The path to becoming a professional helicopter pilot is a mystery to many people so let me break it down for you and answer some of our most frequently asked questions about helicopter flight training.
But first, I am going to start by giving you some background on our flight school for context. Hillsboro Heli Academy, a division of Hillsboro Aero Academy, has been providing flight training for commercial helicopter pilots since 1980. With other 40 years of experience in the flight training industry, we have developed connections worldwide to support our alumni, and our graduates fly for numerous operators around the world. We offer two student visa programs, so our student body is made up of students who have come from many countries to fulfill their dream of becoming a pilot which makes for a diverse aviation community on campus. And we partner with the local community college, Portland Community College, for those who are looking to achieve their aviation science degree while obtaining their helicopter ratings and certificates. Our helicopter campus is a wonderful mix of both domestic and international students flying and studying together, all working toward a common goal.
From our helicopter flight training campus based in Troutdale, Oregon, just east of Portland, Oregon, students begin their journey from novice to commercially rated helicopter pilot. The environment of the Pacific Northwest provides the ideal training location as the varied weather and terrain give pilots a chance to hone their skills. Being able to do an off-airport landing in this part of the country is something our students rank as one of their favorite experiences. We even made a video of these landings to give prospective students a chance to see the beauty of Oregon. This beauty and diversity also make Oregon a great place to call home. Our students can explore city life just a few miles away in Portland, known for its live music scene, microbrews, and incredible food. Students can also venture to the Columbia River Gorge, which is about an hour from Troutdale. The Columbia River Gorge is known for its hiking trails and river sports, such as windsurfing and kiteboarding. This area of the country offers our students both the best of both city life and recreational areas to explore.
Our helicopter fleet consists entirely of Robinson helicopters, including both the R22 and R44. We feel that these helicopters are the best training aircraft available when learning how to fly and have used them as our primary training aircraft for over 40 years. We also have an on-site maintenance team that is Robinson-factory trained and performs our maintenance and aircraft overhauls at the Troutdale Campus.
Now that you have some context about our school’s history and the environment in which we operate, I will answer some of these frequently asked questions prospective students are curious about as they consider a career as a helicopter pilot.
How do I become a helicopter pilot?
The first step toward becoming a helicopter pilot is to enroll in a flight school that can help you achieve your aviation goals, ideally one that is accredited in addition to being an FAA Part 141 school. These two certifications mean that the school is being help to a higher standard when it comes to the quality of your training. I would recommend contacting the school and speaking with their admissions team to better understand the school’s training program, its partners, and how they support their graduates after the completion of the program.
Once you have enrolled in a school then it’s a matter of simply following the school’s curriculum. At Hillsboro Heli Academy, most of our students enroll in our Professional Pilot Program which includes training for the private, instrument, commercial, certified flight instructor, and certified flight instructor instrument courses. We also offer specialty courses to build skills that are in high demand. Each of these courses provides knowledge and skills needed to build your experience as a pilot and prepare yourself for your future career as a commercial pilot.
Once you complete the requirements for each course, you will take your FAA examination known as the check ride. If you pass, you will be awarded the FAA certificate for your course. Once you have completed these courses, most of our graduates choose to work as certified flight instructors teaching new students while building the hours they need to take the next step in their career. When students graduate our program, they finish with about 200 flight hours, but they need about 1000-1500 flight hours for most commercial helicopter pilot jobs. Working as a certified flight instructor is the best way to build those additional flight hours while also getting paid for your work as a pilot. Once you have achieved 1000-1500 flight hours, many job opportunities will become available to you. It’s important to build these hours to be competitive in the job market. We often recommend students visit job sites like www.jsfirm.com to get a better idea of the jobs available to helicopter pilots and the requirements for those positions.
How long does it take to become to complete helicopter flight training?
The duration of a helicopter training program will vary from school to school, but at Hillsboro Heli Academy you can complete our Professional Pilot Program in 12-15 months if you are a full-time student, participating in at least 5 activities per week. At our school, you will complete ground and flight lessons one-on-one with your instructor so you can set a pace that allows you to complete the courses on your timeline.
How much does it cost to learn to fly helicopters?
We estimate our program costs based on historical averages for our students, not FAA minimums, as we feel this is a more accurate reflection of the true cost of the program. The helicopter Professional Pilot Program costs about $80,000 on average. This includes training for the private pilot, instrument, commercial pilot, and certified flight instructor courses. To complete the certified flight instructor instrument course, which we recommend, is approximately $3,000 more. These estimates are based on average program pricing for flight instruction, ground instruction, aircraft rentals, simulator rentals, and written tests. The only item not included in this estimate is the fee you pay to the Designated Pilot Examiner when you take your check ride because those fees are paid directly to examiner.
What are the career opportunities for a helicopter pilot?
The diversity of opportunities for helicopter pilots is often what draws prospective students to this career path. Jobs can vary from aerial fighting to emergency medical services to tours operations. Many helicopter pilots start as flight instructors to build the 1000-1500 hours they need to be competitive in applying for other commercial jobs. From the role of flight instructor, many pilots move onto tour operations. You can fly helicopters for a tour operator in the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, or Hawaii while gaining 1000-1500 hours of turbine helicopter experience. These jobs are a great opportunity to continue building your skills while flying a consistent, pre-determined route. From there, commercial pilots usually move onto operations such as corporate transport, offshore support, electronic news gathering, helicopter EMS, or utility operations. These roles require a more advanced pilot with sufficient experience who can adapt to changing conditions and respond quickly in challenging environments. The next progression for some pilots is flying operations such as aerial firefighting, law enforcement, and heavy-life operations. These industries are often viewed as the pinnacle and are desired by many pilots. They require the most experience in helicopters because of the challenging environments in which they operate. Pilots in these fields must possess the skill and experience to make the best decisions in unpredictable situations.
While this is the career path of many pilots, it is by no means the only path. There are many new opportunities becoming available as new industries are developed such as using helicopters to support wind far operations. There are also more opportunities for pilots with less than 1000 hours becoming available as operators are seeking to hire those with a commercial certificate and R44 experience to instruct at their school or fly R44 tours.
Our management team at Hillsboro Heli Academy is frequently getting calls from operators looking for strong pilots to fill roles in their organization. In this career, it’s important to be flexible and know that many of these operations will have you working in the field or at the job site for days or weeks at a time, and many pilots travel or relocate in order to advance their careers.
What does is the demand for helicopter pilots?
In Boeing’s 2019 Pilot & Technician Outlook the prediction was that 61,000 new helicopter pilots would be needed between 2019 and 2038. This translates to the industry needed to add just over 3,000 new helicopter pilots per year for the next 20 years, and in 2018 the FAA only issued 2,367 new helicopter pilot certificates. Also in 2018, the University of North Dakota in partnership with Helicopter Foundation International released a study entitled, “UND-HAI Rotorcraft Pilot and Mechanic Supply Forecast,” which was designed to determine the helicopter pilot shortage over the next 20 years. Their study found that there will be a shortage of 7,649 helicopter pilots in just the United States between 2018 and 2036.
What both studies support is that the world will need helicopter pilots over the coming years, and not enough pilots are joining the workforce to fill this anticipated demand. While COVID has slowed aviation operations and those associated jobs, we are starting to see a recovery in a couple of areas. First, in our graduates who are receiving job offers quickly after hitting the required flight hours and second in requests from our partners who are looking to hire pilots and need qualified applicants to apply. It will still take time for things to completely return to pre-pandemic levels, but we are confident that those getting into aviation now will be well positioned to take advantage of the coming hiring wave.
How do you find a flight school with a strong emphasis on safety?
Every school will tell you they put an emphasis on safety. So how can you know for sure? I suggest looking for the prestigious International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) certification. This is a recognized standard for aviation safety for all aircraft operators. Hillsboro Aero Academy is the first academy flight school to achieve this certification and currently the only flight school who holds Stage III certification which is the highest level of safety management. This certification means our school is evaluated and audited by IS-BAO for our safety practices and management to ensure we are maintaining a high standard.
How do I learn more about helicopter flight school?
If we have piqued your interest in becoming a helicopter pilot, we would invite you attend one of the informational webinars that we host each month. You can sign up here for an upcoming webinar. Our admissions team is happy to answer any questions that might arise during your school or career research and can also schedule you for an introductory flight, so you get a chance to see what the training is like. You can schedule a phone meeting with our admissions representative Malori Wagner at a time that is convenient for you.
Aviation is a dynamic industry with strong projected demand for helicopter pilots in the coming years which makes it a career path worth considering.