So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 7: Stay Slim

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:

  • N7139LHow much do you think you can squeeze into one of these?

    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.

Real-Life Examples

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.

34 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 7: Stay Slim

  1. Sad but true, eh, Maria?
    Good series of posts…I am not interested in learning your trade, but I am fascinated by the “insider” stuff you post.
    Thanks!

    • I weighed in at 160 pounds when I flew at the Grand Canyon in 2004. I’ve been trying to get back down to that weight ever since. I really believe that weight is a huge factor in helicopter pilot hiring for light helicopters. It’s also unquestionably where women have an edge over men — possibly the only edge — in this male-dominated industry.

  2. Somebody had to say it, Maria. Employers may be rejeccting your resume’ without telling you just why you didn’t get the job.
    Here’s a 5’8″ Helicopter pilot that weighed 253 pounds that had a stroke in flight. He kept putting on weight after having several prior strokes. http://1.usa.gov/peY9u1 Like Maria said, once you get that first job, don’t think that it’s ok to gain weight. Stay healthy and maintain a reasonable weight and your pilot career will be much better for it.
    Mike

    • Well said, Mike.

      I remember reading this story. It’s a miracle that the passenger was able to help the pilot land safely. But the bigger question is: why was he flying at all? Stroke is serious business; it’s one of the reasons I’m keeping my weight under control and watching my blood pressure.

  3. My brain just burped and reminded me of a small placard I had made for my original helicopter, an R22. At the time, I was leasing it back to a flight school in Chandler, AZ. I stuck the placard at the bottom of the instrument panel where it would not be a distraction. It said “No Fat Dudes.”

    I caught some heat from the Chief Flight instructor there (who has absolutely no sense of humor) and eventually removed it.

  4. I agree 100% with the issues discussed about heavy pilots. It is a real, practical problem. When flying small helicopters it is very easy to reach the weight limitation and you are always restricted on the amount of fuel you can carry. As the Chief Flying Instructor in my company, I have had to politely explain to many potential pilots what the problem is. I even had one student go as far as having liposuction to reduce weight but this is not what I would recommend.

    • I got my wake-up call when I realized that I couldn’t put a heavyweight up front with me in the R44 without ballast in the back. For example, I have a photography client who weighs in at 250 pounds. With just him and me aboard and both sitting up front, the CG is too far forward! And of course, if you put 3 typical Americans on board with me, it’s not likely that I’ll be able to take full tanks of fuel. Liposuction is pretty drastic, but if a pilot lets him/herself get that far from a good weight, drastic measures might be needed to stay employable.

  5. I’m a student pilot from Canada, that is currently taking my training on the Gold Coast in Autralia. I just wanted to say that I am VERY happy to have found this thread. I am at about 55 hours and its about time to start to think about what to do afteri get my license. This thread is hugely helpful, because:
    1. Its CURRENT! There is so much out-dated information and advice all over the internet, but finding threads with current information, that is updated regulary is very refreshing.
    2. This thread is most definately encouraging. Just about all of the advice I can find online for low hour pilots or students, is that theyve all made the bigget most expensive misteak of their lives and there is no chance for employment or advancement in this field (maybe I’m being slightly dramatic, but most threads solely talk about how impossible it is to get a job)
    3. It is just chock full of useful tidbits, and links to very useful information. -I had never even thought about weight being a factor in future job prospects, but it makes a lot of sense that it would. As I read on I keep adding new tabs in my bowser of all the links that you’ve refrenced in these treads, so I can go back and look and learn from them.

    Just wanted to say thank you for all the useful information and I look foreward to the next post.
    -Ron

    • Thanks so much, Ron. Do keep in mind that this was written based on the information I’m familiar with in the U.S. Job markets and time-building might be different in other countries. I encourage readers to share what they know — through actual observation instead of hearsay or rumor — to help round out the information here. I just have one view; we can make this a more valuable series for all readers by sharing our insights, gained through actual experience.

      Good luck with your training and career!

  6. Very nice information. I’m planning on building a career as a helicopter pilot and while i’m not overly concerned about effort and money, my height is something i can’t really control. At 194cm (6.3 feet) i’m slightly worried i’ll have trouble fitting into smaller helicopters. And like you said, even if i do i might not be optimal for employment.

    I can change my training regimen to lose mass as needed but do you think being tall is something that’s easily a problem for helicopter pilots? How tall would you estimate “too tall” to be when starting a career?

    • Robert, I don’t think height is a problem — in general. So many tall guys are also big guys, though. While you’d vertically fit in an R22 — my 6’4″ dad fit in as a passenger in mine years ago — the ultimate challenge will be weight. How thin can a guy as tall as you be? I don’t know! But as I mentioned in the blog post, once you get into larger aircraft, weight probably won’t be a problem if kept within reason.

      Maybe someone else reading these comments can provide more insight from his/her own experiences?

  7. Thanks so much for these articles! I’m 25 and I’ve worked at the same major corporation for almost 7 years now. It’s a solid job and pays well (currently 42K salary)…but I’m much more passionate about flying. I take my first real lesson in two weeks, and I’m excited but also fearful of the addiction I am about to bestow upon myself. Currently trying to figure out how realistic paying out of pocket for all the hours is looking…

    • Good luck to you! You’re young enough to make it happen — and if you can pay as you go, you’ll be in great shape when/if you’re ready to switch careers.

  8. I started flying helicopters in the 90’s until I ran out of money =) It was the only thing I was ever good at in a relatively short amount of time. I started in the R-22 and you are correct about the weight issue and the age issue. Now that I am able to finish my training I am probably too old (43) and too big 230 to get a job. Makes me sad.

    • You can’t do anything about your age (unfortunately), but you might be able to do something about your weight. And, if it makes you feel any better, I was 40 when I got my commercial ticket and 44 when I got my first flying job.

    • And I have decided that happiness is worth it, when I get back from Afghanistan I am getting all of my ratings. The weight comes down over here and I will keep it off. I have done jobs that I was not fond of for so long a little happiness is in order-even if I have to lease a Robbie and teach until I am 65 but I don’t think that will be the only job out there =)

  9. I am a female that is 4’11” and would like to become a helicopter pilot. Is there a height limit? Will my short height prevent me from flying a R22 or R44? Thank you!

    • You may have to sit with a cushion behind your back to reach the pedals. Robinson actually provides such a cushion with every helicopter. The pedals in an R22 are not adjustable; the pilot pedals are in an R44. You can use a back cushion in any helicopter if you need one. So no, I don’t think height is an issue.

      Keep in mind that good upper body strength could be important when transitioning to larger aircraft. For example, a lot of strength is required for hydraulics failure training (and actual failures) in most aircraft, but especially AStars. This is pretty much the only time body strength is required to fly helicopters. While I realize that petite doesn’t mean “weak,” you’ll need to prove that to future employers. You might want to try flying an R44 with hydraulics off while in training to see how you stack up. If you find it very difficult (or impossible), hit the weight room and build some muscles. AStars are worse.

      Good luck.

    • Thank you for your time and information. It was very helpfull. I read your bio and it truly gives me inspirtation!

  10. Hi, im 18 and really want a career being a helicopter pilot.
    Now my main concern is military vs civil.

    The problem is to be a military pilot here in Canada, first of all its incredibly competitive because they dont really need many, and you need to be an officer which means 4 years of university.

    I would love to fly military helicopters, but I dont want to study 4 years of university doing something thats not related to what I want to do, but I hear so many people say military pilots are the ones that get hired first.

    So do you recommend going the military way? or will I be fine civil.

    • Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Canadian aviation to advise you. I will say, however, that getting a college diploma will never hurt you — indeed, it can be a real life-saver if your first choice career doesn’t work out.

      Maybe someone else here can advise you. Good luck, whatever you decide.

    • After all of my flight training and graduating from a university I went the military route (US Army to be exact). I applied for the WOFT program (Warrant Officer Flight Training) in the ’90’s.

      Couple of things about the military you should consider. First, understand that military pilots train for ultimately unpleasant things. They go to war and it’s not just about the flying. I know what I wrote probably sounds dumb, but a lot of people really don’t think about this until they report for duty and suddenly they are holding a weapon. I know I really didn’t, all I thought about was flying. Understand that you could be flying weapons to their targets. There’s a lot more to it than just tooling around in the sky and having fun. It’s very serious business. Make sure you think hard about that and prepare yourself mentally for it.

      Second, since pilots are ultimately officers they can be re-assigned to other leadership roles. Now, i’m not exactly up on my Canadian military info, but I can assume with probably 95% accuracy that offices get assigned to all kinds of roles not related to their rated jobs. So, understand that you could end up flying a desk at a training school or recruiting office somewhere. It happens. Right now I have a friend who is a captain in the US Army, he’s a Ranger and was an officer in a Ranger battalion. Last year the Army re-assigned him to a ROTC battalion at a university where he teaches cadets the basics of military science and leadership. He’ll do that job for the next two years. Officers can be put into pretty much any leadership position, so be aware of that.

  11. Some companies prefer civilian pilots and some prefer military trained. You could attend an aviation oriented University that offers flight training and earn a degree at the same time. Then you will be more attractive to the military if you should want to go that route. While you are in school try to make as many contacts as you can. Talk to folks at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
    800-862-2416 or 386-226-6100 Good luck!

  12. I was just wondering if you knew what company your friend that was flying sky cranes worked for and if there was anyway you could get my in touch with him so that i could talk to him about what the requirements time wise are to land a job like that?

  13. Thank -you do you have any idea what there requirements are for a pilot such as PIC time cause i have looked on there website and it has no information on it?

    • Most companies want at least 1,000 hours PIC to hire for entry level tour/charter jobs. There are exceptions, of course — some want more, others will settle for less.

  14. Well this is the first bit of encouraging news for me. I weigh 130 pounds soaking wet haha. I am beyond a newbie to all of this, and to be honest before reading these post I thought it was all just get a loan and learn to fly. I’m 22 right now and live paycheck to paycheck and simply don’t know where to start in all of this. I’ll re-read the posts but if you have any information as to where to start (aside from the military being that they prey on broke young folks like me) send me an e-mail. Again, thank you for all of the information Maria. I’d recommend these post to anyone who wants to pursue this as a career and will be using this as my personal guide to what my future WILL be.

  15. Hi Maria,
    You definitely gave me hope through your experience. Since I saw cops’ helicopter swirling around my area I decided, if possible, to be a helicopter pilot but stuck in a small body (less than 100 pound and less than 5 feet tall at 27). But I think there’s no hope for me to be one. Have a great day.

    • I think you might be right: you might be a bit too petite to fly. But have you tried? Go to a flight school and take a lesson. The pedals are adjustable on Robinson helicopters and they also have a cushion you can put behind your back. If you can physically do it — reach the pedals, handle a hydraulic failure, etc. — everything I said in this blog post applies. And they’d love you as a flight instructor!

  16. Hi,

    I’m 5’9 weigh 140lbs and started flying airplanes at 21 and helicopters at 22. I haven’t solo’d in either yet but according to CFIs I’m a good pilot. Currently endorsed to take the written. I’m now 27 years old with 16 hours in airplanes and 14 hours in helicopters which includes two hours in an S58T. Slighty concerned with how long everything is taking without loans and will be finished with an associates degree in 2018.

What do you think?