Helicopter Pilot

The Job and What's Involved

Helicopter FlightHelicopter pilots fly single or multi-engine helicopters for a wide range of business, leisure and emergency purposes. They are responsible for the safety of passengers, crew, cargo and the helicopter.

Helicopters are used in the UK:

  • To ferry personnel and supplies to oil and gas fields in the North Sea.
  • In operating charter or air taxi services from airports around the country.
  • By many police forces to help to support traffic management and crime-fighting operations.
  • For emergency work such as flying air ambulance services and fire-fighting.
  • For rescue work for HM Coastguard.
  • In the leisure sector, to operate scheduled holiday services, as well as short pleasure, event and sightseeing trips.
  • For crop spraying and survey work.
  • On environmental projects, such as identifying pollution sources.
  • For film, news and photography work.
  • By construction companies, for lifting heavy loads to the top of building projects.

Before taking off for any flight, pilots:

  • Check the weather conditions.
  • Check any airspace restrictions on their planned route.
  • File a flight plan.
  • Calculate the payload (weight to be carried) and fuel requirements.
  • Check the helicopter's equipment and instruments.
  • Calculate the aircraft performance at the departure and destination points.
  • Request clearance from air traffic control to take off.

On some flights, the pilot meets passengers and welcomes them on board.

During flights, pilots:

  • Navigate, using a range of navigational aids.
  • Control the height and speed of the helicopter.
  • Communicate with air traffic control.
  • Constantly monitor a range of instruments and stay prepared to deal with any unexpected situations.

At the end of a flight, the pilot lands safely and shuts down the engines. After landing, they complete post-flight paperwork and record their working hours in the duty log.

Working hours vary considerably, although there are strict regulations covering the number of hours a pilot may be on duty. Business and emergency flights may be during the day or night, or at weekends, while leisure services are normally flown in daylight hours. Occasionally, long journeys may result in pilots having to be away from home overnight.

Pilots spend a considerable amount of time sitting in a relatively cramped space. Those flying over the sea wear survival suits.

Starting salaries may be around £25,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are more than 1,000 professional helicopter pilots in the UK. Employers include helicopter operators and the emergency services. There are over 300,000 passenger-carrying flights a year in the UK sector of the North Sea. Although pilots are employed throughout the UK, there is a concentration in the east and south of England, and in the east of Scotland.

There is strong competition for vacancies, and it is not always easy for newly qualified helicopter pilots to find work until they have gained more flying experience.

Increasingly, helicopter pilots are responsible for paying for their own training. As this training is costly, it is sensible to have a Class 1 (professional) medical carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA has details of local GPs who are authorised medical examiners and can carry out the medical assessments.

Job vacancies are advertised in Flight International and on employer websites.

Education and Training

To fly helicopters commercially it is necessary to have a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL(H)) or the more advanced Airline Transport Pilot's Licence (ATPL(H)). Pilots need an ATPL(H) to be able to fly on multi-pilot, multi-engine helicopters in commercial air transportation.

There are two main ways to achieve the CPL(H):

Modular Training

Modular training involves gaining the Private Pilot Licence for helicopters (PPL(H)) and flying experience before training for the CPL(H). In general, there are no set qualifications to train for the PPL(H). The minimum age to apply for a licence is 17. Applicants also need either a Class 1 (professional) medical or a Class 2 (recreational) medical certificate. It usually costs at least £15,000 to achieve the PPL(H).

Via the modular training route, the CPL(H) requires candidates to complete a minimum of 155 hours' flying experience, a 35-hour commercial flying course and 500 hours' of theoretical study. It can be taken over a period of time to suit the trainee. Applicants need a Class 1 medical certificate, and a good understanding of English, maths and physics.

Integrated Training

The second route is integrated training for the CPL(H). Entry qualifications vary, but generally applicants require five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) including English, maths and science. They must also satisfactorily complete aptitude tests. Applicants must have a Class 1 medical certificate. This route consists of a minimum of 135 hours' flight training and 500 hours' theoretical study. Integrated CPL(H) training is full time and normally takes 12 months to complete.

It costs about £50,000 to complete the CPL(H), whatever the route. Candidates must also pay for additional board and lodging for residential courses. Sponsorships to pay for training are occasionally available but attract fierce competition. Sponsorship companies typically require a current flying qualification, a Class 1 medical and for candidates to be educated to A level/H grade level.

It is also possible for some pilots to achieve a 'frozen' ATPL(H), as well as their CPL(H). This means that they have passed all the written examinations for the ATPL(H).

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Helicopter pilots with a CPL(H) who have achieved 1,000 hours' total flight experience (of which 250 hours must be as a pilot in command) can upgrade their licence to an ATPL(H) by taking a set of bridging exams including an instrument ratings flight training course and skills test. This qualifies pilots to pilot two-crew helicopters.

There is also a range of conversion courses for pilots to learn skills in specified types and classes of helicopters.

All pilots need to train regularly and keep up to date with new developments and technology.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A helicopter pilot needs to:

  • Work well under pressure and be able to take charge in an emergency.
  • Be confident using technology.
  • Have good hand-to-eye co-ordination and spatial awareness.
  • Be reliable and responsible.
  • Be capable of concentrating for long periods of time.
  • Pay attention to detail.
  • Have the ability to solve problems, and act quickly and decisively.
  • Be able to communicate effectively.
  • Be physically fit.
  • Work well in a team.

Your Long Term Prospects

Most pilots join helicopter companies as co-pilots or second pilots. Promotion to captain requires considerable flying experience. Some senior pilots are also involved in other activities, such as marketing or management.

Experienced helicopter pilots may go on to train other pilots. They may also become self-employed as a pilot or start a business offering, for example, air taxi services, freight transport or pleasure flights.

It is possible to work abroad.

Get Further Information

The British Helicopter Association Website: www.britishhelicopterassociation.org

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), CAA House,
45-59 Kingsway, London WC2B 6TE
Tel: 020 7379 7311
Website: www.caa.co.uk

GoSkills, Concorde House,
Trinity Park, Solihull, West Midlands B37 7UQ
Tel: 0121 635 5520
Website: www.goskills.org

Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS),
4 Hamilton Place, London W1J 7BQ
020 7670 4300
Website: www.aerosociety.com

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