How much career potential is there for helicopter pilots and engineers in civvy street?

We live in a 21st century that’s very different from the one promised to us in science fiction books and films – no personal jet packs, no space holidays and no hover cars that could fly us from A to B without the need for long runways.

But at least in the latter case we do have a real 21st century alternative. Like those fabled hover cars, helicopters can take off from or land on isolated or confined areas, and they are now becoming increasingly common as taxis for big business.

Thanks to significant growth in usage over the last few decades – by the offshore petroleum industry, in search and rescue missions, for medical evacuation and as airborne police observation platforms – the UK’s civilian helicopter fleet is now one of the largest in the world, outnumbering the several hundred craft currently operated by HM Armed Forces as either transporters or observation/weapon platforms. And, because of the expertise and experience gained in the Armed Forces, there is much demand for helicopter pilots and engineers/mechanics from the RAF, the
Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm and the Army Air Corps.

All helicopter pilots in the UK must hold a licence that’s acceptable to the UK Civil Aviation Authority, such as one issued in accordance with the requirements of the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA), the inter-governmental body which represents the civil aviation regulatory authorities of 42 European states, including the CAA which issues all JAA licences within the UK. Part of the JAA’s work is the development and implementation of common safety regulatory standards and procedures to ensure a level playing field in the industry across the continent – in theory, this should mean that licensed pilots will be able to work across Europe, although this has yet to be seen in practice.

It used to be very easy for pilots to translate their military experience and skills into a civilian flying licence, but changes made over the last 10 to 15 years – between the CAA and the Armed Forces themselves – mean that military qualifications are no longer recognised in the civilian sphere. “The civilian world has become rather different to the military world, and it’s highly regulated,” says Captain Derek Jones, an experienced helicopter instructor and examiner with HJS Helicopters. “People leaving the Forces need to get civilian licences – preferably while they are in the Forces and still have exemptions from some of the examinations or flying hour requirements.”

Military pilots can gain many exemptions to the standard CAA-approved training if they have completed 2,000 flying hours in charge of a twin-crewed helicopter. Increasingly, however, they will need to have a civilian instrument rating which is not a qualification offered within existing military training, according to Captain Jones. “The two systems don’t really join up,” he says, “but companies are becoming increasingly reluctant to take people unless they have instrument ratings.”

At the moment, the CAA recommends that Service leavers with helicopter flying experience contact their Personnel Licensing Department for advice on how they can gain the appropriate CAA-issued licence.

There are currently three forms of pilot’s licence recognised by the JAA:

The Private Pilot’s Licence – PPL(H) – allows you to fly yourself and anyone else for purely private, non-commercial purposes, and can act as a stepping stone towards commercial flying. To earn a PPL(H) you will need to fly a minimum of 45 flight hours, gained under instruction and flying solo, as well as completing exams in related subjects and passing an aviation medical. A PPL(H) is valid only for the particular types or group of helicopter types marked on the licence; to fly another type you will need to complete a conversion course usually involving at least five flying hours. Once you have gained your PPL(H) you are expected to fly a minimum of two hours for each helicopter type every year to keep your skills up to date, as well as pass an annual proficiency test.

A Commercial Pilot’s Licence – CPL(H) – is the standard professional qualification, and can be acquired through either a ‘modular’ upgrade from a PPL(H) or an ‘integrated’ course starting from scratch. Modular students are expected to build up at least 155 hours’ total helicopter flight time including at least 50 hours as pilot (although there may be exceptions if you have 2,000 flying hours from the Armed Forces) along with at least 500 hours of study in the likes of aviation law, communications, meteorology, human performance, navigation, operational procedures, flight performance and planning, and instruments and electronics.

At the end of the course, student pilots will sit nine different commercial pilot examinations; if successful they will then commence a 35-hour ‘Commercial Flying’ course and undertake a commercial pilot skill test with a CAA examiner before their CPL(H) can be issued. Integrated courses undertaken at JAA-approved integrated Flight Training Organisations (FTOs) combine aspects of flying and theoretical learning into one course from which student pilots emerge with their CPL(H); they usually take around a year at specialist aviation colleges, during which time students will match the training and coursework of their modular peers.

The third JAA-recognised licence is the Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence – ATPL(H) – which requires at least 1,000 hours’ flight experience (including 250 hours as pilot) as well as a valid instrument rating from completing at least 70 hours of instrument flight. It is required for pilots flying
twin-engined, two-crewed helicopters. A modular route for those already possessing a CPL(H) is available.

All training must be run by CAA-recognised flight training organisations from
CAA-registered training facilities. Registered training facilities (RTFs) can charge between £175 and £280 per flying hour, meaning a PPL(H) alone can cost upwards of £10k – and that’s not including the fees levied by the CAA for medical certificates, flight skill tests, examinations and licences. For this reason, modular training is popular since it can be conducted at an individual’s pace, full or part-time. Unless you have sufficient flying hours from your time in the Armed Forces, completing a CPL(H) course from scratch is likely to put you back by anything up to £45k and you will almost certainly have to stump up the cash yourself through savings or taking out a career development loan. Commercial sponsorship is increasingly a thing of the past.

Helicopter engineering is a world that’s as fast-moving as those rotating blades, and demands both technical skill and professional knowledge. The current upturn in the scale of the oil and gas industry, leading to increased use of helicopters, is not just good news for pilots; there’s no point in having a helicopter if there’s no one to maintain it to the high standards now demanded by international law.

According to the British Helicopter Advisory Board there is no formal nationally recognised Licensed Engineer training scheme, but many companies engaged in helicopter maintenance do run apprenticeships or other training schemes enabling engineers to obtain the appropriate CAA-issued qualifications – although it will be up to the companies themselves to determine the level at which you enter their programmes. You will be expected to complete any modules that can fill in gaps in your training. “The one thing to be aware of is that, in the military, people tend to be single skilled,” says Captain Jones. “They do engines or they do airframes. In the civilian world there tends to be a requirement for more multi-skilling, mainly because there’s a much smaller number of engineers.” CAA licences state which groups of helicopter you are authorised to work on; the more groups on your licence, the better your potential employability.

There is no set income for helicopter pilots; salaries are usually determined by the type of work being done. Newly qualified helicopter pilots in a commercial role can earn around £25k; helicopter pilots who captain passenger-carrying craft may earn between £45k and £60k a year. Qualified engineers can begin on roughly £25k, but experience and rank as a chief engineer can raise incomes beyond £40k.

Worldwide, the biggest civilian employers of helicopter pilots are involved with offshore oil and gas operations in locations such as the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico; the scale of operations needed to safely fetch and carry supplies and personnel to and from offshore platforms is comparable with commercial airlines. The often-challenging weather conditions found over the North Sea have encouraged the use of medium or large twin-engine helicopters carrying up to 19 passengers, although smaller helicopters are often used elsewhere.

Career prospects do fluctuate from year to year, but thanks to the current buoyant petrochemical market (which is encouraging renewed exploitation of oil and fields in the North Sea), career prospects are better now than they’ve been for years. Indeed, the UK Offshore Operators’ Association has recognised a growing shortage of suitably qualified pilots and engineers in the industry; as a result, experienced personnel can pick and choose job offers from employers who are increasingly eager to attract and retain their services and are offering increased salaries and improved working conditions. It is also promising for those entering the sector; many companies operating in the North Sea arena are willing to take on people at the formative stage of their careers, and are hiring newly qualified pilots in co-pilot positions, sometimes with less than 500 flying hours’ experience behind them. Outside of the petrochemical sector there are also opportunities in charter companies, police operations, and air ambulance services – although these are often well suited to ex-Service personnel, the number of available posts is small in comparison with the oil industry.

The expense of pilot and engineering training (particularly when starting from scratch) led many companies to cut back on both during the 1990s. But with the current boom in North Sea operations, Service leavers who can enter the job market with experience of either helicopter piloting or engineering will be able to fly high in the civilian job market.


British Helicopter Advisory Board
01276 856 100

Civil Aviation Authority Personnel Licensing Department
01293 573 700

UK Offshore Operators’ Association
020 7802 2400

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