Helicopter pilots use their sharp vision and technical expertise to safely transport people or cargo from one location to another. In the past, most helicopter pilots received their training in military flight schools, but intense competition for these training opportunities has contributed to the popularity of civilian flight schools. No matter where you get your training, you need to meet strict regulatory requirements regarding your health, knowledge and experience to start flying professionally.
Excellent eyesight -- the equivalent of 20/20 vision with corrective lenses -- is essential for helicopter pilots. You must be able to accurately judge distances, see both near and far objects, and use your peripheral vision to take off, land, and navigate the airways safely. You need multitasking skills and attention to detail to monitor your helicopter's instrumentation while controlling the helicopter, responding to communications and scanning the horizon for potential obstacles. You need communication and teamwork skills to effectively relay and interpret information from your flight crew, passengers, air traffic controllers, and ground crew. Helicopter pilots must react quickly to unforeseen obstacles and have the problem-solving skills to overcome those obstacles.
All helicopter pilots must plan their flights prior to takeoff using specialized charts and navigation equipment. Pilots must ensure that their flight plans, cargo, passengers, crew or equipment does not violate any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Helicopter pilots must perform safety checks prior to takeoff. This includes ensuring that communication systems and equipment are operational, the helicopter has enough fuel to complete the flight plan, and all objects on the helicopter are secured. Once in the air, pilots are responsible for working with their flight and ground crew to control the helicopter and monitoring their instrumentation and communications equipment for potential issues. Helicopter pilots have some clerical duties, such as keeping records of flight information.
Your exact duties as a helicopter pilot vary greatly depending on the type of work you are hired to perform. Many pilots start out as flight instructors. In this job, you teach the basic skills required to become a helicopter pilot in tightly controlled environments. If you work for a tourism company, you take travelers on helicopter rides through scenic locations. Pilots for emergency medical services companies transport patients in urgent need of medical care to hospitals. If you become an agricultural helicopter pilot, you might disperse pesticides or other chemicals on crops. Other helicopter pilots might transport heavy cargo to offshore or remote locations, help fight forest fires or transport corporate executives.
Landing a Helicopter Job
You need two or more helicopter ratings -- licenses that allow you to perform different tasks -- to work as a helicopter pilot. First, you earn a private helicopter pilot certificate. This certificate allows you to fly but not as a commercial pilot. You must pass the FAA written knowledge test, gain 40 hours of flight experience, meet medical requirements, and pass the FAA oral and practical test to earn this certificate. The commercial helicopter pilot certificate enables you to work as a commercial pilot. This certificate requires you to have a total of 150 hours of flight experience. You may also want to pursue the certified flight instructor rating so that you can gain experience working as an instructor. To land a job, you need approximately 175 to 200 hours of flight experience, though the higher paying jobs require at least 500 hours of experience.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Airline and Commercial Pilots
- O*Net: Commercial Helicopter Pilots
- Avjobs.com: Helicopter Pilot Career Overview
- Midwest Helicopter: Becoming a Professional Helicopter Pilot
- The Guardian: How Do I Become... A Helicopter Pilot
- U.S. Forest Service: Air Operations Safety Go/No Go Checklist
- Liberty University: FAA Requirements and Costs for Helicopter Ratings
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