Fatties need not apply.
As strange as it might seem, one of the biggest barriers to building a career as a helicopter pilot is size — pilot size. Simply put, if you’re a heavyweight, you’re going to have a heck of a time learning to fly and getting your first job.
How Big is Big?
What do I mean by “heavyweight”? Well:
If you weigh more than 250 pounds, you may as well forget about learning to fly helicopters for a flying career. Most training helicopters simply can’t accommodate a big guy (or gal) plus a flight instructor. Even if you did learn how to fly, no one will hire you as a flight instructor.
- If you weigh between 200 and 250 pounds, you might find a flight school that can accommodate you for training, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find one willing to hire you as a flight instructor. After all, the more the CFI weighs, the less capacity there is for the student pilot. A big CFI could only train small student pilots; flight schools simply don’t want to deal with this limitation.
- If you weigh between 180 and 200 pounds, you’ll likely find a flight school that can accommodate you for training and might consider hiring you as a flight instructor. But you’d have to be really good with no serious competition to get that job.
- If you weigh less than 180 pounds, not only will you have no trouble finding a flight school, but if you prove your worth throughout training, you probably won’t have much trouble getting a job as a flight instructor either.
- If you weigh less than 150 pounds — listen up, ladies! — and you’re a good pilot with the right attitude, you will be sought after as a pilot.
Remember, the less the pilot weighs, the more other stuff — passengers, cargo, etc. — can be loaded on board.
Don’t believe me? I can back this up with a two real-life stories.
One guy who flew with me on my annual journey from Arizona to Washington state needed to build R44 time to qualify as an R44 CFI. He was a tall guy — probably at least 6 ft 2 in — and weighed 220 pounds. This was not a fat 220 pounds; he was tall, thin, and fit. He’d been told flatly by the school he hoped to get a job with that he weighed too much to be a CFI in R22s. He figured he’d go after a job as a CFI for R44s. What he didn’t realize is that flight schools don’t want CFIs limited to training in just one aircraft model. They could easily prep a 180-pound R22 CFI to train in an R44 — in fact, they could use that possibility as motivation (think carrot) for their R22 CFIs. I don’t know if this guy ever got a CFI job, but I tend to doubt it.
A very tiny female pilot who has been flying helicopters for years at the Grand Canyon weighs in at only 115 pounds. While it’s true that she’s too small to fly solo without ballast in the EC130 she flies at work, her employer loves her, referring to her as their “secret weapon.” Indeed, I saw her value one spring day when I dropped off two passengers for a flight over the Grand Canyon. The aircraft originally had only four passengers who would fly with one of the other pilots. When two more passengers showed up for the same flight, they pulled the other pilot — a man who probably weighed in between 180 and 200 pounds — and put her on board instead. They’d gained at least 65 pounds of capacity by simply swapping pilots, making a flight that may have been over gross weight now under gross weight. What company wouldn’t see the value of that?
And if these two examples aren’t enough for you, take a look at helicopter pilot job listings. You’ll see that a surprising number include maximum pilot weight as part of the requirements — or ask you to include your weight with your resume. In other words, fatties need not apply.
Don’t Disregard this Advice!
This is not advice that should be disregarded. This is vitally important for career pilots.
If you’re a 220+ pounder and a flight school trying to sign you up tells you not to worry about it, they are lying to you to get your business — as they may have done to the 220 pounder who flew with me. Sure, they may be able to squeeze you and a tiny CFI on board an R22 for flight training. Or maybe they’ll convince you that you’ll be better off training in an R44, which costs about twice as much per hour to fly. But you’ll still find it impossible (or nearly so) to get a job as a CFI when your ratings are in hand. And unless you plan to pay to build your first 1,000 hours, you’ll need that CFI job to move forward in your career.
It should go without saying that even if you start on the slim side, it’s important to stay that way — at least until you’ve reached a point in your career where your personal body weight doesn’t matter as much.
For example, I have two not-so-slim friends who are well along in their pilot careers. Both are utility pilots; one flies medium twins like Hueys and Bell 212s and the other flies Sky Cranes. Both of these guys are between 200 and 240 pounds. But they (obviously) weren’t always that big. Pounds are often added with years.
Yet another friend of mine was a medevac pilot who allowed his weight to creep up over time. When his company started closing bases, he was one of the first pilots to go. Coincidence? I don’t think so. At the time, he probably weighed about 250.
What You Can Do
If your current weight is above 200 pounds and you know some of it is body fat, it’s time to go on a diet. Do your best to get your weight down to what I consider the magic number for helicopter pilots: 180. If you can keep your weight at or below 180 pounds, weight will not be a barrier to your career.
Keeping slim and trim will help you throughout your life. Not only will it make it easier for you to get work as a pilot, but it will keep you healthier. Obesity-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart problems, and diabetes can end your career. If this isn’t motivation to take care of yourself, nothing is.
Next up, I’ll talk about what I consider the best part of being a helicopter pilot — but what others hate: travel.