Helo Pilot Shortage: 4 Key Factors

By Ian Robinson | Airplanes

Mar 10

Is the juice worth the squeeze? 

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. 

Executive Summary

​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.

  1. Return on Investment - A lifetime of work minus cost of training yields an inadequate retirement nest egg.
  2. Risk of Investment - High cost of training easily at risk.
  3. Job Satisfaction - Lack of autonomy, recognition, and undesirable working conditions.
  4. Airline Trickle Effect - High paying airline jobs are poaching helicopter pilots.

Problem #1: Poor Return on Investment

​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.

The Actual Cost of a Student Loan

 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:

  • First Five Years: Single adult on a bare-minimum budget
  • Remaining 20 Years: National average for a family of four

**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 what would be a fair wage? 

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. 

​Flight Pay vs Salary

"​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! 

Click this drop down. Join me in a day-in-the-life; see how $25/hr adds up to less than $20k/yr!

​Possible Solutions

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. 

Problem #2: Risk of Investment

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:

  • High blood pressure
  • Poor vision​
  • DUI
  • ​Increased BMI
  • Injury to an appendage
  • Suspended drivers license
  • ​Poor use of social media
  • Aviation accident or incident
  • An interpersonal relationship with a well-connected individual that went sour
  • ​Lose job on bad terms
  • Have a student that has an accident

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

Problem #3: Job Satisfaction

​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.

Problem #4: ​Arline Trickle Effect

​​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.

What helicopter company offers a 16% retirement GIFT?

Most major airlines provide 16% contribution to your retirement account. Meaning that for every $100 you make, they put in $16, with no contribution required on your part.

​A Window of Opportunity for Helicopter Pilots

​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. 

Airline Scheduled Retirements by 2025

​Final Thoughts

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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About the Author

While I get land sickness if on the ground for extended periods of time, I have discovered my true passion when helping aviators grow and succeed. Feel free to connect with me. If we put our heads together, maybe we can discover something great. - Ian Robinson

  • Bill Saathoff says:

    Good article,
    What does a 73 year helicopter pilot get a job? He don’t. Plenty of time and experance (With a 1st Class Medical) but can’t get a job. I instruct some and I’m an A&p/IA,
    Still can’t get a pic job. It was my first love and my last I suppose. Retirment meens nothing if you can’t do what you love.
    Bill Saathoff, Author “Trash, a Pilot’sTail”

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