So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 5: Check Your Attitude at the Door

Attitude is everything.

You think you’re a hot shot because you’re learning to fly helicopters? Check that attitude at the door. It won’t do you any good if you plan to make flying a career.

Attitude is everything when it comes to any career. A cocky, overconfident attitude will not help you in training and it certainly won’t help you get your entry level job — likely as a flight instructor — when your training is done.

Be open to what your instructor and other knowledgeable pilots have to say. If you don’t understand something, admit it and work with your instructor to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Show respect for your CFI, chief flight instructor, flight school employees, other students, and FAA examiners. Act mature. (This isn’t high school, grow up.) Be helpful and cooperative. Don’t be a whiner.

Beyond the Flight School Environment

Attitude also extends beyond training and into your jobs.

Just the other day, while flying in the high-traffic area around the Hoover Dam, I had the displeasure of conducting a useless radio exchange with a tour pilot. This little twerp probably had half the flight experience that I have, yet he talked down to me in a sarcastic manner that was obviously his [failed] attempt to prove how much smarter he was. The radio exchange wasted bandwidth and provided little useful information about what could have been a traffic conflict. It was clearly more important for him to try to intimidate me than to provide me with the information I needed to avoid his aircraft, such as position, altitude, and flight path.

Yet only moments later, another pilot operating nearby communicated exactly what he was planning to do and even offered to wait a minute or two until I was clear of the area.

Which one had the better attitude? Which one do you think other pilots would want to fly with? Or employers would want to hire?

Attitude Extends to Safety, Too

And it’s not just a positive attitude that will help you achieve your goals. It’s a safe attitude. If you don’t conduct yourself as a safe pilot, you will simply not move forward in your career.

Back in 2009, I had a run-in with a tour pilot in Sedona. He was upset that I’d parked my helicopter in the spot across from his at the airport. Apparently, he liked that spot kept free so he could fly through it on departure. To “show me a lesson” he departed nearly right over my passenger’s heads as we waited for him to leave the area. His action was foolish and dangerous. I reported him to the airport manager and the FAA. I later learned that this same pilot had demonstrated his bad attitude at the local FSDO within earshot of one of the inspectors. It was the pilot that was taught a lesson that day.

Accidents like the one at Grand Canyon West in 2001 are teaching employers the importance of their pilots flying safely. The accident pilot had a history, backed up with videotape, of performing aggressive maneuvers during tour flights.

One of the [past] passengers stated that there were particularly exciting episodes during the tour that were frightening to some of the others. As part of the tour, they flew over a site that was used in the commercial motion picture film Thelma and Louise, and the pilot pointed out the cliff. … During the return to LAS, the pilot asked if they wanted to know what it was like to drive a car off of a cliff. She stated that they all said “no” to this question; however, he proceeded to fly very fast toward the edge of the cliff and then dove the helicopter as it passed the edge. The passenger reported that it was “frightening and thrilling at the same time but it scared the others to death.”

On August 10, the pilot and six passengers were killed; the other passenger received serious burns on most of her body that have likely destroyed her life. The NTSB report’s probable cause was:

the pilot’s in-flight decision to maneuver the helicopter in a flight regime, and in a high density altitude environment, in which the aircraft’s performance capability was marginal, resulting in a high rate of descent from which recovery was not possible. Factors contributing to the accident were high density altitude and the pilot’s decision to maneuver the helicopter in proximity to precipitous terrain, which effectively limited any remedial options available.

Evidence shows that the pilot may have been attempting to perform the “Thelma and Louise” maneuver when the aircraft crashed. (You can read the details of this accident to learn more by downloading the full NTSB report as a PDF.)

You can bet that if there are any questions about your attitude regarding safety, you simply will not get hired as a pilot.

Start Now

Getting into the habit of having a good attitude should stick with you throughout your career — and your life. Start now, before you even begin your search for a flight school.

Next up, I’ll remind you why flight training is like any other school.

24 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 5: Check Your Attitude at the Door

  1. Re “The radio exchange wasted bandwidth”. As you know, I know zero about flying.

    I can understand the need to not engage in idle chatter, but I’m wondering how radio actually works while flying. Suppose 5 or 10 craft are near a tower at the same time. Could every pilot potentially talk at the same time? Does each have to wait till all others stop talking? How are things moderated?

    It’d be good to see a post sometime about aircraft radio for dummies.

    • Miraz: I’m thinking that “wasted bandwidth” was a bad phrase to use. What I meant to imply was a radio exchange where nothing of value was communicated.

      Unfortunately, the way radio communications work in aviation (and elsewhere, I suppose) is that only one party within range can transmit at a time. If I transmit while someone else is transmitting, I “step on him.” The result is that either one of us is heard — the one closer to the recipient’s receiver — or it’s a garbled mess. That’s why pilots should keep transmissions brief, especially when in busy airspace. Idle chatter on tower frequencies — as opposed to common traffic advisory frequencies — is not acceptable.

      Chatter on pilot air-to-air frequencies is okay, as long as the frequency isn’t needed for more important discussions. For example, at Lake Powell, the uplake reporting frequency is 122.75 — the same frequency commonly used for pilot air-to-air. I was once flying up at Lake Powell, trying to use that frequency, when two pilots in different airplanes were having a discussion about their flying history. Nice way to pass the time when you’re traveling together in two different aircraft, but not nice for the tour pilots trying to monitor the locations of other tour pilots. After a while, the two guys got the hint and switched frequencies, but not until after they’d annoyed all of us at the Lake.

      I can see that a more thorough discussion of radio communications might be of interest to non-pilots. Maybe I’ll add that to my future post list. Thanks!

  2. I agree that some of the attitudes out there will probably be the ‘downfall’ to many. I enjoys reading any articles/forums with regard to helicopters. It’s amazing to read the term “robbie ranger” and such from some of these ‘seasoned pilots’. As you have said in one of your articles, most of these guys trained on these helicopters but now that they are nothing but “glorified bus drivers”, they seem to have the time to criticize. I’ve brought up several new 44’s from the factory back to Canada, and each time the route takes me over Hoover Dam. It’s clear that some of these tour guide shave the opinion they own the airspace, other times they have been quite helpful. The fact that these guys make their living flying someone else’s helicopter is far more superior than one owning their own Robbie amazes me, but it most often isn;t worth the fight. Keep up the great articles. I have two 14 year olds that I am training currently. I have emailed them both your article about attitude.

    Matt Haasen
    Calgary, Alberta

    • Matt: The way I see it, “Robbie” can be used two ways: as an endearment or as an insult. These guys — many of whom learned to fly in Robinsons — seem to sling it as an insult. You make a good point, though. These guys are just glorified tour bus drivers; they can’t fly anywhere they’re not supposed to. (I’ve been there and done that at the Grand Canyon.) An owner, on the other hand, has complete freedom to fly anywhere and anytime. Why should they look down on me? And how can they judge a pilot’s experience by what he or she is flying? I have over 2500 hours, including a bunch of turbine time. I could probably teach these guys a thing or two they never dreamed of. But you’re right: it isn’t worth the bother explaining it to them.

      Fourteen-year-olds! Wow! Best of luck to all of you!

  3. Maria,
    I am really enjoying this series you have put together. Hopefully, it will open a few eyes out there and make people think before they do.

    • @Dan: I think that was my intention from the start: to help people get the whole picture and not get conned by the promises of a flight school.

  4. Maria, you are not only a whelth of information, you are a whelth of useful information. Cocky pilots are not only avoided by me, I’ve found. They are pretty much avoided by everyone. You’ve heard of the person with a magnetic personality that when entering a room is immediately surrounded by admirers. Well, I’ve known pilots that when entering a crowded room, will immediately find him/herself standing alone with what appears to be an invisable repelling shield around them. I have been involved in hiring a pilot or two, and believe me, personality and humbleness will usually offset any disparity in logbook totals. It’s a funny thing, but someone that is willing and egar to learn is much more valuable than someone that already knows it all…. Blue skies! Mike

    • Mike: I’ve known people like that, too. I always wonder how they got their foot in the door in the first place. Good behavior at the interview?

      I worked for a tour operator back in 2004 and one of my fellow pilots was the biggest, most offensive jerk on the planet. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut without offending someone and seemed to be extra offensive in front of me and the other female pilot in our shift. Despite numerous complaints about him, however, our employer never gave him the boot. Didn’t want a rate hike in unemployment insurance, I guess. It’s unfortunate, because having him in the break room made it very unpleasant for all of us. Every damn day. Didn’t give me a positive impression of the employer, either.

  5. Maria, What I said about pilots goes double for operators. The operators like the one that you describe usually are accident prone or have less than stellar safety records, high turnover, and develope apathetic crews and unhappy passengers. When pilots are allowed to develope the “I can’t wait to get out of here” attitude, their business is on borrowed time. Their reputation in the industry goes down hill faster than an AStar diving off of a cliff. Although the complete accident report appeared to be thorough, I was surprised that with witness statement being that critical of the pilot, that operator attitude wasn’t cited as being a contributing factor. Actually, I’ve heard more bad things about that operator than I care to remember. You reap what you sow…..Mike

    • Mike: No one — other than me, in the beginning — wanted to be at the Grand Canyon. The work was tedious, the days were long, life up there was dull. The company didn’t do anything to make any of that better. But they’ll still get hundreds of guys competing for those few tour jobs every year and every single one of them will stick with it until the end of the season to build the hours they need to go elsewhere. As for their safety record: considering the number of flights and passengers they handle, it’s actually quite impressive.

  6. Maria, that was an interesting post. Attitude is important. We can all spot the pilots with personality flaws that couldn’t be more obvious if they carried a sign but what about subterfuge? Can we as employers, be fooled ?
    A few years ago I interviewed for a pilot position with a large international helicopter company. This company had all candidates initially complete what I soon understood was in essence, a personality assessment.It was cleverly conceived. There was no right or wrong answers and yet the responses given would quite obviously tell the interviewers about you. At first I hesitated over a few of the multiple choice answers.I remember thinking that perhaps my answer would make me appear to be a less than ideal pilot. After short consideration I decided to answer honestly and without hesitation. Any interviewer worthy of the title would easily divine your real attitude and I would rather be assessed for who I was.Interviewing skills in this business vary widely however.
    After 37 years in this business I have seen people hired and fired for reasons that seemed to defy all logic.I have often seen pilots hired where the candidates personality mirrored that of his or hers employer. This can have good or bad consequences.
    My advice.Be yourself,know the company you are interviewing with and slow down.You really never do get a second chance to make that good first impression.
    Oh, and I never got that job with the international company.

    • Keith: The best reason for being honest on an interview is because you’d want to work for a company that would hire you for what you are. I remember being asked on an interview what was the craziest thing I’d ever done in a helicopter. While some guys might lie and claim they never did anything crazy, I thought for a moment and admitted that I’d flown under a bridge. I got a big laugh from the three guys interviewing me — and still got the job. Were they encouraging people to do crazy things? I don’t think so. I think they were impressed by the fact that I told the truth and recognized that it was a crazy thing to do.

      I think one of the reasons I’m self-employed these days is because I simply don’t want to deal with the internal politics of employer companies. Give me a job, give me the tools to get it done safely and effectively, and leave me alone. I don’t have the time or the patience to play politics. So here I am. Sad but true.

  7. I’m sure your experience with the other pilot is typical misogyny. Some men just can’t handle women in comparable professional situations.

    On another note, I really respect your abilities… my father was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and while he and I share some personality traits, that’s one thing I am perfectly comfortable saying that I’m not cut out to do.

    • Jason: You know, you’d think that in this day and age men would just get over it already. I can fly as well or better than a lot of male pilots. Does it matter that I can’t pee standing up?

      As for Vietnam era pilots…I’ve heard stories and have a lot of respect for those guys.

  8. @Maria Langer
    I’m quite certain there is nothing sad about your career choice Maria. I have been the proud owner/operator of two helicopter companies and as the old joke goes, I had to quit because the boss was such an asshole.
    I now work for a company where we are given the tools to perform the job and the rest is up to us. I typically see my Chief Pilot once a year and talk to him very seldom. I don’t feel the need to call him and tell him that I’m doing the job he hired me for. I agree that if you let politics bother you it can be a distraction. I just go out and do my job everyday and at the end of the day I do 20 minutes worth of paperwork and have a glass of wine.
    I won’t be the wealthiest helicopter pilot in the graveyard but its been a great ride. Have fun, fly safe and I look forward to having a coffee and a piece of cherry pie with you some day.

    • Keith: I really think you have the right idea. The only benefit to being an owner is the freedom to fly whenever I want, but “freedom” doesn’t mean “free.” I could get the same freedom by building a relationship with a flight school and just renting one of their aircraft when I want to fly. In the long run, it would likely be cheaper.

      I think you’ve got a great job: travel, good equipment, challenging work. Every day is different and you’re compensated fairly. No one is looking over your shoulder all the time, micro-managing you, waiting for an opportunity to play politics with you as one of the pawns. But you didn’t luck into your situation. You put yourself there through hard work, varied experience, and likely having the good attitude that’s so necessary to move forward in any career.

      Next time you’re in this neck of the woods — or in Washington, when I’m there — give me a holler. My door is always open to fellow helicopter pilots, especially those who can teach me a thing or two.

  9. I have been flying since 1973 and I have lost track of how many times I have heard or seen pilots do things that make your head tilt. The stories seem to cross, demographic and flight experience lines. Amazing. Most pilots understand the envelope and respect it. Some do not.

    • Ben: Old pilots and bold pilots, right?

      While I think it’s okay to “push” the envelope a bit to see where it really is — that’s part of the learning process — I don’t think doing that with six or seven tour passengers on board is a good idea. It’s unfortunate when a pilot does something really dangerous and “gets away with it” a few times. It leads him to confuse luck with skill. Each time he tries it again, he’s rolling the dice. Gambling with your life is never a good idea.

  10. Thank you all for all of the wonderful useful advice and stories. I’m a retired Navy Vet. After 21 yrs floating the ocean and innumerable helicotper flights, I’m starting a commerial heli course on monday here in the Okanagan Valley in Canada. I also used to be a Surgical Nurse. Your helpful advice about attitude and paying proper respect, being safe are all terrific comments which I will thankfully use towards my new career. I will be job searching sometime in March 2015 and any sort of comments, advice or career opportunities would be gratefully accepted. Please feel free to leave any comment or remark of an encouraging positive nature. I’m very excited to learn to fly helicopters as I’m sure you all were at some point. Thank you all for being who you are, helpful, caring and obviously true professionals. I’ll be learning on the R-22 and 44 with mountain, longlining and firefighting. Any suggestions on where to go once I graduate?Iindustries are constantly expanding the usefulness of the helicopter and with this ever evolving career path laid before me, I’d sure like to know what you fine folks think. How can I best gain the most experience and continually learn and qualify for more exciting opportunities or best way to get the magical 1500-3000 hours?

    Thank you all.


  11. Mayson, I think you are on the right track with the various specializations such as long line and fire fighting. That training will stand you in good stead over time. I would definitely recommend an Instrument rating and an NVG course after the others. You will find that an instructor’s rating can come in handy. Good luck. It’s a great way to earn a living.

What do you think?