Safety & Training
Getting That First Helicopter Pilot Job
By Ken Armstrong
Some of you will not have started your training yet and others will
have already finished.
By Ken Armstrong
It’s no secret that getting your foot in the cockpit door can be
challenging, due to the 500 hours of experience most insurance
companies demand to provide coverage. It’s also valid that few senior
chief pilots will take the time to tell you what you need to do to get
ahead – they are generally too busy to chat. This article will cover
of you will not have started your training yet and others will have
already finished. So I have written these guidelines broadly enough to
address everyone’s needs. Make no mistake; if you follow these
guidelines you definitely will be planted in a helicopter ahead of your
My first tip is to excel at your training. I can’t
stress this enough. The student pilot who eclipses his classmates and
tops the course will likely get the first job. For that matter your
training company may very well hire you, as employers aren’t looking
for so-so pilots when they can hire the best. In an industry where 50
students graduate in a year looking to fill the 10 jobs that open, only
the best will succeed. So work hard now to reap rewards later.
attitude and how you present yourself are also crucial. Time and time
again I have watched companies hire the graduates with pleasing
personalities – the quiet, hard workers who are considerate of others
and aim to please. These attributes not only work well in the training
environment, but also with customers after graduation. The industry no
longer has room for the cocky, macho, anti-authoritarian aviator.
Neither Transport Canada nor insurance companies tolerate these
risk-takers, so companies are forced to avoid them. Besides, the
$50,000 deductible after an accident makes this type of pilot a bad
Graduates who have additional skills beyond piloting
are able to fit into slots that others may not qualify to fill. These
skills may include sales experience, mechanical training, instructional
background, writing/communications skills, and proficiency in
languages. These are but a few of the special skills that come to mind.
I once saw a new graduate hired because he had forestry experience and
was based in a major logging area. Mind you, it helped that he was well
liked in the region and respected for his knowledge.
to finding a job is needed for those who aren’t immediately hired on
graduation day. It often takes a year or more to be permanently placed
behind the controls. In the meantime, you must continue to actively
search for a suitable job, update and circulate your resumé and
preferably visit the offices of potential employers. You may think of
this as hounding the companies; however, chief pilots are impressed
with dedication and while your resumé may be getting mouldy in the back
of a file cabinet, your presence might allow the boss to fill an
immediate opening. It happens frequently. While a circuitous trip into
Canada’s north may seem costly and time consuming, the applicant who
makes the effort is often rewarded. Those who sit in the comfort of
their southern city homes sending out a stale resumé are seldom
rewarded with those all-important first opportunities.
visiting a prospective employer, you might invest in an hour of
proficiency flying to add time and a degree of currency to your resumé.
It is also an opportunity to show your potential boss how well you fly.
This might also be a good time to obtain a turbine endorsement or
perhaps log a new type – always a good move for career experience.
can come “out of the blue,” so be prepared. This means reading for
review and even expanding your knowledge so you are prepared for a
company review/training flight and subsequent PPC. Pilots wishing to
fly professionally need to know such diverse topics as: dangerous
goods, surface contamination data, company operations and maintenance
procedures and of course the AIP, VFR Flight Supplement for starters.
Being unprepared for the ‘schoolwork’ portion of testing will cast a
long shadow on your flying skills.
You might anticipate that the
first job offer from a helicopter company may not be a pilot position.
The offer may be a junior position as a ‘swamper’ or ‘go-fer’ or other
apparently ignominious job; however, this could be seen as a foot in
the door. One caution is warranted. Some companies will abuse hopefuls
with low pay, poor work conditions and promises of flying time, which
do not come to fruition. In effect, they may trap you into ‘slave
labour’. It wouldn’t hurt to get their pledge in writing.
company that may hire you is in the business of making money. Anything
you can do to promote the company and increase its efficiency will
place you in a good light and more likely result in a cockpit seat –
If you are sidelined in the first hiring round, you may
need to invest additional money in recurrency training while you search
for an opening. This will be seen in a positive light by potential
employers. Similarly, adding endorsements or skills such as slinging,
bucketing, long-lining, drip torch and perhaps even a dunking course,
shows that you are keen and prepared to learn. Also, you are enhancing
your skills beyond your job-seeking peers, improving your likelihood of
Another avenue of opportunity for increasing flight
time and expertise is to enter the honourable profession known as
instructing. While it does require adequate flight time and an
instructing course, this will allow you to quickly build flight time
and proficiency while being paid. Another area worthy of consideration
is working with the engineering staff as an apprentice to gain valuable
technical knowledge. Go far enough with this pursuit and you could end
up a qualified engineer. Those with both the pilot and engineer
endorsements can rest assured they will be hired – and well paid.
time on the shop floor watching the maintenance and overhaul staff and
their procedures provides powerful insights into the workings of
helicopter components and the challenges facing the other half of the
helicopter team. Not only will you become a better troubleshooter and
more knowledgeable for upcoming emergencies, but you will also bond
better with engineering staff – very important in the long term.
is another bond that can enhance or hinder your career. The
relationship with your lifetime partner is of paramount importance to
your success. If you are tied to a needy individual, a young family, an
insecure individual or a combination of these, your future may be
precarious. Helicopter work is often far from home with lengthy periods
in the ‘bush.’ Without support and encouragement from your partner,
your potential will be doomed. Do not underestimate the importance of
choosing the ‘right’ partner as any emotional discontent can not only
threaten your relationship, but also your job and your life!
method for gaining flight time is to obtain employment as a copilot on
mediumor heav- lift applications and potentially on IFR operations.
These operations include helilogging, powerline construction, IFR
flights, offshore operations and helicopter ambulance service – to name
a few. While you may not always be logging pilot-in-command time, the
experience is invaluable and it’s only a matter of applying oneself
before you are sitting in the captain’s seat.
Last but not
least, you must be patient. Although there is a strong demand for
highly experienced chopper pilots, the difficulties for rotary-wing
neophytes in gaining employment often appear insurmountable. The
industry is growing – as are the pay scales. The job is often
enthralling and on hundreds of occasions I have marveled that I am paid
for doing something that is so fulfilling. If you accomplish your ‘due
diligence’ and follow these guidelines, you will be rewarded in time.
Then you will be thankful that you persisted toward your goal.