Helicopters use the same principles as aeroplanes to fly– they force air over a wing to develop lift. But whereas aeroplanes do this by moving the whole aircraft, helicopters only move the wings.
A helicopter’s wings are called rotor blades, and they’re rotated by one or more engines, usually at a constant speed. Helicopters are unusual flying machines in that the thrust, lift and directional control are all provided through one mechanism – the rotor blades.
The helicopter can trace its roots to ‘Gyroplane Number 1’ which flew in 1907 and was also possibly the first ever example of a quadcopter. Helicopter development continued apace prior to the second world war and gas turbine engines brought greater power at lighter weight in the years afterwards. Despite reaching maturity later than aeroplanes, helicopter instrumentation and automation has gradually caught up with their fixed-wing counterparts. Early helicopters were undoubtedly a handful for their pilots, but most modern designs for use in commercial operations now have complex autopilots and stability augmentation systems good enough to fly the machine without the pilot’s hand even on the controls.
The key strength of a helicopter is its ability to lift straight off the ground without using a runway, and this really is a magical sensation for those not used to it! Helicopters are slower and can carry less weight than aeroplanes of an equivalent size, and this is largely because of the tremendous power that is necessary to deliver sufficient lift through rotor blades rather than a fixed wing. However, depending on the ambient conditions, most helicopters are capable of hovering stationary while in-flight, granting them enormous utility in the delivery of cargo.
Helicopters are complex machines, but no more so than large aeroplanes. The physics involved are not difficult to understand in the depth required of a pilot – it is enough to know only the broad principles, not the precise mathematical formulae that make the aircraft fly! While helicopters are perfectly safe when flown correctly, they are less forgiving than aeroplanes and tend to be flown in situations with less margin for error. For this reason, it is difficult to rapidly gain experience, and it is likely that you will need to focus on a single skill or role at a time.
Training for all civilian helicopter pilots starts with a Private Pilot License. You will likely learn to fly in a simple single-engine helicopter that usually has a piston engine rather than a turbine. Once you have your PPL, you can move on to Commercial training or undertake more advanced courses such as mountain flying or under-slung load lifting. Many schools also organise fly-away expeditions. There are few companies offering sponsored routes through training, although there are some schemes offering support through student loans. You can start to learn to fly as soon as you can reach all the controls, but you must be 16 to fly solo, and 18 to hold a commercial license.
Once qualified as a private pilot and with sufficient experience, you will be eligible to progress to Commercial flying training, which involves more in-depth theoretical and practical knowledge. At this stage you may also learn to fly helicopters with more than one engine, and in poor weather.
Careers in helicopter flying are as varied as the machines themselves. Most newly-qualified helicopter pilots will begin their commercial career flying single-engine aircraft for tourist flights, aerial survey or even instructing the trainees following them into the industry. They then move into other industry areas once they have had a chance to develop their all-round flying skill.
It is not unusual for helicopter pilots to have varied careers and a great deal of experience in a multitude of roles. However, this comes with the requirement to be flexible, as job security cannot always be guaranteed due to the reliance on the health of other industries served by helicopters. That said, there are few other flying jobs in which the skill of the pilot has such an immediate and direct impact on the achievement of the mission at hand. Job satisfaction is typically high in the helicopter industry.
Once fully qualified, an experienced pilot operating offshore can expect a salary between £60,000 to £90,000 or even more if they take on additional responsibilities. Basic work such as flying instruction will attract a lower figure and will depend a lot on experience. Para-public and VIP work typically attracts a salary below that of the offshore operators, but competitive. A pilot qualified to fly complex helicopters in bad weather could expected to net around £60,000 per year while a pilot qualified on basic helicopters in good weather only might be lucky to get half that. Experience is everything in helicopter flying and there are no shortcuts to the high salaries.
Unfortunately, due to their high fuel usage and complexity, helicopters are expensive and this translates into high training costs. A student pilot can expect to pay at least £10,000 to achieve their private license, and twice as much again to gain their commercial license. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any cheaper after that. A multi-engine instrument-rated pilot can expect to have spent over £100,000 on training by the time they are qualified. However, not all jobs require this level of training, so it is possible to make a living and ‘earn your way’ to greater experience and qualifications once you’re working for a company.