It’s pretty shameful.
Knowing how to fly a helicopter isn’t exactly a common skill.
It takes at least 40 hours of flight time to get a private license, although most people need at least 60 to pass the check ride. At at least $200/hour, the cost alone is enough to scare most people away from learning.
Then, to get a commercial license so you can do it for hire, you need 100 hours of pilot in command time (at about $200/hour if you rent) and to pass yet another, more stringent check ride.
So then you can get a job, right? Not quite. No one is going to hire a 150-hour pilot to fly their helicopter with paying passengers aboard. In fact, you probably won’t be able to find a job flying for someone else until you have at least 1,000 hours of pilot in command time.
How do you build that time? Most people do it by becoming a flight instructor or CFI. That’s more training, more requirements, and another check ride. Then shamefully low pay rates — maybe $15 to $25/hour? That might sound good, but we’re not talking about a 40-hour work week. You get paid based on when you teach. That might be 10 or 20 hours a week. I don’t know too many people who can live on that.
(I did it the more expensive way. I bought a helicopter and flew the paint off it. Figuratively, of course.)
So now you’ve got 1,000 hours of PIC time, accumulated over a period of about 2 to 3 years. You’re ready for a “real” job. Fly tours at the Grand Canyon (like I did). It’s great experience, but the pay is only slightly better than what a CFI gets. Fly in the Gulf of Mexico, bringing oil rig workers and VIPs to and from platforms on a featureless, watery landscape, miles from land, in good and bad weather. More good experience, slightly better pay. Pretty crappy living conditions, from what I hear. And I don’t think many women work out there. (Would love to hear from a woman who does; use the Comments link.)
Want a high paying job? One of those $80,000/year job you hear about on radio commercials and in seminars? You’ll need several thousand hours of turbine helicopter experience (which you usually can’t get as a CFI), long line experience, and a “OAS/USFS card.” You’ll have to work your way up through the ranks on other kinds of helicopters to get to this stage.
And, oh yes, you have to be willing to be away from home at least 14 days out of every month.
My friend, Rod, is among the handful of people who qualify for the good paying jobs. He does all kinds of long line work — logging, fire fighting — you name it. But the long hours, questionable living conditions, and time away from home burns him out so badly, he can only work half a year. He actually spent a winter delivering propane (from a truck) just to get away from flying.
Think I’m lying about job requirements? Check out these links for helicopter jobs:
Even police helicopter pilot jobs start at less than $50K. And they require police training, too.
And I think that’s amazing. Helicopter pilots have an incredible skill that few other people have. They have thousands of dollars and hours invested in their training and experience. They’ve worked their way up from the bottom, with low pay and unfavorable working conditions most of the way. And only a handful will ever achieve the high pay you’d think would come at the end of the dues-paying process.
I’m fortunate enough to have two jobs, so I never have to depend entirely on helicopter pilot pay to cover my living expenses. Still, that tour pilot job in Hawaii remains beyond my reach — until I get another 650 hours of turbine time…