I apologize for the long answer, but there are many possible career paths in aviation and there are many factors you should consider before starting. I suggest you stick with your school work until you have thoroughly investigated all aspects of the training, career, lifestyle, etc. I also usually recommend that people do get a college degree before becoming a pilot. It will make you more competitive in the job market, provide a backup for you, and broaden your skills and experiences.
To help you make your decision, I recommend that you visit a helicopter flight school and arrange for an introductory lesson. These short lessons will give you a taste of helicopter flight, and the school staff can answer many of your questions.
Here are some examples of the types of jobs you can do as a helicopter pilot. These are civilian jobs, but don't neglect looking into the military if you think it might be for you.
Air Ambulance: You will pick people up from car crashes and take them to the hospital. Often this will be quicker for them if they are far away from the center of the big city.
News: You will take a camera man to get aerial footage of news as it happens. They also do traffic reports, etc. There are also a lot of people who do video/photography full time, not just for the news.
Police: Chase bad guys, and coordinate the ground units. They usually want their pilots to be police officers for a few years first.
Tours: There are often tour/charter companies in most cities. The Grand Canyon, Alaska, and Hawaii are also popular places for helicopter tour operators.
Forestry/Vertical Reference: These jobs are where you will pick up cargo or trees (logging industry) with the helicopter and haul it somewhere. It's a pretty specialized skill and hard to get into it.
Corporate: This is where you will take people to work. They will typically be business executives though; think Donald Trump. These are the best paying jobs, but you need a lot of experience to get them.
Fire Fighting: These jobs are often seasonal. I'm sure you've seen on the TV before where they dump the water on forest fires, etc.
Offshore Oil Platforms: This is the other case where you take people to work. The workers on the offshore oil rigs need to be taken to and from the rigs. This is often your first 'real' job as a helicopter pilot and your first chance to get into larger aircraft. The most common place to work is in the Gulf of Mexico.
Flight Instructor: Once you get your licenses, you may have 150-200 hours of flight time. With so little time, you will need to build hours by instructing new students. You usually do this until about 1000 hours of flight time, then move on to one of the others, especially offshore.
Requirements (Civilian, US):
You will undergo flight and ground training, a flight physical, written tests, and practical tests. A private helicopter license takes 40 hours minimum flight time, and a commercial license takes 150 hours minimum. An instrument rating requires 40 hours. The most efficient way is to complete this rating while working on your commercial. The average student is able to finish private, instrument, and commercial ratings within the 150 hours, assuming consistent training.
With a commercial certificate and 150 hours, few, if any, employers will hire you due to your lack of experience. Most people therefore get a flight instructor certificate as well. Instructing will usually be your first job until you have about 1000 hours of flight time. Then, you can move on to flying offshore or tours. Schools do often hire their own graduates and help with job placement, but there are never any guarantees. Flight schools are a great place to make industry connections, but do not assume that there will be a job waiting for you when you finish training.
How long it will take depends on how frequently you fly, and what your ultimate goals are. I've seen some people complete all of their ratings (private, instrument, commercial, CFI, CFII) in as little as 8 months. I have also seen others take several years just to get their private.
How often you fly will depend on three things: your schedule, the flight school's schedule, and the availability of funds. Any one of those may cause you to get stuck, and to take longer. Do some research, and plan ahead carefully to minimize delays created by any of these.
Once you start instructing, you might be able to get 1000 hours in 12-18 months at an average school.
Flight time is the bulk of the expense. If your average instruction rate is $250/hr., then 150 hours will cost$37,500. Your books, supplies, written tests, CFI/CFII (flight instructor) training, etc. will be in addition to that. Furthermore, many flight schools will require some minimum experience before they hire you as an instructor, between 200 and 300 hours. Some or all of the additional time may come out of your pocket as well. $250 x 200 = $50,000 + some of the expenses mentioned above.
To find a helicopter school near you, you can refer to this website:
Vertical Reference is also a great site for the helicopter industry in general, and the forum in particular is a good resource for many of your questions.
Choosing a Flight School:
There is no one best school out there. There are many good ones, and there are some bad ones. It will be up to you to find out if the school is good or bad, and you should do A LOT of homework before starting. Please avoid the schools that make grand promises about being a helicopter pilot and then require full payment up front for their program. Here are some other things to consider:
- There are many schools that allow you to pay as you go.
- Make sure the school will have enough aircraft and instructor availability to meet your needs. You don't want your training to take longer because you are unable to fly as often as you like.
- Many schools hire their own graduates, but do not assume that you will automatically get a job with them after graduating. There may not be enough positions available to accommodate all graduates.
- Delays will always cause you to spend more money, but try to find a school that will not penalize you for taking a break from flying, or for failing to complete the training for some reason. You never know what is going to happen, don't let yourself get stuck.
- With regard to safety, you can always check if the school you plan to attend has any accident records. Go to the NTSB website, and do a search with the name of the school, and see what comes up.
- CAVEAT EMPTOR, when looking at ANY flight school. You're making a huge investment in time, effort, and money. Give this decision the careful consideration and research it deserves.
On Training Aircraft:
The two main civilian training aircraft are the Robinson 22 and the Schweizer 300. Investigate the differences between the two, as there are pros and cons to each. Some people prefer one or the other. I personally prefer the Schweizer. Be sure to look a step ahead and consider the types of flight instructor positions available for someone with experience each one. Once you get to 1000 hours or so and start looking for a "real" pilot position, which one you flew becomes much less significant. Also, you can always consider getting some experience in both during your training.
Civilian or Military:
You will also no doubt also get this answer from someone: "Join the army, it's free", like it's the easiest thing in the world. The military is an awesome option for many people. It is not 'free', but they do pay for your training. Remember, not everyone who joins the military automatically becomes a pilot, so find out about that first. Civilian or military, you will be making a huge commitment and it will take a great effort to finish. Understand fully every aspect of what you are getting into before you start.
Some people make the argument that you should fly airplanes first to save money. They assume this to be true rather than actually tallying the costs to see if it holds true. They are basing this on the assumption that you will finish your helicopter add-ons in the minimum time. Also, they often forget that a commercial helicopter license only requires 150, not 250 hours. In my opinion, if you really want to fly helicopters, then fly helicopters.
Check out this website for examples of salaries:
Expect that your first instructing job's salary will be rather low. You might earn $25K-$30K at an average busy school.
For Further Information:
Aviation is an awesome and rewarding career, but you can get burned if just dive in head first. Talk to pilots, research schools, get information from several different sources, learn about the military option, figure the costs, and go into it fully prepared and knowledgeable about every possible path towards your goals. Don't start until you can prove to yourself that the path you have selected is the right one.
Good luck, and have fun!