August 12, 2021 Pilot Pipeline

How to Become a Helicopter Pilot

Everything You Need to Know

If you want to become a helicopter pilot, then you came to the right place!

Just about everyone looks to the sky when they hear a helicopter flying overhead. I have been intrigued by helicopters, and those who fly them, since I was young. A helicopter is an incredible piece of machinery: they are agile, fast, and can reach places that a fixed wing aircraft could never. 

Many people dream of becoming a helicopter pilot. If you share this dream, but are unsure of the process, then you came to the right place. Becoming a helicopter pilot takes a lot of work, but the end result is amazing. Plus, you can get paid to carry out your dream – there’s nothing better than that. 

In order to become a helicopter pilot, you need to meet certain criteria before, throughout, and after your training. Here’s what you need to know and do before you qualify to become a helicopter pilot. 

Minimum Requirements to Become a Helicopter Pilot

For a private helicopter pilot certificate, you must be:

  • At least 17 years old
  • Fluent at reading, writing and speaking English
  • Able to provide proof of identity
  • Able to qualify for and obtain a 3rd class FAA medical certificate

For a commercial helicopter pilot license, you must be:

  • At least 18 years old
  • Fluent at reading, writing and speaking English
  • Able to provide proof of identity
  • Able to qualify for and obtain a 2nd class FAA medical certificate
  • A licensed private helicopter pilot

FAA Medical Certificates

An FAA medical exam needs to be completed before you start your flight training and must be conducted by an official FAA Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). The FAA lists all AME’s on their website – click here to find one near you. 

FAA medical exams clear you to fly and ensure that you are physically fit to do so. Most people are able to pass an FAA medical exam. To learn more about FAA medical certificates and standards, check out the FAA website. 

The FAA has three different classes of medicals: 1st class, 2nd class, and 3rd class. The three medical classes all have different requirements and standards. To learn everything you need to know about medical certificates, read this article. 

If you meet the basic requirements and pass a medical exam, you are ready to move onto the next step of the process: selecting a flight school. 

Selecting a Flight School

Things to Consider

There are many factors to consider when selecting your flight school, and believe it or not, it is not all about time and money. Here are 5 of the most important factors to consider when choosing your flight school.

  1. Aircrafts & instructors available for school
    1. You should consider the number of aircraft and instructors available at each flight school. This gives you a backup plan if an instructor leaves or an aircraft is grounded for maintenance.
  2. Maintenance and safety
    1. You shouldn’t select an inexpensive option at the expense of safety! I highly recommend visiting prospective flight schools. While you’re there, speak with instructors and students, take an introductory flight, and check out the operation. 
  3. Location, location, location
    1. If possible, choose a flight school that is close to home if you are not training full-time in an accelerated program. The further the flight school, the more excuses to procrastinate and push off your training. If you are looking at accredited or collegiate programs, moving to their location, at least temporarily, is a good idea.
  4. Cost of training
    1. While money isn’t everything, flight training costs can add-up quickly. Before committing to anything, compare the costs of different training providers and look into other sources of funding. 
  5. Time to complete training
    1. Time is everyone’s most valuable asset. Before committing to training, consider the potential different paths you can take to achieve your aviation goals, and evaluate what makes the most sense for you based on your current needs and priorities. To learn more about the different types of training providers, read this article.

Some Additional Resources

The Pilot Pipeline Flight School Finder is a great tool to help you search for flight schools and make an informed decision. This tool allows you to sort through schools based on rating, location, military needs, and much more.

Feeling confused about your next steps? Sign up for a free 1-on-1 consulting session to discuss your goals and formulate a forward-looking strategy. 

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Helicopter Pilot?

All of your flight training is probably going to cost you somewhere between $58,000 and $92,000 on the very high end. However, the average cost of training is roughly $75,000. I would plan to budget based on the following figures:

  1. Private Pilot Certificate: $12,000 to $18,000
  2. Instrument Rating: $12,000 to $18,000
  3. Commercial Pilot Certificate: $18,000 to $35,000
  4. Certified Flight Instructor (if you plan on instructing): $5,000 to $12,000
  5. Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument: $5,000 to $12,000

How Much Money Do Helicopter Pilots Make? 

As a new commercial helicopter pilot, you will likely take a job as an instructor (so get your CFI while training). The average pay of a helicopter flight instructor is roughly $30,000 per year. 

Once you build roughly 1,000 hours of flight time while instructing, you can move to a new job, such as a tour guide or emergency services pilot. Tour guides will make between $40,000 and $50,000 whereas emergency services pilots make between $50,000 and $90,000. Firefighting helicopter pilots make good money, about $75,000 per fire season. 

As you build experience, you can pursue better jobs such as flying for business executives and VIPs or being a pilot for an offshore oil rig. In these roles, you will likely make more than $100,000 per year.

Financing Your Flight Training

Although training can be very expensive, it is definitely worth it – just ask any pilot. Thankfully, there are plenty of financing options out there (Scholarships, grants, loans, etc.). 

Pilot Pipeline offers a Scholarship Finder to its Premium members, which allows you to sort and filter through over $25 million worth of scholarships based on demographics, ratings, organization, and much more. 

If you are interested in learning more about other financing options, read this article.

The Fun Part – Flight Training!

Before you start flying, you’ll have to receive ground instruction from your flight instructor. The instructor will teach you about helicopter systems and operations, emergency procedures, navigation, regulations, chart reading, meteorology, and more. 

A great resource to have for ground school is the ASA Helicopter Flying Handbook. Once the instructor feels you are ready, they will sign off and allow you to take the written exam. Once you pass this test, you are ready to get up in the air.  

There are a variety of pilot certifications you can pursue, and they all have different requirements for training and flight hours. Please note that these are minimum hours and most students will take longer to reach proficiency. 

Private Pilot Certificate

The FAA requires at least the following flight experience before you can take your practical exam:

  • 40 total flight hours
  • 20 hours with a flight instructor
  • 10 hours of solo flight including:
    • 3 takeoffs and landings at an airport with an operating control tower
    • 3 hours of solo cross country flight
    • One solo cross country flight of at least 100 nautical miles, with takeoffs and landings at at least 3 points, and at least one leg longer than 25 nm.
  • 3 hours of cross country flight training
  • 3 hours of night flight training that include at least 10 takeoffs and landings
    • One night cross country flight of at least 50 nautical miles
  • 3 hours of flight training with a CFI in the 60 days before your practical exam

Instrument Rating

The FAA requires at least the following flight experience before you can take your practical exam:

  • 50 hours of cross country flying as PIC
    • 10 of these hours must be in a helicopter
  • 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument flying
    • 15 of those hours must be with a properly-rated flight instructor
    • Up to 20 of your instrument flying hours may be logged in certain types of FAA-approved flight simulators or flight training devices.
  • One cross country flight with an instructor. This flight must:
    • Be at least 100 nautical miles long
    • Include an instrument approach at any airport you visit
    • Include at least 3 different kinds of instrument approaches
  • 3 hours of instrument flight training from an authorized instructor in an aircraft that is appropriate to the instrument-helicopter rating within 2 calendar months before the date of the practical test.

Commercial Pilot Certificate

  • Overall Flight Experience
    • 150 total flight hours
    • 100 hours in powered aircraft
      • 50 of these must be in helicopters
    • 100 hours of Pilot in Command time, including at least:
      • 35 PIC hours in helicopters
      • 10 PIC hours of cross country flying in helicopters


  • Commercial Pilot – Specific Training
    • 20 hours of flight training, including at least:
      • 5 hours of instrument flight training using a view-limiting device
      • One daytime 2-hour cross country flight in a helicopter that consists of a total straight-line distance of more than 50 nautical miles from the original point of departure
      • One nighttime 2-hour cross country flight in a helicopter that consists of a total straight-line distance of more than 50 nautical miles from the original point of departure
    • 10 hours of flight time either solo or acting as PIC with a flight instructor on board, including:
      • One cross-country flight with landings at a minimum of three points, with one segment that is a straight-line distance of at least 50 nautical miles from the original departure point.
      • 5 hours in night VFR conditions, including 10 takeoffs and landings at an airport with an operating control tower.
    • 3 hours of flight training with a CFI in the 60 days before your practical exam

Practical and Written Exams

Each certificate or rating will come with a written and practical exam that you must pass. Do not stress these, just study hard and you will be more than fine! I have included a list of study guides for each training course below:

  1. Private Pilot Certificate
    1. Written Exam: AOPA and Sporty’s
    2. Practical Exam: FAA Practical Test Standards (PDF | Paperback)
  2. Instrument Rating
    1. Written Exam: Sheppard Air
    2. Practical Exam:  (PDF | Paperback)
  3. Commercial Pilot Certificate
    1. Written Exam: Sheppard Air

Practical Exam: (PDF | Paperback)

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, becoming a helicopter pilot is a lot of hard work! However, it is extremely worth it if you dream of flying a helicopter. The helicopter is an incredible aircraft, and not many people can say they know how to fly one. Go on and begin pursuing your dream! Lastly, good luck to you all, and fly safely!

Career Guidance and Planning

If you are looking to pursue your Instrument Rating or manage your career and navigate the process of becoming a pilot, check out Pilot Pipeline. The software uses your current experience and end-goal to curate a custom pathway that will guide you through the process. The best part? It’s completely free! Sign up for a free account or commit to a Premium account that will grant you access to the Timeline Assistant and Scholarship Finder.

If you ever feel that you need further guidance from someone with a great deal of experience, check out Pilot Pipeline Consulting. Services range from General Career Guidance to Application Review and Interview Preparation. Set up a free 15-minute consultation to discuss your goals and develop a strategy moving forward.

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