Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

18 November 2007

Becoming A Helicopter Pilot

For some reason, I've gotten a lot of emails lately from people who want to be helicopter pilots. I understand that it must seem like the bestest job a person could have. Many of these people are already adults and already established in careers. Some of them already have wives and kids. They ask for my advice (as if I know anything) and encouragment. I try to answer them as honestly as I can. Sometimes my responses are not all that encouraging.

You know that I love to fly. And getting paid to do it is awesome. I'm lucky in that regard. But that awesome-ness comes at a price. I try to be upbeat and positive about a career in aviation, but I have to be honest. Flying for a living is not for everyone. It might look cool, but it's not that easy. Not at all.

There are a number of helicopter internet forums/discussion groups. These are usually populated by enthusiasts who are already in the business. Often, the general philosophy and attitude of the participants is to only say good things about flying and downplay the bad. "Newbies" often come to the groups with questions about becoming a professional helicopter pilot. Generally they are told that: a) They'll love it; b) It's the best thing they'll ever do; c) Their family will support them fully; and d) If they do not do it they'll regret it for the rest of their lives.

Uhh, yeah. That's not exactly true. I mean, it leaves a lot out. There's more to it than that.

In the first place, nothing is guaranteed in life, especially not in aviation. Just because you plunk your money down at a flight "school," it is not assured that you'll come out the other end as a professional pilot. Learning this craft is an incredible undertaking like you cannot imagine. You'll learn about surprising things you never thought could be relevant to flying. The bookwork is daunting. Not only that, your performance will be constantly evaluated and graded. It's not like we all have to be Chuck Yeager, but the truth is that not everyone has the aptitude to become a pilot. A flight school's slogan might be, "Everyone can fly!" but it's just not true. Sorry. You might be one of those who just isn't suited to be a pilot, as hard as that might be to believe. You'll counter, "Of course I can learn!" Yeah, maybe. (Ask your prospective school about their dropout rate. I'm sure each one of those dropouts swore up and down that it would not happen to him/her either.)

A commenteer on one of the internet message boards talked recently about how immersed in aviation he's become as he pursues his licenses (we actually call them "ratings"). It's consumed him. He has a hard time talking with his friends now, because they do not understand his aviation-talk and can't relate to it anyway. Flying is like that. If you do it right, it takes over your life, influencing and coloring and dominating every aspect of it. Your family and friends will think you've gone nuts. (Hint: Non-aviators get bored REALLY QUICKLY of technical flying talk.)

Also, it is hugely expensive. Most aspiring pilots will end up spending over $70,000 before they have the ratings and experience necessary to get that first job. Flight "schools" are not like colleges. They're just businesses. There are no scholarships and few low-interest student loans. However, there are loans (e.g. "Sallie Mae") available to people who attend flight schools that meet certain qualifications. Not all "schools" do.

By the way, you don't go directly from getting your licenses to having a high-paying job. Yoko oh no! You might need only 200 hours or so to get all of your ratings, but most commercial operators want pilots to have a minimum of around 1,000 hours of command time before being hired. And so you're faced with a classic "Catch-22." You need experience to get a job; but how can you get experience without a job? Hmm.

The usual way for new pilots to build time is to become flight instructors. I know it sounds odd: the newest of the new teaching those who know nothing. But that's aviation for you - it's how it's always been. Trouble is, the pay for flight instructors is terrible. Flight schools know that instructing is not a career goal in itself. They know that their instructors will bolt out the door at the very first opportunity without so much as a two-hour notice. So why should they pay you more? They won't. But remember those big loans you took out to finance your training? The bank is going to want you to pay those back some day. Probably soon. So plan on a lot of years of eating tuna fish and Ramen noodles, even after you hit the "big time."

It is not easy for new pilots to break-in to this business. It's a long, tough road. And like I said, there are no guarantees. Not only that, there are no short-cuts. Nor are there any reliable, repeatable ways of going about it (other than the be-a-flight-instructor route). Everyone's story and route is different. What worked for one may not work for another.

The other variable is that the helicopter industry is volatile. Nobody knows that it will be like in five or ten years. The job market may remain healthy, and the demand for pilots high, as it is now. But things can change. If the military suddenly burped out 100 or 200 pilots, it would make a huge difference for the low-time, civilian-trained pilots vying for the same jobs.

For those who have flying in their blood, there is usually no question about it. They *must* pursue this field. Like me. I've known since birth...never doubted for one second that I would be a pilot. And it's not that I couldn't have done other things, I just never wanted to. I didn't worry about the money - where it would come from or how much I would make. Luckily, I didn't have to go into debt to finance my flight training. But I really didn't start making decent money until I'd been in this field for nearly eighteen years, when we got our first union contract. (And by the way, what I called "decent," my family still called "pathetic." But that's another story.)

Some of my emails are from people who try to justify it financially. They ask how long it will take, and if they'll be able to pay their loans back, and how much they're likely to make once they get that first real job? I tell them that I do not know. Nobody does. But I cannot recommend a career in aviation for those who approach it from a purely dollars and cents standpoint. For them, I seriously doubt that it would really be worth it in the long run. Flying for a living often involves so much bullshit that every now and then even us experienced old-timers will question whether it would be better do to something else with our lives.

Flying for a living is great, no doubt about it. It is a wonderful job, rewarding in many ways. But it takes an enormous amount of dedication, compromise, commitment and sacrifice. And it's not for everyone. If I were smart, I would've aimed to become an airline pilot and not messed around with these wacky helicopters. It's too late for me now, and fortunately I'm in a pretty good place at the moment. But would I do it all over again? It's a question I ask myself frequently. To be honest, I don't think I would.

Hindsight is great, isn't it?

For the undeterred, I say: DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Ask as many questions as you can, and come into this business with your eyes wide open. If you're up for a challenge, this field will take you places and show you things you never dreamed of.


David said...

As one reading this post from the other side of the ramp, so to speak, I hear all of the truth. Of course, I'd be shocked by anything less.
From time to time I've thought, "Gee David. If you'd been smart you'd have used those student loans to get your pilots license instead of this greasy A&P."
But, I've seen more pilots struggling or barely breaking even than I have the Airline Pilot types.
And, those airline jobs (seem) to be reserved for ex-military, HIGH time, multiply rated types.
And, I've seen a lot of corporate pilots sitting around the FBO waiting on the Boss to show up at his leisure.
The new Pilot Pups that take your words to heart and remember them later will appreciate them even more than I.

Bob Barbanes said...

David, every job has its good and bad points. Flying is no different. Everyone is always looking over the fence at the greener grass there.

I'm sure people understand that learning to fly is "difficult." That must be self-evident. I just don't think they realize how totally committed to aviation they must become to be even mildly successful in this business. To make it work you have to literally eat, drink, breathe, sleep and poop flying. It's hard on the family life, and hard on the social life. People who already have lives in progress and going-on might not really be prepared for the necessary changes that will have to be made. It can be rough.

That's all I'm saying.