Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Pilot Pay Packages

July 7, 2010  By Ken Armstrong

Pilots and engineering staff are drastically underpaid – especially when one considers the risks, challenges, time away from family and working conditions you must endure.

Pilots and engineering staff are drastically underpaid – especially when one considers the risks, challenges, time away from family and working conditions you must endure. It’s a common refrain I’ve heard on countless occasions, but after researching a recent pay comparison of various professions and positions, I’d have to disagree. In fact, I would argue pilots and engineering staff are actually doing quite well when you consider the overall package of benefits most of you have – some monetary, others life-style related.

There are many reasons why you should feel good about this profession and how rewarding a career it can be. Ever save a life? How gratifying is it to know you’ve plucked people from the abyss of death and greatly extended their duration on the planet? Think of how happy you have made their families and the resulting esteem you have received for these “daring” rescues. (Daring in the eyes of the public, but perhaps commonplace ops for helicopter crews.)

How about the charcoal-blackened smiles on the upturned fire suppression crews when you deliver their supplies or drop an effective load of retardant that quells the inferno and allows the troops to “turn the tide?” How many times have you been told by customers that without your efforts they could never have accomplished their goals? You should also appreciate the occasional praise of the engineering staff when they thank you for the way you treat the machine or reward you with a beer (or perhaps two) when you help them repair a snag. This camaraderie between professional crew members is another non-monetary reward that comes with the trade. Your passengers, from VIPs to “rig pigs” provide projects that are further bonuses when your skills and helicopter enable them to complete their tasks.

For me, there was never a summer season that passed when I didn’t think, “Wow, I get paid for this? – I’d do it for free.” It was so satisfying to feel the power when grasping a heavy load out of a confined area and placing two pieces of equipment together accurately so the bolts slid through effortlessly, or watching a fire-ravaged candling tree quenched by a bucket load, leaving only a puff of steam.


I know weeks in a remote camp or motel every evening away from loved ones can be dreary, but have you ever worked in an office 40 hours a week? How many family men look forward to a night with the boys, a camping/fishing trip, and barbecuing steaks beside the lake? Helicopter staff can count on a hundred evenings of these activities during the summer. Occasionally, these “holidays” can include a snoring roommate, perhaps a few insects and maybe some smoke inhalation – from the campfire or forest fire. But these are small prices to pay for the gratification of flying.

One of the costs associated with this profession is divorce. Living in remote areas away from home for lengthy periods of time can place significant strain on a marriage – and some fail. Readers who contact me considering a career in this industry are always asked if they have a girlfriend or mate who would be adversely affected by working schedules that involve long periods away from home. If this is the case, I suggest looking elsewhere for a profession. Nobody wants AIDs (Aviation Induced Divorce) and therefore one should choose their vocation, and mate, carefully. For others, this lifestyle can be a blessing. My wife and I often wintered in the south after summers of primarily flying five-month contracts. Our friends felt my profession was enviable and dreamed about living our lifestyle.

Monetary Reality
Another consideration is monetary compensation. Some helicopter pilots struggle with the fact airline pilots make more money. But years of teaching this form of flying as a military pilot taught me that sheer boredom is insurmountable – regardless of pay.

Another key question that often comes up is “are you paid enough for the hazards involved?” Actually, you are paid to reduce risk, or at least, manage it. If pilots mitigated the dangers by flying safely and not taking chances, there would be fewer accidents.

So, what’s the bottom line? Is this position all it’s cracked up to be? If you maintain a positive mind-set whereby you see adverse conditions as challenges and do your best to overcome them, it will propel you to the top of your profession. Extra effort generates greater rewards… and remuneration.

After 45 years of flying, Ken Armstrong is still passionate about aviation and feels blessed to be Canadian — and to have lived and shared the best of times on our planet.


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