Today’s article is slightly different compared to the usual Pilots Who Ask Why content here. I get a lot of questions on how I got where I am in my career, what the process looked like for me, and where others who are looking to do the same could start.
I’ve just been promoted to HEMS commander, after 5 years of having a blast as a First Officer, and almost 10 years of flying helicopters! It’s a handy checkpoint for me to stop for a second, look at the big picture, and give a summarised overview of my own journey so far, for those interested in a similar career. From starting out as a student pilot, to the air ambulance adventures I get to experience nowadays.
I’ll be going over the challenges and questions I had to answer when I started my career, as well as my experiences throughout. I have seen a lot of students of mine struggle with similar things, so the goal here is to share with others what I found out the hard way.
When I started my career, there were a lot of different people who helped me based on their own experiences, so the least I could do is return the favour! As usual, for any questions I can help with – feel free to get in touch via email, LinkedIn, or simply leave a comment below. Let’s dive in.
A Helicopter or a Fixed Wing Career?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have aviation in my life since I was little. My dad was an airline pilot and inspired me to pursue a career as a pilot. I did a fair amount of gliding, but helicopters always seemed much more interesting to me, compared to planes.
When I saw a helicopter hover in real life for the first time, I was just in awe. They just don’t look like they should just be floating still in the air, yet they can!
The cool thing about helicopters is that you can use them for so many unique and valuable operations. The fact that we use them so often to save lives is definitely part of what made me choose them over planes.
“If you are in trouble anywhere in the world, an airplane can fly over and drop flowers, but a helicopter can land and save your life”Igor Sikorsky
Seeing the air ambulance land in a small garden when I was little, and seeing the medical crew get out to assist someone in a medical emergency, has definitely made a massive impact on me.
Whether you choose planes or helicopters ultimately comes down to preference. I don’t think anyone should pick their career based on what the market looks like. As long as you realise they’re two very different career paths.
The aviation market is known for it’s cycles. One day everything is doom and gloom with people panicking, when one year later all the airlines and operators don’t know where to get the pilots from. The last few years we’ve been through are a textbook example…
I wouldn’t let all the hysteria influence your decision. Instead, look at what you’re passionate about, and how you would like to use your flying skills to add value to the world.
Passion is definitely required, as there will be a lot of sacrifices along the way. It won’t be worth it if you don’t love the type of flying, plain and simple. Long days, working at night, low pay when you start out at your first job, and many other negatives are just part of the journey. I’ve always tried to just embrace those and enjoy it as much as possible.
Training to Become a Pilot
So for me, helicopters were the way forward. But the next question was, how the hell am I going to find out where to go, or where to even start?
During the last year of my Aerospace Engineering degree, I created a massive excel spreadsheet. It had almost all the helicopter training schools in the world, with their costs, job opportunities, location, and VISA requirements.
I visited and called with as many as possible, spoke to the students and instructors that were already there via email, and took some trial flights. My final choice was mainly based on the opportunities after training.
Doing your research is the main key here. Look beyond what people promise, and try to speak to as many people as possible, especially people who don’t work directly for the place you’re interested in.
Ask for links between the flight school and the industry. Are there airline cadet schemes? Do they offer any scholarships? Where did students who have now finished flight school actually end up. Contact them and ask about their own experience there as a student. At the very least attend a career day, but be mindful that they’ll always paint an overly optimistic picture.
At the end of the day, the flight school you choose to start your career at will have a massive impact on the trajectory you’re going to follow. This is the place you will start your connections, get surrounded by a certain type of person, and it’s where you’ll be physically present most of the time, for at least a year. So take the time to pick carefully.
You might not need to move country like I had to, but choosing a school purely based on location is often not the best thing to do. Unless it literally does not fit into your life otherwise.
I did everything full time, but you don’t have to. Plenty of successful pilots did the training while working part time on the side to change careers, just make sure you can focus on flying when you set time aside for it. We’ll cover modular vs integrated training in a future article.
How to get Your First Job as a Pilot
Getting your first job as a pilot is by far the biggest challenge of a pilot’s career. Once you get your career kickstarted with some sort of experience, most pilots are fine from then onwards. But getting your foot in the door at that first opportunity can be tricky. Where should you start?
Well, as discussed earlier, step 1 is making sure there are some options at either the flight school you choose to train, or to make sure the school you pick has direct links with employers.
There are a lot of employers in the world who have professional programmes with certain flight schools. Making use of these is vital to be ahead of the game from the beginning. Nothing is ever a guarantee, but you should use whatever you can to get closer to success.
For me, I made my decision on what flight school to go to mainly based on career opportunities. It paid off massively. I was granted a Flight Instructor scholarship after a selection process, and a day after getting my flight instructor licence, I was teaching people how to fly: actually getting paid to fly!
No first job out there is particularly glamorous, but if you’re passionate about flying, and are willing to live on a small income for a limited period, it is very satisfying to finally get paid for something that you don’t really consider work.
Once you’ve picked a school, see every day as an interview. Help others, network, be a decent person; all these things matter. How you treat others and how far you’re willing to go to connect and make meaningful relationships all influence your success in this industry.
Too many people still think it’s all about ‘being a good pilot’. But the saying “You can teach a monkey how to fly, but you can’t teach him not to be dick” is more accurate than we’d like to admit. This is also how a lot more companies are starting to see pilot selection: more and more focus on ‘soft’ skills.
Try to network as much as possible, speak to people, when you see someone land in a helicopter, have a chat to the pilots if you happen to be nearby. All of this can make a difference. Me and some other students I studied with all made a conscious effort to get out there and speak to as many people as possible, whether it was helicopter conventions or simply helping others out.
Life as a Helicopter Flight Instructor
I absolutely loved being a flight instructor. Flying training exercises every day, helping others achieve their dream, and even just teaching by itself can be very rewarding. It’s hard work at times, with long days and low pay, but no other job out there (other than test pilots) lets you fly helicopters or planes the way you do as an instructor.
The course itself goes over all the individual exercises required during basic training. From engine off landings, to advanced autorotations (for helicopters) and confined area landings. See my previous article here for all my personal training exercise briefings.
Whether this would be right for you depends on a lot of things. The problem is that you need flight hours to get a job, but you need a job to get flight hours. The good old catch 22.
Instructing does not require an insane amount of flying experience for a lot of flight schools. This means that it is a viable option for people trying to get started in the industry.
For the first 100 hours (in Europe), you are a restricted flight instructor. This means that everything you do with students needs to get signed off by a more experienced flight instructor.
Any issues you experience with students, whether it’s their flying progress or CRM issues, will be discussed with more experienced flight instructors as well. This is to make sure you get the guidance you need to develop your skills.
I did it for 2 years, and still miss it to this day. When you’re at the start of your career, all you can think about is flying the fancy complex heavy types, but once you fly those, there are definitely moments where you wish you could do some autorotations or downwind quickstops!
At many schools, you start at 0600 for a morning briefing amongst the other instructors, look at the plan for the day, and you do not get home after 1900. It’s long days if you’re full time, but its a lot of fun.
I can still remember the realisation that I was actually flying for a living, and getting paid for something I enjoyed doing. Nothing beats that.
If you live close to the airport it’s very manageable, but I had some colleagues who lived quite far and it can be very draining if a full day of flying is finished with another 1 hour of driving, so this is definitely something to be aware of.
Should you get a Helicopter Instrument Rating?
Then there’s the instrument rating, the rating that allows you to fly through and above clouds on instruments. Due to the ridiculous costs of becoming a pilot, a lot of people I did my training with had to choose between a flight instructor course or an instrument rating.
So the question for many was: do I go for a flight instructor or instrument rating? For fixed wing pilots aiming for the airlines, there is no way around the instrument rating, you have to get it. But for helicopters, this is a question that is harder to answer without knowing your specific circumstances.
It comes down to the financial risks involved because again, there are (usually) no guarantees for a job. A flight instructor rating is relatively low risk, as you probably have built up some connections and the flight school knows you by the time you start with this. It’s still a lot of money, but a lot more affordable compared to an instrument rating. Low Risk.
On the other hand though, the salaries for flight instructors are much lower than for instrument rated pilots and the types you get to fly as an instrument rated pilot are often more complex, in a multicrew environment. So the flight instructor route offers lower rewards as well.
For those in the helicopter industry who go straight for the IR: I have a lot of respect for you, but I personally couldn’t do it at the time due to the opportunities (or lack of) at the time, and the risks involved.
Once you go for the IR, you need to keep it current, which can be expensive. If you manage to land that job, you’re sorted for life, as the experience you will gain will set you up properly. If you don’t though, you end up with an expensive rating, with low hours, which can make that first job extremely tricky to get. It’s a tricky situation to get out of.
I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship, which meant I could do both, if you are not in that position, make sure you’re aware of the risks involved for either route. Both are viable options and depend on your personal goals.
The reality is, most companies, even the ones that have nothing to do with IFR operations, are starting to require instrument ratings now. It’s used as a risk mitigation for Inadvertent entries into cloud or degraded visual environments. So even if you aim for jobs that take place in VFR conditions, be prepared for the IR requirement.
On top of this, IFR is becoming more common for helicopters as PBN operations are starting to become more normal, meaning that operations such as HEMS, police flying, and many others can benefit from instrument ratings.
After 2 years of instructing, I had to do my IR soon to avoid my ATPL exams lapsing. If I decided to let them lapse, I had to do a lot of them again, costing more money, time, and energy.
So I decided to do my IR with a good friend of mine, who was in a similar position to myself. Having a buddy to do the IR with is a really good idea for two reasons: you can learn from each other throughout the course, and often the course is cheaper as you can share an aircraft, instructor, and a simulator in a more efficient way.
The IR itself is still considered one of the hardest courses in the helicopter industry. Depending on what type you end up flying during the IR, it requires a lot of prep, focus, and patience to pass. It’s a relatively short but expensive course, which adds pressure to perform.
You usually do 40 hours of simulator training first, then required type rating first, followed by 10 hours of actual instrument flying. We did our rating on the AS355, which was fully analogue. This is another consideration, as most types are going full glass now. So if you want a more seamless transition to the next type, try to do your IR on a more modern type if possible. (Although some will argue doing everything the ‘old school’ way with analogue instruments is better, I personally disagree).
Because it’s so expensive, it is very easy to think ‘that’s another £200, ugh!’, during a screwup causing a go-around for instance. But really try not to. It will make your performance worse and you need to spend all that energy and focus on performing the best you possibly can.
When picking a flight school for the IR, make sure they have a simulator that is similar to the real aircraft, as this will help massively with the transition and there’s not a lot of time to get accurate and comfortable with the real aircraft.
Lots of flight schools allow you to use the sim outside of normal training hours as well, this is a huge benefit – especially if you have a sim buddy to train with.
Flying for the Air Ambulance
After my instrument rating I networked like my life depended on it and applied to as many companies as possible. My aims were either offshore or HEMS. Offshore is a great way to kickstart your helicopter career, as you’ll be flying 500+ hours a year, under multi-crew conditions, IFR, multi-engine, in a hostile environment and a often a complex type. At the same time, you always have an experienced captain sitting next to you that you can learn a lot from!
I still remember the day I got the phone call to tell me I was invited for an interview at SAS, I was so excited and couldn’t believe things were really starting to get serious.
HEMS is an amazing career, but it can be trickier to progress if you’re on low hours, as you typically fly 150-200 hours per year.
I managed to get about 800 hours before entering the HEMS industry, which was great as it helped to bridge the gap to the hour requirements for both an unfrozen ATPL (which is needed to be a multi pilot commander, unless the company has an exemption), and the other commander requirements.
Before I started I was required to do a Multicrew Coordination Course (MCC). I actually ended up doing mine in a 737 simulator in Oxford, together with lots of fixed wing ATPL students.
This was definitely challenging, as I was pretty sure the last aircraft I flew at this point had a rotor system on top, not two massive wings. The course itself was great, but it was tricky at times to get my head around how to manage inertia in a passenger jet in only about 20 hours, and fly a single engine ILS etc.
After this, I went to Italy to start my AW169 type rating. It was an amazing experience and absolutely loved the training. Most of it was in a full motion simulator, followed by flying the real aircraft before getting the actual type rating on your licence.
Converting this into the way you operate in HEMS can be quite the transition. During the type rating you mainly follow a generic syllabus that pilots from all over the world go through, no matter what their intended type of operations is upon completion of the type rating.
The Operator Conversion Course (OCC) is designed to convert that ‘generic’ flying experience to one that is relevant for the operation, or in my case: HEMS. This was done back in the UK.
Before I started in HEMS, I flew from Land’s End to the Scilly Isles for a few months, carrying passengers. This was a great experience to get used to the AW169 procedures and checklists.
When I transitioned to HEMS after this, the main thing I had to get used to was the pace of the entire operation. While I was used to 40 minute briefings and 1+ hour flights, we can start up, fly and land somewhere within 10 minutes, in a complex type with lots of things to check and deal with. While it was a steep learning curve, I loved every second of it.
I still remember my first HEMS departure from base. It feels great to use your flying skills to help others, especially when up to that point, the reason for flying was a lot less extreme (i.e pleasure, training, etc).
I was curious to see how I would react to seeing the ‘not so pleasant things’ that are common in HEMS. Luckily I am ok with it, even though it’s never fun to see someone in one of their worst moments in their life. It’s definitely something to consider if you want to fly HEMS, as it is something that could affect you negatively.
Flying with such experienced captains who have flown longer than I’ve been alive is something I’ll always be grateful for. You learn so much in such a short timeframe. From dealing with unpredictable weather, flying with Night Vision Goggles, dealing with people, crowds, flying into very confined areas, regulations, how downwash affects the environment around you, flying to elevated helipads, PBN / IFR operations, and the list goes on.
When I arrive at base in the morning, I have no idea what the day is going to look like. This is one of the reasons the job stays so interesting. It’s a dynamic work environment and you need to think on your feet a lot. Plans change, routes change, patients change, weather is unpredictable sometimes, and you usually don’t know yet where you’re going to land when you’re starting up (except for at night where this is a requirement).
The amazing thing about HEMS is that it truly feels like you’re a team. Aviation and medicine working together to achieve the same goal: help patients.
I can’t recommend this industry enough for anyone interested in flying helicopters, it’s a long road but very rewarding. The people that have supported and mentored me at SAS so far couldn’t get enough recognition.
If I can do anything to help you get started or decide on a career path, just leave a comment, email me directly or contact me on LinkedIn. It’s a long road, but it’s so worth it.