Helicopter Pilot Salaries - Are you flying for food?

Helicopter pilot salaries lower than their fixed wing counterparts, why?...

This is a good question; I get emails all the time from people considering helicopter flight training, and a career change. The common question is what kind of salary can they expect and how long will it take to achieve as they weigh this against the high cost of training. When the cost of training and the risk involved is weighed against average salaries, helicopter pilots are in deed very low paid.

Some say that it is relative to the value of equipment being operated, but this statement is hogwash. A new-hire truck driver operating a 100k vehicle gets paid as much or more than the average new-hire helicopter pilot operating a helicopter worth several million. Here are the reasons helicopter pilots are low-paid compared to their fixed wing counterparts:

  • Poor regulation of experience versus risk. This is an FAA failing, and the reason for the rediculous new HEMS regulations. The FAA does not differentiate experience requirements by risk. The helicopter industry basically regulates itself by insurance costs. For example, in the helicopter industry an insurance company will not insure an operator for a low-time pilot where in the fixed wing industry they will. It is simple risk management. If helicopters only flew from airport-to-airport, their risk would be low as well. Despite the fact that helicopter operations are much higher risk than fixed wing, some operators are willing to put minimally experienced pilots at the controls, whatever the minimum that insurance will allow. Take the low number of hours required to fly HEMS for example.
  • Helicopter pilots will fly-for-food. Due to the fact that pilot demand far exceeds availability of pilots, operators have lowered the number of hours required to get a job with them. Inexperienced helicopter pilots are eager to fly and will fly for minimal salaries in a demand regulated business.
  • Lack of professionalism. When compared to their fixed wing counterparts. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of very professional helicopter pilots; but when compared to their fixed wing counterparts, it's a different animal. This ought to upset a few helicopter pilots but hey, if you don't like it, change it. Just hang around a few airline Captains and First Officers, then hang around a few helicopter pilots; you'll see in about 5-minutes what I am talking about. Helicopter pilots within the same organization but at different locations will act as though the other is a red-headed-stepchild making complaints about the other pilots etc.; imagine how they act when it is a different company, pure hatred; very unprofessional. You'll never see this back-stabbing cutthroat mentality in the fixed wing market.
  • Lack of stick-togetherness. Again, compared to their fixed wing counterparts. When you have pilots willing to fly-for-food, they are not going to help the other guys get salaries up. Look at the union drives some of the more experienced guys have made. There are just to many inexperienced pilots ready and eager to fly for very little, and there are many operators who are willing to overlook risk versus experience when profits are so high.
  • Profitability considering the above. Helicopters operations are profitable. HEMS, where pilot demand is the highest, is billable at 15 to 20 times the rate of almost any other helicopter operation; that is profitable, and the reason that the HEMS industry is growing so fast. Despite the risk involved, operators are willing to put inexperienced pilots at the controls if it fills the bank account. It doesn't take many flights to pay the costs of an accident; I guess that is the mentality.

That my friend just about sums up the reasons helicopter pilot salaries are so low.

Recently the FAA disclosed that they are looking at increasing the experience requirements for commuter operations due to the fact that nearly every commercial fixed wing accident that has occurred since 2001 has been commuters. Most major airlines will not schedule their crew to relocate on commuters due to the risk levels presented by the inexperienced crew flying the aircraft. In helicopter operations, only the operators of the medium and heavy aircraft require pilots to have significant experience. Of course they can be selective, and they actually pay reasonable salaries. How often do you hear of a heavy lift helicopter crashing? It's not because they don't fly either, they are out there everyday to. If they weren't, they wouldn't be in business.

Some operators have stated that increased salaries will not make pilots stay at their jobs; but rather, the reason they move on is that they want to fly bigger helicopters. This is pure hogwash. Yes, some pilots will move for the big machines and who can blame them. However, to fill positions in remote locations, operators offer what they call 'stipends, modifiers or incentives'. These are typically fixed amounts or percentages over base pay for taking the job others don't want; to get pilots to work at these locations. This alone proves that money does make a difference just like it always has. END. Jump to Top