How to Become a Professional Helicopter Pilot
Our Go Fly Maui flight instructors share insights on the path to pursue a career in flight.
Flying professionally as a helicopter pilot can be one of the most exciting and rewarding careers in the world. No two days are the same.
There are a multitude of fields one can pursue as a helicopter pilot, from firefighting and long line work, to film and photography, to working in an exotic location as a tour pilot or corporate charter pilot. It’s a real-life “choose your own adventure” career path. Regardless of which path is taken, to be successful, all pilots must be committed as the road from private pilot to full-time career pilot is long and full of twists.
Talk with a handful of veteran helicopter pilots and each will have a unique story about how they got to the level they’re at and the steps they took to get there. You should be flexible about relocation and be patient in finding a job. It’s not all that different from earning a college degree and then searching for a job once you graduate. The opportunities are out there, but you must work hard, stay consistent and have a willing attitude to pull it all together.
Get Your License
All professional pilots go through the same process of earning the required ratings to become a commercial helicopter pilot.
Become a Flight Instructor
Once you’ve completed all of your ratings and are ready to start building hours on your way to a career pilot. Where should you begin looking for a job?
A very common starting place is to become a flight instructor. Being a flight instructor is a great way to refine your skills as a pilot. As a flight instructor you will be teaching new and aspiring pilots all the ins and outs of flying. Explaining what you have just learned challenges you to fine tune your own skills and helps to further engrain the procedures and knowledge in your own muscle memory and mind.
Being a flight instructor allows for a fair amount of flying in all kinds of weather and jobs are found in just about every part of the country. This regular flying becomes a crucial step in helping you build the necessary flight time needed to apply for other commercial jobs, many of which require a minimum of 1,000 or more hours to qualify.
Transition to Tour Pilot and Turbines
After earning 1500-2000 hours as a flight instructor, many helicopter pilots move on to become tour pilots in places like the Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe or work in Alaska doing tours. Being a tour pilot can be very exciting. You are often flying in exotic places, taking happy tourists for a once in a lifetime adventure. This is a great intermediate flight job but can become a well-paying career.
This is often the first job flying a larger turbine helicopter, a great resume builder for more advanced jobs down the road. Many pilots choose to remain tour pilots, loving the exotic locations, tips, and being home every night.
Consider Utility Work
If flying tours isn’t your cup of tea, there are many other types of helicopter work in the utility and emergency medical service (EMS) world. Some examples include:
- Law enforcement and fire fighting
- Utilities and surveying (gas companies, telephone companies, and power companies require their power lines and pipe lines to be surveyed on a regular basis, sometimes this requires you to position your helicopter right next to tall wires so that a serviceman can make repairs)
- Agricultural work (crop dusting, spraying and logging)
- Transportation (taking crew to oil rigs in the gulf, moving people from work sites in the mountains, etc.)
Utility jobs are usually “in the field,” have varied schedules, and seasons are usually reserved for high-time pilots with a lot of experience due to the high risk of utility work.
Aerial Photography and Cinematography
Careers in aerial photography and cinematography are much less known, and not as plentiful, but do exist. Hollywood production companies and organizations such as National Geographic need pilots. News outlets also use helicopters to help news crews capture events, also known as electronic news gathering, or ENG.
This is just a small sampling of the many different types of helicopter jobs available, and ways to build flight time.