Helicopter Pilot Reality Check

Another message from a reader; he gets it, too.

I just wanted to share another message from a reader, along with some comments. Here’s the message; I did get permission from its author to share it here:

Hello, Ms. Langer. My name is XXX, I’m from Los Angeles, CA, and I’m 27. I just got out of the Army back in January after eight years of service, and I’m kind of lost. Don’t worry, I’m not here for guidance, or advice. I just wanted to thank you for your “So you want to be a helicopter pilot” articles. Though short and concise, they are a substantial truth in the sea of opinions and “knowledge” that is the internet. I have been considering using my GI Bill on flight training, thinking it would be a great way to make 80 thousand a year right out the gate. I knew in my heart of hearts that there had to be more to it, though, and I was right. Thank you for the reality check, the information, and for putting things in perspective. I’m still strongly considering it, but can now make a better informed decision. I believe nothing worthwhile is accomplished without paying your dues or overcoming challenges to get there. Your articles took the “too easy to be true” out of my mindset. Thank you.

(Emphasis added; more on that later.)

Messages like this one are part of the reason why I blog about my thoughts, feelings, and experiences as a pilot. I want to share what I know (or think I know) with other pilots and folks who want to be pilots.

He’s referring to my series of blog posts titled “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot.” Originally written about two years ago, I’m preparing to update, revise, and expand the series and turn it into an ebook. It’s my attempt to inject a dose of reality into the whole helicopter pilot career discussion — a discussion that has been fraught with fallacies.

False Advertising

News Travels Fast

I still remember how I heard of Silver State’s demise. I’d been using their maintenance services for my helicopter. Early — before 8 AM — on a Monday morning, my FAA POI (Primary Operations Inspector) called me. “Do you have possession of your helicopter?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s in my hangar.” I remember feeling a moment of panic. Was it in my hangar? Or somewhere else? Why was the FAA calling me? “Or it should be,” I added quickly. “Why?”

He replied, “Silver State went out of business yesterday. They locked up all their facilities. I just wanted to make sure your helicopter wasn’t locked inside their hangar.”

To this day, I wonder what kind of ordeal I would have been put through to get my helicopter out of their hangar if it had been in there that weekend.

I blame Silver State Helicopters, the now-defunct pilot mill, an organization with a pyramid scheme as its business plan. Some readers might remember this company, which locked it doors on Super Bowl Sunday in February 2008, just days after conning another two (from what I heard) students into signing up.

Silver State was well known for conducting helicopter pilot career seminars at auditoriums all over the country. They’d run radio ads to advertise the events, luring people in with promises of $80K salaries as helicopter pilots. I never attended an event, but I was told that it wasn’t uncommon for them to put several helicopters with flight-suited pilots on stage in front of their audience. They’d paint a picture of a glamour job with a big paycheck. All you had to do was agree to pay $70K to $80K (prices varied) to go through their program. They had financing — I believe they used Key Bank — available at the event and even promised to hire all students as flight instructors to get them started on their career path.

Hundreds of people fell for their sales pitch and signed up. (Let’s face it: Who wouldn’t want to be a helicopter pilot making $80K/year? Cool job, great paycheck. Double win, no?) This enabled the company to keep expanding, adding more locations and more helicopters. They also started churning out more and more pilots. They used tomorrow’s revenue to pay for yesterday’s growth, relying on a constant, ever-growing stream of new students to stay solvent. They built their own bubble which was doomed to burst when financing became expensive and pilot jobs became scarce.

Meanwhile, the pilots in the program soon realized that the $80K jobs they thought would be available when they got their pilot ratings weren’t within reach. They needed experience. And while Silver State did hire them as flight instructors, when a flight school has as many instructors as students, it’s tough for any of those instructors to actually get any flight time. So not only did the company flood the market with pilots, but it created its own bottleneck for pilots who needed to build time. And although some folks reading this might disagree, many employers questioned the quality of a Silver State education and simply would not hire the school’s graduates, even if they did have enough flight time to qualify for a pilot position.

Unfortunately, even after Silver State folded, other flight training operations persisted in using their formula to attract students with promises of high paying jobs while glossing over the fact that thousands of hours of flight experience is required to get those jobs. That’s the “80 thousand” referred to in the email quoted above.

Reality Check

And that’s why I wrote my “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot” series. I wanted people to get an idea of what it was really like to train to be a helicopter pilot. Each part of the series explores another aspect of what’s important to build a career as a pilot.

The part people seem to have the most trouble with is the part about getting experience before you can step into a good job. I cover that in Part 9: Pay Your Dues. People just don’t get it. Or they don’t want to get it.

Just last week, I saw the following post on a Women Helicopter Pilot group on Facebook:

Seems like the only realistic way for us ladies who recently finished flight school at commercial level is to slave by being an instructor first to ever build over 1000 hours to be employed by any company. I understand you learn a lot but I have no patience to teach, hence I didn’t sign up to be a helicopter instructor. What’s left to do?

I took great offense at this comment. The author seemed to insinuate that it was just women who needed to build 1,000 hours of flight time to get a decent pilot job. She used the word “slave” to imply that it would be a great ordeal to build those 1,000 hours as a flight instructor. She made it clear that she didn’t do her homework or ignored the reality presented to her: that it’s very common for all pilots — men or women, fixed wing or helicopter — to work as flight instructors to build the almost universally required minimum of 1,000 hours PIC time to secure an entry level pilot job.

And just the other day I got an email message from a blog reader that said:

my name is XXX, and i have currently got 100 hours on the R22, and am looking for some sort of way to build my hours up or for much cheaper. very passionate about flying. I’m a single man, 23 years of age and willing to go where ever is needed. please may you assist me by just directing me in the right path?

He’s kidding, right? He’s a 100-hour pilot and he’s looking for cheap flying time? Does he realize he’s standing in line behind several thousand people with the same passion and goal, most of whom at least bothered to finish commercial training to move forward?

Hell, even I’m looking for cheap flying time — it’s gotten to the point where I can’t afford to fly my own helicopter without someone paying for the flight time.

But the comment that sticks to me after many years is the one posted on my 2009 blog post, “How to Start Your Own Helicopter Charter Business.” I wrote the post after getting too many messages from wannabe pilots who saw owning and operating their own business as a shortcut to building a career as a helicopter pilot. These guys didn’t want to pay their dues. I made it pretty clear what they would pay instead in that post.

The comment said:

I have read all of your blogs and wannabe pilots and their dreams and aspirations. I will tell you of my plans, and I am sure you will shoot them down like a kamikazee pilot barreling down at your aircraft carrier. I saw and understand your step by step approach to the biz. It sounds as if you discourage the thought of anyone even pursuing the dream. like its a complete waste of time. My best friend and I are recently both divorced, and have no pilots license..period, starting from scratch with our good credit and 401k in tact, we wanted to go to panama…the country and start this Helicopter tour business…very little to no competition. We wanted to start an exciting business and this seemed the one. We are willing to hire a pilot for us initially and front the startup, then get our license along the way…what do you think? Hold on….let me get my boxing head gear on, and my bullet proof vest, and my sport cup…hold on…there, got my hockey mask on now too…ok Maria…give it to me…dont hold back! Tell me what I dont want to hear, but need to hear…you got any positive advice as well? thanks

It sounds as if I’m discouraging people? By introducing a dose of reality? By pointing out that things aren’t as rosy as you might believe? By explaining that it’s costly to get started? By reminding readers that they have to work hard and pay their dues to succeed?

This comment got under my skin. It made me realize that no matter how much I try to help people by sharing my advice and observations and experience, if what I have to say doesn’t match their preconceived notions, I’m just “shooting them down” and “killing their dreams.” (This comment was especially ridiculous because the author didn’t seem to have any insight into the helicopter tour business he was hoping to start with a partner in another country. WTF?)

Do you think a person with an attitude like that will get far in any field?


Back to the Message that Prompted this Post

Anyway, the message I got the other day (refer to the quoted text at the beginning of this post) made me feel good. Someone was listening, someone was trying to use the information I shared to help make an educated career decision.

Like the person who wrote to me last month, this guy gets it. He understands that you have to work to achieve a goal. He understands that any goal worth achieving has challenges.

This guy has the right attitude. He’ll succeed in anything he sets out to do — even becoming a helicopter pilot, if that’s what he wants.

I’m not going to say that it’s impossible to make $80K as a helicopter pilot. I know pilots who make that much and more. But they worked hard to get ahead in their chosen field. They built hours and skills. They had the right attitude; they made their employers want to invest in their training. They proved themselves worthy of the positions they were put into, year after year.

But what I really want to make people understand is this: The only reason you should pursue any career is because you’re passionate about that work. Do not let earning potential — either real or imagined — make your career choice for you.

I made that mistake when I was starting out in college and beyond. I made great money but I was unhappy for the first 8 years of my working life. Life’s too short to be unhappy.

Wouldn’t you rather make a living wage doing the thing you’re passionate about doing?

So my advice to anyone who’s gotten this far in yet another long-winded blog post is this: pursue a helicopter pilot career only if you’re passionate about flying helicopters. If you put your heart and soul into it and you prove yourself worthy of the job, the money will come.

In the meantime, you’ll be doing what you want to do and every day will be its own reward.

8 thoughts on “Helicopter Pilot Reality Check

  1. Another great blog post. I’ll admit that I went into flight training thinking how great it was going to be to earn boatloads of money for the privilege of flying someone else’s helicopter. Fortunately the school I trained at was very upfront about the reality of the business and even went so far as to admit that not all of us were going to be hired. I was told by the Chief Flight Instructor almost the first time I met her that my training would be the longest interview of my life, and that if I had the right *attitude* and *work ethic* then I might be considered for a job *if the school needed an instructor.*

    That seemed like a lot of uncertainty, but at the end of the day I got the privilege of flying a helicopter 3 to 5 days a week, I met a bunch of great people, and fell in more deeply in love with flying. I’ve just barely got 150 hours as of last week and I’m determined to be the kind of pilot who people hear about and give me a call asking if I’d like to fly for them… Until then, I’ve got a bunch more flying to do and a ton more learning and experience to get.

    • I like the thought that flight training is “the longest interview” of your life. That’s probably the most intelligent thing I’ve ever heard from that particular person.

      It IS all about attitude — and so many pilots either can’t understand it or refuse to believe it. You’ve got a good attitude and I’m convinced you’ll succeed — if you can keep it.

  2. Another erudite and essential essay, Maria. Your assertions are spot on. So refreshing to hear a voice of reason and experience in the aviation industry. Keep up the good work!

  3. I can relate to what you wrote quite well even though you know I’m not a helicopter pilot. :-) Do what you’re passionate about, put in the time and get experience to get really good at what you love doing. That’s what will pay off in more ways than I can count. There are no get rich quick schemes or shortcuts.

    I’ve found in my own life and I’ve seen in my friends’ lives that doing what you love is what makes it so enjoyable to get up each morning and go to work. In my youth I took jobs to earn money to achieve my other goals, to keep the roof over my head. They were just jobs, just stepping stones to get to where I wanted to go – doing what I love and getting paid for it.

    As that old saying goes, figure out what you love doing and how to get paid for doing that. And as I’ve said, there aren’t shortcuts.

    • I remember what it was like dragging myself out of bed in the morning to go to a job I hated. It’s one thing to be unhappy at work short-term to achieve a goal in the foreseeable future — the “stepping stones” you mentioned. But it’s another to convince yourself that the better future is within reach when you’re doing nothing to get there. (I can think of at least one person who did that; he was only fooling himself.)

      In the end, it all comes down to working hard to achieve a goal. That’s part of what paying dues is all about.

  4. Just stumbled across your blog, Maria. I want to commend you on your honest, forthrigt style (also really enjoy your photography!). At the end of the year I will be retiring after a career in the military. Although ATP rated, but with only a little more than 2k TT and no 135 experience, I, too, face the reality of getting in the que of the civilian helicopter industry. There is truly no free lunch, but it is my passion, and I will continue to set goals and strive to achieve them. Thanks for your writing and inspiration. The truth isn’t always fun, but it is always best.

    • It’s sad, but the truth gets me into trouble more than I’d like to admit. I can understand why so many people lie and sugar coat. But to what purpose? The truth will always win out in the end, so why not get it up front?

      Yesterday, I had to suggest to a retiring airline pilot with 900 hours in helicopters that tour companies like Temsco or Era or Papillon probably wouldn’t hire him if he managed to get the 1000 hours of flight time he needs to qualify for a pilot job. Why? Simple: who wants to hire a 65-year old pilot for an entry level job when they can get plenty of easy-to-boss 25-year-old kids with the same flight experience to do the job? Yes, I’m talking about age discrimination, but we’re only fooling ourselves if we think it doesn’t exist. That’s the truth. He took it well — after all, it does make sense — but I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. But why get his hopes up just to have him disappointed again and again when he fails to land the job he thought was within reach? Makes no sense.

      If you’re older than 50, you’ll likely face a similar hurdle. The older you are, the worse it’ll be. Get in that job queue as soon as you can! And good luck.

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