The F-1 Visa and Professional Pilot Programs: Why It Matters?

We know that most international students choose our professional pilot program for their airplane or helicopter training not just because of our global reputation, but also because we offer the F-1 visa. But we also know that most international students don’t have a good understanding of the F-1 visa when they begin their search for pilot training schools in the USA. If you don’t yet have that understanding, then this blog post is for you! 
Most flight schools in the US offer only the M-1 visa (which we offer too). The US government defines the M-1 visa as being issued for “vocational study,” and it’s good for only one year, with the ability to apply for extensions. This can be suitable for students who only need the flight training itself. But for students pursuing a career as a pilot, it’s not enough, because they also need to earn additional flight hours in order to be able to work as a commercial pilot in their home country. 
That’s why it’s extremely important when considering US-based professional pilot programs to understand which visas they offer. With M-1 flight schools, students place themselves at risk of making a serious financial commitment to the cost of training, with no ability to earn the hours they need to fly commercially. A typical helicopter training program will earn the student about 200 hours of flight time, but most employers will require a minimum of 1,000 hours of flight experience, which is in turn what insurance companies require of those employers. 
For a student who has just spent $80-90,000 on helicopter training, the idea of spending another $200,000 on helicopter rental hours just to qualify for employment is impossible. For European students, this is a particular hardship, since helicopter rental costs are as much as double the cost in the US. So how do students close the gap?
That’s where the F-1 visa comes in. Only schools that meet certain standards as a “full-time degree or academic program” can offer the F-1, and so it should also tell you something about the quality of the professional pilot program. Like the M-1, the F-1 is issued for 12 months, with the ability to extend if training is not completed. But the unique feature of the F-1 is the availability of Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). 
These additional training periods recognize that certain types of training, helicopter pilot training included, require additional “practical,” i.e., hands-on experience for the student to truly master the subject and pursue it as a career. For most aspiring airplane and helicopter pilots, this means building additional hours as a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI). As I wrote recently, building hours as a CFI allows future pilots to get paid to fly rather than paying to fly, but it’s not just an hours-building exercise: the experience of providing instruction also makes you a better pilot. 
So how does this portion of the F-1 visa work? Once a student completes their CFI rating in our professional pilot program, they can apply for CPT. It’s approved in three month increments for a maximum of 11.5 months. A student working as a CFI at this point may earn enough hours to reach the 1,000 hour goal, but they may also apply for OPT at the completion of the CPT period. This grants them an additional 12 months, during which time most students continue to work as a CFI, either at HAA or another flight school. 
We’re always careful to let students know that the F-1 visa is not a guarantee of employment. The quality of the candidate and the availability of CFI positions are both factors. But this is the path pursued by most career helicopter pilots today, and the F-1 visa makes it possible for international students. 
Now that you understand what the F-1 is all about, you also understand why it makes us unique. For European students, in fact, we are the only helicopter flight school in the US that offers both the F-1 visa and joint EASA-FAA certification, which makes us the clear choice for all European students. Ready to make that choice? Contact our friendly Admissions team to get started.