Should I Become a Pilot in 2018?

By Ian Robinson | Industry

Feb 14

BITTER-SWEET TRUTH ABOUT LIVING THE DREAM


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

Research Required

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.

PRO TIP
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.


Lets talk INCOME

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.

1980's: Go to the Airlines

1990's - 2015 Helicopters are the Better Bet

2015 - 2022 Airlines All the Way

2022 and beyond

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: 


Airplanes vs Helicopters in GENERAL

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

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.
Airplane Pilots

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. 

 


Training is Expensive

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.

Airplanes

Helicopters

250 Flight H​​​ours

200 Flight Hours

1.5-2.5 Years 

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.


Schedule and Location

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.
Pilot Schedule Example WITH Commuting
Pilot Schedule Example WITHOUT Commuting

Who Makes a Good Candidate?

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. 

PRO TIP
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. 

Living the Dream

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? 

Before you go, check out the new Got Sky shirt line! 

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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

  • Joshua Petalos says:

    Well done. Wish I could afford the cost. Still paying back my loans from USC degree.

    Not giving up on the idea. I would love to fly.

  • Eric Roberts says:

    A career as a pilot, whether airplane or helicopter, is not a 9 to 5 job, so aspiring pilots should consider the impact on the family. Get the support of the family before spending thousands of dollars on training. Make sure the family understands that much time will be spent away from home. For example, many helicopter jobs require the pilot to work away from home on anywhere from two week to two month rotations. I love my job, but if I were still married I’d probably be sitting behind a desk somewhere on a more family friendly work schedule.

  • Craig K. says:

    Nicely done! Well written.

  • Craig K. says:

    Some advice I got from an old Helo pilot, before you become a pilot, get some life insurance, because most companies can’t/don’t offer anything over 250k, if that. Best advice I ever got. I have a large life insurance policy because of it and am thankful for it. Especially since we are seeing more and more lawyers going after the pilots family for damages.

  • RizJ says:

    Great article! Thank you! I’m a Lighter than Air pilot with over 1500 hrs PIC in big balloons and about to start my rotorcraft training in a month or so- looking forward to it greatly but know it’s going to be a big challenge too. Your article gave me a lot more confidence as I have thought about and researched much of what you mention and I’m pleased to read your advise fits with my own assessments.

  • Al Martin says:

    The shine of being a helicopter pilot wears off real fast. I’ve been at it for 13 years and don’t love it anymore. You’re away from home half your life if your lucky and if you do become a base pilot you are usually in some dump of a town. Go airlines if you can and thank me later.

    • Ian Robinson says:

      Good point Al. A life on the road definitely isn’t for everyone. I’m sure your input will be valuable to some prospective pilots.

  • Paul Otto says:

    I have always been around aviation. I spent 22 yrs in the AF as a mechanic. I studied hard to get all my helicopter ratings and flight time. I have to be honest it hasn’t really paid me back that great but I find myself thinking about it all the time. I make good money where I work now but I would toss it to be in helicopter aviation. That’s how I know its right for me. I don’t really find airline flying all that interesting. Great article!!

    • Ian Robinson says:

      Hi Paul!

      Thanks for your story AND for your service! You are 100% correct, the return on investment will be in the red (negative) for about 15-20 years if you work double full-time. Be sure to subscribe to this blog, I’ll release a new article about the ROI this Tuesday.

      Fly safe and be well.

  • Steve says:

    Good article Ian. The only part I find in error is the salary cap you mention for helicopter pilots. I passed that number back in 2011, and by a wide margin. My company’s pay scale has plenty of room for upward growth for me too.

    That said, I’m a Medevac pilot with over 25 years flying experience (last 6+ in Medevac) and over 5200 flight hours. I love my job, and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Being able to go home at the end of each shift is a great benefit.

    To anyone considering doing what I do, I would say it takes a lot of effort to get here, but it’s worth the time and money. I’d be happy to talk to anyone interested in it.

    • Ian Robinson says:

      Hi Steve,

      I’m right there with you as I just crossed 10,000 hrs after 14 years. I still haven’t found an EMS company that pays a base salary above $110,000 as my graph illustrates here in this article. Most companies (AMGH, Air Methods, Metro) start pilots out between $50k and $80k depending on geographic location and platform. Do you work for a hospital based program that pays above that?

      I know of a few fire and utility pilots who earn around $120k/year but they are often out on the job most of the year.

      I’d love your feedback becuase I am constructing an article at this very moment that illustrates a common incom pathway and ROI of this sector of the industry.

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