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Aviation Careers: How Can I Become a Helicopter and Airplane Pilot?

Research what it takes to become a helicopter and airline pilot. Learn about the education requirements, licensure, job outlook and salary to find out if this is the career for you.

What Is a Helicopter and Airplane Pilot?

Helicopter and airplane pilots operate helicopters or airplanes. They have regular duties they must perform, such as maintenance checks before they take flight. They must check all the instruments and systems and the engine to ensure that everything is working properly. They also need to ensure the vehicle has enough fuel for the scheduled flight. During flight they monitor the instruments, engine and aircraft systems to make sure everything continues to work properly. They communicate with air traffic control to arrange for a change in altitude or course alteration in the event of bad weather; otherwise they follow their flight plan. They may operate a helicopter or aircraft for medical emergency purposes and transport patients to hospitals, or they may provide tour services to tourists. The possible work they're involved with also includes transporting cargo, operating a traffic helicopter that's used for news reports, or assisting with firefighting duties.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Aviation, aviation technology
Licensure Commercial pilot's license required, along with other credentials such as an instrument rating
Job Growth (2018-2028)* 6% (for all airline and commercial pilots)
Average Salary (2018)* $96,530 (for all commercial pilots)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Types of Degree Programs Are Available for Helicopter and Airplane Pilots?

While it's possible to become a pilot without a college degree, most aspiring pilots find it advantageous to seek a degree. One such educational pathway to becoming a helicopter or airplane pilot is a bachelor's degree in aviation or aviation technology. In these types of programs, you'll study aviation fundamentals such as basic aircraft operations, altitude instruments and aerodynamics. You'll also spend time in the flight lab as well as practicing on flight simulators.

Some programs allow you to choose a concentration for your degree, such as agricultural or natural resource aviation. The curriculum of these 4-year programs features a series of liberal arts and natural science electives, in addition to the core aviation courses. Many programs feature an internship, where you'll get course credit for working in the aviation industry.

What Do I Need in Addition to My Degree?

If you want to fly helicopters or airplanes, you'll need your pilot's license, which is issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The type of license you'll need will depend on the type of professional aviation career you intend to pursue. You'll most likely start out with a student's license, working your way up to a commercial pilot's license as you log flight hours and experience. If it's a helicopter you want to fly, you'll seek the rotocraft category of licensure, which will allow you to operate helicopters and gyroplanes. In addition to accumulating flight hours, you'll also have to pass physical and written examinations.

Search For Jobs

When most of us think about commercial pilots, we think of the men and women that transport us from coast to coast or to foreign destinations. Yet, there's a lot more to the aviation employment picture than passenger jets. Law enforcement agencies employ pilots to monitor traffic activity and pursue and track criminals. News agencies also employ pilots to monitor and report on vehicular traffic. Agricultural companies hire pilots to dust crops.

Some pilots begin their careers as flight instructors, gaining experience in the process and qualifying for additional licensure. Others find jobs transporting cargo. Oil and gas companies employ pilots to monitor natural resource pipelines.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Bus drivers and air traffic controllers have some professional similarities to helicopter and airplane pilots. Bus drivers may operate a bus for a number of reasons. Their primary task is to transport passengers, but they may also operate a tour bus, Bus drivers and pilots who transport people share the responsibilities of performing vehicle maintenance, following predetermined routes, obeying all traffic or transit regulations and ensuring the safety of their passengers. Bus drivers need a commercial driver's license, have to meet basic physical, vision and hearing requirements and also need to complete on-the-job training.

Air traffic controllers need an associate's degree. They are responsible for coordinating flight plans from pilots and directing pilots so that they remain a safe distance from other aircraft or objects. They also communicate with pilots to approve take off and landing. Air traffic controllers and pilots work closely together to ensure the safety of the aircraft during all stages of the flight.