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.

26 thoughts on “So You Want to be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 1: Read This First

  1. Who doesn’t need to read this post? Nobody. That is to say basically everybody needs to read it because the underlying principles apply no matter what profession one wants to pursue, or what business one hopes to start.
    I really have to constrain myself here but as someone who has lived for more than 3/4 of a century and for decades in two countries, I have seen a transformation from a rather widely-understood clarity about how one defines oneself and builds one’s life to the present times where such clarity is largely absent, at least less apparent than even a few decades ago.

    Focus, determination and discipline. There simply is no way to get around those criteria. If you try as a pilot, you will crash sooner or later. As a person, one can always blame circumstances or “others” for not having gotten off the ground or for having crashed in one’s life or career.

    Is that a rant? I don’t think so. I certainly did not intend to post one.

    • Eberhard: While I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of focus, determination, and discipline, I’m not sure what you mean about “crashing.” I hope you don’t mean that in the literal sense and, instead mean “fail to achieve goals.” Crash is a word I don’t like to put in the same sentence as pilot.

      When I say who doesn’t have to read the post, I’m trying to draw a distinction between career pilots and hobbyists. The rest of the posts in the series will focus on advice to get on the right course for a successful career as a pilot. While some of that advice might apply to all future pilots, some of it simply does not apply at all to the average hobbyist pilot. These posts are simply not focused on the needs of that audience.

      I agree that most people simply do not apply themselves as they need to to get ahead these days. This is apparent in many of the comments I see online by wannabe pilots. Rather than going out, researching career possibilities, and making a decision, they surf the web, find information that confirms their otherwise uninformed beliefs, and agree wholeheartedly with it. When someone voices a bit of reality that they don’t like, they bite back harshly in denial. Meanwhile, they do nothing to move forward. The clock is ticking and they’re setting themselves up for failure by simple inaction. Then they blame others when they can’t achieve their “dreams.” It’s a lot easier to blame others than to blame yourself.

      What amazes me is how often I’m attacked by wannabe pilots for “taking away their dreams” when I so obviously have succeeded in achieving similar goals. My success against the odds — late start, gender, etc. — proves that those dreams are possible. How can I be taking away anyone’s dreams when I’ve proved they’re possible?

      My main piece of advice is this: if you want anything in life, you have to stop dreaming and start doing.

    • I am 56 and a boat captain. We fly out to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Am I too old to start on the road to a commercial helicopter license ? Thanks

    • I’ve read your posts about starting young, and paying your way but unfortunately since im already old and over weight I’m just going to take my chances. I’m 38 and I want this so bad that I’m on a diet and trying to find the right school in my area. As far as starting young and paying your way, I’ve never in my years met a 16 to 25 year old who had the money to afford to go to one of these schools, but all the same I do appreciate the advice that you have given here and I hope that even at my age I can, like you when you started achieve a level of success.

    • First of all, 38 is not old. I was about the same age when I started. I just recommend that you start young.

      As for dieting, I’m not sure how much you need to lose, but the ideal weight is definitely below 200 pounds, preferably under 180. Find out what’s the healthy weight for your height and shoot for that. You will not regret it — it’ll make you feel younger and healthier. I know firsthand — I lost 45 pounds this summer. If you’re having trouble getting started on weight loss, I highly recommend Medifast. I’ve blogged about it extensively here; search for “medifast” on this site and you’ll see what I had to say about it. It’s tough for the first month, but once you get past that, it’s a breeze. One pilot friend lost 80 pounds and another lost 50 pounds.

      I don’t personally believe that a 16 year old should be investing in a career. And I don’t believe ANYONE should go into deep debt for an education that may or may not pay off. That said, it’s possible to do it as I did — part time over two or so years — and pay as you go. It’s not easy to get a job as a helicopter pilot. There’s a ton of competition and they will always prefer young guys or guys coming out of the military. I know I can’t compete with either group, which is why I’ll likely be a Robbie Ranger forever. But it’s not bad if you’re doing work you love.

      Good luck to you.

  2. Of course, Maria – I totally understand what you said and who you directed your post to. And the word ‘crashing’ was indeed used in the same wider sense as my comment in its entirety. And as you said in your reply about “stealing dreams”, that too can be extended in its meaning to someone’s desire to live in a virtual world – i.e. to build a castle in the air and then also move into it. Sooner or later the virtual reality will collide with the ‘real’ reality, and ‘collide’ too is figure of speech.

  3. Can you tell me more about how gender matters in this industry? Wouldn’t they want to hire more women since it is so obviously a boys club? Or are ‘they’ quite happy to keep it that way?
    I’m a 20 year old Canadian woman thinking about making this a career. I’ve done ground school previously for fixed wing aircrafts and got top of the class and surprised everybody when I did (to look at me one thinks “she’s pretty so she must be stupid. Girly, flirtatious, naive, pushover” – although the way I am constantly misjudged has never and will never stop me from doing what I love.) What challenges are ahead of me in regards to my being a woman?
    I love all these articles, thanks so much for writing them!

    • As someone who has succeeded in three different “male dominated” careers, I can offer this advice: don’t think about gender. Act like a professional and you will be treated as one.

      So many women are hung up on this gender thing. They can’t understand why they can’t succeed in a male dominated industry when all they do is whine and complain about how women are treated differently. At the same time, they’re wearing inappropriate clothing (i.e., low cut blouses, tight jeans) and are too concerned with their nails and makeup to get dirty doing the job they’re paid to do.

      Don’t be girly and flirtatious and they’ll take you seriously. I mean this. On the job, there is no gender — or at least there shouldn’t be. Be one of the guys and you’ll be treated like one of the guys. Really.

      Glad you like the blog posts. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Hey Maria,
    Im Leanne Gearhart, a college student and have recently had an interest in flying helicopters, though Ive never been in a helicopter before or have had any experience. I know this may sound kinda silly, but I have a lot of interests and don’t really know what I want to do. Is there a direction you could point me in to learn more about this being a possible profession? I would appreciate any and all advise and guidance!!
    Leanne Gearhart

    • Hi, Leeanne!

      Start off by taking a demo flight where you can manipulate the controls. Most flight schools offer them. There will be a short ground school session — probably about 30 minutes — followed by a 30-60 minute flight. Expect to pay at least $250 for the experience. Afterwards, you can talk to the flight school about certificate requirements and career opportunities.

      But don’t stop there! Visit other real pilots — not flight school employees — and talk to THEM about careers. You might also want to read this: .

      Good luck!

  5. Evening. Good information. I am looking to Fly as you all. Never thought about it in the past besides thinking how the hell we can do such a thing as put a hunk of metal in the air. have served in my beloved USARMY as a Proud Cavalryman for the past 14 yearsb with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and stationed in March Air Reserve Base, Ft Knox KY, Camp Hovey Korea, and my favorite Vilseck Germany. Currently in Recruiting and it has become the end of my career as a Soldier.Im excited and Ready for the new chapter. A good friend of mine also neighbor of 17 yrs is a pilot and currently saving lives. Any more advise is welcome. Also im a 34 Yr young Male, Healty and Fit, with a wife who supports me and three boys so no Time or space for Error.

    SCOUTS OUT !!

  6. Thank you for these great tips you gave us Ms Langer, I’ll be more then glad to see you in the air! Always remember; fly safe everyone! :)

  7. I’m gonna chime in here on the advisability of choosing helicopters as a career for a family man who already has obligations and unavoidable expenses. Namely, DON”T DO IT!

    Flying helicopters is a wonderfully adventurous career for a young man/woman who is footloose with no financial or familial obligations, but it’s a terrible choice (especially financially) for somebody who has kids and a mortgage. Choosing to go the civilian route (paying for your training, working as a CFI for a fraction of that, scraping and hoping for that first turbine job) is horribly expensive and it is extremely unlikely that you will ever see that expense repaid in a reasonable time frame, let along make enough to support a wife and kids. The only way you could reasonably pull it off is if you get somebody else to pay for your training and guarantee a job afterwards, which is a really tough sell. I’ve seen it happen with certain police departments and for pilots who sign up for the active duty military (as I did myself) but otherwise it’s pretty much a fantasy.

    If you still want to be involved in aviation but you have expectations of a reasonable income and lifestyle (like eating every day and living indoors) you’d be much better off working towards a licence to FIX helicopters, since the things perpetually need expensive maintenance and somebody has to do it. If you’re mechanically inclined it can be a pretty good career, though it involves significant paperwork and personal/professional liability (as in getting sued after crashes even if it’s totally not your fault) The latter factor eventually convinces many A&P’s to find a less risky (and often better paying) careers outside of aviation, such as fixing cars for a dealership.

    So, long story short, becoming a helicopter pilot is almost exclusively a young (and poor) persons dream unless you are financially independent. Even if you are, you won’t be for long since the things are ruinously expensive to own and operate. Maria is indeed living the dream, but she’s the exception that proves the rule. Sorry, but thems the facts, warts and all.

    • Sad to say, I pretty much agree.

      As for becoming an A&P, it’s an EXCELLENT idea. Best of all, you can still get a private pilot license and test fly the helicopters you fix. Sure, you won’t necessarily be flying every day, but you will be paid for your work. And there are lots of jobs out there for helicopter mechanics. My local shop in Wenatchee is looking for one right now.

  8. I read these comments to your excellent blog with interest and some surprise.

    The pilots I know did not discover an interest in aviation at thirty! We were building plastic air-fix kits at 8, balsa gliders at 10, powered free-flight aircraft at 11, designing our own control-line combat models at 13. Radio-controlled fixed-wing models arrived at 14 and one or two of us even tried to build and fly ‘glow-plug’ powered, multi-channel RC helicopters in our later teens, but they were extremely unstable and most flights ended in tears.
    Then came full-size gliders. We were virtually pilots before we had even sat in a full-sized powered aircraft.
    I cannot imagine a career in aviation starting in mid-adulthood. Without this background foundation drawing on an early obsession with all things to do with aviation; learning about the intricacies of a ‘swash-plate’ or the workings of a collective and its inbuilt power compensation, is going to be a bit of a brain-shock, I would imagine!
    As a twelve year old I entered an aircraft recognition contest with my friends Doug and John, they were 13. We beat the staff of the local Royal Air Force base. Their team included two pilots and a flight engineer.
    If you love flight as a kid, that love will stay with you.

    • I took my first flight lesson at age 38. Never had much of an interest in aviation. Thought helicopters were cool. Had some money and time and learned to fly. Fell in love with it afterwards.

      The aviation bug can hit you at any time — when you least expect it!

    • Glad it worked for you. But yours is an unusual route into career flying, I think you would agree?

      Flying demands an interest in lots of techy stuff, were you good at that as a child, even if the aviation bug had yet to get you?

      (And BTW, let me know if I’m being a pain)

    • Three careers, semi-retired in my 50s, relatively well traveled, author of 85 books, helicopter owner/pilot, designed and built my own home — I don’t know. Is that usual?

    • Unfortunately, we only have one life.

      I knew a man (now deceased) who got his helicopter pilot license on his 65th birthday. The only time it’s too late is when you’re dead. Go take a few lessons!

What do you think?