My Journey To Becoming A Helicopter Pilot

Braveen Mahendran, July 15th 2020

When I first discovered the aviation industry, I asked myself why I would like to pursue a helicopter career?

I asked myself why rather than how I would like to pursue a helicopter career? All I knew at the time was I wanted to be imbedded in something exciting. Something  I could devote my time to become excellent at, that would in return make me happy and not just have me look forward to the weekend.  Those who knew me could attest that I was not intrigued by the idea of having a 9-5 office job. Being in any airport environment was a trigger for me, something I dearly looked forward to and a place where I felt most curious. I cherished every opportunity to fly as a passenger but clearly that was not enough to scratch the itch.

While attending high school I took advantage of any opportunity  the could bring me closer to my dream of becoming a pilot; I started taking flight lessons at the local flight school. They were flying gliders (airplanes without engines). It was a great way for me to begin in the aviation environment at a young age. I took a part-time job at a fast food restaurant – that is partly how I managed to finance my flight lessons.

While earning my glider license and striving to be better at this thing I was so clearly passionate about, a friend of mine introduced me to a helicopter pilot – he invited me to fly with him. After an introductory flight in his helicopter I grew curious to see what it took to become a helicopter pilot. I soon decided this was the career path and lifestyle I wanted to pursue.

Which licenses/certificates to get as a helicopter pilot

When looking to become a helicopter pilot there are a few important things to look at. Amongst those are which type of license/certificate and which ratings to get. It’s good to know that every country/ region has her own regulation and certification.

If you want to fly in Europe, you will need an EASA license (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) license. If you choose to fly in Canada, you will need a TCCA (Transport Canada Civil Aviation) certificate.

Flying in the United States requires FAA certification.
In this article I am going focus on the FAA certification as that has been the majority of my journey.

Living in Denmark I had to get the EASA license (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) if I had any intention of flying anywhere in Europe. I knew most industry job requirements were +1000 hours of flight time. I also knew that I would have around 200 hours of flight time after flight school. To make up the difference, I had to build up my flight hours in an efficient way. I saw the opportunity to gain more flight experience in the United States; thus, I needed to get the American FAA certificate as well.

The FAA certification consist of:
– Private Pilot Certificate (PPL)
– Instrument Rating (IR)
– Commercial Pilot Certificate (CPL)
– Flight Instructor Rating (CFI)
– Flight Instructor Instrument Rating (CFII)

I worked full time for three years to save up money and then I took a bank loan just like that I was ready for my helicopter adventure in the United States.

What to consider before starting flight school

Here are some useful questions I asked myself and decisions I had to make before starting flight school:

1. Cost of flight school
2. Getting a medical certificate
3. Which flight schools whom would offer a visa
4. Financing
5. Entry level jobs after flight school
6. Future jobs as a helicopter pilot

EASA licensing

I started my flight training in Florida at Bristow Academy (now USATS).
In flight school I learnt of the importance of gaining experience on the specific helicopter which was used for most initial jobs. It seemed very challenging to get a job without having experience on either Robinson R22 or Robinson R44.
A great thing about being at a bigger flight school, is that you can see one step in front by looking at the class ahead to see which challenges they face, which directions they go and get coached.

The EASA CPL (Commercial Pilot License) consists of 14 theoretical exams and several flight test. It is slightly different from the FAA certificate in that it is comprehensive on the theoretical knowledge. I found it very valuable to have EASA license as it greatly solidify my foundation for aviation.

FAA certification

I completed my EASA CPL and Proceeded to obtain my American FAA certificates at Hillsboro Aero Academy (now Hillsboro Heli Academy)

Private Pilot Certification

Private Pilot Certification is the first step in the FAA certification – this is the initial step for every pilot. Some pilots who wish to fly for the joy, only need this certificate. However, for pilots who want to make a career as a helicopter pilot, the journey must continue.

Having 40 hours of flight time is the minimum required. With a private pilot certificate, you can fly for fun, but not get paid to fly.

Instrument Rating

As I had already completed my Private Pilot Certificate in Florida, I got started right away with my instrument rating.
As most helicopters fly in visual conditions, it is not a requirement to have an instrument rating. However, it is a required rating for many jobs and by many employers. I want to fly EMS (Emergency Medical Service) one day, so it was an obvious motivation for me. I learned a lot through the instrument rating training as it really made me understand airspace and how to fly a helicopter solely by reference to the instruments in the cockpit.

Commercial Pilot Certification

After achieving my instrument rating, I was closer again to meeting the requirements of a commercial pilot in the United States of America.
The training for the commercial pilot certificate included a lot of emergency procedures, off-airport landing and flying maneuvers to a higher standard.

After I finished my commercial certificate I was certified to work for compensation or hire.

That being said, with only around 150 hours of flight experience it is difficult to find an employer who is able to hire you. My research showed that due to company policies and insurance requirements most companies require at least 200 or 300 hours of flight time. By only having a commercial pilot certificate the limitation of an initial job would be such as flying tours or doing agricultural work. On the other hand I could become a flight instructor and all but automatically qualify for more job opportunities.

Certified Flight Instructor

During my instructor rating training I started my job search by sending out resumes and reaching out to friends all over the country. Luckily, just as I completed my instructor rating, I landed my first job in Florida as a flight instructor. (Hurray)

Being a flight instructor has been extremely rewarding. Not only did flight instructor rating set me up for my first job, it led me towards the most gratifying part of flying which comes from seeing students progress while helping me enhance my decision making skills. Ultimately this made me a much more confident pilot.

I am still in contact with former students to mentor them in their career path using my experience.

Recommendations for aspiring helicopter pilots

Looking back some of the best choices I made was to get diverse experience from two renowned flight schools. Whenever possible, I highly recommend doing that. I got valuable experience flying three different helicopters during flight training (R22, R44 and S300). I prioritized getting 50 hours in the R22, 25 hours in the R44 with 200 hours total time (in order to instruct in Robinson R22 and R44). Another thing that has helped me tremendously is the friendships and network of pilots I have built during my flight training. It is so much better when you have the support of others and you yourself contribute to helping fellow pilots.

The helicopter industry has various opportunities. Today, I fly helicopter charters and tours in NYC. I have friends all over the world flying in different types of helicopters and doing different operations.

It is truly enjoyable being in a helicopter pilot.