Rescue helicopter pilots are specifically trained in aspects of emergency response and are employed by the military, law enforcement agencies and private organizations alike. Such pilots are most commonly used for search-and-rescue operations, emergency medical services, tactical law enforcement missions, and rescue-related transport of personnel and supplies. Salaries will vary based on numerous factors, including a pilot's past experience in emergency response situations, a particular area's need for search-and-rescue, and the number of other pilots seeking jobs on rescue choppers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, commercial pilots flying nonscheduled routes, including helicopter rescue pilots, earned a mean annual wage of $82,430 in May of 2014. This equates to an average hourly rate of $39.62. The bottom 10 percent earned as little as $35,250 a year, or $16.95 per hour, while the top 10 percent raked in as much as $141,210, or $67.89 per hour. However, Simply Hired notes that rescue pilots in particular commanded a mean annual wage of just $56,000, or $26.92 per hour, based on salaries referenced by employers in their job listings.
State by State Comparison
Geography plays a large part in salaries because different states have different demands for rescue helicopter pilots. Not surprisingly, states with high civilian populations like Texas, California and Florida had the highest employment levels and often paid close to the national mean. However, states with the highest concentration of jobs, such as Arizona, Montana and Alaska, often paid less than the national mean thanks to increased competition. The top-paying states were New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas, all of which had a mean annual salary of at least $13,000 over the national average.
Effect of Education & Experience on Salary
Training and experience are crucial when determining a rescue pilot's worth. Those in their first 5 to 10 years of employment should expect to make below the national mean, while seasoned pilots with 10 to 20 years of experience routinely earn at or above the average. All rescue pilots must have a commercial rotorcraft license to even accept paid work, which first entails logging several hundred hours of flight time at a private aviation school or training facility and meeting minimum FAA health requirements. Possessing a bachelor's degree in a related field such as aeronautics or aviation technology as well may increase a starting salary by several thousands of dollars. Having flight instructor credentials or an air rescue certificate from a respected institution is even more valuable.
Job Market Trends
The Department of Labor expects the demand for commercial helicopter pilots to increase by about 9 percent between 2012 and 2022, particularly for rescue pilots who have logged a large number of flight hours, as military and law enforcement continue to depend on experienced air support for tactical, medical and rescue operations. Job prospects appear especially optimistic thanks to limited competition amidst this growing demand. In addition, job satisfaction is generally high among all chopper pilots, including search-and-rescue, with many surpassing 20 years of service to ultimately command among the highest incomes in their industry.
2016 Salary Information for Airline and Commercial Pilots
Airline and commercial pilots earned a median annual salary of $111,270 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, airline and commercial pilots earned a 25th percentile salary of $77,450, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $166,140, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 124,800 people were employed in the U.S. as airline and commercial pilots.