You don’t graduate with a CPL(H) and immediately start piloting crucial search and rescue missions. We discuss helicopter careers and what it takes to get to the top.
You can guarantee the more desirable the job, the more competition there will be for the position – with pilots queueing up to fill the role. The beauty of flying helicopters is that the possibilities continue to open up for the hard working with plenty of opportunities to learn new skills and progress throughout your whole career.
At the most competitive end are the exhilarating high-paced jobs, e.g., Emergency Medical Services (EMS), firefighting and offshore oil support, which everyone wants but there’s a long journey with lots of fun and necessary steps along the way. Think of it like climbing a ladder, you don’t want to miss out any rungs along the way. So if you’re wanting a career that will continue to challenge you and where the sky is literally the limit – read on to find out what industries and jobs you can expect to land as you progress through your career as a helicopter pilot.
Where do I start? Qualifications
Becoming a helicopter pilot requires a lot of hard work, and quite a bit of money (about the same as a UK undergraduate degree). Even then there’s no guarantee a newly graduated helicopter pilot will be able to walk into a desirable job straight away.
Every pilot starts by getting their professional pilot’s certificates and ratings from a flight training school. The most popular progression to work commercially as a pilot is called the modular route. The more traditional route, this entails first obtaining your PPL(H), Private Pilot’s Licence (Helicopter) followed by the CPL(H), or Commercial Pilot’s Licence (Helicopter). You must also have logged over 155 hours of flight time. You can read more about obtaining Licences here.
What Next? Additional Skills
By the time you’ve obtained both these licences, you will have gained around 200 hours of flight time, which is well short of the 1’500 hours flight time most insurance companies require you to have. So, how can you earn these extra hours?
Since you have to gain additional hours any way you may as well learn career-specific skills that will reward you later and you will enjoy mastering. You can take extra courses, learn skills and become flight rated in specific helicopters. You gain the experience and hours you need whilst becoming a more versatile and adaptable pilot companies want to employ.
Examples of extra skills courses:
Instrument Rating – This is the most relevant and will be an invaluable tool throughout your career
Instrument Instructor’s Certificate – If you want to go ‘all the way’ and get to some of the top tier jobs we talk about later you will want to earn your Instrument Instructor’s Certificate (CF11) after you get your CFI which will take you farther.
Basic Firefighting – Can include carrying water buckets, lifting heavy equipment
Confined Areas – Learn how to get in/out of increasingly challenging landing areas
Night Rating – Longer advanced add-on course for night flying
City Flight – Communicating with ATC and safely navigating the airways of a busy city.
You will want to get your first job fairly quickly so that you can begin accruing flight time and paying off any student debt; the huge sense of pride you will feel knowing how much effort you put in to realise your dream of becoming a professional helicopter pilot will be all the more rewarding.
A popular first job with new commercial helicopter pilots is to become a Flight Instructor with a helicopter training school. At Hummingbird Helicopters, we train all our students in the Robinson R22 Helicopter, as you must have at least 50 hours in this helicopter before you can become an instructor due to the SFAR 73 regulation.
Recently graduated helicopter pilots regularly get hired as Flight Instructors. Being a Flight Instructor is extremely rewarding and continues to challenge your aeronautical knowledge and piloting skills. You continue to build on your hours of flight time that will lead to the next step in your career.
Tier 1 – Entry Level
A good early job for a helicopter pilot is to fly with a tour operator. Britain is full of World Heritage Landmarks, beauty spots and cities which attract millions of tourists every year. You could even look further afield and fly tours at one of the Seven Wonders of the World. You’ll continue to improve your skills while flying a consistent predetermined route which may eventually become monotonous but you’ll have daily reminders that you have ‘the best job in the world’ to keep you grounded and the knowledge that you’re working towards your ultimate goal.
Being a Flight Instructor where you are rewarded by seeing the excitement and progress with trainee helicopter pilots, a tour helicopter pilot similarly gets to help people tick major once-in-a-lifetime wishes off their bucket lists. You’ll be familiar with the route and gaining lots of comfortable flight time, leaving you to enjoy meeting and interacting with a variety of people who are extremely grateful and interested in the work you do.
Not only that but to support a full-time helicopter pilot you will most likely be operating out of a stunning location and have the best view of any day job short of being on board the International Space Station.
Primary responsibilities of a tour flight pilot may include:
Pre-flight check, Fuel checks, seating passengers according to the manifest according to height/weight balance, flying safely, narrating an engaging and informative tour, building a rapport with passengers, unloading passengers, serving guests with food/drink, taking photos, giving information, refuelling, clean aircraft interior, adjust seat belts, clean windows, disinfect headsets, restock aircraft with food/drink.
Tier 2 – Advanced Pilot
Once you have gained thousands of flight time hours you will be able to enter industries that require pilots with the ability and experience to adapt to changing conditions in challenging environments.
Flying as an offshore support pilot, for example, is challenging due to the weather conditions at sea and landing and taking off from vessels. Flying the Central and Northern Sea is the demanding long-haul equivalent for helicopter pilots, demanding the best pilots.
Examples of some advanced helicopter careers include:
News Helicopter Pilot
HEMS Helicopter Emergency Medical Service
The typical duties for an offshore helicopter pilot include:
- Checks weather conditions and airspace restrictions along the route
- Flies flight plans, works our fuel requirements and maximum loads
- Check the helicopter’s equipment and instruments
- Carries out safety checks and gains clearance from air traffic control to take off
- Uses a range of instruments to navigate, control, height and speed, and communicate with air traffic controllers
- Completes post-flight paperwork, including a duty hours log, before preparing for the next flight
Top Tier – Pinnacle Industry Pilot
These are the most competitive jobs in the industry and therefore the most in-demand. All of your experience and knowledge will count as well as how varied your career has been. Some of these industries, e.g., heavy lifting, may require upwards of 5000 hours of flight time and 3’000 hours job specific long-line flight time as well as many other ratings and skills. If you make it this far you will have proven that you have something special that sets you apart. Demonstrating that your networking skills and ability to lead to positive outcomes for your employers and the people you work with that have lead to your authentic career growth.
SAR – Search and Rescue
SAR missions typically involve locating and delivering to a place of safety persons in distress before recovering to base.
Search and Rescue is notoriously difficult to get into and having military experience can help but it’s not essential. And as a military pilot, your flight career is secondary to your duties as a military officer, with all the attending duties and you may be promoted to a desk job which limits your ability to gain the flight time necessary to get a commercial role later.
Drones are set to be used more heavily in the future for SAR missions which may affect the number of positions available increasing competition further. By niching down and knowing which branch of Search and Rescue you would like to specialise in you can increase your chances of success. For further information check out this National Approval Guideline for SAR by the CAA: https://publicapps.caa.co.uk/docs/33/CAP999_UK_helicoper_SAR.pdf
- Meteorological training concentrating on understanding and interpreting weather data
- Familiarity with medical equipment in preparation for departure
- Understanding of potential complications of air transport on survivors
- Night rating, take-off/landing in tight spaces, terrain-specific training
- Transporting equipment, winching
- Poor weather recovery techniques
Law Enforcement – Police Pilot
It takes a great deal of training and professional achievement to become a viable candidate for the role of Police Pilot. You may need law enforcement experience in addition to your flight time and experience in order to effectively compete for the job. The centralised National Police Air Service (NPAS) covers most of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Police services commonly use aircraft for a variety of support tasks including:
- Ground support
- Air traffic control
- High-speed car chases
- Air Patrol
- Public events/incidents control
Heavy Lift Operations
Helicopters are used to transport big loads when other means of transportation are more expensive, not available or inaccessible. Loads are connected to the heavy-lift helicopter via long cables or slings. These types of helicopters are used routinely in large construction projects in remote areas, in the logging industry, lifting HVAC systems onto tall buildings.
On the large scale, the Mil Mi-26 helicopter is the largest in the world, about the same size as a Boeing and capable of lifting and transporting one. Often called Long-line pilots heavy-lifters have to master looking down at the ground directly below the aircraft – a vertical reference, as their frame of reference instead of the horizon. And it takes a lot of skill to counteract a swing in the cargo.
Other Top Tier jobs include:
- Helicopter Manufacturer Test Pilot
- VIP and corporate clients
Throughout the career of a helicopter pilot, you are taken into different industries all over the world. We’ve seen the types of careers available to fully trained helicopter pilots including offshore support, fire fighting, law enforcement, logging, test piloting, search and rescue, emergency medical services, and more. I can be a very satisfying career path that remains constantly challenging and rewarding.
Hummingbird Helicopters is owned by an ex-North sea and Air Ambulance Pilot with nearly 20 years commercial flying and training experience worldwide who has been through it all and come out on the other side with his love for the job stronger than it ever has been.
If you have any questions about the career of a Helicopter Pilot let us know in the comments below or let us know what jobs mentioned appeal to you?