Are you wondering how to become a helicopter pilot?
You could be in midair in less time than you might think.
At Transizion, we specialize in helping students enroll in the college of their dreams – but we want to help all young people as they transition to life as an adult, whether or not college is the right path for them. In this series of articles, we’re exploring a wide range of rewarding professions that don’t require four-year degrees.
Today’s post focuses on how to become a helicopter pilot. We’ll cover education, working conditions, salary, job outlook, and more. Let’s go!
What Do Helicopter Pilots Do?
They fly helicopters, of course. Next question…
Seriously, though, there are a wide array of different jobs that you can choose from once you’ve become a helicopter pilot. It’s common for helicopter pilots to work in a number of different industries over the course of their careers. Let’s explore some of the career paths that helicopter pilots can take.
Flight Instruction: Because flight schools generally can’t afford to pay six-figure salaries, many helicopter pilots find themselves teaching shortly after finishing school themselves. Generally, teaching at flight schools requires less experience than other jobs. It’s a common first job for helicopter pilots before they accrue more hours and move on to something else.
Tours: Some helicopter pilots spend their days flying tourists over beautiful locations such as the Grand Canyon or the Na Pali coast on the island of Kauai. This is relatively easy work because the route is set, and the weather is fine. It’s a good choice for pilots who enjoy engaging with people and sharing information. For some, it can feel monotonous, flying the same route and repeating the same spiel multiple times a day all week long. Of course, there’s always the option of finding a job in a new location when one starts to feel stale.
Fire Fighting and Rescue: Some pilots choose to become firefighters in addition to their flight training, which enables them to work with fire departments to quench fires and save lives. Their work changes daily, from flying over mountains in search of lost hikers to lifting water from swimming pools and dumping it on forest fires. They’re also sometimes called in to save people from dangerous flood waters.
Airborne Law Enforcement: Police departments in large cities have their own helicopters. As with fire departments, many precincts require pilots to complete police training before taking them on. Some departments contract pilots to fly with them without requiring them to complete a police academy first; it depends on the area.
Emergency Medical Services: This hazardous, demanding job is best reserved for experienced pilots; many employers require at least three thousand hours of experience. Helicopter pilots who work for emergency medical services need to fly into unfamiliar areas at a moment’s notice, land in tough spots, and get injured people out as quickly as possible.
Charter: Executive charter pilots fly private clients anywhere and everywhere, often at a moment’s notice. These jobs can be cushy but may not provide many hours of experience each month. Of course, that varies from one client or company to another.
News: Some news stations in major cities employ helicopter pilots to gather information on breaking news stories such as earthquakes, floods, fires, and car chases. When there’s nothing big to report on, these pilots help with traffic and weather reports. Some new pilots find that it’s a decent way to log hours and work their way up to something more exciting.
Offshore: The oil and natural gas industries are two of the largest employers of helicopter pilots. Every day, helicopters ferry workers to and from offshore rigs. They also go between ships and ports. Most oil and gas companies require at least one thousand hours of flying experience. They also employ pilots to fly along pipelines in search of potential failures.
Cattle Mustering: In some parts of the Southwest, helicopters are used to herd cattle.
Agricultural Work: Some farms hire helicopters to deliver fertilizers and pesticides.
Logging: Helicopters can help logging companies extract trees without causing as much damage to the surrounding forest as other methods. Lifting logs with a helicopter is difficult, potentially dangerous work. Less experienced helicopter pilots might find work ferrying workers to and from remote sites while more experienced pilots handle the trees.
This is only a partial list of the jobs available to helicopter pilots. Other jobs include aerial photography, border patrol, fish spotting, marine patrol, motion pictures, powerline inspection, and utility work.
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How to Become a Helicopter Pilot
Becoming a helicopter pilot isn’t easy or inexpensive, but it is fairly simple. Choose a flight school – there are well over two hundred helicopter flight schools in the United States – enroll, accrue at least two hundred hours of experience, and graduate.
Becoming a helicopter pilot is a big decision. Flight training costs tens of thousands of dollars (more on that later), and flying a helicopter is an enormous responsibility. You’ll be responsible for a multi-million-dollar aircraft, and people will be trusting you with their lives.
You must be capable of staying calm in a crisis so that you can pilot a helicopter through inclement weather and other emergencies. You should be comfortable with math and science, as you’ll need to be able to understand and retain large amounts of information to complete your training.
When flying a helicopter, you’ll need to have quick reaction times to respond to potential hazards. Flight training itself can be hazardous, and you’re sure to deal with some scary situations over the course of your career as a pilot. You should be comfortable with a certain level of risk and willing to take responsibility for yourself and for others.
To become a helicopter pilot, you must complete flight school training. Students must be at least sixteen years old to start training and seventeen to receive a certificate, though many schools will only accept students who are over the age of seventeen.
You can choose from a university flight school, which gives students the option of also earning a degree, or a non-university flight school, which does not. We’ll highlight one of each below.
It’s not difficult to get into flight school, but it’s an expensive process. On average, it costs about one hundred thousand dollars to become a helicopter pilot. If you want additional certifications that will improve your job prospects, the average cost is in the neighborhood of $130,000. You can find programs for less; ETL Aviation in Kentucky offers a Professional Pilot Program for $80,400.
Best Aviation has a list of helicopter pilot schools organized by location here. You can find them in nearly every state. California and Florida each have dozens of options.
Mauna Loa Helicopters
If you’d like to experience life in Hawaii while training to become a helicopter pilot, there’s a school for that. Actually, there are two.
Mauna Loa Helicopters in Hawaii has two helicopter training schools. One is located on the Big Island of Hawaii, and the other school is on the island of Oahu.
“From mountains up to 13,796 feet to constantly changing weather conditions, an active volcano, ridge, and valley flying, and a place to learn busy airspace, you’ll find that Hawaii offers you an exceptional place for your helicopter training experience.”
There’s no set schedule at Mauna Loa Helicopters. The training is individualized, and students can complete it as quickly or slowly as they choose to. Once students have completed their training, including two hundred hours of flight time, Mauna Loa Helicopters assists them in finding their first jobs.
The total cost of the Mauna Loa Helicopters Flight School is about ninety thousand to one hundred thousand dollars. You can find more details here.
Financial aid is available in the form of scholarships and loans; Mauna Loa was the first independent helicopter school in the country able to offer federal financial aid to its students. Mauna Loa Helicopters Flight School offers resources on financing flight school training here. They also offer student housing and a student library.
Southern Utah University
SUU in Cedar City, Utah has the highest-altitude university flight school and the biggest helicopter fleet in the United States. Cedar City is very close to three national parks: the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. Students fly in a wide variety of terrain and weather conditions and receive advanced training such as night vision and mountain operations.
- How to fly solo
- Emergency procedures
- Flight instruction
- Commercial helicopter flight
- Helicopter instrument flight
- Turbine transition
- Mountain operations
- External load
- Night vision
Their five-semester program can be completed in less than two years. Students typically start to fly helicopters within the first two weeks of beginning the program. Each student has a personal instructor who flies with them and acts as a tutor for their ground classes.
Students can also pursue an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree at SUU. Options include:
- Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies
- Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies
- Bachelor of Aviation Science
The total cost for the flight school is about $137,000. FAFSA financial aid is available.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Helicopter Pilot?
If you choose a university flight school, the process will take about two years. If you choose a non-university flight school and put in long hours, you could be finished in a few months.
Career Outlook for Helicopter Pilots
The career outlook for helicopter pilots is excellent. “From 2020 to 2036,” writes SUU, “the demand for helicopter pilots is expected to soar, leaving shortages of upwards of 49,000 pilots, according to major aviation companies like Boeing and Airbus.”
How Much Do Helicopter Pilots Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps helicopter pilots in with other commercial pilots and gives a mean annual wage of $115,080 and a median annual wage of $99,640 in 2021. This is more than double the average U.S. yearly wage, which was $45,760 that year.
According to Salary, helicopter pilots earned an average of $102,244 in 2022. Glassdoor shows a nearly identical number of $101,903. Wages vary significantly according to industry, location, experience, and other factors, but you could safely expect to earn six figures at a certain point in your career as a helicopter pilot.
Helicopter pilots who complete advanced training can earn more money. Examples include:
- Flight instructor certification
- Night vision goggles
- Turbine transition
- Mountain operations
- External load
- Instrument rating
Because helicopter pilots make such good money, the return on investment for their education is excellent – often significantly higher than the ROE for doctors and lawyers.
Working as a Helicopter Pilot: An Overview
If the prospect of flying a helicopter is exhilarating rather than panic-inducing, this might be a great career path for you. It offers an excellent return on investment for the cost of the education, and you could begin work in as little as one year.
Here are some pros and cons to consider:
- Most helicopter pilots can expect to earn six-digit salaries
- There’s a wide array of jobs to choose from
- You can become a fully-fledged helicopter pilot in just one or two years
- Training can cost upwards of one hundred thousand dollars
- You’ll be responsible for people’s lives, possibly in emergency situations
If you’re interested in this profession, consider contacting local helicopter pilots to ask about the possibility of interviewing or shadowing them to learn more about this line of work.
Check out this recent article on how to become a commercial pilot, and stay tuned for upcoming articles on how to become a realtor, personal trainer, or detective.