Simply put: you have to go where the jobs are.
Back in July, I got an e-mail message from a reader with a question. His message is reproduced below, with his name changed to protect his privacy:
Hello, my name is Joe. I am 16. I live in Indiana, and I have been thinking a lot about my future career. I was thinking about all of the jobs that I would be interested in doing, and one of the big ones was a helicopter pilot. I read all of your posts about getting a job as a helicopter pilot, and I am confident that I have a chance in piloting as a career. I am willing to move around the country to get the right training on being a helicopter pilot, and I am willing to find a way to make it through all of the expensive training that you talked about. The only thing that really bummed me a lot about being a helicopter pilot was that once you make it through all of the training that it takes to actually get a job, the hours for piloting jobs can be unappealing, and I was just wondering if that is the case with all piloting jobs. Because some of them require you to be away for long periods at a time, and I was curious if all piloting jobs have strange hours, because I am kind of a family guy, and I don’t know if being away for long periods at a time on the job would be the thing for me.
I think it’s an excellent lead-in to my next topic in this series: travel.
Look at it Logically
For a moment, think about the kinds of jobs that are out there: doctors, mechanics, lawyers, restaurant servers, bankers, construction workers, accountants, supermarket managers, insurance agents — the list goes on and on. These jobs might be very different, but they all have one thing in common: there are job opportunities everywhere. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, chances are that you could find people in all of these jobs within 5 or 10 miles from your home.
Now think about pilot jobs or, more specifically, helicopter pilot jobs. How many helicopter pilot jobs do you think there are within 5 or 10 miles from your home? Unless you live in a big city or tourist town, you can probably count them on two hands. Even if there are more jobs, they’ll likely have strict requirements for experience, certification, and skills, making them difficult to qualify for until you’ve been flying for a while.
Travel May Be Unavoidable
Let’s look at the big picture based on time:
- Flight Training. If there’s a suitable flight school in your area, you might not need to travel to get your training. My first flight school was 90 miles from my home; I later trained at a second location of the same school that was only 70 miles away. That’s a lot of driving, but I was able to sleep in my own bed at night. When I had a falling out with my flight school and needed to finish up my commercial rating elsewhere, I went to Long Beach, CA, which is not driving distance from my home. (Fortunately, I only needed 10 more days to get my rating.) Whether you have to travel for training is dependent on what’s available near where you live. And don’t pick a flight school just because it’s the only one nearby; consult Part 4 of this series, “Choose a Reputable Flight School,” for more on choosing a flight school.
- Time-Building Job. Your first job as a pilot is very likely to be as a CFI. This is, for most people, a time-building job. In other words, the only reason you’re doing it is to build flight time so you qualify for another job. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get a CFI job either at the flight school you trained at or another one close to home. But again, this isn’t always the case. That first job is often very difficult to get — especially when, for a while, flight schools were churning out new helicopter pilots at an alarming rate. If you want to move forward in your career, you must get a time-building job. If the job market is tight, you might have to take the first job you’re offered, no matter where it is.
- First Pilot Job. Once you’ve build enough time, you’ll be eligible for a “real” pilot job — one where you’re actually doing all the flying (as opposed to sitting beside someone else who is trying to). Again, there aren’t many entry level jobs. Some of them are seasonal tour jobs, meaning they’re only available during the season. I wound up at the Grand Canyon, which I recommend because of the challenging flying conditions. Other people go to Alaska. The more time you have, the more options will be open to you. In many cases, this first job will also be your introduction to turbine helicopters. (Frankly, I don’t see much difference between turbine and piston helicopter operations — except how much damage you can do if you don’t start it right or try to pull too much power.) Employers make a big deal about turbine time it so you should probably try to get into a turbine ship as soon as possible. The point is, once again you’re required to travel to where the job is available. And there’s probably no coming home on weekends if you’re working in Alaska.
Sometime after that first “real” job, you’ll begin qualifying for other flying jobs. In my mind, they fall into three categories:
- Contract Jobs. A contract job is where you are hired as a pilot to fulfill a contract for specific work. The cherry drying work I do in Washington State is an example of a contract job: I’m hired to provide services for a short length of time. I’m paid a per diem amount to be available each day of the contract and I’m paid an hourly rate when I fly. My duty hours are all daylight hours, 7 days a week until the end of the contract, which is normally 2 to 6 weeks. I’m not employed by anyone — in other words, I don’t get a paycheck, have taxes deducted, or have benefits. I’m also out of work when the contract is up. Firefighting is another example of a contract job. Contract jobs tend to be seasonal and require specific skills, equipment, and/or certifications. These jobs require the most travel — you could be in Arizona fighting a fire one week and two weeks later be in Montana waiting for a fire call.
- Schedule Jobs. What I’m referring to as a “schedule” job is when you work for a specific employer on a schedule — for example 7 days on and 7 days off or 14/14. I worked 7/7 at the Grand Canyon, but they also offered 4/3 schedules (I think; my memory isn’t as good as it was). 7/7 and 14/14 is common with EMS and Gulf operation jobs. Some contract jobs — especially firefighting — work on 14/14 (or similar) schedules. These schedules are designed, in part, to make it possible for pilots to “go home” between work shifts. They’re recognizing that pilots don’t always live where the job is and, indeed, they don’t. When I worked at the Grand Canyon, most of the pilots on the 7/7 schedule went home on their off days, including me.
- Regular Jobs. What I’m calling a “regular” job is one where you work “regular” hours at the same place for a specific employer. ENG and law enforcement jobs are good examples. An ENG pilot might have to fly morning and afternoon rush hours and be available during the day for breaking news. But he might get nights and weekends off. A law enforcement or EMS pilot might work a 12-hour day shift for a week, get a week off, and then work a 12-hour night shift at the same base. These are the folks most likely to live where they work. And if their job is stable enough, they can have a home life pretty much like anyone else’s.
Of course, there is overlap between these three broad categories and someone else might come up with a different way to distinguish between them. This is just my way of looking at them and how travel is involved.
I should also point out that a “regular” job might require travel. For example, you could argue that Phoenix-based Flying M Air is my employer and I normally work out of a Phoenix airport. However some photography or survey assignments require that I travel to other locations — Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, Kingman, Winslow, etc. — for a day or more. If clients need a helicopter where there isn’t one, I’m sometimes called to bring mine to them.
In general, however, to answer Joe’s question about hours, I’d say that 95% of helicopter jobs have what you might consider “odd hours.” If you’re looking for a 9 to 5 job, a career as a helicopter pilot is not for you.
Living Conditions on the Road
It’s worth a moment to look at some of the living conditions you might find if you do get a job away from home. While they’re not always terrible, they’re not usually very good.
At the Grand Canyon, pilots were offered housing in double-wide mobile homes about 30 miles from the airport. For a reasonable fee, four pilots shared one four-bedroom house in a subdivision of mobile homes. I was fortunate in that I had other living arrangements available to me, so I didn’t need to take advantage of this opportunity. My understanding was that living conditions depended on your roommates and and their habits. The area was so remote with such limited facilities that our employer actually warned us before we were hired about the lack of night life and social activities so we couldn’t use that as an excuse to back out later on.
In Central Washington State, I now live in a fifth wheel RV that I own and transport to my various bases of operation. It’s very comfortable, although it does have limitations that vary based on where it’s parked. In previous years, I spent a whole month at a motel in a very cramped room with no cross-ventilation. (The motel did have a pool, so I really can’t complain.) Other pilots doing this work are often called on to live in housing provided onsite — usually small travel trailers. One pilot I know was put in an 18-foot travel trailer with no bathroom; she had to use a portable toilet (think blue or green outhouse) and walk to the orchard owner’s home to shower. Her cell phone didn’t work there either, so the only way she could get or make calls was to drive into town.
A friend of mine who works fire contracts is typically put up in a motel near the base. Because the base can change at any time and he has to carry his gear with him from base to base — sometimes in the helicopter when he repositions — he’s limited on what creature comforts he can bring along. Motel quality and cleanliness can vary widely depending on what’s available.
Yet another friend of mine who works fire contracts typically travels to Greece, Italy, and Australia for work. I don’t know the details of his living conditions, but I sure do like the idea of going to places like these with someone else footing the travel bill.
Living conditions are a crapshoot that depends on many factors. If you’re picky about where you sleep at night, a career as a helicopter pilot might not be for you.
Be Willing to Travel
The point of all this is that you need to be willing to travel and willing to deal with less-than-perfect living conditions to move forward in a career as a helicopter pilot. But that’s part of paying dues — which is up next.