HAI (Helicopter Association International) is an organization and advocacy group for helicopter pilots, owners, operators and associated businesses. Not only do they support the growth of business, but they also push for a safer flight environment with support from pilots, and industry research. HAI puts forth a tremendous amount of effort for pilots, their welfare and future. The following is an excerpt from their website, http://rotor.org, about what it takes to become a helicopter pilot. The article is followed by a similar article published by AOPA.
There are several basic requirements for obtaining any U.S. pilot’s certificate:
- Meet minimum age requirements (with few exceptions, 17 years old)
- Read, speak, write, and understand the English language
- Receive appropriate flight training, with an instructor’s logbook endorsement confirming the training
- Pass a written, oral, and practical test.
Note: The following FAQs are based on U.S. federal aviation regulations for earning a U.S. private pilot’s certificate for rotorcraft. Additional requirements may exist in countries other than the United States of America. Be sure to check with your country’s aviation authority.
I Already Have a Fixed-Wing Pilot’s Certificate
What are the requirements for me to add a rotorcraft rating?
If you hold a private pilot certificate or higher and a current 3rd-class or higher medical certificate, you must complete a minimum of 20 hours dual instruction and 10 hours of solo flight. (Thirty hours of dual is more typical.) You will need to pass an oral exam and check ride. You will not need to take the written exam again.
How much will it cost?
As was the case with your fixed-wing certificate, how much it costs depends on how long it takes you. $8,000 to $10,000 is fairly typical. As with fixed-wing aircraft, if you want a career as a pilot, you’ll need at least a commercial certificate, which will mean additional training and additional cost.
How different is flying a helicopter from flying an airplane?
In cruise flight, there is little difference between a helicopter and an airplane. Moving the stick left or right banks the helicopter, creating a horizontal component of lift that turns the aircraft, and pedals are used to align the nose of the helicopter with the direction of flight. The real difference is when your airspeed approaches zero: the take-off, the landing, and of course, the hover. Emergency procedures are entirely different as well and will require you to learn to manage and mitigate new risks that you have not faced before as a fixed-wing pilot.
My certificate was issued by a country other than the United States.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will issue private pilot certificates to holders of private pilot or higher certificates issued by other nations if the foreign pilot license meets certain requirements.
I’m Starting from Scratch
How do I find a flight school?
Check the HAI Membership Directory. Nearly 200 HAI members offer pilot training. Just select “Pilot Training” under Type of Product or Service.
How long will it take?
That depends on you and the weather. The FAA requires a minimum of 40 flight hours of instruction, of which at least 20 hours must be with an instructor and 10 hours must be solo. For most student pilots, 50 to 60 hours is more typical. Reaching that level of flight experience will take most people between six months and a year. Federal aviation regulations (14 CFR 61.109(c)).
What will I learn?
Basic airmanship, navigation, and emergency procedures — both how to avoid emergencies and how to get out of them. You’ll also learn the regulations that govern flying. It’s all outlined in the federal aviation regulations (14 CFR 107(b)(3)).
How much will it cost?
There’s no way around it — learning to fly is not inexpensive. You’re renting a helicopter and paying for your instructor’s time. You can expect to pay between $11,000 and $16,000, depending on where you live and how many hours it takes you. The good news is that at many schools, you pay as you go.
If you want a career as a helicopter pilot, you will need additional certificates (commercial or higher), which will require additional training and additional cost.
I Learned to Fly Helicopters in the Military
Most civilian aviation authorities allow military pilots to credit their military flight experience toward a civil pilot’s certificate. U.S. regulations say that military pilots who can document that they are or were a pilot in the U.S Armed Forces, that they graduated from a U.S. Armed Forces undergraduate pilot training school and received a rating qualification as a military pilot, and that they passed a pilot proficiency check and instrument proficiency check may apply for a commercial pilot’s certificate
Similar requirements under the same U.S. regulation apply to military pilot instructors and military pilot examiners seeking a civilian flight instructor’s certificate.
AOPA: Rotorcraft Rookie: 10 lessons from learning to fly helicopters.
One of the great joys of aviation is the many unique ways it can be experienced. It can be lazy, thrilling, technical, or artistic. What binds it all is a love of being in the sky and defying gravity.
Aerodynamic principles stay the same, but are applied in different ways
You’ve heard of torque, angle of attack, and lift. You generally know what they mean and how they apply to an airplane. Obviously these terms, and all the others that you learn in pilot training, are the same for helicopters. What’s different is how they are applied. Lift is a great example. What’s always helpful to a fixed wing can be detrimental to one that’s rotating. That’s because the speed at which it hits the relative wind varies depending on whether it’s advancing or retreating. This causes a whole host of issues that designers have had to deal with. It’s also one factor that limits a helicopter’s airspeed.
Flying a helicopter is like playing drums or juggling
Rub your stomach and pat your head. Juggle three things at once. Make any cliché you want about multitasking and it will probably describe flying a helicopter pretty well. The only analogy you can make to an airplane is to imagine if the throttle somehow controlled lift and if the rudder was really floppy. You’d be forced to constantly manipulate each of the controls, which is what helicopter pilots do. There is a positive aspect to this, which is that the controls are quite direct, making it very maneuverable.
There is a negative transfer of learning from airplanes
All my aviation experience prior to flying helicopters involved a sort of building-blocks approach. Each new skill was based more or less on the previous skill. Additional class ratings simply came down to differences training. Such is not the case with helicopters. In some cases, fixed-wing knowledge is a hindrance. This is especially true with low-G mast bumping in the Robinson. Most poignant for me was when I was maneuvering for a steep approach and I saw the airspeed bleed off fairly quickly. My first thought was “stall!” when I was actually right where I needed to be.
…but some things will translate
I can’t imagine trying to learn how to talk on the radio and hover at the same time. It’s incredible to me that people learn this, navigation, and all the other aviation basics while flying a helicopter. All of these skills are considerably easier to learn in an airplane, and transfer nicely to a helicopter. There are a few minor differences, but they are easy to pick up.
Helicopters can’t do it all
This, more than anything, surprised me. A helicopter can take off vertically in most cases, but that doesn’t mean it should. Like an airplane, a certain amount of forward speed provides a safety margin. I guess I had this vision of a helicopter being able to take off and land anywhere at any time. But light helicopters can no more take off vertically with a full load at a high airport on a hot day than a Cessna 172 can take four people and full fuel. There are performance limitations, and in the case of the helicopter, a significant risk associated with flying with little or no forward speed within a few hundred feet of the ground.
…but they can do lots of amazing things
All that said, helicopters are incredible machines. One of the negative transfer aspects for an airplane pilot is recognizing that you can go anywhere. Airports become less restrictive, traffic patterns become less regimented, and a whole world of landing sites await. Not to mention incredible views, in part because helicopters aren’t subject to the same minimum altitude regulations. Hovering is magical, as is the ability to autorotate in any direction. Even getting one off the ground is a wonderous occasion when you consider the immense aerodynamic challenges that had to be overcome.
Engine failures are serious
Obviously any engine failure is an emergency, even if the aircraft has one, two, or three others to help carry the load. But for a single-engine helicopter, an engine failure is a very serious problem. That’s especially true in a Robinson, where the pilot has literally a second or two to act before the helicopter will stop flying. Because of this, helicopter pilots are constantly looking for a place to land, and considering what they would do if the engine quit. Airplane pilots do this as well, but most get out of the routine at a safe cruising altitude. The good news for the helicopter pilot is that if it does fail and he reacts properly, very little space is needed to make an emergency landing.
You will feel like you’re starting over
Adding on a category rating is not the same thing as adding a class rating. Other than a few aforementioned tasks, you might as well throw out your fixed wing certificate when you start flying helicopters because it isn’t worth much. You will feel like you’re starting over, which can be both frustrating and fun. I scheduled to fly twice a week most weeks and it took me five months and approximately 35 hours. That’s more or less a full pilot course.
…which is a great thing
Flying has always been fun. But it’s recently only been fun in the adult sense. It’s a sensible and fulfilling fun. Learning to fly helicopters was kid fun. It’s the ride a roller coaster, eat a huge ice cream cone, and stay up late kind of fun. I rushed to every lesson. I thought about it morning and night. I felt giddy when I got to fly. It completely recaptured the exhilaration of flying, that feeling of pure joy, passion, and yes, fun. For this reason alone it’s worth it. Getting to learn all about another side of aviation, expanding horizons, and all that was great. But to feel like aviation is all new again—that’s special.