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Why Become A Helicopter Pilot?

Posted 4 years 319 days ago ago by RandyMains     4 Comments

I was flying as copilot for Ian MacPhail in a Bell 412EP over the Arabian Gulf one bright and sunny day at 300 feet en route to an oil rig, when I keyed the floor mic button and asked him, “Ian, how would you describe a helicopter pilot’s personality?

Ian, like me, had flown helicopters in Vietnam and had also made flying helicopters his career. I suppose between us we’d logged a combined 25,000 flight hours. He took a moment to think about it, then looking over at me with a smile said, “Perpetual adolescence.”

I thought about his words for a moment. “That’s it!” I exclaimed over the intercom. “In two words you’ve managed to sum up the essence of a helicopter pilot’s personality, for me anyway.”

Helicopter pilots are different. I’ve been working with them for nearly half a century, so I think I should know. I’m a helicopter pilot, so if my observation is true it means there’s something different about me too. I suspect there is … and I give thanks for that fact every day.

As well as being a helicopter pilot, I am also a keen sailor. I have been since I was 12 years old, when my grandfather would take my sister and me sailing in a rented 19-foot sloop during summer holidays off of Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California.  

Using the analogy of the sea, I view helicopter pilots as the sailors of the sky. Airline pilots are the supertanker captains. Small boat sailors ‘feel’ the boat they’re handling because their vessel is relatively light and very maneuverable. The skipper can sense every shift of the wind, feel the strength of the current, and ride the undulating motion of the ocean swells.  

On the other hand, a supertanker captain barely has control of the leviathan he commands. It can take that captain about a quarter of an hour to stop his ship from going full ahead using full reverse in a ‘crash stop’ maneuver. In that time the ship will travel nearly two miles. He is in many ways removed from the elements. He plows his ship through the seas, crushing waves, unable to really feel the vessel beneath him. He is a technical manager, much like what I imagine I would be if I were the captain of an airliner.

The main difference between flying a helicopter and flying an airliner is that a helicopter pilot never really stops flying a helicopter. It is 100 percent hands-on flying all the time. There are helicopters fitted with autopilots to relieve the pilot of his workload when he is flying from point A to point B, which usually isn’t very far. I flew a similarly fitted helicopter like that, but on every takeoff and landing (and in the oil field I may do as many as 60 in one day) I must hand-fly the machine.  

Because of the helicopter’s role in aviation, a helicopter pilot is in touch with his environment all the time, constantly surrounded by it, immersed in it. A helicopter cannot fly above the weather like an airliner. A helicopter pilot sees all day long what an airline pilot sees in the first moments of his takeoff and the last minutes of his landing.

If I were the captain of an airliner, the difficult thing for me would be the lack of variety in the job. If I flew an airliner, all I would see would be a runway in front of me when taking off or landing. When I fly my helicopter, I normally will not see a runway in front of me while taking off or landing, because most likely I will be in a remote location miles away from civilization, or in the city, or in the country, or in the mountains, or at sea. Because of the very nature of what a helicopter can do, and its nimble maneuverability, I experience endless possibilities. That is the main attraction for me to fly helicopters.  

Flying a helicopter is like the difference between going somewhere by car and going for a leisurely stroll. A helicopter pilot will see, hear, feel, and smell so much more than a pilot flying a fixed-wing. Flying a helicopter, I have the freedom to see my environment from a low altitude and low airspeed, if I choose. If I see something really interesting, I can often land to take a closer look.

For example, I can spot a mountaintop and decide to land up there and have a look around. Or I can fly my helicopter low level, following a meandering river or stream.  I can do it at 120 knots, or barely moving. The choice is mine. Or perhaps I can fly over a coastline looking for sea life, or just enjoy the view of a long, white sandy beach. I love the endless possibilities flying a helicopter affords me.

I find the freedom irresistible of being able to fly low enough or slow enough to have a good look at the landscape I’m flying over. The versatility of the helicopter spells one thing — F-R-E-E-D-O-M — the main reason I wanted to fly in the first place. In fact, I still experience that freedom every day I go aloft something that, thankfully, has never been lost on me.

If one loves to fly and has the desire to enter a career in aviation for the freedom they can experience while flying, why would one choose any other way to do it than by helicopter?

Ian’s definition of a helicopter pilot’s personality reminded me of something else a son once said to his father:

“Dad, I want to be a helicopter pilot when I grow up.”

The boy’s father thought about what the boy had said, then shook his head and answered:

 “Sorry son, I’m afraid you can’t do both.”


About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Areo.

He may be contacted at randym@oregonareo.com



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  • Rupinder Gill 4 years 312 days ago
    Hi Randy, What an article, thoroughly enjoyed reading it. "Perpetual adolescence" I think it sums up the life of a helicopter pilot. I have been a helicopter pilot for over 30 years,last flown 412 EP for Oil And Gas industry. I have enjoyed the life to the hilt. Flown over Himalayas snow clad mountains, deserts in the peak of summer, along the beaches with skids touching the water. Landed at God foresaken places and seen the world like only the God and helicopter pilots can see. What more can you ask . It just stuck me today after reading your article why I have never grown up. The excitement and sense of adventure keeps me young all day . Despite adding years to my life which is just a figure I still love to compete with people half my age. I do not know about others but definitely it sums my personality. Kudos to your writing skills, keep it up. Colonel Rupinder Gill, Veteran.
    • RandyMains 4 years 310 days ago
      Hi Rupinder. Thanks so much for taking the time to write to share similar views as to why we helicopter pilots do what we love doing. It sounds that you’ve had a varied and interesting career as well enjoying “Perpetual adolescence,” having seen the world as you so aptly put it, “Like only the God and helicopter pilots can see.” I couldn’t agree more when you say “The excitement and sense of adventure keeps me young all day.” You nailed it. Thank you for the kudos regarding my writing skills. Responses like yours from someone with your background add fuel to my own enthusiasm to keep spreading the message. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. All the very best to you, Randy Mains
  • Reshaaz Mohammed 4 years 312 days ago
    Hi there, I totally enjoyed reading the story and i some what have the same sense of feeling. I am a low hour helicopter pilot from Trinidad and Tobago, Trinidad to exact and was wondering why does it take so long to get hired with any companies ? here in Trinidad we got Bristow helicopters, National helicopter services limited, the Trinidad and Tobago air guard and i have only gotten 1 interview, bristow helicopters and apparently i did not pass the written exam for the interview but i managed to pass the oral part which is the main introduction interview, me sitting along facing a board of senior captains which i think would have been the most "difficult" part of the interview. I have met other pilots who haven't gotten through with there first, or second interviews but was successful in there other attempts, so i am hoping i can get hired as well one of these days. I do have my patience and i do other jobs but in the back of my mind, all i wanna do is full-fill my dream as a helicopter pilot. I live like 5 mins away from NHSL, and no interviews and it is like they don't hire often and when i do ask the question the response is always the same, not hiring at the moment. So what advice can you give to me ? I hope some day i can really appreciate the life of being a helicopter pilot, because the closest i have was doing my solo and that's about it. Looking forward for your reply, and have a great day sir. Reshaaz Mohammed
    • RandyMains 4 years 310 days ago
      Hello Reshaaz Mohammed Thank you for taking the time to write to let me know you enjoyed my story in this month’s issue of Rotorcraft Pro. I’m glad to hear you say you have the same sense of feeling when you’re flying. You asked me why I think it takes so long to get hired by helicopter companies. Well, you did mention you are a low-time pilot so that is most likely the reason. Companies have to employ pilots who meet certain hour criteria to satisfy the insurance company that insures them. Also, one never knows when a company will suddenly need to hire pilots. At Abu Dhabi Aviation, for example, they suddenly were awarded an air medical contract in Saudi Arabia and needed 50 pilots immediately so the recruiters went to the States and interviewed brand new airline transport pilots usually who were instrument instructors who had never flown anything but a Robinson R-22. Of the 50 pilots we needed for the contract the company hired 10 of those Robinson pilots. We trained them to fly the Bell 412 medium twin and they all did just fine. It was their big break and none of them could believe their luck. Before getting that break they were like you, asking what it would take to get that first job. Getting your first flying job, that first break is admittedly the hardest thing you will accomplish. But the key is do not give up, keep trying, try not to get discouraged because you are in good company because every one of us in the business has been where you are now in your career. I’ve found that a pilot’s attitude is the most important thing he or she can bring to the interview table. It must be a given that you are a pro, that you are a safe and conscientious pilot and that you have the integrity to be a dependable and loyal employee. Keep your attitude positive. Be the person other pilots want to have on their team, someone they want to have around. And above all, be a professional, that is, someone who does the right thing whether someone else is watching or not. Keep studying; know your aircraft and the flight regulations inside and out. Be the go-to person if someone has a question about the aircraft or the regulations. That way you become an asset to the company. Also, keep building those flight hours. That’s your major hurdle right now. If you follow my advice I promise you will eventually get hired. Best of luck, Randy Mains