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Why Become A Helicopter Pilot?

Posted 9 years 236 days ago ago by Randy Mains

I was flying as copilot for Ian MacPhail in a Bell 412EP over the Arabian Gulf one bright and sunny day at 300 feet en route to an oil rig, when I keyed the floor mic button and asked him, “Ian, how would you describe a helicopter pilot’s personality?

Ian, like me, had flown helicopters in Vietnam and had also made flying helicopters his career. I suppose between us we’d logged a combined 25,000 flight hours. He took a moment to think about it, then looking over at me with a smile said, “Perpetual adolescence.”

I thought about his words for a moment. “That’s it!” I exclaimed over the intercom. “In two words you’ve managed to sum up the essence of a helicopter pilot’s personality, for me anyway.”

Helicopter pilots are different. I’ve been working with them for nearly half a century, so I think I should know. I’m a helicopter pilot, so if my observation is true it means there’s something different about me too. I suspect there is … and I give thanks for that fact every day.

As well as being a helicopter pilot, I am also a keen sailor. I have been since I was 12 years old, when my grandfather would take my sister and me sailing in a rented 19-foot sloop during summer holidays off of Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California.  

Using the analogy of the sea, I view helicopter pilots as the sailors of the sky. Airline pilots are the supertanker captains. Small boat sailors ‘feel’ the boat they’re handling because their vessel is relatively light and very maneuverable. The skipper can sense every shift of the wind, feel the strength of the current, and ride the undulating motion of the ocean swells.  

On the other hand, a supertanker captain barely has control of the leviathan he commands. It can take that captain about a quarter of an hour to stop his ship from going full ahead using full reverse in a ‘crash stop’ maneuver. In that time the ship will travel nearly two miles. He is in many ways removed from the elements. He plows his ship through the seas, crushing waves, unable to really feel the vessel beneath him. He is a technical manager, much like what I imagine I would be if I were the captain of an airliner.

The main difference between flying a helicopter and flying an airliner is that a helicopter pilot never really stops flying a helicopter. It is 100 percent hands-on flying all the time. There are helicopters fitted with autopilots to relieve the pilot of his workload when he is flying from point A to point B, which usually isn’t very far. I flew a similarly fitted helicopter like that, but on every takeoff and landing (and in the oil field I may do as many as 60 in one day) I must hand-fly the machine.  

Because of the helicopter’s role in aviation, a helicopter pilot is in touch with his environment all the time, constantly surrounded by it, immersed in it. A helicopter cannot fly above the weather like an airliner. A helicopter pilot sees all day long what an airline pilot sees in the first moments of his takeoff and the last minutes of his landing.

If I were the captain of an airliner, the difficult thing for me would be the lack of variety in the job. If I flew an airliner, all I would see would be a runway in front of me when taking off or landing. When I fly my helicopter, I normally will not see a runway in front of me while taking off or landing, because most likely I will be in a remote location miles away from civilization, or in the city, or in the country, or in the mountains, or at sea. Because of the very nature of what a helicopter can do, and its nimble maneuverability, I experience endless possibilities. That is the main attraction for me to fly helicopters.  

Flying a helicopter is like the difference between going somewhere by car and going for a leisurely stroll. A helicopter pilot will see, hear, feel, and smell so much more than a pilot flying a fixed-wing. Flying a helicopter, I have the freedom to see my environment from a low altitude and low airspeed, if I choose. If I see something really interesting, I can often land to take a closer look.

For example, I can spot a mountaintop and decide to land up there and have a look around. Or I can fly my helicopter low level, following a meandering river or stream.  I can do it at 120 knots, or barely moving. The choice is mine. Or perhaps I can fly over a coastline looking for sea life, or just enjoy the view of a long, white sandy beach. I love the endless possibilities flying a helicopter affords me.

I find the freedom irresistible of being able to fly low enough or slow enough to have a good look at the landscape I’m flying over. The versatility of the helicopter spells one thing — F-R-E-E-D-O-M — the main reason I wanted to fly in the first place. In fact, I still experience that freedom every day I go aloft something that, thankfully, has never been lost on me.

If one loves to fly and has the desire to enter a career in aviation for the freedom they can experience while flying, why would one choose any other way to do it than by helicopter?

Ian’s definition of a helicopter pilot’s personality reminded me of something else a son once said to his father:

“Dad, I want to be a helicopter pilot when I grow up.”

The boy’s father thought about what the boy had said, then shook his head and answered:

 “Sorry son, I’m afraid you can’t do both.”


About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Areo.

He may be contacted at [email protected]