Getting That First Helicopter Pilot Job

Guidelines For Getting Your First Helicopter Job
Ken Armstrong
July 09, 2007
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 those bases.

Some 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 classmates.

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.

Your 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 investment.

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.

Dedication 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.

While 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.

Opportunities 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.

Any 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 – sooner.

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 employment.

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.

Spending 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.

There 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!

Another 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.

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