One Pilot’s Stupidity Makes Us All Look Bad

Helicopter pilots: choose your landing zones wisely, please.

As a helicopter pilot, one of the questions I get asked most often is: “Can you land anywhere?”

In most cases, the person asking the question is referring to the legality of landing anywhere — not the ability to land anywhere. Helicopters have the ability to land almost anywhere, but not every landing zone is legal. I address this in quite a bit of detail in a post titled “Finding a Legal Landing Zone” that I wrote back in 2009. The facts still apply.

Unfortunately, not everyone considers the legality — or even the safety — of a landing zone before setting down on it. This brief news piece linked to by Vertical Magazine’s Twitter account is a good example. The gist of the piece:

A Monticello man has been charged by Nassau County Police with landing a helicopter in a grassy area full of pedestrians near the Nassau Coliseum minutes before midnight on Saturday night.

Nassau Coliseum, in case you don’t know, is an indoor arena where the NY Islanders play hockey and concerts are held. I saw quite a few concerts there in my college days. And hockey games.

On the night in question, there were about 100 drunk kids, aged 14 to 18, wandering around the building when the idiot pilot — honestly, what else can I call him? — came in for a landing in his Bell 407. He had to abort one landing before succeeding on a second attempt. At least 20 pedestrians were walking in the area.

I don’t think I need to tell you how stupid this stunt was. Drunk kids in the landing zone? All it takes is for one of them to walk into the tail rotor to turn a fun night of teenage drinking (yes, I’m being sarcastic) into death and mental trauma. Even if the kids weren’t drunk — and the pilot may not have thought they were — they’re still pedestrians in a landing zone. You don’t have to be drunk to walk into a tail rotor, as evidenced here and here.

And it’s not just the tail rotor that’s dangerous. Although visibility around a helicopter is good, it isn’t 360°. The pilot could have struck a pedestrian on the way down — or even landed on one.

Sure — nothing happened in this case. But the cops came, arrested the pilot, and seized his helicopter. And I think he deserves everything he gets.

You see, irresponsible pilots who pull dangerous stunts like this make all helicopter pilots look bad. People connect his action to the group he’s a part of. Hence, all helicopter pilots are reckless individuals who would land among a crowd of drunk teenagers.

We know better. But does the public? Does the local government?

A few years back, the city of Scottsdale, AZ instituted a town ordinance prohibiting the landing of a helicopter anywhere except at an airport or approved helipad. Why? Because an idiot pilot decided it would be fun to land in a culdesac of his subdivision. Neighbors didn’t think it was such a good idea and complained. It went to the city council and they “fixed” the problem by making it illegal.

(Wickenburg has a similar ordinance, although a pilot can get permission, on a case-by-case basis, by talking to the police chief before landing. And the police chief can deny the request.)

My point: think before you land off-airport. Think about the consequences of your actions. Think about the safety of the people on the ground. Think about the potential for complaints.

And don’t be stupid.

So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 4: Choose a Reputable Flight School

Get what you pay for.

The quality of your training will be determined by your flight school. And believe me, you want the best training you can get.

Some Basic Tips

Here’s a bunch of tips for choosing a flight school; sadly, most of them are “don’ts” because of the kinds of marketing tactics some schools use:

  • Don’t be lured by ads for cheap training with promises of jobs at 300 hours of flight time. These schools are not interested in turning out quality pilots. They’re interested in attracting as many wannabes as possible to fill out their bottom line.
  • Don’t get fooled by schools that make verbal promises about hiring all graduates as flight instructors. A verbal promise isn’t worth more than the paper it’s written on. Many flight schools will tell you anything you want to hear to get you to sign up. Besides, wouldn’t you rather get trained at a school that chooses the best CFIs as instructors than the one who takes any CFI as an instructor? And do you really think they can hire all of their graduates? What happens when graduates hired as CFIs outnumber students? How many hours of flying will you get then?
  • Don’t look at the biggest or smallest schools. Look at schools somewhere in the middle. These are the ones where you’ll have the benefit of several CFIs on staff while still getting some level of personal attention.
  • Check into the experience of the training staff. Find out how many hours of flight time the chief flight instructor and some of the other flight instructors have. Find out whether any of them have real-life flying experience. Flight schools that offer tour and charter services also offer opportunities for their CFIs to get the kind of experience they’ll use in future jobs.
  • Once you’ve got the flight schools narrowed down to one or two, talk to some of the students and flight instructors there. See what they think. Try to get the contact information for one or two graduates who have moved on to see whether they thought their training at the school helped them succeed.

Don’t be lazy and take shortcuts here. Your future starts with your training. Do your homework. You’ll be amazed by what you learn.


Learn to Fly Here SignThere are a lot of people who make a big deal over the kind of equipment used for flying. There are three basic helicopters used for training: Robinson R22, Schweitzer Schweizer 269/300 (which has a bunch of other names), and Enstrom F28F and 280FX. News flash: They’re all good.

The R22 is an extremely “squirrelly” helicopter. It really takes all of your attention to fly. Its two-bladed system makes it unsafe for aggressive or low-G maneuvers, but ground resonance is not an issue. Robinsons are widely respected and widely used in flight schools.

I can’t speak firsthand about the Schweitzer Schweizer since I’ve never flown one. I know that as a helicopter with a fully articulated rotor system, it’s capable of performing far more aggressive maneuvers than a Robinson. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. It is susceptible to ground resonance. I have heard that its glide slope in autorotation is steeper than an R22 but can’t back that up with facts and figures.

I have flown an Enstrom and, in all honesty, I wasn’t impressed. The excessive vibrations really turned me off, but that could have been caused by the blades being out of balance or some other maintenance issue on that particular aircraft. It also has a fully articulated rotor system, but I can’t recall hearing anything about one getting into ground resonance. I don’t know enough about its flight characteristics to pass judgement on it.

Most pilots favor the helicopter they trained on. That’s true with me. Not only did I learn in an R22, but I owned an R22 Beta II for four years and put at least 1,000 hours on it. But who knows? If I’d trained in a 300, I might have all kinds of love for it instead.

I’m hoping that folks reading this who have more knowledge about the other two aircraft will comment on their experiences. (Warning: I will not allow an equipment-bashing comment thread to form for this post. Present facts about what you know; not hearsay about what you don’t.)

I certainly don’t think you should pass up a flight school because of the brand of its equipment. The age, maintenance quality, and condition is far more important. You want a flight school with its own hangar and maintenance facility. You might even want to take a look at it to make sure it’s relatively neat and clean and the mechanics look like they know what they’re doing. A place with friendly mechanics who are willing to talk to you when you have a mechanical problem or question will certainly help you get more out of your flight training.

There’s one other thing to keep in mind. Some flight schools have one or two turbine helicopters on hand that they use for charter work or even training. When trying to get you to sign with them, they might hint or even promise that they’ll give you a certain number of hours of turbine flight time. Get any promises in writing. It is not uncommon for flight schools to give students the impression they’d get turbine transition training in a package deal and then, for some reason, not provide it. Either the aircraft was down for maintenance or there were too many other pilots queued up for time in it or there was an additional fee that was never discussed. If a turbine aircraft is dangled like a carrot in front of you, get all the facts about flying it before signing up.

Beware of Package Deals

And that brings up the topic of package deals. My advice is this: Do not sign with a school that forces you to enter into a contract for all training and pay them a bunch of money up front. (This was also pointed out by Damien in comments for Part 2 of this series, which discussed funding your flight training.) You do not want to be contractually tied to any flight school (at least not without a contractual way out that won’t cost you anything) and you certainly don’t want them getting money upfront (beyond reasonable prepayments) for services yet to be rendered.

If there’s anything the Silver State debacle taught us, it’s that flight schools aren’t always around forever. If they fold with your money, you’re out of luck.

Equally important is that if you decide after a few weeks or months of training that you don’t like the flight school and want to continue training elsewhere, you have the freedom to do so. And believe me; this happens more often than you think.

Networking Potential

Keith, who has far more experience flying far more equipment in far more places than me, pointed out in comments to my earlier post about age:

I know several aspiring pilots who I have counseled about the helicopter business but I hesitate to recommend a school to them. My usual advice on schools has been pick the best ranked school that provides the greatest possible chance to get that first job.

It is a little discouraging to me to have to tell an aspiring career pilot that all the good grades, excellent flight reviews and mind numbing study may come to not if they don’t make that first job happen for themselves. Perseverance helps but choosing the right place to train and the connections and recommendations that come from certain schools and/or instructors might make all the difference. It is still a small industry where more positions are gained through personal recommendations and associations than any quantity of paper credentials. Your reputation in this industry begins at day one and for good or bad will follow you your entire career.

This is excellent advice for career pilots. I know of at least once school — now defunct — that had a terrible reputation for training. It got so bad that many employers would simply not consider any pilot that had that flight school listed on a resume. That’s a difficult hurdle to jump when you’re just starting out.

But I think what Keith’s saying goes beyond just choosing a flight school. I think it also has to do with how you represent yourself throughout training and your first few jobs. That’s attitude and I’ll cover that next.

So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 3: Start Young

The younger you start, the farther you can go.

In the last part of this series, I discussed the financial aspects of learning to fly helicopters and getting the ratings you need to move forward. I’m thrilled to see that a few folks have added comments from their own experiences. With luck, others will do the same. The more real experiences that are shared, the more real information readers can pick up here.

In this post I’ll discuss another important topic: age. Ideally, you want to have all certificates in hand by the time you’re 30 years old. Even better would be 25. This means you need to start young.

Look at it this way: if you were going to college for career training, wouldn’t you want to have your degree so you could get to work in your chosen field before the age of 30? This would give you plenty of time to pay your dues (discussed in another post), get your foot in the door, and work your way up the career ladder to the kind of flying job you want.

How Young Can You Start?

I honestly don’t know the minimum age for starting helicopter flying lessons. I’ve seen airplane flight schools offering training for kids as young as 14 years. On the helicopter side, however, I noticed that some flight schools require students to be at least 18 years old. I think that’s a pretty good minimum age for getting on the controls of a helicopter.

Rotorcraft Flying HandbookBut that doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re 18 to start learning. There’s plenty to learn before you begin taking actual flight lessons. A good place to start is with the FAA’s Rotorcraft Flying Handbook. This free 207-page book in PDF format is an excellent source of information about helicopter aerodynamics and maneuvers. In fact, it’s the book I turn to to brush up on topics like gyroscopic precession and coriolis effect for my annual Part 135 checkride. Start here — no matter how old you are — and get a head start on the basics before you even meet your first flight instructor.

Midlife Career Changes

I get lots of e-mail and comments from guys who are in their 40s or even 50s or 60s who claim that they’ve always wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Always? What I want to reply is: why didn’t you do it when you were younger?

Reality check: 40 is not a good age to start training to become a career pilot. I’m not saying it’s impossible — hell, I was 37 when I started learning to fly. (An airline pilot I knew at the time told me point blank that I was too old to start a career as a pilot.) But it won’t be easy to build your career.

Part of the problem is this: although you’d think that entry level employers would be more inclined to hire older, more mature pilots, they aren’t. They want young guys who will do anything they’re told. They don’t want people who can think and reason based on life experiences. They want cheap robot pilots who will stick around just long enough to fulfill a contract that ends with the tour season. I experienced this first-hand at the Grand Canyon, working with guys young enough to be my sons.

If you’re starting to get up there in years, give this some serious thought before diving in. Do you have many financial responsibilities? Are you prepared to give up your current salary and start at the bottom of a helicopter pilot’s pay scale?

I am fortunate in that my other job as a freelance writer makes it possible to work around my flying activities; I’ve been working two jobs since I began flying for hire. I could never survive in without a serious lifestyle change on what I currently earn as a pilot.

Maybe you’re in a similar situation and have an income that will continue. Or maybe your first career has left you with enough residual income that you don’t need to worry about future income. Or maybe you’ll just prove to be the exception.

If you do decide to go for it, don’t wait. The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

And here’s one more thing to keep in mind: you don’t have to make flying your career to be a pilot. A man I knew got his private helicopter rating on his 65th birthday. No, he wasn’t a career pilot. He just wanted to fly helicopters.

Next up, an important decision: choosing a flight school.

So You Want to be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 2: Save Up

The more you pay up front, the less you’ll pay in the future.

Education is expensive. Helicopter pilot training is very expensive.

The good news is, financing is often available for flight training. The bad news is, the rates can be high. And did I mention that the training is expensive?

The Cost

Let’s look at the real cost of obtaining your ratings. Remember, at a minimum, you’ll need to get your Private and then Commercial helicopter pilot rating. That’ll cost at least $40,000 that’s if you manage to do it with nearly the minimum number of required flight hours. A more accurate number might be closer to $50,000.

Now unless you have access to a helicopter that you can fly to build another 900 hours of pilot in command time, you’ll likely need to get an entry level helicopter pilot job. In the U.S., that’s a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) which requires yet another rating. If you want to make yourself more marketable in the future, you’ll likely go for your instrument rating (which will help if you plan on flying in the Gulf of Mexico or in a medevac job) and, if you’re going to do that, you might go for your CFII so you can provide instrument training for other pilots. Getting all that and building the time you need to get the CFI job will add another $10,000 to $20,000 to the cost of your training.

Don’t forget ground school, books and study guides, flight computer and related flight planning tools, test preparation, tests, and check flight costs.

So you’re looking at a total training cost of $50,000 to $80,000. That’s easily as much — if not more — than degree at a private college or university.

Speaking of which, you may want to get a degree while you learn to fly. Some flight schools are associated with major universities and can make that happen. The benefit is that when you finish your education, you’ll have more than just a pilot’s license. You’ll have a degree that can help you get your foot in the door for any aviation business job.

Financing: Do the Math

Many flight schools offer financing through deals they’ve made with local or nationwide financial institutions. One flight school I know not only offers financing to its own students, but extends financing to students at other flight schools. (Why would it do this? Do the math and the answer is easy.)

While it might seem like a no-brainer to you to sign up for financing, stop and think about the deal you’re being offered. What is the interest rate? What’s the payback period? When do payments start? This information is vital to calculate what the loan will cost you in the near and distant future.

One of the commenters on my popular blog post, “The Helicopter Job Market,” wrote:

Also, how is someone to payback an $80K loan at 19% on an entry level salary of 30K/year? That’s a freakin’ house payment each month without having a house! My “off-the-cuff” figuring say’s that equates to about $800 a month for 20-30 years!

His point was on target but his “off-the-cuff” calculations were way off. Using Excel, I calculated $1,271 per month over 30 years — if they give you that long to pay. (The monthly payment is even higher if the loan term is shorter.) That’s a total of $457K. Ouch!

(To be fair, that 19% number quoted by the commenter was evidently the going rate at the end of 2007. The rate is probably much lower now. At least I hope so.)

Do the math.

The simple truth is, financing your training will leave you in deep debt at a point when you’re least likely to be able to pay it off. While I’m not saying you should pay for the whole thing out-of-pocket — although if you can, do it! — you should try to minimize training debt as much as possible. The more you pay up front, the less you’ll pay in the future.

And do you really want to be saddled with a huge loan just when you’re starting out on a new career?

Pay as You Go

One way to minimize training debt is to do your training part time while working at another job. That’s what I did. It took a long time — 18 months to get my private certificate and another six months to get my commercial — but I didn’t have a penny of debt when I was done. (Of course, my other job generated a good cash flow, so I wouldn’t say my situation was typical.)

On a pay-as-you-go plan, you might give the flight school $2,000 on account and then fly and do ground school until it’s done. Then another $2,000 and so on. Obviously, the faster you train, the more money you’ll need to come up with. Perhaps you can work a deal with financing to pay part of the costs as you pay the rest.

Something I did early on was to join AOPA and get an AOPA MasterCard. Back in those days (late 1990s) the card gave cardholders 3% cash back on training and FBO expenses. I’d make my $2,000 account payment on my card and then pay the card balance when it was due to avoid interest charges. I’d then collect 3% of the training costs at the end of the month. While that doesn’t seem like much, it did add up. The card has since switched to a point system that also offers some cash back; I use it for all my flying expenses.

One drawback to the pay-as-you-go method — especially if it considerably slows down training: if you don’t fly often, you’ll need to fly more hours to get and keep the skills you need to pass a check ride. For a while, I only flew once or twice a week; I found in the beginning that I was “rusty” and needed at least half of a flight to relearn motor skills. I also took off an entire summer — you try practicing hovering autorotations in 115°F weather! Because of this, I probably required at least an extra 10-20 hours of dual flight time over the 18 months of my primary training just to be ready for my Private check flight.

The Military Option

If the military is an option, remember that the GI Bill (or whatever they’re calling it these days) will pay for all or part of career flight training. Do your homework to find out what’s involved and whether this can work for you.

If you’re already in the armed services, you might quality for pilot training. There’s nothing better than having your Uncle Sam foot the bill for flight training and pay you to build hours of experience. (Especially, of course, if your Uncle Sam is your mom’s rich brother who needs a pilot.)

If you’re not already in the armed services but you’re young enough to sign up, consider it. It’s not as crazy an idea as you might think. If you’re young, exposure to a disciplined lifestyle and trying circumstances can make you a better, stronger person. It can also help you mature quickly. And you’ll build relationships with other men and women from all over the country — relationships that’ll last a lifetime.

Remember that not all flight schools are eligible to receive GI benefits. Do your homework before you sign anything.

Ignore this at your Peril

Of all the advice I give you in these articles, this one is likely to be the most ignored. Why? Because in our society we want immediate gratification and don’t think twice about going into debt to get what we want.

Sure, you can ignore this advice and finance your entire flight training. Just remember, when you’re struggling as a CFI trying to build time at a flight school that hires all of its students as CFIs — more on that in a later post — that that loan is likely to be a heavy burden when you also need a roof over your head, food in your stomach, and gas in your car to get to work.

Next Up: Some age advice.

So You Want to be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 1: Read This First

Read up; this will tell you everything you need to know.

I’ve been blogging since 2003 and have been writing about my experiences as a helicopter pilot since the very start. A lot of what I’ve written covers the commercial side of flying helicopters — flying for hire. I’ve also written about the helicopter job market; that post, now about three years old, remains one of the most-read posts on this blog, with dozens of comments that help make it even more valuable for blog readers.

Along the way, I’ve been accused of “shooting people down,” “destroying people’s dreams,” etc., ad nauseam. That is not my purpose. I like to see people achieve their dreams, but I am a realist. I believe that people can achieve their dreams if they work hard and smart and do the right things to make it happen.

Captain MariaAfter all, I did it. I’m a woman (which, sadly, does matter in this particular field) from a middle-class family with absolutely no aviation background. I waited until I was in my late 30s to start flight training, doing it more as a hobby than a career change. I covered the cost of training to get my private and then commercial ratings. When I realized I was hooked, I set a goal of flying helicopters at the Grand Canyon. I achieved that goal in 2004, working as a seasonal pilot for one of the tour operators there. Now my goal is to get a job as an ENG or movie pilot. I’m working on that and believe I can achieve it.

But what are the right things to do if you want to build a career as a helicopter pilot? That’s what this multi-part post will attempt to address.

Who Needs to Read This

If you are a man or woman at least 16 years old with a serious desire to become a helicopter pilot, this post might be for you. Answer these questions honestly:

I want to become a helicopter pilot because:
(A) I love to fly and want to do it as much as I can.
(B) I think helicopters are cool and being a helicopter pilot would really impress my friends.
(C) I want a job earning $80K or more a year.

I’m sure I can fly a helicopter because:
(A) Well, I’m not really sure, but I think a good instructor can teach me.
(B) I can fly helicopters on my flight simulator.
(C) It looks pretty easy.

The most important thing to learn about flying helicopters is:
(A) It’s all important, from basic maneuvers to FAA regulations.
(B) Being able to do autorotations.
(C) Knowing how to fly like the pilots in the movies.

Helicopters are:
(A) Utility aircraft designed to perform missions that airplanes can’t.
(B) Like airplanes but without wings.
(C) Built for fun.

If you knew that the “right” answer to each of these question was A, there’s definitely hope for you. You might have the right attitude to be a helicopter pilot. And that’s important because, as I’ll discuss, attitude is vital to success.

If you honestly picked B or C for any of the answers, you need to think a bit harder about a career as a helicopter pilot. You likely have some misconceptions about what flying helicopters is all about. Why not stop by your local medevac base or helicopter charter company office and chat with some of the professional pilots there? Don’t chat with folks at a flight school — they’ll simply tell you anything you want to hear. Talk to the folks who are actually flying helicopters for a living. They’ll give you the facts and set you straight.

Who Doesn’t Need to Read This

This post is for people who want to build a career as a helicopter pilot. In other words, they want to fly helicopters for a living.

If you just want to learn to fly helicopters — as a hobby or just another skill — you don’t need this advice. Just go find a flight school and sign up. That’s what I did. I never intended to fly professionally. I just got hooked and then needed to be paid to fly in order to keep flying.

If you’re thinking about flying helicopters for a hobby, be aware that it is a very expensive hobby. It’ll cost about $10K to get your private helicopter pilot certificate. Flight time in the cheapest helicopter you can find will cost at least $180/hour and likely much more. Ownership is even more expensive — especially if you don’t fly more than 100 or so hours a year. Even home-built helicopters are costly to acquire and operate.

I’m not trying to talk you out of it — I’m just pointing out the facts. I know quite a few private helicopter pilots, most of whom own their own helicopters. They’re all rich guys. All of them. I am the poor kid on the block; I need paying passengers to fly.

And if you’re interested in helicopter ownership, be sure to read this.

The Advice

In the next part of this series, I’ll start providing my advice. While you might be tempted to skip one or more of the parts, don’t. Every single one will provide vital information you’ll need to succeed. Read them all; post your questions as comments on the appropriate post. I’d love to see a good discussion start — something that’ll really help you and others achieve your goals.

Oh, and by the way. I think the information you’ll find here applies to getting started in a career as any kind of pilot — even fixed wing.