HOW TO BECOME A PILOT
Airplane Pilot vs. Helicopter Pilot
When you first consider becoming a pilot you should give some thought very early on as to what type of pilot you want to become. Make no mistake that there is a huge lifestyle difference in piloting a Boeing 747 on international flights to places like New York City and London and piloting a utility type helicopter doing long line work in remote areas of Alaska. Pilot salaries will also vary depending on which type of pilot license and pilot career you choose to pursue.
Deciding whether to become an airplane pilot or a helicopter pilot will probably be your first major decision in becoming a pilot. Unlike switching a college major after you have studied for a year or two, you will want to have a clear vision of what type of pilot you want to be before you ever start pilot training. The reason is that switching from a helicopter pilot to an airplane pilot, or airplane pilot to helicopter pilot, after you have started your training will waste both time and money.
While it is certainly possible to become both a helicopter pilot and a fixed wing (airplane) pilot, you will very likely focus all your time and energy on only one in the beginning so you can get your first pilot job as soon as possible.
How to decide on a pilot career; Airplane vs. Helicopter
For many people deciding on the type of pilot job to pursue will be easy. Which do you find more interesting, airplanes or helicopters? Which appeals to you more; inputting a new heading into the flight computer of your airliner while 38,000 feet over the ocean or sticking your head out the door of your helicopter to check the load on the end of the cable as you fly low level over the mountains and tree tops? There are of course many other aspects of a flying career to consider such as pilot salary and flight training costs, etc., but the type of aircraft and the type of flying that appeals to you will be a strong influence on which pilot career you will ultimately choose.
Whether you pursue a pilot job in airplanes or helicopters there are many different types of work to be found in each category.
If you become a helicopter pilot you can; fly helicopter tours in such places as the Grand Canyon and Hawaii, fly medical helicopters, fly helicopters in the oil & gas industry such as the Gulf of Mexico, fly helicopters for law enforcement, fly helicopters in the military such as the Marines or U.S. Army, fly helicopters in the utility field such as power line patrol and the seismic industry, fly for the news media also known as Electronic News Gathering, or even as a corporate helicopter pilot.
If you become a fixed wing pilot you can; become an Air Force pilot as either a Fighter pilot or flying cargo & troop carriers, you can also fly tours in airplanes, you can become an airline pilot, you can become a corporate pilot where you fly smaller business jets for both public and private companies, you can fly for medical companies, you can also fly for law enforcement such as the FBI, State Police or Highway Patrol.
While you are considering which type of pilot job to pursue think of it in this manner. Airplanes land at airports which are most often in or near large cities. Helicopters don’t need airports so while some pilot jobs can be found in the city many are found in very out of the way remote places where there are no airports or runways. If you pursue a lifelong career flying airplanes your work location(s) will often be in large metropolitan areas. If you pursue a lifelong career flying helicopters you will probably find yourself working in small out of the way locations, often several states away from where you live. It is just something to think about.
Before we take a serious look at what type of pilot salary you can expect, let’s examine how you get that first pilot job. You will see in a few minutes how this relates back to helicopter jobs being in small out of the way places and airplane pilot jobs being in larger metropolitan areas.
Defined Path to your first Pilot Job
First Helicopter Pilot Job
I am more familiar with the path that most helicopter pilots will take so I am going to focus on that in this section. If you choose to pursue a career as an airline pilot there will also be a defined path which will most likely take you through the smaller commuter or regional airlines.
There is in large part a defined path to being hired for that first helicopter job after flight school. And that path leads directly to the Gulf of Mexico. If you are a commercial helicopter pilot working in the U.S. today, the chances are very high that you spent 2-3 years working and flying helicopters to off shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Virtually every flight instructor at the flight school I attended in Carlsbad Ca. eventually took a job flying helicopters in the Gulf. Many of them would commute back and forth working either 7 or 14 days straight in places like Houma Louisiana. And since Houma is in such a remote location, most new pilots will end up sharing a small mobile home on airport property with 1 or 2 other helicopter pilots on their 7 or 14 days on. Why is this so? Let’s take a deeper look.
Technically a new helicopter pilot’s very first job is as a flight instructor, often at the same flight school where he or she just graduated. The problem is the amount of experience and flight hours required by insurance companies who represent the majority of helicopter operators outside of flight schools. PHI (Petroleum Helicopters Inc.) is one of the largest operator of helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico and their current requirements for new helicopter pilots are a minimum of 1,500 flight hours of PIC (Pilot in Command) time along with your commercial and instrument helicopter ratings. ERA Helicopters requires 1,500 total helicopter flight hours of which 1,000 must be Pilot in Command. You can see that 1,500 hours is currently an industry standard for many companies.
How does one get 1,500 hours of flight time in helicopters after flight school? By becoming a Certified Flight Instructor and taking a job as a flight instructor. When flying as a CFI both the instructor and the student get to log the same hour spent in the helicopter together. So after instructing other students for 1,500 hours, at approximately $25.00 an hour in pay, you are finally qualified to go out into the world and fly helicopters for a big company.
While not every new 1,500 hour helicopter pilot will go work in the Gulf of Mexico, most will because this is where the largest operators of helicopters in the U.S. are concentrated. While there are other pathways to landing your first helicopter pilot job, this is by far the most common.
Do you still want to be a helicopter pilot? You can see how the type of pilot career you choose will determine whether you might be spending your time in rugged remote locations as a helicopter pilot or in the newest and modern airports of the world’s largest cities.
So let’s be clear; many will be instantly attracted to the lifestyle of the helicopter pilot while others will have already made their decision to pursue an airline pilot job. There is no right or wrong decision. One is not necessarily a better career than the other. Many pilots consider an airline pilot (even though they are paid very well) to be nothing more than a glorified bus driver. I have heard airline pilots describe themselves in this manner.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years, flying sleek shiny jets at 35,000 feet or winding up the turbine engine in your Bell 407 at 3:00 am in Omaha to go pick up a traffic accident victim on a cold snowy highway? Both pilot positions are important, both are respected, and both are needed.
Now to be fair, a new fixed wing pilot will have to sacrifice for 1 or 2 years as well while they instruct other students and build their hours just like the new helicopter pilot. There first job after working as a CFI will generally be with a small commuter or regional airline where the pay is just barely above what they were making as a CFI.
So if lifestyle, work locations, and the type of aircraft (airplane vs. helicopter) has not helped you decide on the pilot career you should pursue, may pilot salary will help you with that all important decision.
Commercial Pilot Salary Comparison
Helicopter Pilot salary vs Airline Pilot Salary
There are still at least two areas we should look at when deciding which pilot job you wish to pursue. 1) How much you can expect to be making 10 and 20 years from now and 2) how much your flight training is going to cost you. Let us first look at pilot salaries and compare airline pilot salaries with helicopter pilot salaries.
So as not to keep you in suspense; the data at this time indicates that a captain of a large commercial airplane such as a 747, with 10 plus years of flying experience can make as much as $180,000 but the median annual salary for a captain of a large jet is $121,408.
According to the website salary.com the median helicopter pilot salary in the U.S. is $85,837 with the top 10% of helicopter pilots making as much as $132,778.
By comparing the median income of a helicopter pilot with the median income of an airline pilot we can see that the airline pilot makes an average of $35,571 a year over the helicopter pilot at this level.
Now let’s compare the top 10% of airline pilot salaries with the top 10% of helicopter pilot salaries and see the difference. When we do this comparison of very experienced pilots, probably with over 20 years in the industry, we see the airline pilot making as much as $48,000 a year more than the helicopter pilot.
So when you do a strict salary comparison between a commercial airline pilot salary and a commercial helicopter pilot salary virtually all of the data suggest that the airline pilot will make more money on an hourly, monthly and yearly basis.
Regardless of which pilot career you chose to follow it is possible to break the $100,000 a year mark in personal income for an experienced pilot.
Now that we know airline pilots can potentially make more money than helicopter pilots let’s take a look at what it will cost to earn the necessary pilot ratings in each pilot career path.
Costs of Helicopter Flight Training vs. Costs of Airplane Flight Training
So how much is helicopter pilot school? If you are considering getting a helicopter license this section will give you a good idea of what the cost will be.
It is important to keep in mind that any costs you see quoted for flight training are estimates only. There are many variables that can change the total costs of flight training. Most flight schools are very open about telling you this up front. Two factors that can affect the final costs are the price of fuel and the fact that one person may require more hours of training to pass a check ride than another student. But these numbers are perfectly fine for comparing helicopter flight training vs. airplane flight training.
Let’s jump right into the numbers; (we will go over the various ratings such as CFII in just a moment)
According to Hillsboro Aviation, a large helicopter flight school based in Oregon, the costs to train a student up through their commercial/CFI/CFII is $64,322.
According to US Aviation Academy a flight school in Denton Tx, the costs to train a student up through their fixed wing commercial with CFI/CFII/MEI is $58,617.
And according to ATP Flight School which has multiple locations throughout the country, the costs of their 180 day fast track Airline Career Pilot program is $69,995. This includes the commercial multi & single engine/CFI-Multi-single-Instrument ratings.
Note- however that a recent rule change for even new airline pilot first officers to obtain their ATP rating (not previously required) is threatening to add as much as $20,000 to the cost to become an airline pilot. This rule is still so new that the airline industry experts are very unsure about its effect on the flow of new pilots to the airline industry. See more on this new ATP rule below.
One can see that the costs of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot and the costs of becoming a commercial airplane pilot are fairly comparable. The cost of training alone will probably not be the determining factor for which professional pilot career you choose to pursue.
Ok, let’s talk about ratings
Helicopter ratings & Fixed Wing ratings Explained
What ratings do you really need to be a professional pilot?
First let’s go over some of the abbreviations and what they mean. Most of these are going to mean the same thing for both the fixed wing pilot and the helicopter pilot with one notable exception. That being the multi-engine rating for fixed wing. We will explain this in more detail below.
Private- Private pilot’s license which allows you to fly for your own pleasure and to take passengers
Comm- Commercial pilot license which allows you to work as a pilot and get paid
IFR- Instrument Flight rules or Instrument Flight Rating which allows you to fly in clouds or in weather where the visibility is below visual flight rules- Allows you to fly by instruments
CFI- Certified Flight Instructor which allows you to teach other people how to fly and get paid for it
CFII- Also called a “double I” means you are an Instrument Instructor which allows you to teach other students how to fly on instruments
Multi- Multi Engine rating which relates to fixed wing aircraft only. Why is this?
When a fixed wing aircraft with two or more engines loses power to one of the engines it immediately affects how the airplane flies. This is due to the fact that the engines are generally located out on the wings. If immediate emergency action is not taken the airplane can stall and crash. Special training is required before you are certified to fly an airplane with more than one engine. While many helicopters have two engines, losing power to one engine does not affect how the helicopter flies aerodynamically. The helicopter will have less power and will likely start losing altitude, but it can theoretically be flown to an emergency landing in a safe manner.
MEI- Multi Engine Instructor allows you to teach other students in a multi engine aircraft
ATP- Airline Transport Pilot rating. In July of 2013 the FAA issued a new rule that required even first officers, who are part of an airline crew operation, to obtain an Airline Transport Certificate and 1500 hours of PIC time. While many airlines in the past would not hire you until you had 1500 hours, the requirement for an ATP rating First Officers is new. The rule actually went into effect on August 1, 2014. It is estimated that the new ATP rule will cost future students anywhere from an extra $10,000 to $20,000 above flight training costs before the rule was instated. Check here for a more in depth look at the new ATP rule and how it is expected to affect new student pilots.
Do you need every one of these ratings in order to become a professional pilot? The answer is that it depends. Where this question is most crucial is when you are trying to build time. Remember you are going to somehow need to get to 1500 hours to get that first good helicopter pilot job or that first airline pilot job. You are most likely going to build those hours by instructing, so yes you need to be a CFI. If you are also a “double I” (CFII- Instrument Instructor) then you will be able to build time quicker by also instructing students pursuing their IFR rating. If you are a fixed wing CFI then having your “double I” and your MEI (Multi Engine Instructor) is going to open up more instructor flight time, so you can build your way to that 1500 hours even faster.
It may be beneficial to look at a couple of pilot jobs where you do not need an instrument rating nor do you need to be a CFI. Some helicopter pilot jobs, such as flying for law enforcement, do not require an instrument rating or a CFI rating. Some airplane pilot jobs such as towing banners or carrying skydivers do not require an instrument rating or a CFI rating. So technically you could build time in an airplane towing banners, until you get to 1500 hours. But you will still need to have that IFR rating to work for the airlines.
Another good example for the helicopter pilot is agricultural spraying. You will not need an IFR rating or an instructor rating to work as an agricultural sprayer. But unless you know someone in the business, it is still not likely that you will go straight from flight school with just a commercial helicopter rating, right into working as a crop sprayer. Typically, doing utility work with a helicopter such as stringing powerlines or even fighting forest fires does not require an instrument rating.
When I went to flight school at Civic Helicopters in Carlsbad Ca. in 2007, one of my helicopter flight instructors was a “double I” and one was not. So one was able to teach me the 10 hours of instrument time I needed for my commercial license, while the other had to stick to basic helicopter instruction. Both moved on to the Gulf of Mexico and flew for PHI for several years. Both currently fly medical helicopters; one in California and one in Wisconsin.
Understanding More About Flight Training
PIC- Pilot In Command; What is this?
PIC time or Pilot in Command time is when you are the pilot who is primarily in command of the aircraft. Your very first PIC time is when you solo the helicopter or airplane while working on your private pilot certificate. You are the only one in the aircraft so you are the Pilot In Command. All solo time is PIC time. Any other time logged as a student in pursuit of your private pilot is Not PIC time.
However, once you become a private pilot you are building PIC time again even when you are with an instructor. Now both you and the instructor get to log PIC time in the aircraft.
For your fixed wing Commercial Pilot Certificate you need 250 hours of total flight time with 100 hours of PIC time.
For you helicopter Commercial Pilot Certificate you need 150 hours of total flight time with 100 hours of PIC time- 35 in helicopters.
Therefore, most student pilots will be working on obtaining their IFR- Instrument rating while they are also building their 100 hours of PIC time. This is true both in helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. So if you are going to obtain your commercial rating in either type of aircraft it makes a lot of sense to obtain your instrument rating at the same time.
How to Become a Pilot for Free Through Law Enforcement or Military
Law Enforcement Pilot
Let’s first talk about becoming a pilot through a law enforcement agency. Every law enforcement agency recruits and trains their pilots differently. And it is generally only the medium to large agencies that will own aircraft or have an air support unit.
But it is also true that many large police and sheriff’s departments in the U.S. will pay for your flight training once you are selected into the air support unit and have proven yourself as a tactical flight officer first. Virtually every large law enforcement agency in the U.S. select their pilots and TFO’s from their sworn officers and deputies. There are some exceptions to this where the agency hires a civilian pilot and pairs that pilot up with a sworn officer or deputy as the Tactical Flight Officer.
Again every agency is slightly different. My agency requires no previous aviation experience. Instead we look for highly motivated and very successful patrol deputies to bring into the unit as Tactical Flight Officers. Those deputies that are successful as TFO’s will eventually go on to helicopter flight training at no cost to them.
There are many agencies that require you to already be a fixed wing pilot, and they will train you to become a helicopter pilot. Still other agencies require you to have a private helicopter license and they will train you up to commercial standards. NYPD Air Support requires you to have already have your private helicopter license or your commercial fixed wing rating. They will then train you in house up to your commercial helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings.
The primary drawback to pursuing pilot training solely through a law enforcement agency is there is no guarantee you will ever be selected to become a member of the air support unit. Before you can become a pilot you have to get into the air support unit and these positions are very competitive.
Probably the best information available anywhere on how to become a police helicopter pilot is available right here on this website.
Military Helicopter or Fixed Wing Pilot
This section is still under construction. Check back soon for updates.