It’s no secret that I love rotary wings. Although I was born into aviation as a fixed wing pilot, my dream has always been to venture into the helicopter pilot training world.
Since I have dabbled in and out of venturing into the land of helicopters, I thought I would share a comprehensive guide to everything (or almost everything) you need to know when taking the jump into helicopter training.
Let’s get started!
Differences in Helicopter Pilot Training
Much like fixed wing flight schools, there are a slew of different types of helicopter flight training schools out there. From local airports with a helicopter laying around to large scale operations with hundreds of students and tens of helicopter, you can pretty much find the gamut of schools out there willing to train you. However, just like any big investment it warrants that you shop around and figure out what kind of school or training center is right for you.
The Local CFI
When I started flight training I learned at a local flight school. More often than not, this is what a good majority of pilots do when looking to train recreationally. The benefit of a flight school like this is that your busy schedule has less of an impact on your training and vice versa.
What I mean is, for everyone that uses the excuse “life got in the way”, this is the perfect solution for you to go as slow or quick as life allows.
As I explain later on, university is a great solution for someone looking to work on financing their aviation pursuits. It’s no secret this desire of yours is a costly one. Getting access to capital to fund it means that going to university could be the path of least resistance. This route is perfect for the pilot that wants to make a career out of this long-term goal and has the time to dedicate to formal education.
Big Helicopter Flight School Academy
Just like how ATP Flight school is a large flight training center focused on providing quick training to fixed-wing pilots, you have options like Bristow Helicopter Academy which offers a similar Professional Pilot route but for helicopter pilots in the US and overseas. May I add, obviously much more expensive than fixed wing training.
Helicopter Pilot School Cost
Just like with fixed wing training, the cost is a huge hurdle for most pilots. Additionally, helicopters cost more to operate than fixed wing trainer aircraft. In-fact with helicopter flight training you can expect to pay anywhere from $300 – $400 per flight hour plus another $40 or so for the instructor. That’s a long way off from the $140 per hour I pay for fixed wing training.
How to Pay for Helicopter Flight School
So this begs the question, how do you pay for helicopter training? Well, the honest answer is it won’t be easy. Here are a few of the main ways you can afford your wings:
Save Like a Rockstar
If you’re like me, you hate using credit cards for just about anything. If I can’t pay for something outright then I typically tell myself I need to wait to make the dream happen. With helicopter training, this can be an unrealistic expectation because the investment is just large enough to make any regular Joe or Jane have their wallet hurt after each flight. If you are able to save up at least a good chunk of your training before hand, I would recommend you do so. Paying outright for most of anything is typically a good idea. Except if you get into rental property investment, but I digress.
Utilize Your Post 9/11 G.I. Bill Benefits
One of the most popular ways for affording helicopter pilot training is by utilizing the Post 9/11 GI Bill if you are a veteran coming from the military. If you are a veteran, you have the opportunity to get your helicopter training funded 100%. This G.I. Bill can fund up-to $10,000 per academic year of your helicopter training expenses. Just be sure that the helicopter school is VA certified. If they are, trust me you will know. However, don’t be afraid to ask if you’re still in question.
Finance Your Dream
Although never ideal, sometimes financing your dreams is what it takes.
If you aren’t quite able to pay off your training in one fail swoop, and you don’t have military benefits, then your best option is to find ways to finance your training. You can do this through achieving a loan (although very difficult to do nowadays for flight training), or credit cards (not recommended but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes).
I mentioned earlier that getting a loan or financing can be nearly impossible. Trust me I have tried. Banks don’t deal with aviation loans like they used to. Your best bet if you want to finance this program is to find a way to pair it with a university degree program like explained earlier. This will allow you to incorporate the flight costs within the student loan. This can help you get over the financing hurdle. Downside is, well, you will be going back to school. :/
Requirements to Become a Helicopter Pilot
Flying for hire and flying for recreation actually come with very different approaches and requirements from a legal training standpoint. It is no wonder, since to fly commercially you are expected to be very competent in all aspects of your machine and knowledge.
If you are looking to become a fully certified commercially rated helicopter pilot here is the breakdown of the different licenses and ratings that you will need to achieve.
|License/Rating||Estimated Amount of Hours||Blended Estimated Cost|
|Private Pilot License||40||$12,000|
|Instrument Rating||40 (Some in simulator)||$12,000|
|Flight Instructor Rating (CFI)||15||$4,500|
Now mind you these are crude estimates, because you can overlap hours and likely save time and money if you spend some time upfront strategizing how you will spend every hour of your flight training.
Private Pilot Helicopter Add-On
I mentioned probably a few hundred times in this article already, I am a licensed fixed wing pilot.
As a private pilot that already went through some of the rigors of flight training, it’s nice to know that as a licensed pilot I can save a little bit of money and time learning to fly helicopters.
As opposed to a fresh pilot newb, private pilots who are coming from fixed wing only need 30 hours (20 Dual, 10 Solo) in total of rotor wing flight training. It’s not a ton of time, and I assume most of that time saving is due to already knowing the in’s and out’s of airspace, communications, and general aviation best practices during flight. The rest is all about learning how the heck to fly an aircraft that has rotors in-place of those “stable” wings we are used to.
|License/Rating||Estimated Amount of Hours||Blended Estimated Cost|
|Private Pilot Add-On||30||$9,000|
Helicopter Ground School Training
If you are new to learning how to fly, there are a few aspects of your training that can be broken down into flying, studying, and testing. Flying which consumes a good portion of your budget is where you learn how to actually fly with an instructor. However, the other very critical aspect of your training is studying. This is where you learn the ins-and-outs of everything in theory and practice for aviation and helicopters. This is called “ground school”.
Back 15+ years ago, it was very common for flight schools to offer or require ground school at their location. This meant you would go to class every couple days and learn the theories. However, since technology and aviation has advanced so much in the last decade, online ground school has been a common replacement. Not to mention this can save you thousands of dollars, seriously.
Personally I learned all my ground school this way, I passed my checkride just dandy and you can too.
Since helicopter ground school is definitely a bit more specialized than fixed wing, I would recommend making a logical investment in a specialized package like Helicopter Online Ground School. I know Kenny over there and would recommend you give it a try. Plus it’s a lifetime access to the ground school which is great!
Beginner Helicopters Used for Flight Training
Now that you have chewed over how you are going to finance and train to achieve your dream of being a helicopter pilot, let’s talk training helis!
Although the Hughes helicopter pictured at the top of this article is one sexy machine, you will not be learning your initial helicopter training in one of these. In fact, you can typically assume you will be learning in one of three different make and models of helicopters below.
The Robinson R-22 is an iconic aircraft in general aviation. Personally it is one of my favorites because of it’s interesting and unique design. Or, perhaps because it was my go-to helicopter to fly on Microsoft Flight Simulator.
When it comes to starting your training however, there is a good chance that the R22 will be the helicopter you train in. With over 4,600 R-22’s built since it’s creation, you can sure as hell bet that if you aren’t flying one you will fly one eventually.
Sikorsky S-300 / Hughes 300 /
The Sikorsky S-300 is another staple of training helicopters. I recognize them as the white sticks. They look like rods welded together to form a frame. Maybe because that’s essentially what this helicopter is.
I’ve never had the opportunity to see one of these helicopters up close, however they are a popular trainer for flight schools and apparently have more space in the cabin than the R22. So if you are a big, tall pilot perhaps it is worth exploring this option.
Enstrom is also a semi-popular brand of helicopter to train in. I love the look and feel of Enstrom’s and their safety record is actually the best when put up against the other options. The F-28 is Enstrom’s piston helicopter line and is typically the most affordable Enstrom to use when flight training.
There are many other helicopter choices out there that you may come across in your research for finding a perfect flight school.
Be open minded to the helicopter that they teach in, however understand that in general the above models are some of the most affordable options so inquire if they offer training in them. If you can afford to do so, try to have a helciopter trial flight with each flight school you are considering as to get a feel for the helicopter and instructor. Some instructors are better than others, and you can only learn which one works best with you by testing the waters.
It’s kind of like dating, only more fun.
Different Helicopter Pilot Careers
If your end game is to make a career out of being a helicopter pilot, then it warrants knowing what type of career paths you could take longterm. This is actually what intrigued me the most when I first was interested in becoming a helicopter pilot. Sure, fixed wing pilots have so many diverse career opportunities, but helicopters are way more versatile and thus open up new exciting careers you may have never even thought about.
Some of the more popular careers you can find in the heli world is that of an aerial tour guide in exotic or even non-exoctic locations. You see, everything looks better from a pilot’s view. Tourists are the only ones crazy enough to pay a premium to see the view. Well, pilots are too.
Side Note: My uncle has a running joke in our family about always wanting to show us his Hawaiian aerial helicopter tour video during the holidays. It puts us right to sleep, but I’m sure it was exhilarating during the flight.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you have seen a crop duster a time or two in your lifetime. I’m from the midwest so it’s a regular occurrence for me. You typically associate crop dusting with fixed wing Piper Pawnees, but helicopters do it too!
If you do something extremely stupid, well the police will be on your butt with a spot light and likely some guns. As a police pilot you could be the king of that spotlight instead. I actually had a flight instructor who was a heli policeman, and he taught me in fixed wing… kind of odd looking back on it now.
Are you an early riser? Well I know for a fact news reporting helicopter pilots get up early in the morning to go monitor traffic and breaking news.
Many helicopter positions exist in the realm of healthcare. EMT pilots are those that transport the wounded, injured, and patients that need urgent care form emergency sites or from one hospital to another.
The beautiful thing about EMT helicopters is that they can get into almost any location, pick up the victim and get out of there in less time which means more time to save lives.
Obviously this is a medical type position and you will be around wounded and medical stuff, so bear that in mind.
One of the more logical steps is to become a helicopter flight instructor. Now, I can’t tell you how much of a demand there is for instructors right now (I honestly have no clue). But it’s worth mentioning.
Once in my hometown when I was growing up I saw one of those big Sikorsky helicopters flying around. I did what any aviator does and hoped in my car to see where it was going. Turns out a local company was installing a big air conditioning unit on the top of their building. This helicopter was there to lift it from the parking lot into place on-top of the roof. How cool!
This is a long way of saying that lifting and moving things is one of the biggest benefits a helicopter can offer that an airplane can not. You could be the one doing it!
Oil Rig Transport
If you drove to work today, you are helping to fuel the oil industry. If you are fueling the oil industry likely you are helping stimulate the position as an oil rig helicopter pilot. Some off shore drilling workers take transport on helicopters daily to get to work. You will be flying over ocean and landing on oil rigs. Sounds pretty interesting and challenging to me.
Pipeline & Powerline
In certain areas of the country there are pipeline and powerlines that need inspected and worked on on a regular basis.
Yeah, it’s a pretty cool thing they do!
It’s pretty easy to assume that since we are covering all these different jobs, that it will be an easy road from training to this. However, just like anything fun and exciting in life it takes a lot of hard work and time to climb the ranks to have the opportunity to do some of these more exciting helicopter jobs.
Helicopter Pilot Salaries
As with any career, salaries range greatly in the aviation industry depending where you are at in your career pursuits. When you are first starting out as a newly minted commercially rated pilot you will likely need to work as a flight instructor to build up the necessary hours to get cool jobs like spoken about above.
In this case, being fresh out of school you will likely not be getting paid salary and instead on an hourly basis. Don’t expect to see a huge salary in those first couple years. $30,000 isn’t a crazy total to expect as you flight instruct.
Once you get 1,000+ hours
Once you get the covetted 1000 hours or so this means you likely qualify for more intermediate type positions as a helicopter pilot. This is exciting, finally you can pay off those loans 😉
Glassdoor estimates that the national average helicopter salary falls in the $89,000 / year range. Think firefighting, EMS, and some of those other intermediate positions explained earlier.
Take this estimate with a grain of salt, salaries can vary greatly. Also, don’t forget that salaries are negotiable.
High Paying Helicopter Jobs
Its definitely possible to break the 5 digit salary and earn $100,000/year flying rotor wing machines for a living. Typically this is going to be more in the VIP pilot world and oil rig flying operations where you are either flying people with money or big machines that cost a lot of money.
What if you want to just fly for fun?
If you’re like me nowadays, I just want to get a helicopter rating for the fun of it. Helicopters give pilots a whole new level of freedom I can’t even imagine.
My Final Thoughts
If you stuck with me through this entire 3,000+ word guide on how to get started flying helicopters you are in a good position to go out there and start calling schools.
Helicopter flight training is definitely expensive, and after reading this article you could be overwhelmed. I don’t blame you. But if there is one piece of advice I can give you, no matter if you decided to go fixed wing or rotor wing, stay the course and make this dream of yours a reality.
Sure it will hurt your wallet, and yes you will have to sacrifice some weekends to study, but at the end of the day you will be so proud of the work and amazing sights you get to see on a daily basis long term. Best of luck friends!