How Can I Become a Helicopter Pilot?

Research what it takes to become a helicopter pilot. Learn about the duties of this job, the education requirements and salary range to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Aviation Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is Helicopter Pilot?

A helicopter pilot is a trained professional who operates helicopters. They may provide transit services for companies, transport patients requiring emergency medical care, assist with search and rescue operations, operate tour services for tourists or transport news crews that report on traffic. Helicopter pilots are responsible for operating the aircraft when in flight, and they are also responsible for performing maintenance checks before the flight. They must report any mechanical concerns. They need to ensure they have enough fuel for their scheduled flight, and they also may need to ensure they have supplies stocked on their flight. Those who operate tour services may provide information to their passengers and point out sites of specific interest.

Education Required High school diploma or associate's degree; FAA approved training program
Education Field of Study Rotary-wing flight instruction and transport training; aerodynamics, multiengine systems and altitude instrument flying; aviation mechanics
Certification and Licensure Professional license required to fly helicopters; medical certificate
Key Responsibilities Ensure safe flight conditions for aircraft and passengers; operate rotary-wing aircraft
Job Growth (2014-2024) 10% (for all commercial pilots)*
Median Salary (2016) $72,080**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; **Payscale.com

What Kind of Jobs Can I Get as a Helicopter Pilot?

As a trained helicopter pilot, you could provide emergency medical services, flying patients and live organs to and from medical facilities, as well as providing life-flight support. You could become a firefighting helicopter pilot, helping to contain large-scale forest fires and offering air support to ground crews. If you'd like to teach other pilots how to fly, you could work as a flight instructor independently or through a college or flight school. Law enforcement agencies would use your flying services to track criminals and monitor national boarders Other industries and options you could choose include:

  • Test pilot for aircraft manufacturers
  • Private pilot for individuals or corporations
  • Game capture for wildlife conservation organizations
  • Traffic reporting for broadcast news stations
  • Transport pilot for the U.S. military
  • Monitor and support for utility companies

What Education and Training Do I Need?

Most helicopter pilot programs prepare your for certification through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), though some programs also lead to an associate's or bachelor's degree. These programs train you in aerodynamics, multiengine systems and altitude instrument flying, in addition to providing you with flight instructor and transport aircraft training. You could also learn seaplane navigation, air traffic control tower operations and radar operations through optional or elective supplementary courses. You'll typically need to obtain an FAA student certificate to be able to fly alone.

What Other Skills Do I Need?

You must have other essential skills to operate a helicopter, including strong communication skills, good health, leadership abilities, quick thinking and good judgment. You'll need to be able to work on a team and have excellent visual-spatial awareness. To stay competitive in the field, mechanical aptitude would also be beneficial.

What Kind of License Will I Need?

The FAA requires that you complete an approved training program and have both a license to fly a helicopter and a medical certificate (www.faa.gov). You can earn a recreational license with as little as 30 hours of flight instruction, though you're limited in the distance you can fly and the number of passengers you can carry, and you're not authorized to be paid for your services. You can also work in a nonprofit capacity with a private pilot's license, which requires 200 hours of flight time.

If you want to earn a commercial helicopter license, your required experience varies by the type of aircraft you fly and your specific job duties. You'll need to pass written and practical tests for your commercial pilot's license after logging 250 hours of flight training and receiving an endorsement from your flight instructor. If you want to operate a rotary-wing helicopter for transport purposes, you'll need a minimum of 1,200 flight hours in addition to that required by your commercial pilot's license. If you'd like to teach others to fly helicopters, you'll need a commercial pilot's license, a state-issued teaching certificate and any FAA certificates necessary for providing student ratings, such as instrument, powered-lift or multiengine ratings.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are aspects of the work that flight attendants and airplane pilots do that are similar to the work of a helicopter pilot. Flight attendants may provide information to the passengers, such as how to board safely and how to fasten their seatbelts and where emergency supplies are located. They may also inform passengers if the aircraft is passing by a significant landmark or point of interest. This is similar to the work of a helicopter pilot because helicopter pilots do not have flight attendants and may need to assist passengers with boarding and securing themselves and if they operate a tour service they may inform passengers of notable landmarks. Flight attendants need a high school diploma or GED and must complete training provided by their employer and be certified by the FAA. Airplane pilots must have an associate's degree and complete flight training, including logging a specific number of hours of flight time. Like helicopter pilots, airplane pilots are responsible for basic maintenance, ensuring they have enough fuel for the scheduled flight and for operating the aircraft during the flight.

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