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A Day in the Life: Tour Pilot

Posted 8 years 149 days ago ago by Admin

As you stand next to your spotless Airbus H130, giving the same briefing you have given hundreds of times, you are surrounded by a gaggle of passengers. For most of them, this flight will be their very first experience in a helicopter.

As you pilot the helicopter along the tour route, diligently performing all your pilot-related duties, you entertain and educate your guests as well. Upon landing back at the base, your measurement of success may be measured in big smiles, high fives, compliments, tips, and if you’re lucky … all the above.

For some pilots, the flight may be viewed as a monotonous exercise, nothing more than a means to build turbine time and earn a paycheck. However, why not think of it this way: In addition to earning a paycheck, you most likely just created and shared a "Top 10” memorable moment in someone's life. How many people get to do that in their job?

Traditional Paths

Most civilian-trained pilots will gain their first experience working as a CFI in the training sector. Typically CFIs gain excellent experience, but lack turbine time and diversity in their flying experiences. Between 1,000 and 2,000 hours, young pilots will begin seeking Tier 1 jobs in several sectors. Tours and offshore oil & gas support are the most likely career tracks.

According to HAI, tourism represents 10 percent of the helicopter industry and it's very likely that young pilots will do a "tour of duty" in this sector as they gain experience in the helicopter industry. In North America, the most popular locations are Hawaii, Grand Canyon, Alaska, and New York City.





Sundance Helicopters

Blue Hawaiian

Liberty Helicopters


Maverick Helicopters

Paradise Helicopters

New York City Helicopters

Era Helicopters

Papillon Helicopters

Sunshine Helicopters

Manhattan Helicopters

Coastal Helicopters


For the purpose of this story, we spent time with Sundance Helicopters, a Las Vegas-based Grand Canyon tour operator, to learn more about being a tour pilot.

Typical Day

As the sun breaks across the mountaintops to the east of Las Vegas, it’s 0600 and pilots are streaming into Sundance Helicopters’ McCarran Airport (LAS) base. Company paperwork, weather checks, and preflight inspections are the first order of the day.  With up to 20 helicopters on the flight line, as dawn breaks a buzz of activity begins with pilots, support personnel, and fuel trucks moving about the ramp.

At approximately 0615, passengers begin arriving and preparing for a 0700 departure. Passenger weights and other information is collected so that weight and balance calculations and passenger manifests can be created. For the most part, this is an administrative function performed by personnel in the “Comm Center.”  Passengers also watch a video briefing covering aircraft safety.

Twenty minutes prior to the flight, it’s showtime! Pilots grab their passenger manifests and find their group—or gaggle—of passengers and introduce themselves for the first time. Each pilot understands that for most of these passengers this is not only their first time visiting the Grand Canyon, but also their first time in a helicopter. For most, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. The pilots are not just the operators of the aircraft taking them on a helicopter flight, but they are the central character in someone’s big life event.

Once the guests are met, they are led out to the helicopter and given another very detailed aircraft safety briefing. All questions are answered and the passengers board, until one-by-one all aircraft are spooled up and running. As clearances are obtained from air traffic control, aircraft depart one at a time with approximately two minutes of separation between them. Once airborne, each pilot flies specified routes and altitudes. These very defined routes are specified by local letters of agreement (LOA) and also by the FAA.

There are several tour packages that can be obtained, but on this day, we’re heading NE approximately 70 miles, to set down on a patch of Hualapai Indian land in the Grand Canyon, where we will enjoy a champagne brunch. The flight out is 45 minutes and the pilot is not only expected to fly the helicopter, but also acts as in-flight entertainment by narrating the entire trip. The landing zone is a totally unprepared plateau of land alongside the Colorado River winding its way through the Grand Canyon. Each pilot must work their way into the LZ without disturbing any other nearby aircraft that might be unloading passengers.

After landing in the canyon, pilot wings come off and the pilots transform into waiters, bartenders, photographers and busboys. After 30 minutes entertaining guests and enjoying the beauty of the canyon, it’s time to clean up, load up, fly back to base, and say goodbye to the guests. From start to finish, the entire evolution takes about two and a half hours. After landing at base, it’s time to grab some fuel, post-flight the helicopter, and meet the next group of guests. A typical day could require up to three of these tours, which equates to a 10-12 hour day.

Traits of a Good Tour Pilot

One might think the best trait a potential pilot hire could have is outstanding flying skills. However, according to Sundance Helicopters Director of Operations Mark Schlaefli, that’s only half the job, albeit the most important. He explains that in addition to exceptional piloting skills, there are other desired innate character traits. For example, a socially extroverted pilot who’s a great communicator and focuses on customer service is considered a home run. The company is looking for balance. “Even though we are a customer service business, we look for ‘pilots first’ who exhibit superior judgment and are skilled aeronautical decision makers,” says Schlaefli. He further explains that the social aspects of the job will all fall into place naturally for most people when put in front of a group of passengers, especially since most helicopter pilots actually enjoy talking about what they do with non-aviators. To ensure this happens, Sundance is developing and delivering tour-specific training to make sure every guest has the experience of a lifetime.

Two other prize traits sought in Sundance pilots is that they be trainable (open to learning “the Sundance way”) and also be team players. New hires can expect to be put through an intensive two-week ground- and flight-training program, which culminates in an FAA Part 135 checkride. Schlaefli equates the training experience to “drinking from a fire hose,” due to the amount of information that must be learned. It’s also supremely important that pilots work very well in team settings, since they work side by side for long days in a harsh environment. Therefore, their ability to get along, especially in front of guests, is a top priority.

Earning a Living

Generally speaking, a pilot can expect to work five days, with two days off. There are flex options for pilots who may need time off, or for those who want to work more and earn extra money, but generally the schedule is 5/2.  

Because of the seasonal nature of the tourism industry, there are two types of pilot employees. There are full-time pilots who work all year, and seasonal pilots who work from March through October. Most new hires begin as seasonal employees. This gives the company time to evaluate them. At the end of their seasonal tours, they may be converted to full timers, based on such factors as personal performance and business volume.

A new tour pilot can expect to earn approximately $45,000 in their first year, based on a variety of factors. Additionally, although not guaranteed, tips can add several thousand dollars to income. Most all tour operators allow tips, but they are never solicited. If a tour pilot does an excellent job, and a guest is compelled to offer a tip on his or her own accord, then it’s viewed as a bonus. It should be noted that tips are very common in the helicopter tour business. Once a pilot is full-time, earning potential is increased, and depending on a variety of factors pilots can earn between $60,000 to $100,000 per year.


Sundance Helicopters is a wholly owned subsidiary of Air Methods Corp. (AMC), which also owns Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. AMC is not only the largest EMS helicopter operator in the world, but also the planet’s largest FAA Part 135 helicopter operator. Sundance Helicopters performs a wide variety of work outside of tours, such as charter, film, long-line, and government contracting.

So, if a pilot is interested in flying tours, it’s pretty easy to see reasons to consider Sundance Helicopters. There are career opportunities out of tours and into other sectors, especially if one aspires to be an EMS pilot at some point. AMC and its subsidiaries have over 500 helicopters in operation across the entire country. This means that a competent pilot with a good reputation may be able go from a new tour pilot in Las Vegas, to a multi-engine IFR/EMS helicopter pilot in a city of their choice at some near point in their career.

Job Pros & Cons


1. Home every night, great for family life.

2. Nature of the work is positive, making people happy all the time.

3. Meeting a new, culturally diverse group of people every day.

4. Flying very modern, well maintained helicopters.


1. Long days working in tough environmental conditions. Very Hot!

2. Narrow operational profile for the tour flights.

Changing Attitudes

Coming back around to where this story began, I mentioned how some pilots may view tours as a monotonous exercise and see the job as just a stepping stone. Often there is an unspoken expectation by both employer and employee that the job of a tour pilot is but a short stop along a pilot’s career track. As director of operations at a very established tour operator, Schlaefli wants to see attitudes change and is working hard to make that happen.

Sundance prefers to get many years of service from a pilot. There are both dollar and opportunity costs to only getting a pilot for one or two seasons. It’s not cheap to train a new pilot from scratch, but if pilots stays for several years then total pilot-training costs average down. Additionally, with the typical high turnover of tour operators, every time a large group of pilots leave, the overall experience level of the organization decreases.

Being candid, Schlaefli realizes that changing attitudes is a two-way street. He prefers for people to come and stay, but new hires are brought on as seasonal pilots. That can come across as a conflict in philosophy.  However, from management’s perspective that first “seasonal” opportunity is exactly that—an opportunity. It’s a chance for a pilot with no turbine helicopter or Part 135 experience to be provided that training. It is also an opportunity for Sundance Helicopters to further evaluate pilots and identify rising stars in their organization, stars who can perhaps shine full-time.

The biggest challenge is figuring out the formula for not only attracting (attracting is easy) but keeping people around for many seasons. Schlaefli believes that creatively adjusting pay and benefits to be more attractive, changing the nature of the work so that it is not seen as monotonous, and highlighting promotional opportunities outside of flying, that expectations may shift from “tours as a career stepping stone,” to “tours as a career stop.” Sundance is aggressively pursuing flight opportunities outside of normal tour operations to increase revenue potential.  This also provides variety, which is a key element when it comes to pilot retention.

Schlaefli emphasizes that Sundance Helicopters is not just looking for pilots, but seeks to develop them into top-tier professionals as part of the larger team. For tour pilots, the career view is changing.


About Sundance Helicopters

Sundance Helicopters began operations in 1985 as Helicopter Services of Nevada. It was the first helicopter tour operator in Las Vegas, with the first strip tours being operated to and from the parking lot of the old Landmark hotel and casino. This homage to history has been maintained as “Landmark” is the call-sign of every helicopter that communicates with the FAA control tower during flight ops. The company was also the first to begin tour operations to the West Rim of the Grand Canyon, and in 1988 it established a relationship with the Hualapai Nation which allowed them to land in the canyon. The name was changed to Sundance Helicopters in 1991.

Sundance is comprised of 180 team members who work hard to amaze 230,000 passengers per year, generating approximately $70 million in annual revenue. There are 35 full-time pilots and up to 20 seasonal pilots flying an all Airbus fleet of 28 helicopters. The fleet consists of H130 and AS350B2 helicopters.

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