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From Helicopters to Airlines: My Rotor Transition Program Experience

Posted 3 years 125 days ago ago by Admin

If you’ve ever had the desire to travel further, faster, and higher your time is here. I’ve flown helicopters commercially for 13 years. As a civilian, I attended a small flight school in Florida where I obtained all my training from Private through CFII where I used my GI Bill benefits. 


Until recently, most Part 121 air carriers did not count helicopter flight hours towards their hiring minimums. In recent years, this trend is on the decline. If you are an experienced helicopter pilot and have ever wanted to fly for the airlines, opportunity may be on the horizon. With as little as 250 hours of airplane PIC time and a commercial multi-engine land add-on certificate you can be eligible for hire at a regional airline that may provide a stepping stone to the mainline carriers.


In late 2016, I decided to acquire my private airplane add-on rating in my off time. I wasn’t convinced I was ready to take the traditional route and pay for all my training out of pocket and go back to being a CFI to gain the 1,500 hours of PIC time necessary to get hired by the airlines. Additionally, regional first officer pay was quite dismal still. Throughout 2017, many changes began to take place in the airline industry that made me seriously consider finishing training and going the airline route. Salaries began to increase, legacy airlines began hiring again and, most intriguing, rotor transition programs (RTPs) were developed to entice military-trained helicopter pilots to transition to airlines.

The reason for targeting military-trained pilots is two-fold: 1) the military has excellent flight training; and 2) military pilots would be eligible for a restricted ATP certificate with as few as 750 hours of total time (including the 250 hours PIC airplane time). However, experienced civilian helicopter pilots were being overlooked.  I had just over 4,000 hours of helicopter flight time and had gained experience in various segments including: news, offshore oil and gas, EMS, and contract work. I had flown various airframes to include the R-22, Bell 407, H-135 and AS-332 Super Puma, amongst others.


I began contacting numerous regional airlines by phone; I  introduced myself and asked how a civilian-trained pilot could participate in their RTPs. At that time, no one was receptive to the idea as they remained focused on recruiting military-trained pilots exclusively. I kept asking them, why not hire someone like me? The time requirements (250 hours PIC) for a pilot with my experience makes me eligible for an ATP just like my military counterparts. In fact, with my total time I’d be eligible for an unrestricted ATP.  After my thousands of hours in both single-pilot and crew environments, what were they looking for?  After hearing so many say “no,” I finally received a “yes.”


One airline was allowing civilian-trained helicopter pilots to participate in RTP on a case-by-case basis and over the next few months, several regionals opened up their RTPs to civilian-trained pilots. For the most part, the civilian-trained option is not well advertised on most airline recruitment websites, as many still advertise towards military-trained pilots. Do not let this deter you. Contact them, speak to a recruiter and let them know what kind of experience you have. You will be surprised how many will be interested in you.


I looked at every regional airline during my research. SkyWest became the top contender, in part because many of their domiciles are in the west and I live on the West Coast. I spoke to a recruiter who said they did not have an RTP at that time, but they were organizing one. This is also when I learned about the Pilot Pathway (Cadet) Program, where I ended up receiving an advanced introduction to company benefits, background, and culture. I also received a seniority number and was provided a mentor who is a line pilot in the company who checks on your progress during training and helps you prepare for your actual interview. It was a no-commitment way of getting to know the company better. Many regionals offer some sort of similar program, however some only directly affiliate with colleges and universities.


During my tour of the SkyWest facility in SLC, a Captain asked me how many hours I had. When I told him over 4,000, he asked why I wasn’t interviewing that day. I told him it was predominantly helicopter time and his reply was, “So?” That’s when I knew SkyWest was serious about bringing professional helicopter pilots on board.  Most regional airlines will allow you to interview 90 days to one year ahead of your potential start date. This gives you time and flexibility to accomplish the rest of your training with a conditional job offer in hand. 


The RTP process varies slightly from airline to airline but the basic premise is that as an experienced helicopter pilot, these programs will assist you financially to obtain the certificates and ratings gearing you towards your ATP requirements. The amount of financial assistance varies, so it pays to see which program best suits your circumstances. Financial assistance/bonuses start around $17,500 and run upwards of $51,000.  In my particular case, SkyWest provided me with a total of $27,500.


If you’ve already paid out of pocket for your training or have taken loans out, don’t despair. Most programs offered today allow you to keep all the remaining funds you didn’t use for training, thus allowing you to pay off your loans or replenish your bank account up to the amount of the bonus.


Where can I complete my flight training you may ask? That also is a very personal question as everyone’s circumstances are different. Some regional airlines have partnered with particular flight schools. If you live in close proximity to one of these schools, they could be a good option for you to train nearby in your off time while still working.


If you don’t live near a partner school, many regional airlines don’t limit where you can get your transition training. Often, it simply requires approval from the company and you could potentially be training at a school near you. In my case, I have a very supportive spouse who was OK with me temporarily relocating to another city to do my flight training, as I wanted a different option then what was locally available to me. At SkyWest, you are able to attend any flight school and still receive the $27,500 tuition reimbursement and bonuses.

In March 2018, I started flight training as SkyWest’s first civilian helicopter pilot in their new RTP program at FLT Academy in Bountiful, Utah. I completed my Instrument, Commercial Multi-Engine, and PIC time-building in 21/2 months, well ahead of the program’s projected 4-month timeline. The FLT Academy did a great job in making sure I received quality, accelerated training.  Other schools that are affiliated with SkyWest can be found on www.skywest.com.


I interviewed with four airlines (while only possessing a Private add-on) and was extended four job offers. Your interviewer will expect you to have an anticipated completion date for your training. Each interview was slightly different in how it was conducted and what topics were covered. In preparation, I subscribed to aviationinterviews.com. This site is a good source to browse a large selection of experiences and questions that each company likes to ask, often referred to as simply the “gouge.” Most companies will either have a recommended reading list or will send you documents to review in preparation for the interview. Do not underestimate the value of the gouges, they will help you focus on areas that are important to each airline and increase your chances of a successful interview. A recruiter from one of the airlines even emphasized, “Read the gouges online!  We know they are there and the questions we’ve asked haven’t changed in 10 years.”


Make sure to dress the part for your interview. Wear a suit, a nice tie, and shined shoes. Be positive and engaging. Smile! From the moment you arrive on site until the moment you leave, you are being evaluated. Be genuine, polite, and friendly. Do not underestimate how much influence an administrator or a janitor can have on you getting the job. Not only do they want to see someone who is technically proficient and of good character, they also are trying to determine if they would want to fly with you on their next 4-day trip.


Most interviews consisted of HR representatives and line pilots. Most interviews have an HR portion consisting of work history and your previous flight experience. All but one of my interviews had some form of technical interview where they asked about anything from dozens of IFR questions all the way up to high-altitude aerodynamics. The SkyWest interview included a CRM exercise where I was teamed up with a fellow interviewee and provided a scenario, which we needed to work on as a team to come up with a successful outcome. Some interviews were challenging; some were more conversational.

After accepting the conditional job offer with SkyWest, we set a mutually agreed upon start date of  June 2018. I spent about nine weeks training in Denver, which included CTP, company indoc, Embraer 175 systems and procedures, and culminated in an ATP checkride. I’ve been through multiple operator’s Part 135 training courses and this was by far the toughest of them so far. It is a very condensed training footprint. It’s important to keep a positive attitude and to have very few outside distractions while you are training. The guidance the instructors provided during training made all the difference, kept us on task and gave us the tools we needed for success. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your classmates as well as your instructor staff. They want you to succeed!


After successfully completing my simulator checkride, I was sent off to initial operating experience (IOE) to fly with a company check airman for a couple weeks. IOE is used to further evaluate what you’ve learned in training and to make sure you are ready to be released to fly with other line pilots. My IOE consisted of two separate 4-day trips throughout our system taking me from San Francisco to Charleston, South Carolina, and many points in between. It was not only fun, but a great opportunity to see how the system works in motion and finally be able to apply the skills and knowledge acquired in training.


After being released from IOE, I was sent to my domicile (LaGuardia/LGA) and placed on reserve. How long someone is placed on reserve can vary greatly depending on the airline and the type of aircraft flown and numerous variables, which can change even monthly. Within 40 days of being at LGA, I was awarded my preferred domicile of SLC. Had I decided to stay in LGA, I would have been a line holder the following month.  


Many folks ask, why  SkyWest? SkyWest is the largest regional in operation today and works with four partner airlines including Delta, United, American, and Alaska.  Due to its large size there is  tremendous opportunities for upgrades and mentoring in the Pilot Pathway Program, for being a training instructor and even joining the pilot recruitment team, which I hope to someday be part of.  Every airline will provide a paycheck, but I wanted more and culture is extremely important to me. With a choice in aircraft and multiple domiciles in the vicinity of where I live, SkyWest is a great fit. I feel extremely fortunate they provided me the opportunity to demonstrate the value, skill, and knowledge the civilian helicopter pilot market has to offer them for future employment. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because we occasionally provide information to our readers on the topic of airline rotor transition programs, we sometimes receive questions asking why we are “promoting” helicopter pilots leaving the industry when helicopter operations are short helicopter pilots. Naturally, we do not see it that way. On one hand, we recognize the state of the shrinking labor pool in the helicopter industry; it’s a state brought on by many factors that include a reduction in civil pilot training, military pilots not leaving service, Vietnam-era pilots retiring, as well as helicopter operators not being as competitive.

On the other hand, being positive minded ambassadors of the industry, we would much rather pilots not leave our industry, but stay and thrive in their rotorcraft careers. Having said that, the airlines competing for the industry’s personnel is a reality and may be an opportunity for some helicopter pilots. We at Rotorcraft Pro had nothing to do with creating the situation, but we do have a responsibility to our readers to offer accurate information that reflects all sides of the issue. If we did not offer relevant, accurate content, someone else would provide content that might not be so relevant or accurate. In the end, we provide information and our readers make up their own minds. - Lyn Burks , Editor in Chief