An Introduction to Helicopter Schools

An Introduction to Helicopter Schools

A career as a helicopter pilot can be one of the most exciting in the world. Pilots can work in a variety of fields, saving lives, traveling the world, or reporting breaking news. Training is intense, but for those who thrive on adrenaline, the career provides something new and exhilarating every day. Flying a chopper can provide as many rewards as it requires sacrifices.

Careers as a Helicopter Pilot

Helicopter pilots can work in many industries, either for a commercial organization or for private use.

Some of the jobs helicopter pilots can train for include:

  • Air Taxi/Public Passenger
  • EMS
  • Firefighting
  • Forestry
  • Game Control
  • Law Enforcement
  • Military
  • News Media/Traffic Reporting
  • Search and Rescue

Types of Schools for Helicopter Pilot Training

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) classifies pilot training programs into those that are FAA-approved and those that are non-approved. FAA-approved schools, also called Part 141 schools, must meet rigorous training standards as defined by the FAA. These schools offer an assurance of having high quality equipment, programs, facilities, and personnel. Non-approved schools, or Part 61 schools, may offer quality programs that are equal to or exceed FAA standards, but because they do not seek certification, they are considered non-approved schools.

A significant difference between approved and non-approved training programs is the hours required to earn a pilot's certificate. A private pilot's certificate can be earned in 35 hours in an approved school, while studying through a non-approved school takes a minimum of 40 hours. Another key difference is financial aid. Most financial aid providers require a flight school be Part 141 to be eligible for funding. Finally, Part 61 schools tend to be smaller and work at a more leisurely pace than do FAA-approved Part 141 schools. This can be a great option for part-time training or for those seeking a more personal instruction approach.

All helicopter training should cover the four basics: climbing, descending, turning, and level flying. Training should also include hovering, take-offs (pick-ups) and landings (set downs), air taxiing, quick stops, autorotations, confined area landings, and cross-country flying. Students should consider completing a majority of their training in a Robinson R-22 helicopter, as this is one of the most common helicopters used by employers.

Aspiring pilots can pursue training at a specialized flight school, such as Silverhawk Aviation Academy. At Silverhawk, aspiring pilots can train under Part 141 and Part 61 to become professional or recreational helicopter pilots. Certifications are available for private helicopter pilot, commercial helicopter pilot (with and without instrument rating), and certified flight instructor.

At Rotorwoks in Whitecourt, Alberta, students can receive specialized instruction for piloting in the oilfield and gas industry. Training is available for both commercial and private pilot certifications.

The University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which has campuses in Prescott, Arizona, and Daytona Beach, Florida, offer four-year degrees for pilots. Embry-Riddle offers a bachelor of science in aeronautical science that can be earned with a minor in helicopter flight, while the University of North Dakota offers a bachelor degree in aviation that can be customized for helicopter pilots.

Choosing a Helicopter School or Training Program

When selecting a school, it is a good idea to develop a list of personal criteria. Talking with professional pilots, reading industry magazines, and studying up on the industry in general are great ways to gauge what one needs from a training program.

In an article called "Choosing Your Flight School," the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Magazine suggests creating a checklist that covers the following when researching pilot programs:

  • Adherence to safety regulations
  • Aircraft used in training
  • Cost and financial aid options
  • Goals and philosophy of the school and how they match the student's
  • How long the school has been operating
  • Instructor credentials
  • Instructor-student ratio
  • Insurance requirements
  • National accreditation

Deciding what personal requirements are most important is a great way for prospective students to select a school.

Helicopter Pilot Licensing & Certification

An FAA Student Certificate is required for flight students to fly solo during their training. Requirements for the student certificate include being at least 16 years old, having at least a third-class medical certificate (discussed later in this article), and the ability to speak, understand, and read English.

FAA requirements for commercial helicopter pilot certificates include:

  • Current FAA medical certificate
  • Current private pilot helicopter certificate
  • Minimum age of 18 years old
  • Minimum 100 hours of "Pilot in Command" (PIC) flight time, including at least 35 hours PIC in a helicopter
  • Minimum 150 hours flight time
  • Must read, write, understand, and speak English
  • Pass an oral and practical FAA flight test
  • Pass a FAA written commercial knowledge exam

FAA requirements for private helicopter pilots include:

  • Complete 10 hours of solo flying with a minimum flight time of 40 hours
  • Current FAA medical certificate
  • Minimum age of 17 years old
  • Must speak, read, write, and understand English
  • Pass an oral and practical FAA flight test
  • Pass a FAA written knowledge exam

Medical Requirements for Helicopter Pilots

Helicopter pilots must obtain a medical certificate from the FAA in order to become certified. Three classes of medical certificates are available:

  • First class medical: Required for airline transport pilots; good for six months
  • Second class medical: Required for commercial pilots; good for 12 months
  • Third class medical: Required for private and student pilots; a second class medical certificate becomes a third class medical certificate after 12 months

Students are advised to obtain a medical certificate before beginning a training program in case they have a medical condition that could prevent them from obtaining a helicopter pilot's license.

The FAA medical requirements include specific visual acuity, minimum hearing standards, mental exclusions, and other cardiovascular, neurological, equilibrium, and nose and throat requirements.


There are many requirements and options when it comes to a career at the helm of a whirlybird. Having a clear idea of one's career goals and thoroughly researching the programs that can take one there is a great way to ensure a successful training period and sensational career.

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