A helicopter pilot transports people or cargo from one location to another. They can work in a variety of industries, such as tourism, agriculture, media or law enforcement. Knowing more about this exciting field can help you decide if it’s the right career path for you.
In this article, we discuss what a helicopter pilot does, the average salary, skills and requirements for this role, and how to become a helicopter pilot.
What does a helicopter pilot do?
Depending on their industry, helicopter pilots may perform various tasks. For example, some pilots may provide emergency or medical services, such as search and rescue, medical transport or firefighting. Some helicopter pilots also work in the military. While their duties may vary based on their position, helicopters pilots typically have the following responsibilities:
Inspect aircraft, instruments, systems and controls for safety before a flight
Perform pre-flight checks, which may include checking weather forecasts and consulting with dispatchers
Create flight plans to determine the most efficient and safest routes
Operate a helicopter’s controls and systems and monitor instruments to ensure safety and proper functionality
Complete all required post-flight paperwork after each flight, including a duty hours log
The salary of a helicopter pilot depends on their experience, employer, industry and geographic location. Many helicopter pilots have full-time positions and may receive benefits through their employer, such as health insurance and paid time off, which contribute to their overall compensation. Their average salary is $84,268 per year.
For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.
Helicopter pilot requirements
Becoming a helicopter pilot requires extensive education and training, which includes:
While it’s possible to become a helicopter pilot without a degree, many employers prefer to hire pilots who have completed postsecondary education. Consider earning an associate or bachelor’s degree in aviation, aeronautics, aerospace engineering or a related field. During these programs, you can expect to take a variety of courses in physics, math, engineering and computer science to help prepare you for a career as a helicopter pilot. If you do choose to complete an aviation program, you may earn the required licenses for helicopter pilots as part of your education.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establishes training requirements for helicopter pilots. You can satisfy these requirements by completing flight training at an FAA-approved flight school. Military training may qualify as a substitute for flight school training. During flight school, you work toward your commercial pilot license by completing 150 flight hours, which include:
At least 100 hours as the pilot in command, including 35 hours in helicopters
At least 20 hours of training, including five hours using instruments only
At least 10 hours of solo flight time in helicopters
Once you complete your flight hours, you take a written and practical exam to earn your commercial pilot license for helicopters. This license, issued by the FAA, allows you to operate a helicopter for commercial purposes, such as transporting passengers or cargo for a fee.
Helicopter pilots can obtain different FAA certifications. Each one focuses on different aspects of aviation and requires varying levels of knowledge and experience. Common certifications for helicopter pilots include:
A recreational pilot certification is for someone who wants to fly recreationally, not commercially. Those holding this certification can only fly during the day and within 50 nautical miles of their departure site outside of Class B, C or D airspace. You can earn this certification by completing flight training and passing a written and practical exam.
A private pilot can only fly for private purposes, not commercial ones. With this certification, a pilot can fly at night and through controlled airports. Similar to a recreational pilot license, the requirements for this license include flight training and passing scores on a written and practical exam.
If you want to work for an employer or charge fees for your helicopter pilot services, you can obtain the commercial pilot certification. The training requirements outlined pertain to commercial pilot certification. You can maintain this certification by logging flight hours.
If you wish to teach others how to fly helicopters, you can get certified as a flight instructor. The process of earning this certification includes learning more about teaching theory so you can instruct others about how to operate aircraft. This certification requires additional flight time and training after earning your commercial pilot license.
Airline transport pilot
The most advanced certification available to a helicopter pilot is the airline transport pilot. It requires at least 1,500 hours of logged flight time. Those who want to earn this certification must also be at least 23 years old. You can complete a certification course and pass an exam to earn this certification.
Pursuing a career as a helicopter pilot requires you to have certain skills, including:
Helicopter pilots communicate with others constantly, so excellent communication skills are vital to success. On a single flight, a pilot may talk to passengers, a co-pilot, air traffic controllers and flight staff members. To ensure the safety of all flights, air traffic management providers and pilots remain in constant communication and work together.
Awareness of your surroundings
When you’re flying a helicopter, it’s important to be aware of everything happening around you, both in the air and in the aircraft, to protect yourself and your passengers. A pilot makes decisions based on flight conditions, the state of the helicopter, the exact location of the aircraft and surrounding aircraft. They also have an awareness of systems and instrument configurations so they can fly safely.
A helicopter pilot is in charge of an aircraft, so leadership skills are important. You can use your leadership skills to manage your cockpit effectively and ensure team members follow proper procedures. A pilot leads the crew, whether that crew includes a single co-pilot or a team of support staff. The pilot sets the tone for the flight, making sure those on board feel safe and secure.
Although the pilot is the captain of the helicopter, they also work as part of a team. Teamwork improves safety and reduces the risk of flight accidents and other issues. As a helicopter pilot, you work closely with other pilots flying nearby, your aircraft team members, air traffic controllers and flight dispatchers.
When a helicopter pilot encounters an emergency or obstacle, they quickly think and react to make decisions. Although a pilot has a checklist to follow for certain situations, some instances may require fast decision-making by the captain of the aircraft. Some examples of these situations include changing weather conditions and forced landings. In these situations, a pilot responds immediately to make appropriate decisions for the safety of their passengers and themselves.
Ability to stay calm
In an emergency, a helicopter pilot remains calm and collected. This skill helps them react logically to changing situations by relying on their training and education to help them make decisions. During the training process, a pilot may frequently encounter stressful, difficult situations to help develop this skill.
Helicopter pilot work environment
A helicopter pilot works in the helicopter cockpit. Their schedule is often unpredictable, especially if they work as an emergency services provider. Commercial helicopter pilots may have set hours, although they may work additional hours to meet flight needs, particularly in industries such as law enforcement or medical services. Pilots spend most of their working hours sitting in the cockpit. They use complex equipment and instruments to make sure the aircraft is operating safely and properly.
How to become a helicopter pilot
If you’re interested in a career as a helicopter pilot, you can follow these common steps:
1. See a doctor
The FAA requires all pilots, including helicopter pilots, to pass a medical exam to operate aircraft. Begin with this step to ensure you qualify for a commercial helicopter pilot license. Any health problems that may cause you to lose consciousness could affect your ability to become a helicopter pilot, including heart problems, epilepsy or psychological disorders. Your doctor can also evaluate your hearing and vision to ensure you meet the necessary health requirements to become a pilot.
2. Complete your education
Although you can earn a commercial pilot license without a college degree, some employers may prefer you to have this education. Search for associate or bachelor’s degree programs with a focus on aviation, such as aeronautical engineering. Other areas of study that could help you in your pursuit of becoming a helicopter pilot include math, physics or computer science.
3. Choose and apply to a flight school
To become a helicopter pilot, you can complete a training program at an FAA-accredited flight school to earn your license. As you look for schools, check the graduation rates and job placement rates to choose one that can help you succeed. Some flight schools offer programs with an emphasis on helicopter aviation, which can be helpful for aspiring helicopter pilots.
4. Earn your license
While completing flight school, you can expect to complete a required number of hours of flight time in a helicopter to become licensed. In flight school, you learn how to use the instruments and controls from certified FAA instructors. After you complete the required flight hours, you can take and pass a written exam and flight test to obtain your commercial license.
5. Apply to jobs
Some jobs may require applicants to have 500 to 1,000 hours of professional flight experience, while others may allow new flight school graduates to gain experience. Search for entry-level jobs to help you gain experience as a helicopter pilot. Make sure your resume is current and highlights the relevant training and education you’ve completed to show employers you have the necessary qualifications to operate helicopters safely.
Helicopter pilot job description example
Here’s an example of a helicopter job description for you to reference when searching for similar roles:
Jenkins Flight Group is seeking a commercial helicopter pilot to join our highly skilled transport team. Our pilots complete more than 14,000 flights per year. Ideal applicants are willing to be part of a flight team to ensure successful flights and are ready to utilize their education and training to meet the company goal of providing safe and reliable air transport. Excellent communication and leadership skills are important.
Required duties include transporting passengers and goods on flights of all lengths, checking helicopters to make sure they’re ready for flights, maintaining accurate and complete flight records and logs and performing any other related duties as assigned. All applicants must hold current commercial pilot licenses and be willing to participate in ongoing training and continuing education.