Globally, aviation is one of the fastest growing industries on the planet. As a key player in the game, is becoming a pilot worth it?
I could just tell you, “Yes! Do it. There is no better job!”. Once upon a time (before squeezing in two lifetime’s worth of experience in the past dozen years), I would have said those exact words. Knowing what I know now? I'd say largely, IT DEPENDS. There will be no sugar coating in this article. If you've considered earning your wings for a living but are not quite sure what road to pursue, we will explore some broad topics of the career choice and compare some differences between helicopter pilots and airline pilots.
Most people see a cool YouTube video and get the bug. It would be a huge mistake to start researching flight schools and just assume that, as a certified pilot, life will be great.
First look into job security, wages, location, and job satisfaction; work your way backward to which flight school is best for you.
The very best advice I can give you is to PUT YOUR FEELERS OUT. Start talking to aviators who are currently in the industry. Join online forums, Facebook groups, call friends who are pilots for both helicopters and fixed-wing (airplanes) and take them out to lunch.
TIMING IS CRUCIAL. One of the most important factors in your decision is to find out what cycle the industry is in. Do some research in the general field you happen to be interested in and see where it is headed. There is a serious trickle effect based on several factors such as the status of the the oil and gas industry, retirement age in the airlines, and UAV innovation (unmanned aerial vehicle or drone). The autonomous helicopter control system has us all concerned. Things are very fluid and you must take economic timing into consideration.
If you are basing your decisions solely on the cash, there is no black or white answer. The above mentioned cyclical nature of the industry must be considered. If you are considering helicopters as a career, check out this article regarding return on investment and potential opportunities related to the looming pilot shortage. Click the drop downs to see what I mean.
With massive improvements in global communication tech, the era of the internet, jet engine efficiency, and a rise in economy, the airline industry had an incredible market increase and thus a massive hiring boom. If you happened to be interested in becoming an airline pilot, it was probably the best job in the world. Those pilots are now making $300k to $475k annually. I know personally of one airline instructor (check airman) who is clearing $625k/yr gross at one of the legacy airlines.
Airlines filled their pilot needs. Getting into a major or legacy airline as a pilot took over 15 years. Regional airlines paid $15k to $20k/yr and worked the pilots long hours with short rest periods. Helicopter pilots didn't exactly have it easy with a high cost of training ($100k). They started out making $15k to $20k/yr per year, but they could quickly start earning up to $50k to $80k within 5-8 years of experience.
With the advent of the paperless cockpit and well established rest periods, there is no better time to get into the airlines. All of the pilots from the 80's are retiring (600 pilots per airline per year to be exact). The shortage has major and legacy airlines gobbling up pilots who have been stuck in low paying regionals. This trickle effect is leaving a shortage in the regionals. As a Result, they have bumped up the incentives immensely from $15k to a $40k/yr salary PLUS a $30k-$60k sign on bonus. Helicopter pilots flying medivac and making a solid $80k/yr are jumping like fleas to the airlines now since they don't have to take a massive pay cut any longer. Two to five years from now, the highest paid helicopter pilot (capped at $85k/yr) will be clearing $100k/yr in the airlines. Not to mention that they will also be topping out at three to four times that in 10 years. If you are thinking about getting into the airlines, I wouldn't wait much longer than 2019 to begin your training.
It's hard to say where aviation is headed. UAVs excite and scare me at the same time. Airlines will have collectively hired nearly a million pilots to fill the gap. Helicopters will become more advanced and automated. Breaking into the airlines will be tough; Pay will drop once again for regional airline pilots and the waiting list will be long because the new legacy and major airline pilots will stay put for 20-30 years. Helicopters will probably be a better way to spend the next 2 decades and that flight time will count when you want to go make a larger salary with the airlines in the future.
We will have a new president and new wars will be waged. I am happy and fortunate to be in the industry as it is being pioneered.
So, the big question: “how much can a pilot expect to earn?” Salaries vary within each sector of aviation. Helicopter pilots and airline pilots make similar wages in the first decade of work. However, airlines then fly ahead with a much higher earning potential in the long run. The following links accurately reflect current salary expectations:
I have composed an entire separate article on this topic, but let’s look at the short and skinny of it. If money is no object and you want a clear outlook of a day in the life, go shadow a pilot in each sector of the industry. If you want help setting this up, feel free to drop a comment below and I'll see if I can set you up with someone in your area. Again, I can’t emphasize this enough: You need to see a day in the life first-hand to see if this is something for you. If you are lucky enough to get to fly or ride along, keep in mind that the honeymoon phase does wear off and, more than likely, you'll only be doing the fun stuff (hovering, departing, or landing) for two minutes in a twelve hour shift.
Helicopter pilots tend to be more blue collar. Degrees are not required yet and the level of interpersonal communication skills vary somewhere between high school and 2 years of college. Pilots don’t always make good managers. Often--but not always--the managers that you find in the helicopter world were once pilots who were promoted from within to fill a slot rather than being hired for their outstanding people skills. As a result, you will want to inquire about the management structure in the sector of your dream job.
As a helicopter pilot, you will check your own aircraft maintenance compliance, calculate your own weight and balance, plan your own flights, check weather, help with maintenance, test/sample fuel, wash the helicopter, and be more exposed to the elements. In essence, you are on your own: All of the responsibility lies with you and you had better not screw up because there are serious consequences.The flying is unparalleled, however. You'll be flying 500-1500' above the ground (sometimes lower depending on the mission) and manipulating the controls. You truly do become a master of your craft. Just remember, the helicopter belongs to someone else and they want you to fly as safe as possible. This means that if you fly like a maniac, you'll quickly lose your job. Not to mention, you will have a hard time finding another due to the SIX degrees TWO degrees of separation in the industry. Someone is always watching and--99% of the time--someone is recording you fly.
Airline pilot duties in the GA sector (general aviation) closely resemble the responsibilities of helicopter pilots. Once you move into the airlines, however, things get much easier. You belong to a support system. Weight and balance, weather, and flight plans are all pre-calculated for you. You'll stay in climate controlled terminals, wearing dress shoes and slacks. You'll walk through the same door that the passengers do, hang a left, follow a script, complete a checklist, and watch the airplane autopilot work its magic.The flying will take you to amazing places but will also be more routine in the long run. If you get bored easily, I recommend you look deep inside and consider if repetitive days is something you can handle.
Why is aviation training so expensive?The reasoning is simply The FAA minimum flight and ground school requirements. Small training helicopters cost about twice as much per-hour to operate as small training airplanes. Funding is tough, but there are some options and legitimate scholarships out there. You could also go the military route and completely eliminate the cost of training, but doing so has its own drawbacks. More information about that in another article.
250 Flight H
200 Flight Hours
1.5 to 2 Years
$40-$60K Total Cost
$80-100K Total Cost
If you are getting into aviation for the money, the ROI (return on investment) is horrific. You will be responsible for the lives of your passengers as well as the safety of the aircraft, yet earning less than most office workers, web developers, personal trainers, and other tradesmen. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you fly MedEvac throughout the night--punching in and out of clouds near icing conditions and over remote mountains--to save a child, but you are making less than the person pumping your fuel.**nighttime bonus** A $3000/month student loan payment can be quite distracting and discouraging. So why do we do it? We do it because it is fun, technical, respected, and challenging; definitely NOT FOR THE MONEY.
Typically, airline pilots are away from home between two and six days at a time with a guaranteed twelve days off per month. Those days off may be scattered throughout the month, but with tenure you can bid on your dream schedule. Senior pilots will often bid to work only the minimum eight days per month. At that point, you could live just about anywhere in the world if you were willing to commute with your travel benefits. Most major cities have an airline with a pilot domicile, though, so you don't really have to stress about where you want to live.On the other hand, Helicopter pilot schedules vary wildly from job to job. If you have a specific schedule that you are attracted to, you will have to choose a sector that has what you are looking for. The trick here is finding an operator with your schedule in the location that you want to be. There are a few overseas contracts that pay for travel from home, but the industry standard is that the commuting expenses belong the the employee. Most operators require that you live within an hour or two from your base.
Aviation will chew you up and spit you out faster than medical school. It is highly judgmental---and rightfully so! Your passengers are entrusting you with their lives. Even if your best friend is coming along for a ride, you had better bet that if you are not in tip top condition, they will probably (hopefully) not get into the aircraft with you. This means that you need to be on your A-Game, ALWAYS.
Physical grooming is the easy part; honing your interpersonal skills is a little more difficult. However, with widespread access to information, you can learn how to succeed over time. Check out this free podcast that has helped a few pilots become more charming. I try to listen to one episode every time I drive.
Ask your friends and family if they think you would make a good pilot. Gauge their initial, candid reactions closely. You should also ask yourself, "Could I fit in at a dinner party with a billionaire and their entire family?" I know it sounds bad and that we aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it STILL HAPPENS (When flying corporate, this is actually a daily occurrence!). The stereotype is severe and you don't want to find out that you are limited to crop dusting or flying on tuna boats after dropping $130,000 in student loans. If you haven't read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" yet, you should have a read and see if you can identify with the driving principles in that book.
Note: Basic helicopter training costs about $80k. If you take a loan and hustle and pay it off as fast as you can, you may only spend around $130k like I did. If you take 20 years, plan on spending $500k in interest.
I absolutely LOVE what I do and I can't imagine work in any other field in the world. For me, flying is life and there are way more advantages than disadvantages. If you have the capacity and the drive to hustle, work long hours, be gone from home for months at a time, or walk out in the middle of a dinner date to go work, then you may just be a good fit as a pilot.
I would love to hear from you. Why are you interested in aviation? If you are an experienced aviator, comment below. Would you recommend this career to a friend?
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