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Prospective helicopter pilots can receive training in the military or the civilian sector. Armed forces training is highly valued because it's comprehensive and qualifies you for FAA certification. The minimum requirement for a private civilian helicopter pilot is an FAA private pilot license with a helicopter rating. In addition to ground training, this license requires at least 40 hours of flight time, including 10 hours of solo flying, according to Midwest Helicopter. You must also pass FAA oral and practical licensing exams. You can obtain the necessary training through FAA-certified flight schools, from independent instructors or through an associate's or bachelor's degree programs in aviation.
Qualifying as a Commercial Pilot
At a minimum, commercial helicopter pilots need a Federal Aviation Administration commercial rotorcraft license, but most also obtain flight instructor certification, according to the Professional Helicopter Pilot's Association. A commercial rotorcraft or helicopter license requires a minimum of 150 hours in the air, with 100 hours as pilot in command, according to the PHPA. An instrument rating is optional, but it's required for flying in poor visibility or carrying paying passengers at night or long distances, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Getting to the Level Employers Want
Although a commercial rotorcraft license technically meets the minimum job requirements, many employers require more experience, according to the PHPA. Employers often require 500 to 1,000 or more flight hours even for entry-level jobs. The most cost-effective way to accumulate so many hours is as a flight instructor. You can qualify for instructor certification with as few as 200 hours and can get paid to gain experience and qualify for other jobs, the PHPA says.
Additional Helicopter Pilot Requirements
Helicopter pilots must be able to communicate clearly in English with air traffic controllers. They need problem-solving abilities and quick reaction times to make correct choices and move rapidly in emergencies. They need good powers of observation to keep close watch on their instruments. Passing an an FAA medical exam is essential for any licensing level. Pilots must have normal color vision correctable to 20/20 and be free of handicaps that could affect their ability to fly. A history of drug abuse, heart disease or loss of consciousness may keep a pilot from passing the physical.
Helicopter Pilot Career Path
The job market for helicopter pilots is highly favorable, according to the Midwest Helicopter website. After building up your hours as an instructor, you qualify for jobs giving sightseeing tours, taking aerial photographs and working for law enforcement agencies. Some law enforcement agencies will even pay for continuing instruction. Once you have 1,500 or 2,000 hours and an instrument rating, you'll qualify for high-paying work transporting patients for emergency medical services. Other jobs for seasoned pros include flying corporate helicopters and providing transportation to offshore oil rigs.
- Professional Helicopter Pilot's Association: Becoming a Helicopter Pilot
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Airline and Commercial Pilots
- Midwest Helicopter: Becoming a Professional Helicopter Pilot
- Midwest Helicopter: Private Helicopter Pilot Certificate
- Federal Aviation Administration: Pilot Certificate Based on Military Competence