Helicopter Flight Training
What does it take to become a Helicopter Pilot? Is a career change possible?
An uncontrollable fascination with helicopters leads some of us to seek helicopter flight training at nearly any cost. Except for a fortunate few, many don't get the chance at such a monumental event until later life when they begin to question whether or not there is a possibility of really becoming a career helicopter pilot. Are we to old? Where do we go to do it, etc. There is just something so cool about helicopters!
What does it take to become a helicopter pilot? The cost will be high, and the personal sacrifice will be significant. If you are a family person, i.e. married and perhaps with children, your family must be committed and supporting since their sacrifice for you will also be high. The reward will be significant for you and your family once you achieve your goal because you will have the option of a job where you will spend every other week at home with your family. That is half the year off! Now realize that it is not quite as good as it sounds since even with every other week off, you will still average 42 hours per work week, it is just in 12 hour shifts. There are not many jobs like that out there! There will be much information on these sites which will benefit you tremendously if you take the time to read it. The links at the top of this page will take you to other important sites of interest or short-cut you to the indicated information. Some of these sites are very in-depth so you should take the time to navigate and read them thoroughly. Why is a Professional/Career program financed by Sallie Mae or the equivalent so risky for a student? Answer Here!
What will Helicopter Flight Training cost? All you have, and all you will ever make. Not really, but it will be expensive and it will take sacrifice on your part. 1: The lump-sum commercial-pilot-package; you can accomplish your training from 0-time to a paid flight instructor in about 6-months at an average cost of $65-71,000 give or take depending upon the school you choose (during resent research, I found only one flight school significantly higher*). There are many alternatives and financing is available. 2: The pay-as-you-go method; this is the way I did my training combined with 3. I flew every Wednesday and Sunday for an average of 2-hours. It was the only way I could afford to do it and it worked. It took me longer than the lump-sum method, but I still achieved my goal from 0-time to CFI, start to finish, in 11-months. 3: The combined helicopter/airplane rating method; many of us helicopter nuts don't really care much about flying airplanes, I know I didn't, but my instructor talked me into it and I am so glad he did. Flying an airplane is easy for a helicopter pilot, so why not? It can shave $20,000 off your total training costs if you do it right.
* During my resent research of flight school programs and costs, I only found one school which was out of the normal range, and it was way out! All other schools were relatively close in pricing. The one issue that I continue to have with flight schools is the training duration, not the cost of the packages. No ambitious student should take a year or more to complete the ratings even for a career/professional pilot course. A serious student should be able to complete this same program in six months. Now on the other hand, no flight school should be expected or required to hold in account for an extended period, the funds of a lazy student who doesn't study, the cost of operating a flight school does not decrease because a lazy student doesn't want to fly/study. Therefore debiting an account for a fixed amount on a regular basis is justified. I have known many just such students who didn't want to study, and thought they could cram the few days before a test and pass it. Most fail, and prove nothing more than the fact that they don't deserve the rating that they didn't get.
Let me take a minute to make clear my stand on Flight Schools and Students. I started free online information and advice more ten years ago due to the mass rip-offs that I witnessed at some flight schools. I want to make it clear that there are many good flight schools out there, both part 61 and part 141 operated by good people who try to do the right thing. It can be very hard sorting them out. On students; I probably don't say enough about the students who don't take training serious which probably numbers two-to-one.
What is an 'Approved' flight school and what does it mean to the student? There are two types of flight schools in the US which are commonly known as FAA conducted under FAR Part 61 and/or Part 141 schools. There is also another worth mentioning (however less known in the US), those conducted under JAR. There are also numerous other variations of these schools or the related certificates issued around the world; it really just depends upon where you will be flying. We don't really give a hoot how they do it in the other parts of the world since we are talking about training in the US here which is where the majority of aviation training occurs.
Many schools offer a career/professional package these days, and it is a good plan except for the financing. The cost averages $65-71,000 and you are expected to pay it entirety up front turning control of your hard earned money to the flight school. Although from a flight school standpoint, I can understand their desire to control your money and destiny, I personally wouldn't even consider entrusting that much money to someone I don't know. Here is why, there are three reasons the flight school wants you to turn in excess of $65,000 over to them:
One: They have just secured their financial future for at least the next 90-days, after that, you are on your own, and you had better finish within the time period specified or before they go bankrupt which ever might occur first. There are many well managed flight schools, BUT many large part 141 flight schools operate in arrears, that is, your money is spent long before you ever finish. Sure, on an accounting system they can show that you have a credit to your account, but the money is no longer really in the bank. In other words, they need the next students money so they can finish you. It is an ugly fact, but that is the way it is. That is why when they file bankruptcy as many have, you lose your money; it was spent long ago.
Two: They have made certain that you are going nowhere else since they have your money, and you are not getting it back, period!
Three: Theoretically speaking, they can make better schedule planning since you have just committed a significant period of your life to them. Why theoretically? Because once a school has attained such a status (Part 141) that large finance companies like Sallie Mae will pay them, their only real concern is how to get the next student to make the same commitment you just made. Before you know it, there are more students than the school can really handle efficiently, and you are placed on the back burner watching other people fly. You have just become a number, and a pain in the ass. Now, you will have to fight to get your $65,000 worth, and it won't likely be on your time.
Now buying block time is a whole different story, you can and should purchase block time. The difference is that it is a whole lot easier for you to control your future and minimize your potential exposure to loses if you only turn over 5 or 10 thousand dollars at a time to any given flight school. It keeps your options open, and in my opinion, it is reasonable, and you are safe.
Another thing that really gets under my skin is lines of bullshit by flight instructors. I recently hired a flight instructor who had been trained at a large West Coast school (which I think is a pretty good school). While eaves dropping on his conversation with his first student, I overheard him say, "My instructor, a 40,000 plus hour pilot...", and he went into a line with my student. The problem with that is anyone with half a brain knows he began his sentence with bullshit, therefore nothing can be believed from that point forward. I am sorry, but I don't know any 40,000 plus hour pilots, and I seriously doubt any have ever lived. Think about it, it is really hard for ANY pilot to average more than 500 hours a year for any extended period of time, and few will average that. That makes it simple math, the thousand hours times two equals the years it would have taken to accumulate any number of hours. In this case, eighty (80) years, yeah right! Here's the real kicker, I have had a few people pissed off when I pointed this out; here was their argument: Well, in logging and other part 91 ops, there isn't any limit on the number of hours you can fly. Well that is true, BUT, I have worked in the logging industry, and agriculture, and many other operations, I have still never averaged over 500 hours per year in my career, and I have been an aggressive aviator often working a full-time job while part-timing another, and who has never taken a hiatus from aviation. I have also never seen anyone who claimed such hours possessing any means of backing up the BS. So you see, it is easy; if the person telling you such BS is say 40 years old, that means that they would have had to log 1,000 hours per year since birth. Yeah right!!!
A Part 61 flight school is one by which training is conducted under and in accordance with part 61 of the Federal Aviation Regulations also and hereinafter known as FAR. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a part 61 flight school, in fact, any part 61 flight school can utilize the same training curriculum that a part 141 school uses, and many do. A part 61 school is that under which almost all single aircraft training is conducted and encompasses the majority of small schools with multiple aircraft.
A Part 141 flight school is one conducted under and in accordance with FAR part 141. This is a program where the school operators have demonstrated a certain training program format which has been inspected and approved by the FAA. Training at a part 141 school may be conducted either under part 61 or part 141 however the school must complete a percentage of its students under part 141 with a specified pass rate. Due to the approval process, part 141 schools are approved to shorten their programs as compared to part 61 programs, and many schools use this shortened program as their selling point. An example is, a private pilot rating under part 61 requires 40-hours where under part 141 the same rating only requires 35-hours. Ultimately, this don't mean squat for several reasons. 1: The average student will need 50-55 hours or more to complete the rating regardless of the part trained under. 2: No instructor in his/her right mind would sign-off a student for a helicopter check-ride with 40-hours much less with just 35. 3: No examiner in his right mind is going to sign-off on a pilot with only 35-hours. Most won't sign-off on a student with less than 50-hours. I don't care what kind of lie the school is telling you to get your money. There is absolutely no assurance that you have any protection from rip-offs, or that they are any more likely to occur under a part 141 school verses a part 61 school.
The next paragraph (below) which is full of falsehoods, was clipped from the web site of one of the largest flight schools in the United States, and it is foreign owned for what that is worth. This statement is evidence that they feel threatened by the existence of flight schools that operate under Part 61. In fact, of the seven sentences contained within, only one is not false, it is the first sentence. The false statements are: Sentence two; '...less stringent rules of Part 61'. This is false because the rules are not less stringent; actually you have to have more flight hours per rating. As a student, you have to meet exactly the same knowledge and flight skills as anyone attending a 'Part 141 school'. Sentence Three; 'In the eyes of the FAA...' This statement is false because in the eyes of the FAA, and any other business organization, any given business is exactly what it states it is, nothing more, and nothing less. Therefore if a business conducts itself as a flight school regardless of whether or not it is under Part 61, that is exactly what it is in the eyes of anyone and any agency including the FAA. Sentence four; 'The school is not subject to any minimum standards and is not normally inspected by the FAA.' This sentence is false because, again, the knowledge and flight standards are exactly the same whether attained under Part 61 or Part 141. The FAA and any of its inspectors are authorized to appear and inspect without prior notice anytime they so desire. Sentence five; this sentence is false by the implication that if a school is Part 141, it should be assumed that it is of 'high standard' quite false since at any school, the quality of training has absolutely nothing to do with 'school status', but rather the quality and attitude of the instructors involved. Further, all, not some, but all of the major flight school rip-offs of students has been by Part 141 schools. If you listen to the joking, poor communications etc. that goes on over the radio, it is those instructors and students attending the big Part 141 schools nearly every time. Sentence Six; another falsehood by omission; every flight school should be researched, if students had done so under the attendance of Part 141 schools who ripped off many hundreds of students, money and futures could have been spared. Finally, sentence seven; this is really nothing more than a low blow at Part 61 operators. Maintenance and bookkeeping is no less required regardless of what Part operated under, however the facts are that under Part 61, the FAA is not directly involved.
Not all flight schools are Part 141 approved. Some companies describe their activities as a flight school, but they operate under the less stringent rules of Part 61 of the FARs. In the eyes of the FAA a “Part 61 school” is not a school at all, but rather a commercial company that provides training under the authority of the individual flight instructor’s qualification. The school is not subject to any minimum standards and is not normally inspected by the FAA. If a school is operating under Part 61 it should not be automatically assumed that it is of a low standard. However, any company that is providing flight training in significant volume under Part 61 should be researched carefully. It could be that the school has reasons it wishes to avoid close scrutiny by the FAA.
JAR is the European Joint Aviation Regulations. For students who will eventually fly commercially in Europe, it will be necessary to convert or change to JAR/JAA at some point. The JAA is a consortium of European countries and is a quite uppity organization which ultimately would like to restrict aviation world-wide if it had its way. There is a less restrictive European counterpart known as the CAA and also known as the same in other parts of the world. The basis of difference between the FAA/FAR under US law and the JAA/JAR/CAA under European law is ultimately that the US and consequently the FAR is based on freedom in the air where European law and consequently the JAR/JAA/CAA is based on order in the air. Freedom is a key word here, once you give it up, you never get it back. There is no place on earth where you will enjoy the freedom as we know it here in the US and little by little, it is being chiseled away. Enough said on the JAA/JAR, for those who will need to convert, there are web sites/pages etc., for that purpose.
Avoiding the Rip-Offs - This will be your greatest challenge. There are countless flight schools out there which will tell you any lie they can think of to get your money. It is my personal agenda to make every potential student aware of these lies and deceitful methods and to give those students the information they need to make an educated decision on the flight school they will choose. Keep in mind that there are a few schools who are honest, and will make every effort to meet their commitment to you. I do not know every one of those, nor will I attempt to learn them since that would be a monumental task and unrealistic. Although some of the following phrases and selling techniques may be used by honest schools, they are the most common lines used by the schools running scams to get your money.
Beware of bogus program scams common at flight schools: Training and 'certification' are two entirely different things. Mountain Certification, Turbine Certification, External Load Certification, Agriculture Certification, etc. There is no such thing as certification in these and many other programs with regard to flight training. Some schools may point you to FAR 133, or 137 etc, in an effort to sell you the program, but it is bogus. Those FAR parts are applicable to the operators certificate, not the pilot. All operators are responsible for, and are required to train their own personnel including pilots. Receiving training in these types of operations is a personal decision and can be money well spent, but there is no pilot certification, and training is not required in these operations for any level pilot certificate. There are only two levels of compensable pilot certificates, Commercial and ATP. Understand that I did not say that one should not train in the above mentioned programs, it can be advantageous, but there are not pilot certifications for them.
Large schools are better - NOT - I can not tell you how many times I had students from large schools transfer to my smaller school because they just could not get any flight time where they were because there were so many students. This can also be true at smaller schools if the student/aircraft/instructor ratio is to high. If you want to know what will get you through, it is the number of students enrolled at a given time relative to the number of helicopters operated as well as the instructor/student ratio. A single aircraft can only bear a relative number of students, it is just common sense. It is common to get more one-on-one instruction at a smaller part 61 school operating as little as a single aircraft. The sole advantage to a large school is that they often have more financing options than a small school. Quite frankly, I can not think of a single reason that would make me go to a large school where I am merely an account number where more time is devoted to monitoring my balance rather than ensuring my timely progress.
Beware of small schools - NOT - If choosing a flight school was easy I would not be writing this page. As I have said before, the size or type of school has little to do with the quality of what you will receive. There are just as many good quality small schools as there are good quality large schools probably more. The difficulty will be finding a school which truly has your goals in mind and who will see that their obligation to you is fulfilled. This brings us to the topic of a Flight Training Contract. I offered a contract to all my students which clearly stated the obligations of both parties. If you want to be sure of what you will receive, ask for one at the school which you wish to train, and read the fine print, every single word. If a school guarantees employment, get it in writing. After all, you are about to turn over a very large sum of money.
Part 141 is better - NOT - The quality and what you receive comes down to only three things, and none of these has squat to do with the type of school. Number one: Your commitment to your training and studies which is the single most important factor. Although there is nothing wrong with questions (I always appreciated students who thought enough to ask questions), you must spend the majority of your waking moments when you are not in a class studying on your own. You should not need someone to hold your hand every step of the way. If you do, you need to get out of your diaper and off your mama's teat. Now is the time to grow up. Number two: Your instructor has the single most important influence on the outcome of your training second only to your attitude and your commitment to achieve your goal. Just showing up for your scheduled flight is not enough. You owe your instructor and the school your undivided attention and commitment enough to show up early enough to have the pre-flight completed and any questions addressed prior to your scheduled flight time. If you don't give that, then you deserve what comes your way. If you were a student of mine, your flight time would decrease according to your tardiness. This is necessary to keep other more committed students on their schedule. Number three: The schools commitment to you will be a major influence on the outcome of your training. Your instructor has no control over this and should not be held accountable for those things which he/she can not control. It is to the schools advantage for you to complete your courses as soon as possible without rushing you through. This is to your advantage also since you will not suffer from disuse or the lack of recency which inhibits training progress for those who don't fly as regular as could be.
Assurance of Employment as an instructor - Assurance of employment is one of the biggest scams in flight training. Be realistic, can anyone predict that you will be able to fly worth a crap, or that you will have the attitude they require in an instructor, or that there will even be a position open when you complete your training? NO. This is a common selling point for many schools. Quite frankly, I know many, many instructors who are seeking employment after such promises. You must keep in mind that there are only so many instructor jobs and although they will open up, and you will be employed if you have a good attitude, it could take a little time. If you have a bad attitude you might as well tuck your tail between your legs and go home. Don't buy into guaranteed placement promises unless you have talked to others who have accomplished this at the school where you will train. An interesting fact here is that if you should desire employment at the school where you will train, your interview process for the job begins when you start your training and continues endlessly until you have completed your training. That is a long interview isn't it; but that is the way it is, and only the best deserve the job.
Assurance of Employment elsewhere - A continuation of the above paragraph. Be well aware that operators will not hire a pilot based solely on a schools recommendation however they may give them a preferred review depending upon the rapport between the school and operator. Ultimately the operator will hire the best candidate for the job regardless of where he/she trained. An operator is not going to put just anyone in a valuable helicopter just because Joe Blow said they should. Another issue of importance here is the fact that some schools may insinuate or blatantly tell you that certain helicopter types are either not real helicopters, or that time in them is not respected in the professional community, those are bold faced lies.
Helicopter pilots make $100,000 per year and more! LIE LIE LIE! This is a lie told by primarily one school that I am aware of, and which I will not mention here. Be wary of lies like this. If a school will tell one lie, they will tell a dozen. After you become a flight instructor and for the two years or so that you will need to spend actively instructing, expect to make $20,000 per year or maybe a little less and possibly a little more. You may make more as your skill increases. When you are qualified to fly off-shore or perhaps an SIC job, you can expect from $35,000 to $45,000. After you have a little more experience and have accomplished a variety of jobs, you can expect a salary in the 50's. You should expect to top out after a good number of years with a reputable company somewhere between 60 and 80 thousand unless you happen to land one of the very few but real sweet jobs.
How long should training really take? There are three major factors of equal weight which will determine how long your training will take. 1: YOU. If you think you are going to flight training in combination with a vacation, there is a problem since you will not be focusing on training as you should be. If you show up when you are scheduled to fly rather than an hour earlier to prepare, that is a problem since your flight time will now be shortened to avoid pushing back the next perhaps more devoted student. If you don't study in your free time, that is a problem since you are not a child and should not need someone to hold your hand every minute. 2: Your Instructor. The quality of training you receive from your instructor will be greatly dependant upon these several factors. Your instructors depth of knowledge and consequently his/her ability to pass this on to you. The ability of your instructor to recognize where you are having difficulty and his/her creativity to come up with a method which will help you learn. Your instructors devotion to your success. Your instructors seriousness i.e., does he/she take flying serious? There are countless instructors out there just building time who don't have any valuable skill, nor the desire, nor the ability to pass any quality training on to another person. 3: The School. This will ultimately come down to the schools commitment to you as well as the student/instructor/aircraft ratio, combined with the ability of the school to ensure that maintenance is completed in a timely manner. Quite frankly, a vast majority of schools only care about your progress as long as it does not inhibit another student beginning i.e., you go to the back burner when another student starts.
Rating/Training Duration: A Private Pilot Helicopter Rating should take 4-5 weeks. This is completely contingent on the factors in the above paragraph. I never had a serious full-time student I could not complete in this time frame. This could be accomplished in 4-weeks if there were no other students competing for the aircraft which would permit training uninterrupted by maintenance; an unlikely event. A Commercial Helicopter Pilot Rating with no previous pilot certificates should take less than, 3-months regardless of the type program. A serious student going from zero time to the career/professional pilot program should be able to complete in 4-6 months. Anything more, and someone is doing something wrong!
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