Becoming a Helicopter Pilot

First of all a disclaimer. The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer or any other entity. I will be writing based on my own experiences here in Norway, but even though some aspects are specific to Norway, the basic principles should ring true everywhere. This page will be updated as I get feedback from you, so don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions.

R-22 at sunrise

My objective here is not to scare anyone away from pursuing their dream. I have never regretted my decision regardless of the challenges it brought, but I have seen too many with broken dreams along the way so I want to shed some light on this industry and what you will be facing if you want to head down this road.

Why do I want to become a helicopter pilot?
This is maybe the most important question you should ask yourself. Though some are lucky and get their dream job with little or no effort, for the majority of you the reality will be entirely different. Most of us have to walk a long and troublesome road in order to reach our goals, but with the right motivation that is ok though. If you know what you are getting into, and feel that you will be able to wait out the hard times and do the hard work it takes, the rewards will hopefully make it all worth it. I say hopefully because I know for some people the job wasn’t quite what they expected it to be, so even though they reached their goal, it turns out it just wasn’t what they had envisioned. So why do you want to fly helicopters? If you are seeking fame and fortune you have come to the wrong place. If you see the magic in flight however, then I’d say you should lay some groundwork and figure out if this career is worth pursuing.

Who should I talk to prior to making my decision?
There are many broken dreams attributed to poor research prior to starting flight training. The first thing you should do is learn more about the industry and what area you’d like to work in. Utility work, helicopter emergency medical services, law enforcement, electronic news gathering, agricultural work, sightseeing, offshore and search and rescue to name a few. In some countries some of these services are only provided by the military, so it would be a terrible shame if you waste $ 50,000 only to realize that your dream job is only flown by the military. And before we go any further, anyone wanting to get into this industry should seriously consider trying out for the military first. Why spend money on getting a license and a job when there are people willing to pay you to do both, not to mention the high quality of training you would receive.  I digress.

Once you’ve found an area you’d like to work in you should seek out a couple of people holding that desired job and ask them what it took to get there, and if they have any advice in general. They know the industry and hopefully have no ulterior motives other than to guide you as best they can. However since people are different you should never rely on one individual alone to make a decision, myself included, so always seek out as much information as possible. In many cases the part of the industry you’d like to work for requires you to spend some time in another part. Here in Norway for example, getting a HEMS gig would require a lot of time doing other things before you’d be considered for that, so starting flight training expecting to get hired flying HEMS fresh out of flight school is just not realistic.

After talking to various pilots many of your questions are hopefully answered and you might have made a decision as to if this is still a career you’d like to pursue. At this point, and only now, should you contact a flight training organization. Expect the picture of the industry painted by the flight school to differ wildly from what you now know to be true of the industry after your research. Know this, most flight schools just wants your money, they don’t care if you get a job, so don’t bite blindly into their selling points. I’m not saying this is true for all flight schools, but just the other day I spoke to an individual who had been told outright lies about the pay you could expect and the standard phrase that the industry is in dire need for pilots. The latter might be partially true, but they normally sell it in as if those are the places you’d be hired fresh out of flight school. The market segment you’d be qualified for after completing flight training is a lot less attractive and saturated with people just like yourself, so competition is stiff.

Where should I get my training?
Again, what better way to decide that than talking to students that are close to finishing or the pilots you talked to previously? And there is no clear answer to this, just know that there are many cases of schools going bankrupt and students losing a lot of money in the process, so make sure it looks like a well run business if possible. Talk to some of the instructors as well and hear what the odds are of getting a gig instructing once you’re done.

For Norway I’d say the following: If offshore flying is your dream, look to the states. If onshore/utility is your thing, you could stay in Norway or close by. This way you are able to network and look for a job while you are in training. To most utility operators here in Norway it doesn’t matter if you have 135hrs from flight school, or 1000hrs flying patterns and autos in Florida. Then it is more about learing if you have good airmanship and the right attitude for the job. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to the states, just don’t do it because you think it will help you get to fly that longline any faster if you have more flight hours.

A final note on training for now. If you decide to go for it, enjoy it! You will rarely get the freedom you have on your solo-sorties when you start flying commercially, so savour the moment. On sunny days I used to do some cross-country to a smaller airfield and do some patterns there, before landing for an ice cream prior to heading back to home base. Good times!

Is it all doom and gloom?
No. The world still needs pilots, and they have got to come from somewhere. All pilots start from the bottom and work their way up through different areas of the industry. We were all newbies at some point, so that goes to show that it is possible to reach your goal. I just want you to know that it does take some effort on your part to get there. However with the right mindset it is pretty much just about doing a good job and being patient. Once you have completed flight school you should actively pursue companies you would like to work for and introduce yourself. The company will have stacks of job applications, but a personal appearance might put you ahead of the competition. It shows that you are dedicated and motivated.

As before I will add more to this at a later stage. Don’t make a decision based on what I write alone, but try to investigate for yourself and see if this is something you would like to do.

 

DCIM111GOPRO

34 thoughts on “Becoming a Helicopter Pilot

  1. Thanks for the post! I think you said some very important stuff. I have a been doing my training in California for the last 3 years paying out of pocket. Have my private and working on my instrument and CFII. Currently no debt, but I have reached a point of I feel like its taking forever. So now I’m looking into taking our a personal loan of about 38000 to finish up. I love flying and the whole aspect of a helicopter. I know I’m not gonna be rich pursuing this but I sure do enjoy it. Any thoughts on taking a loan to finish up?

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    • It is really hard for me to say if it is the right thing to do for you. I guess it all comes down to if you can manage the loan. Getting a loan was the only way I was able to get my CPL-H. But I’ve been lucky and had jobs all along, so paying for the loan was never a problem. I think my loan was 50,000+.

      How is the market there, have you reached out to any operators to hear about openings? Or will you be able to instruct where you are doing your training?

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  2. Thank you so much for the great article. It gave me much more info then countless of hours reading on forums to find out if this is right for me. I think i might not rush it as much as i was planning and take my time to find out if this is what i want to do.

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    • Again, don’t take my word for it. I just want you to know as much as possible before heading down this road and do some research on your own. So talk to others as well. I am not saying it is impossible to get a job, because it isn’t. I am just trying to balance out what flight schools are telling people in their ad campaigns.

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  3. So I currently have two jobs and I think I would be able to pay for the loan. I have also talked with my school and it seems like I would be able to get a instructing job when I’m done. I’ve also met a guy who flies ems for a local hospital. He gave me a pretty good insight on what to expect along the way. If I have learned anything from the people I have met in the industry, it’s you have to put in a lot of time to land a good job and you have to love what your doing

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    • Thanks for the post I am have wanted to be a commercial pilot for a long time I’m 18 but now I’m thinking if I should go into fixed wing any suggestions and I’m not trying to be to personal but what is your salary like I was also thinking becouse I’m 18 maybe I should get a degree in something so I can have a high paying job to pay for training becouse I don’t want to be in debt.

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      • Even though I love all sides of aviation, what got me hooked on rotary aviation is that it is really “hands-on” flying. These are unstable creatures, and aside from helicopters with autopilots and stabilization systems, they take a long time to master in terms of handling them. That being said I have nothing but respect for the guys flying airliners.

        These days I can’t say I envy the guys flying fixed wing though. The competition is immense these days, with long hours and lousy pay to start out with at least. I can’t tell you what to expect paywise since I don’t know where you live and those things can differ from country to country, but one thing is clear: Do not become a pilot if you want to get rich!

        It is really hard for me to give advice as to what to choose as I don’t know all the parameters. Getting a degree is never a bad idea I guess, and that means you will have matured a bit as well prior to your flying career. On the other hand I guess getting that degree will take some time and money too, then you meet a girl, have kids, get a house, and the story goes on. So all that money you are hoping on amassing might not as available at a later stage as you might think.

        I think the best thing for you to do is figure out what you want to do. For me it was about getting a job that doesn’t feel like a job. I can’t believe I get paid for what I do, but don’t tell my boss I said that. When I was in high school a B-2 pilot told me to live by the following: “Excellence in all you do!” If you are able to live by that I think you will succeed no matter which path you choose. That means if you have to do a job that you feel is beneath you, make sure you always excel. Oh…and there are no shitty jobs, just shitty attitudes, so don’t pass up a job flipping burgers if that is what you need to do or if it makes you happy.

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    • Stephen: Yeah, and that is the message that I hope I am able to convey. If this is something you love doing, you will have to motivation to hang in there for the time it takes for it to start paying off. It sounds like you know what you are getting into, so I hope you are able to complete your training and get a good career in this industry. Best of luck, and let me know if you have any other questions!

      Like

  4. Hey,
    Your talkin the right thing. I have told people who are thinking about this career that you should ask yourself if its the only career you are willing to take. If the answer is yes you will propably have the right motivation to go trough whats required. I graduated 3years ago. Ive been trough 4 different companies doing ground work. First 1,5years without pay (only with government benefit) and next 1,5 ive even got paid. Ive had some bad luck as the first company went bankrupt, second companys owner sold it and third decided to use foreign workforce to save money. Ive been told that i will get flying soon in two of them but didnt quiet play out that way after all. Ive seen people get hired straight from school and even before graduating but i was never that lucky. Some people even paid their way forward which wasnt an option for me. I dont regret taking this road. Im making good connections and propably will get flying soon. I didnt have a realistic picture when i was in flight school. Everyone kept saying youll get a job soon and they still do. Eventually.. Ofcourse. If i stay determined and keep myself current with the industry. So good luck with you all and hope this story will also widen someones picture.

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  5. Hey Tom, great post and I absolutely love your pictures on Instagram. One thing that I am curious about is what rotary-wing work schedules are like. I am pretty familiar with how corporate fixed with and airliners work, but not so much rotary since their range is not as far. Granted each sector will have different needs and different hours, but could you give some insight into what you know about different work lifestyles there are?

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    • Again this is something I can’t comment to much on since it varies from country to country. Here in Norway it is not uncommon with a two weeks on two weeks off rotation. For me that means being away from home two weeks at a time. But there are also a few that work “normal” weeks.

      So it hard for me to say, maybe someone else will be kind enough to answer? Where are you from by the way? That will make it easier for people to help. I can also reach out to friends elsewhere.

      Like

  6. Hej Tom,

    I’m 23 years old, from Denmark and already having an engineering degree, but the only job I have ever truly wanted is basically yours. It is my absolute biggest dream to make it happen and I have done all the necessary research over the last 10 years. I already have my medical class 1, a good saving and a bank that is willing to loan me the last amount of money, that I will need for the CPL(H) VRF integrated course or the ATP(H) IR/MCC at EHC. My plan is to start my training at EHC very soon, so now the only thing that I have to decide is, if I should go for just the CPL or the ATP? I’m sure you are pretty familiar with EHC and the process of getting a job as lastemann/load master afterwards, and that’s why I want to ask you the question. Will I have an advantage in relation to getting a job as lastemann in an Norwegian company if I have the ATP(H)IR/MCC education compared to just the CPL(H) VFR?

    Venlig hilsen Daniel A.K.

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    • This one is easy, if you want to have a job like mine the ATP(H)IR/MCC is a terrible waste of money. Some onshore operators might even see it as a disadvantage because it would be easier for you to start flying offshore or something when you have the hours you need for that. Our company see it as healthy that some guys take their IRs after a while to make room for new guys, and by then they have probably flown as much anyway so that the company have gotten back what they invested in you in terms of training. But if you have that rating already you might leave before the company has seen any return from that investment.

      We sometimes hire people that haven’t quite wrapped up flight school either, and if you are ever in that position don’t let the school talk you into getting a 350-rating. That will be given to you by us when it is your turn to start flying. Most companies will provide you with this, but having the 350-rating could enable you to start logging time sooner with some operators.

      But again, if you want my job, get the CPL only.

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      • Thanks Tom! That was just what I needed! I definitely want to do some hands-on flying like you do before getting into the off-shore branch, so your statement above just fits me perfectly.

        I will just use the opportunity to say that it is a good article, and I think it is spot on. It is like a collection of all the piece of information that I have collected over the years about becoming a helicopter pilot 🙂

        My plan is to start at EHC in feb 16, so I hope to meet you “out there” someday!

        Venlig Hilsen
        Daniel A.K.

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      • If you are planning on applying for a job as a loadmaster with us, make sure you do it no later than December. We usually do selection and courses very early in the year so that we are ready when it gets busy. Make sure you pass all your written exams in time, and I think you won’t be too far from wrapping up by the time you could start working next year. Just a tip, many apply too late and miss out of a whole season because of that.

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      • Okay, thanks for the tip Tom, I appreciate it very much! I will apply for a job in December 2016, and then hopefully be ready for the 2017 season 🙂

        Fly safe!
        /Daniel

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks tom. I appreciate you saying that. I know it’s gonna take awhile but I’m 27 and I hope by 30 I will at least be instructing. Keep posting amazing motivating pictures on Instagram!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hey man thanks for replying I’m from Canada by the way. I know I’m not going to get rich doing this I just think its such a great job sitting in a office all day does not seem right for me I want to fly helicopters on a lot of commercial airliner videos there seems to be a lot of auto pilot and not so much hands on flying. How much did your helicopter training cost and how did you afford it thanks.

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  9. Hello again 🙂 I’m glad that so how do you do a helicopter pilot a blog. That helped me a lot. I want since I am 5 year old pilot will. Here in the Swiss Alps where I live it is very useful to be a helicopter pilot and I admire you what you achieved when you are a helicopter pilot. Especially one sees the nature of all other perspectives. I spend at school and everything will be rewarded with good grades. But sometimes it’s hard to keep learning but I have indeed a goal. Learning when a helicopter flying over our house I always think: “At some point I control exposure up there”. But I’m only 13 and it’s still a few years to the extent it the point of it. But I give the best for a long time to achieve what you have achieved. Have a good time and good flights. Greetings from Switzerland 🙂

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  10. Hello Tom,

    I’ve been following you snice I have seen some pics of your work on Instagram and immediately have followed your blog as I’ve read about it.

    On the one hand you make a lot of people jelous, on the other hand you tell the truth about a business which isn’t what a lot of “kids” dream of.

    For me helicopter flying has been a dream since I have drawn a first picture in 2nd or 3rd class in school (German system). I followed this way until I got a medical “No” of the German Army. A dream exploded. Until now I don’t know why, because I was a good athlete.

    I took a different road, tried some other jobs and finally ended up studying “Sports and Exercise Science” in Munich. Since 2008 I have been working in my job and it was 2013 when I went to an exhibition in Friedrichshaven (AERO) to get in contact with some people flying helicopters and get the information about a possible training. Prior to that I remembered my old dreams by flying remote helicopters, reading magazines and looking up in the air for every helicopter sound.

    Luckily I got in contact with a flight instructor of a german school which got a contract in training some foreign police helicopter pilots. And they planned to invent a fitness training program for them. So this was my chance to get into the business. One hand washes the other.

    Since autumn 2014 I’ve got an PPL(H) with a Cabri rating and do my hour building here in Germany. BUT all next to my job, money getting in and directly out for flying.

    In my mind there are two types of people in the business: the one who can afford the training without any consequences and the ones who have the passion but not the money.

    So my experience for now is that every flight school want to have your best: your Money. Like you said. And they tell you the heaven on earth… But that’s not the truth. Depending where you live, how flexible you are and where you want to fly chances are better or worser. Depending where you will do the training, you have to spend a 65.000 to 80.000 Euros (integrated / modular).

    I do completly agree with your thoughts on becoming a helicopter pilot. I am now 35 years old, I have a passion and hopefully will get my dream become true – in which area ever. Let’s see how the way goes. For me it was the best to finish a first training / education before I’ve stepped in the business. Maybe it was fate – being in the right place at the right time. BUT I do recommend everybody who wants to become a pilot finishing a first degree. First of all you earn money, second you always can change back no matter why – just think about the medical! You can loose it in the next moment. And then? It’s not easy to motivate studying all the different topics at home after work or at the week-end when friends have fun outdoor meeting and chilling. But for me helicopters are a passion and that’s my drive.

    Second you should build up a network. This is most important for everybody. Now as much people as possible in the industry.

    It’s good to know that there are companies which like to have those newbies and give them a chance. Reading all the available pilot positions with 1500+ hours, turbine time etc. is grueling. So propably I’ll come back to you, but this will take some more time.

    Doing the training when you have finished a first degree / education and have worked some time in your business makes you a more live experienced person what may help while flying – for me this was the case.

    And – to come to and end – I do absolutely recommend everybod to do some kind of sports which is good for your overall coordination and do fly simulator at home. There is one very good device to use with X-Plane or DCS. You will miss the natural feeling of flying but you a lot good for your coordination what helped me to get quickly through my first hours of flying – especially hovering.

    Finally I’ve set up a homepage of myself at http://www.fit-fuers-fliegen.de . So far it’s just in German, I am working on it and will place a link to your blod if you are interested.

    Excuse the long post. 🙂

    Cheers,

    Tom.

    Like

  11. Hey Tom,

    My name is Patrick Maddox and am from Alabama, United States. I currently hold a commercial airplane MEL/SEL with an instrument rating. I have always had an interest in going to the helicopter side. As I understand it, I can add on commercial helicopter to my existing commercial ticket and still hold every privilege? (Please correct me if I am wrong). Any other advice is welcome. Also, your Instagram and blog posts are very inspiring!

    Sincerely,

    Patrick Maddox

    Like

  12. Hey Tom I want to be a commercial helicopter pilot I asked you a few questions on this site before. How did you aford flight school did you just work a regular wage job and save for years or did you get a huge loan out and pay it off later I’m just thinking if I should go get a degree so I have a back up job and also then I can make enough money to aford flight school becouse I’m only 18 years old

    Like

    • Hi Austin!
      I worked in the Army for 4 years trying to put some money away. I still had to get a loan though. It is definitely worth considering having a backup in case it doesn’t go as planned. So if you have a chance to get a degree first that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

      Like

  13. Hei!

    First of all, this post made me rethink my whole future. Being a helicopter pilot has always been a dream of mine, but as you said, this job isn’t like a lot of people think it is. It’s hard and also expensive. As it seems to me, you’re an successful pilot which is very satisfied with his job.

    You said that you should have the right motivation. You also said that if someone sees the magic in flight, then they should lay some groundwork in it and figure if this career is worth pursing. Well, I’m not really sure why my dream is to become a pilot, but every time I hear an helicopter sound in the air, or see one of your pictures (actually it could be any helicopter picture) I feel jealous.

    I am the kind person who loves challenges and also I love the function of an helicopter. I love the fact that an helicopter can do things nothing else can do. Well but now I wonder, what do you think is the right motivation? What was your motivation?

    Well, there’s one last question. How did things change for you when you became a pilot? Was it very different from what you thought it would be?

    Thanks for sharing your days at work!

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  14. Hi Tom,
    I am looking for a career in Aviation and becoming a helicopter pilot stands out as it is a lot of hands on flying. Also because the lack of autopilot and not being to far away from home. I have a dual citizenship with Norway and Canada and has lived in Canada my entire life. My problem is I am colour deficient and am not able to get an unrestricted medical here in Canada. I am wondering if you would know the colour vision requirements for Norway.
    Thanks,
    Odin

    Like

  15. Apprentice Aircraft maintenance engineer here. love aviation, especially helicopters. Would being a licensed AME help with getting a start in the aviation industry? do you know any pilots who are also AME’s?

    Like

    • Hi Jay!

      I can only speak for those I know in Norway, and this is really not my area of expertise. So as I’ve written above, visit a company you’d like to fly for and ask them and some of their pilots.

      The mechanics of things here might differ from things over there. In many cases I’d say it is the need of the operator that will decide whether it will be an advantage or not. In some cases it is the thing that will let you get a foot in the door with a company, while in other cases you might be at risk of being given false promises of advancement to flight ops.

      Those I know have not risen quicker through the ranks of loadmasters than those with no AME background. But for some it might have been the thing that landed them a loadmaster-gig in the first place.

      Like

  16. Thank you so much for the post. Your advice is spot on. I was quite nervous about pursuing my dream of flying helicopters. I have been putting it off for YEARS! It’s crazy how you can start down a side street in life and the so much time has gone by before you question where you are and how to get back! I live on the east coast but have family way out west. With the kind gesture of a free place to stay I am headed to Oregon to http://www.flyhaa.com/helicopter/courses/. I am nervous and excited and hope it all works out. As you stated above, I’m not seeking riches, I just love flying too much to not do it for the rest of my life.

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  17. Hello everyone,

    I am a 14 year old boy from Berlin, Germany. I have been thinking of becoming a helicopter pilot on and off for about 7 years. Although it is not yet decision time for me, I’d appreciate if someone (possibly also Tom himself ;D) could give me some answers and share their views.

    As said earlier, flying has always been a dream of mine. Fixed-wing-commercial flying is not an option due to lack of real hands-on flying. Flying Jets in the military also kind of fell away due to defence cuts in Germany and with those less flying hours for the pilots. Also from what I’ve heard, the ratio of flying compared to desk-work as a fighter pilot is about 10:1. And let’s be realistic, becoming a fighter pilot is quite unlikely. Now, I know there are a lot of other flying jobs, but for me there is only one more option: becoming a commercial utility, onshore transport, or HEMS helicopter pilot.

    So, one of my questions is, will helicopter utility flying still be as much hands on in 20-30 years as it is at the moment or will the fast advancements in offshore flying also reach this sector of helicopter flying? Or possibly, will utility flying be completely replaced by drones???

    I am very fortunate to be in a position where a university degree and a career as an architect/civil engineer is an option. But I just don’t want to be sitting in an office in 40-50 regretting my decision not to become a helicopter pilot. So, does anyone know pilots that have done a degree as a back-up before going for the licence?

    What opportunities are there as a helicopter pilot to grow further than Captain/PIC at a later stage? (example: taking on management tasks in the company that you fly for)

    What are the odds of me landing a job in a country that I am not from?

    I’d appreciate everyones answers and views.
    Thank you,

    Sven

    Like

    • Hi Sven!

      As far as what the future holds I’m sure in the utility sector at least you’ll get to experience some good hands-on flying for a while. That being said, you would probably be the last generation to get to experience that, since I think even in utility automation might make an appearance if you look 10 years ahead. In offshore flying it is already very much present. The industry might not go unmanned in while, but various forms of stabilization and automation would make the handling different even in lighter helicopters.

      There will probably be several opportunities besides flying. Being a pilot gives you a good insight into the industry, and with a few courses you might take a management path if you are seen fit, perhaps accident investigation, working for the authorities as an inspector, etc. So even if you’ll see less flying, if you are willing to adapt there are many options to chose from.

      Tom

      Like

      • Another question; do you think advancements in technology will open up new possibilities for helicopters or will they need to decrease in the need for helicopters? Will helicopters be less needed in the future?

        I have -1 on both eyes, that doesn’t stop me from getting into the cockpit right?

        Thanks again!

        Sven

        Like

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