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.

26 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 3: Start Young

  1. While we are on the subject of age, keep in mind that commercial pilots have to pass annual or bi-annual physical exams. If you have a family history of medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes, you may want to discuss your chances of acquiring these early in life with your doctor. Most occupations will allow you to work into your seventies. Not necessarily aviation. A second “back-up” skill might come in handy some day. (I hold a A&P mechanic’s certificate in case I can no longer fly). Blue skies….Mike

  2. @Mike
    This is such an EXCELLENT point. It would be a real shame to set yourself up as a career pilot and then, only a few years later, lose your medical. Sadly, the older you are, the more likely that is to happen. Once you become a pilot, take care of yourself!

  3. Maria,I look forward to reading your article on choosing a flight school, even more so perhaps than your previous well written articles.
    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.

    • Keith: I think a lot of what you’re saying will be covered in the post about attitude. Attitude is everything and your record follows you around for your whole career.

  4. I have read many of your blogs and have commented several times. I was doing some searching on the net for opportunities and saw one of your blogs and couldn’t help myself.
    I took my first lesson at Universal Helicopters in Scottsdale Arizona at the age of 42. Paying for ALL of my flight training out of my own pocket, working and raising a family (four daughters) was taxing to say the least. I received my Private Pilot certficate from Universal and proceeded to train for my Commercial certificate with Corporate Helicopters in San Diego. It took me two years traveling back and forth to attain my Commercial certificate and Instrument rating. As an “older” man I opted to not pursue my CFI cert and hoped for an opportunity to present itself.
    Four years after starting I have finally secured my first PAYING job as a Commercial Pilot flying tours in South Carolina. To put it mildly I am THRILLED to have found this job. It pays $7.25 an hour, and I had to out fly, and out interview HUNDREDS of other pilots to get it! Oh, and I spent over $1,000.00 JUST for the priviledge of taking the flight test, and attaining an interview based on flying skills! I live in AZ and flight test and interview were in W. Virginia! I was given TWO DAYS notice!
    To anyone who believes all the hype about a “shortage” of pilots……beware! There is no shortage of pilots. To anyone who believes that they will get their certificate and “go to work”. I have met dozens of out of work CFI, and CFII pilots who can’t find work to save their lives! To anyone who says I haven’t “paid my dues” because I didn’t go CFI, well, I can’t post here what I think of you. I have paid them plenty!
    I am now 46 years old. I am 2,300 miles away from my family, and I am making $7.25 an hour. I had to come out of pocket several times a year just to stay current with all my ratings, and to stay proficient as I could afford to. I am working with some great guys and we are ALL paying our dues working for peanuts, flying overweight tourists, in hot, muggy weather, in non-airconditioned ships. As I said, I am extremely grateful to be here, and I am truly enjoying the experience, but don’t tell me I aint payin my dues.
    It is best to start young, but as the old saying goes, you don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great! Don’t let your age stop you from pursuing your bliss my friends!
    To all of you, from the old fart, I hope to see you in the sky!

    • From one “old fart” to another: Congratulations! I got my commercial ticket at age 39 and my first job flying for someone else at age 42. It is possible — you and I are proof — but can you imagine how far we’d be now if we’d started 10 years sooner?

      I occasionally get comments and emails from people in their late 40s who want to get started. Sure, it’s possible. But since there is no shortage of pilots, I suspect the younger, more experienced ones will get the good jobs first.

      Best of luck to you!

    • Reading your article makes me smile. I’m 38 years old and have been dreaming of becoming a helicopter pilot since I was 21. Obviously I’m not a pilot. I do however have a log book with 12 hours logged over the years. I’ve flown the 300CB, Robinson R22, and the Enstrem at various schools. I’m at a point in my life where I can’t let this dream of mine go untouched any longer. Life for me has been a wild ride of different careers to try and make it in this world. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience life in a wealthy sense. Trust me when I say it’s not all its cracked up to be. Honestly I don’t care about the money or lack of in this industry. All I want to do is fly. It nags at me everyday. Pulling at my emotions. We are lucky (those of us who have always known we wanted to be pilots) to know what we want to do. That in it self is a hard discovery in everybody’s life in general. Your never to old to live your dream. I’m figuring out a way to do it, and if I can then my god everybody can. Great sacrifices will have to take place in order to achieve my goals. But hey look at it this way, nothing comes easy in life. Grab life by the hornes and make it happen anyway you can. No one judges you harder than yourself.

  5. Maria, your post has been a great source of inspiration to me. I’m 20 years old and its been a dream of mine to fly ever since I was a little boy. And I’m soon to begin making the dream a reality, but I do have a few questions that could hopefully help me. At one point in your blog, you stated that you were the poor kid on the block. This also applies to me. I work a good paying job, but its not enough to pay for the expensive schooling that I need. You said you did it at your own pace, which I have also considered, but I don’t want to take too long to complete the schooling due to the fact that ill have to pay my dues, and I want to be able to start a family by the time I’m 30. What do you suggest I do for the financing part? I sadly don’t have many resources nor do I have weathy relatives. As you said, there is financing available, but I don’t want to struggle payong my bills once I’ve finished school. I want to find a great school that also has housing available, and a school in which you also earn a degree. I’ve done a lot of research on school, but I am still having a hard time figuring out the best one. I live in southern california, and you said you finished your schooling in long beach. How was that school? And would you recommend I attend that one? I have been thinking a lot about everything involved and about my future, and I know this is something I truly want to accomplish. I’m willing to make sacrifices along the way, I’m just having a hard time getting started due to the fact that I know not a single person with the same dreams thay I have. I don’t even know a single pilot. Discovering your blog was a great thing, and I really hope you can get back to me. I’m trying my hardest to figure all this out, cause I have some hard headed parents that I need to impress. Thank you in advance for any info you can give to me, and happy flying!

    • Hi Nik. There are a few colleges out there where you can obtain a four year degree and become a commercial helicopter pilot. I just ran across one last week. Some pretty good programs. If I was your age and had to do it over again, that would be the route I would take. Unfortunately it wasn’t available for me at your age. However I would seriously look into the Army for flight training. Why pay for it if the government will pay for your training. I didn’t go armed forces because of my eye site. You need 20/20. I wear glasses. Now I did hear that they will in some cases pay for LASIK surgery and it doesn’t disqualify you for the program. Of course that’s just something I heard. Do your research and go live your dream. If you want it bad enough it will come.

    • Thanks for the reply! A college like that is exactly what I need, but like Maria had said, its very expensive and I don’t want to get myself into a load of debt, and not be able to afford it when I finish school. I’m not worried about my ability to fly and accomplish my dream, I know ican do it. The problem is that I have no control over the job market. I’ve heard that the demand in heli pilots is supposed to increase because a lot of todays pilots are from the baby boom so they will be retiring within the next few years. But hearsay isn’t good enough to get 70, 000 in debt. And I’ve thought about the military, but its just not something for me, it never has been. I appreciate your input and your advice! Thanks!

    • Here is a bit of advice. We are all in debt. After four years of college and being a CFI with an Istrument rating and having a four year degree is a great investment. If the military isn’t for you than get three jobs and make it happen. I mean come on, people don’t buy a house because there afraid of the debt and not having a job. You do it because its part of life. Ha, or you rent. Hope that helps.

    • Very well said, I appreciate thehelp! Ill find a way, no matterwhat I go to schoolfor it’s gonna be thesameexact thing..start from thebottom and be in debt..I guessthat is life..thanks again!

    • I was fortunate in that I had a very good job when I was going through my training. I was able to afford paying $1-$3K per month for flight training. I don’t think too many young people are in that kind of position these days. Also, keep in mind that flight training was a lot cheaper when I learned to fly back around 1999-2000; I could get dual time in an R22 for only $180/hour!

      I can’t recommend any school. Sorry!

      The reason I tell people not to go into deep debt for their flight training is because I’ve seen too many guys get through all their training and not get jobs. Heck, I met one just yesterday! The job market isn’t good right now, especially for low-time pilots.

      As for financing, have you considered joining the military? A lot of student pilots I know are paying for just about all their training with the GI bill. Just a thought.

      Good luck, no matter what you decide.

    • Sadly that’s what I was afraid of. Like my dad told me, schooling for anything is just too expensive nowadays, and its almost to the point where only rich people can afford to pursue a career. I understand the debt situation, that’s the last thing I want to happen to me, it is a rough market. And about the military, I’ve tried to consider it but its just not something that’s for me. As I said before, its truly a dream of mine to fly as a career, how do you feel about fixed wing planes? Is the market much different for those pilots? I know that a lot of people want to fly planes, therefore as a CFI, I feel that you would aquire hours much faster. But the main reason I’ve considered helicopters is due to the fact that in the end, I could have a set job that is more local with less travel than a commercial passenger jet pilot. Any thoughts on this?

    • Sorry, but I don’t know anything about airplane careers.

      Don’t disregard the military, though. I know that if I were 20 years old and knew what I wanted as a career, I’d enlist. The GI bill is a great deal and I think the kind of experience the military offers can’t be beat.

  6. Regarding the military route, I signed up for the U.S. Army at 16. After a medical check-up, parents signitures and paperwork, I started basic training at 17 + 1 month. Then I asked for helicopter flight school. Too young I was told. You had to be 18-1/2 years old. I did go to aviation maintenance school though. While I was in the army, I got my GED, a private and multi-engine ticket at the local military aero club, and some college. (I borrowed the money from the military credit union on base and paid it back through payroll deduction.) When I got out, I got my commercial and CFI in airplanes and a commercial add-on helicopter rating under the GI Bill. I still had plenty of GI Bill left and wound up getting a turbine transition in a Hughes 500, an external load course as well as a 40 hour agricultural aerial application course in helicopters. I got my first job with a County Government agency spraying mosquitoes. Although my seven years as an EMS pilot is near and dear to my heart, the 25+ years as a mosquito control pilot was the most fun I’ve had flying. My advice to a new helicopter pilot is get specialized training weather it be long line, aerial application, CFI, even a search and rescue course if law enforcement is one of your career options. I’m often asked “How can I break into mosquito control flying?” First, anybody off the street can get their pesticide applicator license by doing a little studying and taking the test. That’s what I did and that impressed my first employer-to-be. Learn everything you can about the job you are applying for and you will greatly increase your chance of getting hired. Good luck!

  7. Hi, I was reading through your articles, and I will say they are really informative, and I appreciate them. I’m writing mostly to say that the link to the Rotorcraft Flying Handbook is broken. Naturally I did a google search and I found two different results that seemed to fit what you were talking about. First I found the Rotorcraft Flying Handbook, and second I found the Helicopter Flying Handbook. Both of them on the FAA website. It seems the Helicopter one is dated 2012, while the Rotorcraft one is dated 2000. My question is:

    “Is the helicopter flying manual just an updated and revised version of the rotorcraft one? And if not would I benefit from reading both?”

    I do plan on reading through them, but for right now I want to finish reading your articles, and will delve into those when I have finished with that.

    • The Helicopter Flying Handbook is the current edition. They removed the gyro information and put it in a separate book. I’ll fix the links when I get a chance. Thanks so much for pointing out the problem! Good luck to you!

  8. I’m a 22 year old female and I’ve been interested in flying ever since I’ve been on an airplane. I’m more interested in flying helicopters but for 1.) I am broke 2.) I’m a woman so I’m so nervous to start because i really don’t think anyone will take me seriously and 3.) i have no clue what schools are trustworthy. i want to be a pilot by the time I’m 25 or 26. I’m also willing to relocate anywhere but i just don’t know where to start.

    • I’d be more worried about being broke than the other two concerns you listed. It’s very expensive to learn to fly helicopters. A lot of people take out very large loans, then find themselves unemployed and unable to pay them back when training is over. It took me a year and a half to get my private pilot license and that’s because I continued working at a good paying “job” — I was a freelance writer — while I learned. The same goes for getting my commercial license, although I did it a lot faster (about 6 months). The benefit: I didn’t have any debt when I finished my training. I realize this is neither practical or possible for most people who want to make flying helicopters a career, but it is something to consider.

      As for being a woman, that has not handicapped me. You worry that people won’t take you seriously. Why? Have they not taken you seriously in the past? Have you given them reason to not take you seriously? Gender will not be a handicap unless you let it be. Don’t be a girl, be a person. A person who doesn’t depend on anyone else to help her with anything. A person who does her homework in advance and knows a lot of the answers before getting started. A person who asks reasonable, well thought out questions. A person who presents herself as a serious, career-minded student pilot.

      There are a lot of ways to find a school. Start with listings, make phone calls. Get an idea of what’s most important to the school by talking to whoever they put on the phone with you. Is it money and financing first? Or do they put you on the phone with someone who talks to you about career opportunities without making outrageous claims of high-paying jobs right out of school? Visit flight schools. Talk to flight instructors and student pilots there. You might also try the helicopter forums, but I have yet to find one of any real value. They’re mostly filled with asshole pilot wannabes who pretend they are pilots and bash people — yes, especially women — who come seeking real knowledge. (If anyone reading this knows of a good helicopter pilot forum, now is the time to speak up.)

      I’ve blogged extensively about all of these topics: the financial challenges of learning to fly helicopters, being female in a male dominated career, finding the right flight school, using online forums. You can find what I’ve had to say right here in this blog.

      There is no magic pill that’ll guarantee success. There is no guarantee of success. Achieving success in any field requires a positive attitude, a real desire to achieve, and a willingness to work hard and smart to do what needs to be done. I blogged about that — attitude — too. Good luck!

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