There are several reasons for the helo (helicopter) pilot shortage. Only 0.0048% of the U.S. population choose to become helicopter pilots. According to a joint study by UND, HAI, and HFI, the ratio is drastically declining, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is a good market to enter.
Multiple factors contribute to a low number of new entrants to the helicopter pilot job market. This article will illuminate the most important objectives that must be overcome to reverse the trend.
Helicopter pilots are often asked, "How much do you make?" Most often, the reaction is a surprise and disbelief at how little we earn compared to the cost of training and work required to get into the business. If you combine the cost of training with the average cost of living and work a regular full-time schedule, you will NOT be able to retire comfortably. Despite this fact, can it be done? Yes, it can, but it requires some major thinking outside the box. Many pilots work multiple jobs, have their training paid for by the government, or have other side investments to subsidize the unfair wages in the helicopter industry.
Cost of training to the civilian helicopter pilot is about $80,000. If a loan is used, the student will pay more than double at current student loan rates. Due to the high difficulty of training, lack of life insurance, and low income, banks are now hip to the inclining default rate. They will charge between 10% and 15% for helicopter student loans assuming you can get approval under the new debt-to-income investigation process.
Helicopter salaries vary, but according to this survey by Just Helicopters, the majority of pilots earn between $60,000 and $90,000 GROSS per year AFTER 5 years of experience.
Cost of living ranges from $40,000 to $90,000 depending on which city and how many people live in the household. The current national average cost of living is about $57,000 per year. Most pilots will find their cost of food is about twice as high because at least 1/2 of the year, they must eat out.
According to Forbes and AARP, the average person needs $1 - 1.5 million USD in order to retire without the need to flip burgers.
The following chart will consider the averages. You may have a unique situation, so check out this online living expense calculator for a customized idea of how much you will need.
This graph considers an average cost of living vs income in the United States.
It assumes that the initial training is taken on a loan and the living expenses are as follows:
**The absence of a student loan can bring you closer to a satisfactory retirement fund. There are opportunities for tax-subsidized training via military or law enforcement.
**Life events such as external pensions, medical emergencies, divorce, investments, and side hustle overtime can drastically affect the size of the retirement nest egg.**
**There are also unique opportunities that can offer much higher pay such as war-zone contracts, corporate aircraft charter/management, human external-load operations, and heavy-helicopter oil & gas operations. Keep in mind that these operations make up a small percentage of the pilot workforce.
So how much would it take to reverse the trend and make a helicopter pilot a competitive career choice? USA Today says that the magical number to live the American dream is $130,000/year gross. How can one squeeze more blood from a rock? Helicopters have a limited number of seats, so the business model isn't exactly favorable for generating revenue.
"I can't believe you're paying me to do this!"
A common statement that all pilots say on their first day as a commercial pilot.
Pilots are often paid by the HOBBS (an hour meter that detects precisely how long the skids are off the ground). When a pilot is paid $25/flight hour, they live below the poverty line because they are only earning when they are flying. Some operators require that the pilots remain at the base all day regardless of whether or not they have flights. If the weather is bad or if the aircraft is down for maintenance, the pilots are required to spend between 8 and 12 hours at work without additional compensation. Larger and more established operators may offer a small daily rate + flight hour pay, but insurance requirements often demand several years of experience as a commercial pilot in order to be named on their policy.
This leaves the industry in a very precarious position because of low time pilots training other low time pilots. They speed through this phase of their career as quickly as possible in order to achieve a higher paying job that offers a steady salary. This leaves unnecessary training deficits in the next batch of trainees and they are left to discover most of the hazards by means of trial and error.
Check out the story below for an inside glimpse of how being paid $25/flight hour can equate to $12.50 for a 16 hour day of work!
My eyes are wide open as I glance over at my alarm clock: 4:29 am. I always tend to wake up before my alarm because I am so excited to fly. This morning, I have a 30-minute tour of the city scheduled with a family of three!
I hop out of bed, take a brisk shower, press my freshly-laundered white button-up shirt, and jump in the car. I squint and turn an ear as I insert and twist the key - it started! I would certainly hate to lose my job if this jalopy quit on me again. My credit cards are maxed and I have a 20-year student loan that has doubled my rent payment. I think to myself, “I am so glad I don’t have kids yet.”
Half an hour later, I arrive at the airport, unlock the hangar, and begin to admire the beast of innovation in front of me that I parked last night after a successful day of flying. “Shoot,” I mutter. Someone must have flown the bird after me. Upon closer inspection, I’m able to see the bugs slapped all over the windshield, blades, skids, and fuselage. I can’t let my clients see the helicopter like this!
Of course, I’ll need to give it a quick wash. I know I wouldn’t enjoy trying to see the city with green gunk in the way, much less respect the company and pilot giving me my tour with a helicopter in such physically unappealing condition. I check my watch: 5:23 am. It’s hustle time!
First thing's first - I still need to preflight. Weather looks pretty good (the fog should burn off before my tour flight departs at 7:00 am). I glance through the rest of the pilot notices and flight restrictions. Hopefully I didn’t miss anything important; I need to wash this helicopter STAT.
Splish splash, helicopter’s takin’ a bath. I sling the microfiber cloth across the window, frantically trying to remove the dried remains in a semi-acceptable manner. I feel some of the solution nearly miss my eye and adjust my hold on the cloth.
Whew! I throw the cloth down in the bucket and walk it over to the side of the hangar while looking down at my right wrist: 6:36 am. Finished right in the nick of time - my passengers arrive in 10 minutes! I’m a bit sweaty now and I see a smudge on the wrist of my white button-up, though. Mental note: put on a T-shirt beforehand. I figure I have just enough time to take a quick Irish shower, use the restroom, and have a sip of water.
The family of three show up late. No biggie! My next tour isn’t scheduled until sunset, so I have tons of time to properly prepare in between. The son comments on how small the helicopter is and mom agrees with him, looking to dad. I watch him shrug. “You should see the two-seat version of this thing that I spent the last two years in,” I think to myself with an inward chuckle.
We take some pictures and I begin the passenger briefing. No one seems interested, but I do have to explain these things. Mom is spacing out and the son is drawing in the dirt with his toe. I finish, herd them into their seats, help them buckle up, and close the doors before I hustle on around to the pilot seat. I love morning flights because no one is complaining about the heat yet! Large windows provide a wonderful view, but they sure do turn the cockpit of these little guys into a greenhouse.
Despite distracting people in my cockpit asking the usual silly questions, I get the aircraft started. I’m practically jumping out of my seat to fly - I can’t wait!
A few radio calls later, I do my final pre-takeoff checks and we’re HOVERING! A quick glance at the clock: 7:15 am and I’m FINALLY GETTING PAID for the day!! 25 bucks an hour! I count my blessings as the luckiest person in the world!
I’m jerked out of my internal celebration with a wince as the son screams with joy so loudly that the headset distorts. A quick 360-degree pedal turn to look for other traffic and we’re off!
I spout off interesting facts as we pass landmarks and buildings and dad seems impressed. Good thing I did my research on the city. The tour buses I rode on a few weeks ago sure gave me some good information to use.
Soaring high above the city, everyone sleeps below. We are looking at the sunrise and, even though I’ve seen it countless times before, it is BEAUTIFUL. The passengers plead for me to go a bit lower, but I explain that we have to keep it little higher today; we had a few calls last week complaining about the noise.
I’m still enjoying the flight and scenery when I look down at the clock. Wow, that was fast; I have six minutes to get back to base. Maybe I can take a shortcut through the international airport to shave off a minute or two. I'd hate for my boss to make me pay for the extra flight time.
A few minutes later and I’m on final approach. There’s no time to hover, so I had better make it a quick set down to avoid overrunning the clock. There is no way in heck the customers would pay extra for that.
I narrowly made it! My touchdown was way softer than I was expecting and the family claps! They must have loved it and this puts a smile on my face. After shutting down the aircraft, I help everyone out and they want to take more pictures with me and the contraption that gave them a birds-eye view. We are all so happy - we just went on an incredible adventure together! Out of the corner of my eye, I see dad reach for his wallet and pull out a $20 bill! I inwardly celebrate, “A tip!” I'm so excited - I love tips and my car is in desperate need of a new set of tires (I can see the threads).
The mother lightly slaps her husband's hand that contains my tip and whispers "Don't do that! It’s insulting to the pilot!" I defeatedly pretend not to hear because I don't want to cause any awkward moments. I think to myself, “Shucks. Oh well, maybe next time,” and watch him quickly shove the crisp Jackson into his front pocket.
I shake the family’s hands, offer them bottles of water for the road, a cool lemongrass-scented washcloth, and get out the credit card machine. The husband hands me his card and I swipe it for $263.80, get his autograph, and smile. Bidding them farewell, I hand them a flyer and prompt them to kindly review us on Tripadvisor or Yelp.
Back to the helicopter, I go! I need to prepare it for the next flight. I might as well get a super head start and just have it ready since it isn’t for another 11 hours and some change. Then, I can work on other things until my sunset group shows up.
Jeeze! It must be mayfly season because there is a genocide of bugs on this thing! I'm going to give it a better wash than I did earlier this morning since I have more time.
My stomach growls as I’m walking the bucket of bug juice back over to dump it in the sink. Lunchtime! I’ve been thinking about the two boiled eggs and ramen that I packed ALL morning since I didn’t have time for breakfast due to the previous pilot leaving the helicopter so dirty. I practically inhale the sodium-packed instant lunch and sigh with contentment once my belly is half-way full.
We have recurrent training later this month, so after lunch, I utilize the remaining 8 hours to study a bit and catch up on some Facebook business marketing. I have lots of emails to respond to regarding the ins and outs of becoming a pilot and we sure could use all the new students we can get before this winter hits.
As 7:00 pm rolls around, I hear a rumble. I jerk my head up and rush to look outside. “NOOO!” I huff and scramble to open radar. Crossing my fingers briefly, I hope that the small isolated thunderstorm will dissipate before my 8:00 pm sunset tour. I've been here all day waiting! I watch radar nearly incessantly, tapping my foot, for the next twenty minutes. Finally, I throw myself back in my chair and, “Uugghhh!” I had better call the customer and let them know that there is a large chance that the weather won't hold out for our tour.
The client seems to understand and asks to reschedule for tomorrow. I nod, even though they can’t see me, and apologize again while putting them down for an 8:00 pm slot tomorrow. As I’m setting down the phone, I freeze. “Crap!” I say out loud. Tomorrow is my 5th-year-anniversary dinner with my girlfriend! I promised I wouldn't miss ANOTHER anniversary dinner after she nearly dumped me last year when I ditched her for a flight. It doesn't matter - I paid over $100,000 for this loan. She HAS to understand. If she doesn’t, she must not be “the one," right?
At least I get to leave early tonight! I'm exhausted and frustrated since I only earned $12.50 before taxes today. Hopefully my car doesn't break down on the way to my evening restaurant job. Thank goodness it’s Friday - I should have a pretty good shift tonight to compensate for another "day at the office."
Operators in the business of conducting pleasure rides are not going to be able to raise the rates per seat. The general population is used to paying current rates and doing so could possibly hinder business as this type of operation isn't necessary to society.
We would have to look to those operators that provide flights that are a necessity-to-society such as EMS, Fire, Oil, and overseas contracts to charge enough to provide the pilots an adequate wage. It may be tough, though, as there are presently multiple consumers and legislators pushing back against the high cost of air medical transport. The word is spreading and there is a looming possibility that the government will cap the amount billable to a patient. This will drastically affect profit margins and it is doubtful that the bean counters will offer a higher wage in preparation for a potential income cap:
Companies spend an astronomical amount of money on training to keep a revolving door of pilots on the line (usually $10,000 to $50,000). If they utilized this expense to retain loyal employees, it seems they may slow down the door and boost the general morale. This would have a compound effect because the line pilots are the face of the company and would surely have a positive impact on the customer experience. If you are a pilot, be sure to always try and negotiate the highest wage that you can.
Life as a pilot requires extreme discipline. Those that disagree tend to congregate here in this database.
A pilot certificate is easily suspended or revoked. If a pilot finds themselves in any of the following situations - provided they are still alive - they will be paying for an education they are no longer able to utilize:
Great care has to be taken so that a pilot doesn't end up on the black-list as well. Most helicopter companies are now going to great lengths to protect their fragile reputation by hiring pilots who maintain professional representation both online and offline.
Job satisfaction is more than just wages, but wages do make the top 5 list. Employees want to be compensated for what they are worth and are likely to look for work elsewhere if they’re not. This probably explains the high turnover in the industry. Lower-than-fair wages cause an elevated psychological strain on those pilots who know that their duties are necessary to society.
Lifestyle satisfaction is the other major issue. Pilots spend 50-90% of their time away from home resulting in an extremely slanted work-life balance.
The Airlines are actively poaching helicopter pilots and are offering competitive salaries for first-year pilots to make the switch!
They now allow helicopter time to count towards the 1500 hour requirement with only 250 hours of total airplane time. This means that a helicopter pilot with two years of experience (≈ 1500 hours) that is only capable of earning $30,000 to $60,000 in the helicopter industry can now start out making $75,000 in the airlines.
The average 30 year earning potential of an airline pilot is $8 million! On top of that, most major airlines contribute 16% of their annual salary directly into their 401k just to throw a little icing on the cake!
How can they do this? Well, the business model makes more sense. An airplane has 300 billable seats while the helicopter has three billable seats.
The airlines hire in cycles. In the 80s, they employed their fill of pilots. There has been a very low turnover in the major airlines in the past 30-40 years. A pilot in the regional airlines (i.e., United Express) would earn wages even less than present-day helicopter pilots. They would have to wait for a senior pilot in one of the major airlines to quit for a position to open up.
Due to scheduled retirements, the GATES ARE NOW OPEN and the airlines are scurrying to fill the vacancies over the next 7-9 years. It is a scary thought. There will be more job openings in the airlines (offering up to 6X more money and 2X more time off) than there are highly valued helicopter pilots currently in existence.
In 2017 alone, the airlines recruited 3% of the nations helicopter pilot fleet and the word has only just gotten out. The military is aware of the issue and there has already been a recall of military pilots. As a result, airlines have opened up rotor to fixed-wing transitions to civilian helicopter pilots. This WILL have serious consequences for the helicopter industry. According to this study, there are almost 16,000 helicopter pilots nationwide. This means that in the next seven years, there will be more available airline jobs in six of the major airlines than total helicopter pilots in the country. This doesn't even take into consideration the amount of open positions in the smaller regional airlines.
Helicopter pilots will make statements such as, "Helicopters are so much more fun to fly." They are 100% correct. Helicopters are also the hardest aircraft to operate on the planet, but how can one argue with the type of retirement package that the airlines offer?
Some helicopter pilots will disagree about the shortage because they have resumes out with dozens of companies and NEVER get a callback. For those of you who are dedicated to rotary wing, it is probably because you haven't yet had your fill.
Please be warned. Love is blind. Your addiction to this machine is understandable but may trap you in a situation where you are spending just as much as you are earning for the rest of your career.
If you can't find a job yet, just hang in there. There is a huge void coming and you will get your opportunity if you choose to stick with it. Please keep in mind, once the hiring boom ends in the major airlines, opportunities will come to a screeching halt.
If you are considering a move to the airlines, I would highly advise it. You may or may not take a considerable pay cut for the first couple of years, but if you can swing it, I highly recommend the switch if you can make this narrow window of opportunity.
This will leave helicopter operators with no choice but to negotiate lower insurance minimum experience requirements or offer higher wages to compensate for the mass exodus. That will have its own consequences on safety statistics, but we will save that article for 2025.
I tend to discourage new applicants against the career choice unless they have an additional source of income. The BUZZ is out. One of the most popular Social media groups containing 15,000 members says it all. People join this group all the time and inquire about becoming a helicopter pilot. Nine out of ten responses are negative, warning new entrants NOT to do it because the juice is just not worth the squeeze.
Would I do it all over again if I could? ABSOLUTELY. I am half-way through a 30-year career in helicopter aviation and there is nothing better than seeing the entire world from a bird's eye view. I just wish I could have had a stable retirement on the horizon with my rotary career. As I switch to a career of flying above Flight Level 180 to obtain long-term stability, I will be able to smile from the flight deck knowing that I have had an extremely fun and rewarding career as a helicopter pilot. No regrets.
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