Helicopter Pilot Job Hunting Advice

My response to a job seeker.

Every once in a while I get an email (or phone call) from a helicopter pilot looking for work. Although I usually just ignore email — primarily because the pilots contacting me don’t qualify for the only position Flying M Air ever has listed on its Help Wanted page — and tell the caller we’re not hiring, the other day I got an email message from a U.S. veteran and decided to do more.

I have a soft spot for vets. They risk their lives to keep us safe — or at least follow U.S. military policy which is admittedly misguided at times — and they get a pretty raw deal when they return from service: bad medical care, difficulty finding jobs, etc. The G.I. bill helps these guys get an education that can take them farther in life and it’s always great to see someone taking advantage of it. I fully admit that if I did hire employees and I had two employees with identical qualifications but one was vet, I’d hire the vet. It’s the least I can do to thank them for their service.

The Sad Truth

Pilot Log Book
Until you log at least 1,000 hours of flight time, it’s next to impossible to get a decent job as a commercial helicopter pilot.

The guy who wrote to me was a vet with 10+ years of service. He came home, got an Associates degree at a community college, and got his helicopter ratings through CFI-I (Certified Flight Instructor – Instruments). He told me more in his brief list of qualifications, but to share more here might make him easy to identify and ultimately embarrass him, which is certainly not my intention. The key point is that he has less than 300 hours of flight time, which makes him pretty much unemployable as a commercial helicopter pilot for anything other than flight instruction.

Let me be clear: it’s not impossible to get a job as a pilot with as little as 300 hours of flight time. I know people who have done it. But in almost every single situation, the pilot’s “employer” isn’t paying him/her to fly. Instead, the pilot flies when needed and the “employer” collects and pockets the revenue. In some cases, the employer might provide living space. (I know a pilot who lived on a cot in a hangar until his “employer” went out of business and he found himself homeless.) In a few cases, the “employer” actually expects the pilot to cover part of the cost of flying. In other words, the “employer” is taking advantage of low-time pilots by using their skills without monetary compensation. In many cases, the amount of flying they do is so insignificant that they’re not even building the flight time they need to move forward in their careers. It’s not a job, it’s a form of indentured servitude.

How could anyone recommend a job like that? I certainly couldn’t.

So how does a new pilot build time? As a certified flight instructor. That’s why they get the CFI rating. It’s their ticket to an entry level job as a flight instructor. And with the right flight school, a CFI can build that extra 700 hours they need in a year or maybe just a little more. I call that part of a career “paying dues.”

My Advice

I have to admit that I felt sorry for the vet who emailed me. I knew that his chances of getting a decent job as a commercial pilot were pretty much non-existent. But I felt I owed him something. So replied to his email message. Here’s what I said, with a bit of identifying information edited out:

Thanks for writing. Although we’re not hiring now, I’d like to take this opportunity to give you some advice.

First, the chances of you getting a good job as a commercial pilot with just 277 hours is slim to none. As the folks at your flight school should have told you, most employers look for pilots with at least 1,000 PIC time. Most new helicopter pilots build that first 1,000 hours as flight instructors. If your flight school led you to believe otherwise, they did you a great disservice.

Second, when you visit the website for a potential employer, take a moment to look at job opportunities posted there before contacting them. You used a form on our website to contact me. The page you accessed (http://www.flyingmair.com/info/contact-us/) clearly instructs those looking for a job to visit our Help Wanted page (http://www.flyingmair.com/info/help-wanted/). The first paragraph on that page states that we do not have any full-time or part-time employees. It then lists the openings we do have: usually just cherry drying pilot, which requires both 500 PIC and a helicopter, neither of which you have. Simply sending a summary of your limited flying experience to any helicopter operator you can find an email address for — especially when it’s clear that you haven’t even ascertained whether that operator is hiring — isn’t likely to get you many responses.

Third, as a pilot and blogger, I’ve written extensively about flying helicopters, including a series about pursuing a career as a helicopter pilot. You might find it useful, especially Part 9 (http://www.aneclecticmind.com/2011/08/25/so-you-want-to-be-a-helicopter-pilot-part-9-pay-your-dues/).

While I admire your optimistic attempt to find employment as a pilot and I greatly appreciate your service in the US Military, I can’t help you beyond the above advice. Get a job as a CFI. Work your way up as most pilots do. Read my series for more tips.

Good luck.

Not the Only One Who Doesn’t Get It

I should mention here that last week I was also contacted by phone by an acquaintance in the helicopter pilot community. She (like another person I know in a similar situation) was attempting to build time through the use of a helicopter bought by a friend or business associate. She called me because the owner wanted to earn some revenue with his helicopter and she wanted to find out if she could get it on a cherry drying contract with me. There were multiple problems with this:

  • She called in July, when my cherry drying season was almost over. I didn’t need any pilots. (I contract with pilots in April.)
  • The helicopter was an Enstrom, which I prefer not to use for cherry drying.
  • Although a cherry drying contract has the potential to make good money for a helicopter owner, there’s no guarantee of flight time. As I’ve said over and over in numerous places, cherry drying is not a time-building job.

When I told her all this, she was disappointed. She asked if I had any ideas for building time. I told her the same thing I told the vet: get a job as a CFI.

There are No Shortcuts

It’s sad that so many people invest so much money in expensive helicopter pilot training and then find that they can’t get the pilot job they want right after earning their certificates. But it’s a fact of life.

And face it: college graduates with bachelors and even masters degrees are unlikely to step right into the kind of job they really want. The problem isn’t just with pilots. It’s with just about any career.

And yes, there are exceptions. But exceptions are for exceptional people.

If you think I’m trying to discourage people from following their dreams to become helicopter pilots, you think wrong. I’m just a realist. I hate to see people working toward a goal with inaccurate information about the path they’ll likely have to take. I’ve written about this over and over throughout this blog; the careers tag should bring up some examples of past posts.

But I can’t recommend my series about becoming a helicopter pilot enough. Really. Read it and the comments for each post. You’ll be glad you did.

Good luck.

3 thoughts on “Helicopter Pilot Job Hunting Advice

  1. Maria,
    This might well be entry 10 in the helicopter career advice series.
    “In conclusion: …”
    “In case you didn’t believe me the first three times I said it …”
    Of course most of the people contacting you aren’t taking time to read your blog first.

    • No, they’re not. And I don’t expect them to. But I do expect them to read the paragraph above the Contact Form on the Contact Us page. Not just on my site, either. Can’t make a good impression when you prove with your initial contact that you can’t follow simple instructions. But I didn’t want to say that. I was trying to be nice. Really.

  2. Right. And if your school is Part 61 you won’t get much time as a CFI either. You’ll have to do tours. Maybe, just maybe their insurance will allow them to put you on tour with 250 hours. All other benefits, like housing etc are extra benefits that you can’t count on. It’s a tough business

What do you think?