Once qualified as a commercial helicopter pilot, there are a wide variety of roles available. Helicopters are needed to transport people for business, aerial photography, or sightseeing. They are also used for geological surveys, coastguard services, game and wildlife census, crop spraying, and highway patrols. There are helicopters which fly workers and supplies to offshore oil rigs. The emergency services use helicopters to fly patients to hospital or to rescue people stranded by floods. In construction, they are used to lift heavy loads to tops of buildings or to remote mountain sites.
The work of a helicopter pilot can be varied and interesting. If you have a good hand-to-eye coordination, communication skills, and the ability to work well under pressure, this career could be for you.
What do helicopter pilots do?
- Research relevant information on expected weather conditions, airspace restrictions, and destination landing facilities
- Calculate fuel requirements and maximum loads
- Check instruments on board prior to take-off
- Communicate with air traffic control to request clearance to take-off and coordinate flight plans
- Control the direction, speed, and altitude of the aircraft whilst in flight
- Navigate during flight
- Take responsibility for the safety of any passengers on board
- Complete any necessary post-flight paperwork
What qualifications do you need to become a helicopter pilot?
Helicopter pilots are licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA decided to implement the Joint Airworthiness Requirements (JAR-FCL2) relating to helicopter training and licensing in 2000, which has resulted in significant changes to the process.
Commercial helicopter pilots require a Commercial Pilot Licence (Helicopter) (CPL(H)) or the more advanced Airline Transport Pilot Licence (Helicopter) (ATPL(H)). Entry onto the CPL(H) course requires at least five GCSEs at grades A*-C (9-4), including English and maths or physics.
All candidates are also required to pass an aptitude test and meet stringent medical requirements set out by the CAA.
The JAR-FCL2 CPL(H) may be obtained either by completing an integrated course approved by the CAA or by gaining a Private Pilot Licence (Helicopter) and then completing a modular course of additional training approved by the CAA.
The integrated course is a full-time course of ground and flying training run by a Flying Training Organisation approved by the CAA. The aim of the course is to train pilots to the level of proficiency they need to get a CPL(H), but not the Instrument Rating or any further specialisation (for example, aerial work activities). It consists of a minimum of 135 hours flying training and 550 hours of theoretical knowledge.
The ATPL(H) integrated course aims to train pilots to the level of proficiency they need to operate as co-pilots on multi-pilot, multi-engine helicopters in commercial air transport, and to get the CPL(H)/IR (Instrument Rating), but not any further specialisation. The course consists of a minimum of 195 hours flying training and 750 hours of theoretical knowledge instruction. The course also includes training in multi-crew operations of multi-pilot helicopters.
An applicant for a JAR-FCL CPL(H) must hold a valid JAR-FCL Class 1 Medical Certificate issued by the CAA. Applicants should ensure that they meet this stringent medical standard before starting on a course of training.
What skills do you need to become a helicopter pilot?
- In order to fly a helicopter, you will need excellent hand-to-eye coordination and spatial awareness.
- You will need the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time.
- You will need good communication skills to relay information to air traffic control.
- You will need the ability to stay calm under pressure.
- Good decision-making skills are essential in the case of an emergency.
How much do helicopter pilots earn?*
Helicopter pilots who captain passenger-carrying helicopters may earn between £45,000 and £65,000 per annum.
Those involved in non-passenger work may earn around £20,000 and £30,000 per annum. Helicopter pilots may be paid allowances for overnight stays and visits to inhospitable areas.
What are your career prospects as a helicopter pilot?
Pilots typically join helicopter companies as co-pilots. Promotion to captain may only come if the pilot is prepared to wait for the right vacancies to come up, or to move job.
Senior pilots often combine flying with ground duties – spending some time on administration, recruitment or training. Some pilots manage to start their own businesses, offering air taxi, recreational flying or freight services.
*Salaries are meant as a guide and can vary depending on a number of factors.
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