with networking to further my career, but I have to admit that career advancement isn’t the main reason I network with other pilots. I’m a relatively friendly person and I really like talking to people with similar interests. I’m also interested in learning new things from people who know, through experience, things I don’t know. I guess you can say I’m a natural at networking.

But I do admit that I’m frustrated annoyed by people who contact me directly, by email or phone or even blog comments, obviously trying to use me as an “in” for a job. News flash: contacting a stranger to ask for a favor is not a good networking strategy. I admit that I’m more likely to delete these incoming emails than answer them. Maybe it’s because I’m getting curmudgeony in my old age.

You can’t expect networking to work miracles, especially if you use a heavy handed approach. Just because you had a nice conversation with the Chief Pilot of a charter company while the two of you waited out a thunderstorm in the pilot lounge of an FBO doesn’t mean he’s going to hire you for the next position that opens. Especially if you come across as someone who’s only talking to him because you think that job offer is possible.

But if you make networking a natural part of your professional life, things will happen — normally, when you least expect it.

10 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 10: Network

  1. Surprising comment about your experience with online forums. I use the Blender software for creating my animations and the online forums are a great place to get solutions on how to use the software. I think it depends on the type of forum and the community as to the quality of the forum. Those set up to provide help probably have a more positive atmosphere, as everyone is there to help and learn.

    • I will agree that some forums are much better than others. It’s all about moderation — preventing the trolls from starting trouble. I’m willing to bet that the folks who run the forum you like are working hard in the background to prevent offensive comments from appearing. I do that here, too — after a while the trolls simply stay away.

      As for the helicopter forums — there’s a professional helicopter pilot group on Facebook that’s pretty good; all of the other helicopter forums I’ve visited are full of nasty know-it-alls who seem to derive pleasure from belittling and criticizing the other participants.

  2. I’ve found Facebook to be a particular cesspool, though on rare occasion helpful. When beginning my training I encountered negative comment after negative comment, particularly about my chances of succeeding in the job market. If you read nothing but Web forums boy will you get discouraged.

    • To be fair, the job market isn’t very good right now, but I think the people who frequent the forums are guys (and gals, of course) who are feeling particularly frustrated. Too many of them have been sold a bill of goods by their flight schools: you can get an $80K job as a helicopter pilot is a pretty common selling point. Yeah, those jobs are out there, but the flight schools fail to tell students how much experience they need to get them.

      I honestly believe that if you go into training with the right attitude and maintain that good attitude throughout the training and time-building process, if you’re a decent, safe pilot you’ll move forward in your career. They say “attitude is everything” and in this industry, I’d say its at least 50% of everything. The rest is experience and “luck.” I think networking is where you make your luck.

  3. Hello Maria,
    Thank you for this great post! I read this series last year and am looking forward to any other additions you have planned for it. I have shared your articles with some friends and family but I wanted to check with you before I shared this on one of the helicopter groups on FB. Is that alright or would you rather I not do that?

    ,Jeff

    P.S. I luckily stumbled upon your blog by googling “Lake Pleasant Eagle Sanctuary” the day before my commercial check-ride.

  4. Hello Maria,

    I just want to thank you for writing this blog and for all your insights and experience. As a new student, I’ve find that they’re very helpful in motivating me along in my studies.

    As somebody who’s on the older side, thankfully I have a steady (and good) 9-to-5 that allow to take lessons without accumulating debt or having to worry about where the piloting jobs are.

    Nevertheless, hearing about your struggles and “paying your dues” gives me a very good idea of what it’s really like out there, and also keeps me grounded in reality. I will continue flying because I’m hooked and if I’m lucky, maybe one day opportunity will come knocking. (But, I’m not holding my breath. Just being able to fly, even when I have to pay for it, is already a blessing.)

    Looking forward to read your next entry.

    • Attitude is everything. If you want it badly enough and are willing to work hard to achieve your goals, you will get where you want to be — or someplace close enough to be happy. Good luck and fly safe.

  5. Hi Maria, my name is actually Joe, LOL and I just wanted to tell you I really enjoyed your post. I am not a pilot but I fly RC heli’s (not the cheap ones) and I have flown fixed wing aircraft as a child in the civil air patrol. I have a strong desire to get (at least) my private heli licence and someday a personal 1 man unit. I’d love to fly for a living but I’m pushing 45 years old and don’t honestly see that ever happening. I don’t know why but I have wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember, but sometimes life does not take ya down the path you want to go. I am a career mechanic and spent 10 years as a CDL truck driver as well. I feel ya on the road life bit… anyway great article, love to talk to ya anytime.

    • It’s not too late. I got my private pilot certificate at age 39 (I think) and my commercial a year later. I knew a man (now deceased) who got his helicopter rating on his 65th birthday. If you want it badly enough, you can make it happen. Good luck, whatever you do!

  6. Hello Maria,

    I feel very informative and useful to read your series of what to expect as a helicopter pilot. I am a Chinese and gained my CFI in 51! I remember there were a lot of hurdles to go through PPL, CPL, IFR and eventually CFI. Now, like other newly licensed pilot, I have to get my first job for time building, in pursuing my aspiring job type.

    I am not sure what kind of job in a helicopter industry would be valued most for the ability to speak multi-languages such as Mandarin. It may be good for Chinese tourist and I just want to solicit your valuable /practical experience in order to focus on my targeting job areas. Personally, I like to bring funs and enjoyment to people around.

    Richard

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