By By Lee Benson | July 1, 2011
I visited my old employer, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, in early June. The visit reminded me of how much I enjoyed my career there and how I got the opportunity to be a part of such a great organization. That brought me to a couple of thoughts for the younger pilots starting out in our business. Starting with those young enough to still be in school, I am certainly a shining example that one doesn’t need a degree in rocket science to be a successful helicopter pilot.
My former boss, Gary Lineberry, a certified rocket scientist, was once asked: “How’s Lee doing in your old position?” His response, “Not only does he not know what day of the week it is, he can’t spell Wednesday.” God bless you Gary, for always telling truths.
My advice is that a degree in engineering, business, computer science or something completely unrelated provides several ways forward in aviation or another option, if flying doesn’t work out. Yes, I understand that you are going to be the greatest pilot of all time. But you have your plans and the Lord has his. Lose your physical and see the suggestion above. If you want to be a helicopter pilot, go see your friendly military recruiter. You can still attend U.S. Army flight school without a college degree, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that change in the future.
If your first thought about the military is, “I could never put up with all the B.S. that being in the military would require,” then I would suggest a different career path. The path to a good job in the helicopter flying business is not easy. It’s not McDonalds; you don’t drive up to the window, order a Big Mac, and then drive to the next window and get your burger. Go ask pilots who have worked their way up through the civilian market and paid out of their own pocket to learn to fly. Cleaning grease traps at aforementioned “Mac’s house” to pay for flight lessons has halted the career of many a well-intentioned aspiring pilot. Usually a lot of time, effort and money come to naught. You make a commitment to the military; they allow you to earn a world class education.
Nobody says you have to make a career of the military, but who knows, you might like it. Someone might say, “But I could get killed flying for the military.” Choose helicopter flying as your career path and every day you go to work, the professionalism of you and those around you is what keeps you alive. Not false bravado, just the facts.
Back to why I suggest a degree. Beyond the loss of your flight physical, a degree gives you options. The engineering degree gives you a chance to consider becoming a test pilot. I have several friends that work for different OEMs in that capacity and they seem very happy. The business degree should be obvious; we are talking about the helicopter business, not a flying club. The computer science world touches every part of the helicopter industry now, and that’s not going to change.
So let’s say you’re getting ready to graduate from military flight school and planning on a civilian career. What’s next? Your class position will dictate your choice of airframe. My suggestion—nobody flies Apaches in the civil world, so if you have a way to get in a slot that offers a lot of flying, take it. You need at least 1,500 hours coming out of the military into the civil world to really have a chance at a reasonably good first job. Take every opportunity that comes your way to get flight hours while in the military, and gaining flight time will never be easier.
To take another step down the path towards a really good job, let’s talk about what I consider a good job. A good job is one that fulfills your need to feel like your skills make a difference. That might mean flying EMS for one person, or logging or the military for another; the point is there are a lot different ways to use a helicopter.
As a young pilot, try to find the specialty that suits you best and then find out what company or organization is the best at that mission. Then make it your purpose to secure a position with that organization. Do your homework on what they fly, what they require for new pilots, and then find out who their chief pilot is. Make an appointment with one of the organization’s senior pilots, tell them that you want to fly for them, and want to understand what to do to optimize that possibility. In my previous Chief Pilot position, several pilots visited us with this intent. We would always try to make time for them. The staff always remembered those pilots when they were interviewing for the job, but they still had to have the skill sets.