Think you have what it takes to be an aviator?
What does a professional helicopter pilot look like? A buttoned-down ex military man with a crew cut, starched collar with a steely gleam in his eyes? A former hippy candle maker with a bushy beard and wrinkled clothing that still smells faintly of patchouli? A 40-something former pipefitter with two kids in college and a mid-life crisis?
The truth is, there is no single type, color, creed or sex who has the tenacity and singleness of purpose to do what it takes to eventually grab the brass ring. We’ve seen all ages and professions (okay, no lion tamers so far) come through the school. Some work hard, apply themselves and eventually succeed; others don’t. The fact is no one but you can determine whether or not a flying career is your future.
So before you rearrange your life, go in debt to your eyelids and possibly alienate family and friends, think about what you’re planning to do. Certainly a helicopter pilot career can be challenging and rewarding, but are you cut out for the job? It’s one thing to be excited and motivated after taking a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon or Kauai’s Na Pali Coast; it’s another thing entirely to be in the pilot’s seat, in bad weather, responsible for a multi-million dollar aircraft and a dozen lives.
There’s no way this or any other guide can definitively answer the question. The only way to know if you have what it takes to become a professional pilot is to ask yourself hard questions and then listen carefully to your heart for the answers.
Here, then, are some issues for you to consider before you pull the trigger:
Are you able to afford the cost of training?
And by this, we don’t mean, “Do you have that much money in the bank?” Face it: most of us would be hard pressed to come up with 70-thousand dollars, even if we spent every spare moment helping out at the car wash and collecting empties for recycling. Conventional wisdom dictates that you take out a loan and then pay it back over the course of the next dozen years. But the fiscal conservatives among us will argue that the money, or most of it, should be saved ahead of time to lessen the subsequent debt burden.
Raising the cash necessary for training can be the single hardest thing to accomplish on your road to becoming a pilot. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice: talk to other pilots and ask them how they did it. Search on line for scholarships and grants, research which lending institutions will offer you the best interest rate, and don’t give up. The path you’re about to choose requires a steadfast resolve and now is the time to develop character.
Is a helicopter pilot career your best path?
You’d think that most people would have carefully weighed their options and figured this out by the time they’re ready to start their flight training but sadly that is not the case. Sure, flying a helicopter is fun and challenging but it also is laden with responsibility and can be dangerous. Are you psychologically prepared for a job that places your life and the lives of others on the line? Will you be able to remain calm in turbulent weather or if you have an in-flight emergency? Captain Chesley Sullenberger demonstrated that he had the right stuff when he made a dead stick landing in the Hudson River; imagine the consequences if he’d frozen at the controls.
Are others on board with your decision?
Okay, you’ve had your heart-to-heart with yourself and all our negative haranguing can’t seem to dissuade you from your chosen course. Good. And if you’re young and single and independently wealthy, there’s not much else to consider. But if you have a partner and/or you’re depending upon family to help you financially, it’s essential to have them supportive of your goal. We had one student whose mother would call almost weekly to check on the safety of her son, “He’s not doing anything dangerous is he?”
As a matter of fact, practicing autorotations is statistically one of the more dangerous things you can do in a helicopter, but it’s safer than not doing them and hoping you’ll never have an engine failure. Helicopter flight training is potentially hazardous. The mother simply wanted reassurance that her son would live to see his next birthday. He did and now he’s flying for ERA in the Gulf of Mexico.
If your wife or girlfriend (or husband or boyfriend) is adamantly opposed to your flight training it’s going to make a difficult task nearly impossible. We had another student who was at the top of his game and when he began instructing, he showed that he was a lion for work: he’d be at the school for very long days, nights and weekends too, to get his hours. His wife was not happy with his direction and schedule and eventually asked him for a divorce. Make sure your support network is just that: supportive of your desire to become a professional pilot.
Are you physically able to fly a helicopter?
Strange question, and for most people, this is not an issue. But you owe it to yourself to ask whether or not you are suited to the task at hand. Just about any instructor you can ask will know of someone who had not soloed after well over 100 hours of instruction. Flying a helicopter requires greater skill and mental alertness than driving a car and look at how many truly bad drivers there are on the road. This is not to discourage you but to ask you to honestly assess your motor skills and aptitude. If you find it difficult to chew gum and walk or are vexed by the TV remote, perhaps you should consider another line of work.
Do you do well in a school environment?
The science and math of helicopter flight are pretty straight forward…just be aware that there is a whole lot of material to digest. If you haven’t been to school in a while or if you never got along real well in the halls of academia, you might want to consider whether or not you’ll have the patience, resolve and academic wherewithal to plow through dozens of books and stay on course. This is especially true when it comes time to build your Certified Flight Instructor book, the collection of materials you will use to train students of your own. Collecting and organizing this material requires a steadfast and dogged effort and is not for the weak of spirit.
Just how determined are you?
By now you’re starting to get the idea that becoming a professional pilot is work, lots of hard, brain-numbing work. What planted this idea in your mind to begin with? If you have wanted to fly helicopters since you were knee-high to a tadpole, then there’s a good chance you’re prepared to give the training process all your energy. But if this is a lark, an idea proposed to you by a friend or acquaintance that sounds like more fun than hanging drywall for a living, take a deep breath and understand what’s involved. Being a professional pilot is more than a career…it is a passion, a way of life. It requires sacrifice, both personal and financial, and it will require every bit of determination you can muster.
We see students of all stripes come through the school; all are anxious to start flying and enthusiastic about their training. But as the weeks go by it becomes clear which students are truly prepared for the training, those who are dedicated and motivated, and those who are not. If you choose to become a pilot, place everything else on hold while you train. To do anything less is doing yourself a disservice.
Our intent here is not to necessarily discourage you from becoming a pilot but to give you a clearer idea of what’s involved in the flight training process. If you are satisfied that your answers to the above questions make you a good candidate, then by all means enroll in a flight school and get started. Flying helicopters for a living can be an enormously satisfying and rewarding career. Your helicopter is waiting.
Where to from here?
Which helicopter and what job? Fortunately, unlike the guy hanging dry wall who pretty much does the same thing job after job, there is a plethora of choices when considering your helicopter pilot career. Want some ideas? Look under our helicopter jobs page.