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.

13 thoughts on “So You Want to be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 2: Save Up

  1. Great post Maria! Short note: For those going the military route, get flight training “IN WRITING” from the recruiter before you sign on the dotted line, otherwise you may wind up in the INFANTRY! A friend of mine joined the Army with several of his friends, with the intention of all going to helicopter flight school together. He was the only one that insisted on getting it in writing. His friends took the recruiters word for it. My friend was the only one of the group that went to flight school. Myself, I used the G.I. Bill to get my Commercial Helicopter pilot rating back in the 60s and Uncle Sam paid 90% of the tab. Good luck!

    • Thanks for sharing that VERY important information, Mike.

      I think the military option is a good one for young folks. I know that if I needed to hire pilots, I’d be more likely to hire one out of the military — my way of saying THANKS! — than one that went the usual time-building route.

  2. Hi,
    I agree with what mike is saying. currently I am going to th university of north dakota for flight school and a B.S. degree in commercial aviation (Helicopter). but uncle sam is paying for 36 month of school and I’m getting housing allowance on top of it all. in the course one would receive there VFR,IRF, and commercial. If anyone is former military or current it is the GI Bill 9/11 (chapter 33). i would also suggest anyone that is still in the military to get there generals/ electives out of the way and to use your educational benifits while you are in. UND does offer CFI also but it’s not in the course, I am still trying to figure out to get the VA to pay for it. all in all I hope this helps someone.

  3. I’m so glad that the government is paying good GI benefits now. I think that’s pretty recent. I know the folks who serve in the military deserve the financial aid we can give them to jump start the next stage in their lives. So glad guys (and gals, I assume) are taking advantage of it to cover the cost of pilot ratings and more.

  4. You might also mention that someone should never pay out a very large amount or all of the money for training in one go. Little by little, as to not lose money if the school goes under.

  5. Maria,
    Thank you so much for all great information, well done. I am currently looking into getting my commercial licence, the only problem is that I have a red/green colour deficiency that restricts me to only day time VFR flights. I have been in touch with numerous flight schools over the issue and they all tell me that I could still have a full career and find a job after getting my licence. I have a feeling they may just telling me this to try and get my money.
    I would like your thoughts on the issue, do you think it would be a major mistake to invest 85k into a career while having those restrictions? Is a night flying rating or IFR rating something that employers eventually expect their pilots to obtain? Any thoughts on the issue would be greatly appreciated.

    • Judging from your spelling (colour, licence) and your email domain, I assume you’re in Canada. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about Canadian flight certification. I’m hoping someone else reading this can respond better than me.

      In the US, there’s no special rating for night flight. If you’re a pilot, you can fly at night as long as you’re current — and don’t have a limitation on your certificate that prohibits it. IFR ratings are only needed for IFR flight; they won’t help you fly at night if you’re not flying IFR.

      That said, an inability to fly at night will likely limit your career. Think about it: how many kinds of helicopter pilots fly at night? Medical evac, police, charter, electronic news gathering. The list goes on and on. Utility pilots — fire, survey, agriculture, etc. — don’t usually need to fly at night, so there might be possibilities there. But all of those jobs require a lot of hours of experience. Your inability to fly at night may even limit how you can build those hours.

      Have you tried asking your question on reputable pilot forums? Maybe AOPA? It would be a shame if something like this held you back. But I agree: don’t take their word for it. Do your homework. Maybe talk to someone at the Canadian equivalent of an FAA FSDO?

      Good luck!

    • John, flying at night can be very dangerous in the commercial world. I have inadvertently flown into clouds three different times while flying at night. I would highly recommend an instrument rating if you plan to fly commercially. Flying on instruments is a great confidence builder and is a lot of fun. Inadvertently flying into clouds has been the cause of many accidents, especially in helicopters. Helicopters, unlike airplanes are dynamically unstable and must be flown 100% of the time. (Unless on auto-pilot, of course). All thinks being equal, an employer will hire an instrument rated pilot first. Check with an American AME about night flying with color deficiencies. Good luck!

  6. I guess i’m coming in here a bit late, but I just caught this blog. I just wanted to add some of my own perspectives if I may.

    One thing someone might consider is starting in fixed-wing aircraft first. It can be cheaper and the instrument rating, last time I checked, transferred over to rotary-wing aircraft. Once the instrument rating is achieved, start training rotary-wing or continue to the fixed-wing commercial certificate and then go rotary-wing. In then end it can be good to have both rotary-wing and fixed-wing experience.

    I fly hang gliders now, LOL.

    • It can be cheaper if you want both the helicopter rating and fixed wing rating. And I think you may be right about the instrument rating. But if a person only wants a helicopter rating, I think skipping the fixed wing reading may be a little cheaper. It certainly is worth looking into. Thanks for sharing.

What do you think?