How to Become a Commercial Helicopter Pilot

Published: 10th March 2009
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The road to becoming a commercial helicopter pilot and getting that dream job may be longer than you think If you would like your career to involve flying in the gulf, tours, emergency medical services, corporate work, agriculture, or something along those lines, there are a few details you should pay close attention to before embarking upon your career as a commercial pilot.

The first realization is that after you have completed your initial training and hold that well earned Commercial Pilot certificate, you will have a minimum of 150 flight hours. The FAA minimum requirement under Part 61 to qualify for a Commercial certificate is 150 hours of flight time. You will most likely have somewhere between 150 and 180 hours of flight time. It is the exception rather than the norm for new pilots to complete their certificates/ratings with FAA minimums.

You have created the foundation for your career by successfully obtaining your Commercial Pilot certificate. At this point, you should hold a Private Pilot certificate, Instrument rating and Commercial Pilot certificate. These ratings are the very minimum you will need to work commercially. You are, however, probably not qualified enough to go after that dream job just yet.

Research the requirements for commercial pilot jobs. You will notice that 1000 hours is typically needed for entry level positions - with one exception. This one exception allows new pilots to be employed with low hours. Let's explore the 1000 hour requirement first.

Insurance companies dictate the 1000 flight hour minimum. They use various statistics to determine the risks for insuring pilots. One of the major factors used to determine risk is flight hours. This drives the 1000 hour minimum for entry level jobs. The exception to this is the Flight Instructor position.

Flight Instructor job requirements vary by flight school. The majority of helicopter flight schools accept Flight Instructors with low hours. The thought process in our industry is that the best way to learn is to teach.

The career track for most new pilots is to continue on with their training after they get their Commercial certificate. They obtain their CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) and CFII (Certified Flight Instructor Instrument). These pilots are now qualified to be Flight Instructors and teach student pilots.

Most new pilots use the Flight Instructor position as a stepping-stone to obtain the hours they need for the job they really want. They regard this time as paying their dues while someone else (the student) pays for their time building. New Flight Instructors are generally not very well paid. The real money comes after the 1000 hours.

A positive way to view Flight Instructor pay for new pilots is to recognize that someone else is paying for your flight hours. It brightens the picture when you add the 'soft dollar' income that comes from students paying for you to build your flight time to your earnings.

For some, Flight Instructor is the dream job. Pilots who enjoy teaching and flying build their career around flight instruction. Many of them learn the business and build an excellent reputation in their first few years of instructing. They then go on to open their own flight schools. A Flight Instructor career is both challenging and rewarding if you enjoy teaching.

There are alternatives to building your hours if you choose not to follow the traditional path of becoming a Flight Instructor first. You could obtain your Commercial certificate and then purchase an aircraft. Helicopters are expensive machines and require maintenance and insurance, so splitting costs may prove to be beneficial. There are websites and flight journals that advertise aircraft partnerships. You could go into partnership with one or more pilots and use your own helicopter to build your time.

Another option is to purchase a helicopter and learn to fly in it. This will help reduce your up front training costs. Ensure that your school of choice will train you in your own helicopter before making this purchase.

In summary, the training for commercial helicopter pilots requires dedication and commitment. Learning to fly a helicopter is expensive. Building your flight time demands long hours with low pay if you follow the Flight Instructor path. Once you successfully navigate this course, you can look forward to a magnificent career where you get paid to do what you love - fly!
Terry Sullivan is an Instrument rated helicopter pilot and avid aviator. For more for more information on starting your career as a commercial helicopter pilot, please visit

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