Career Guide

Calgary Helicopter Pilot School & Pilot Training

“So you want to become a helicopter pilot…” sounds like an old movie.


It has happened many times, somebody arrives in my office having just returned from the winter ski season, ski guiding for a heli-skiing operator, from a summer of exploration in the North with a geological firm, or a forest firefighter at the end of the summer fire season. All of them share the same grin, still on their faces from the excitement of the helicopter flights they took. It was the most exhilarating experience of their lives, and now they want to learn how to fly.


Unfortunately, such stories rarely end in the right seat of an AW139. Becoming a professional helicopter pilot is not something to do on a whim. Individuals like firefighters, mountain guides, oil patch workers and many others, usually find out quickly that flight training is more difficult, frustrating, and scary than they expected. They discover that there is a big difference between the passenger seat and the pilot seat, and rarely last longer than the first couple of lessons.


Nevertheless, many others do. What qualities do they have that contribute to their success? In my nearly 25 years in the training business, (not only helicopter related), I have met all sorts of people and tried to predict who will make the grade, both in training and in a subsequent career or life. The first firm conclusion I have reached is that the student’s background tells me very little about their chances of success. Dairy farmers, dentists, carpenters, coal miners, ski-instructors, loggers, heavy machinery operators, soldiers – we have made helicopter pilots of them all!


Personality is also a poor indicator of success, at least at the training level; and national origin is equally uninformative. From outgoing Aussies to serious Germans, male or female – it does not matter. However, over the years we have observed six essential factors for training success. If you are considering signing up at your local “Flight School” or “Flight Training Unit” you might want to see how many of these ingredients you have, without all six, you may want to reconsider your decision.


Financial Readiness

The most practical issue first – Training is expensive; you are going to need a large amount of money. Between training and living expenses, you can count on spending at least CAD$ 80,000 for a CPHL, depending on your circumstances. Putting this together may be the hardest part of the challenge. I always advise people to save now and train later rather than taking a huge bank loan. How you get the money can also be a big influence on your motivation. In general, I have seen better results from students who’ve worked two jobs for several years to save the cash than I have from those who were spending money that was handed to them by the family, or even by the bank.


Physical Aptitude

You can pass the medical exam, but that is no guarantee that you can fly. I know pilots who have flown for years, but who never reached commercial standard in a helicopter because of a physical problem, despite hiring a personal instructor who gave them hundreds of hours of dual instruction. There are some things that we simply are not meant to do and no matter how much we practice; we are never going to fully comprehend. When the practice is as expensive and potentially hazardous as helicopter flying we have to be realistic and decide where we have to set our limits.


Academic Readiness

The aeronautical knowledge required for a career as a helicopter pilot is not especially challenging, but there is a huge volume of it. A prospective pilot must be able to learn a lot of material, correlate that knowledge, and apply it in unpredictable ways. Therefore, this is no career for those with serious learning difficulties. On the other hand, do not let anyone discourage you from learning to fly by telling you that you need to be very strong in math and science to succeed. The truth is that if you can add, subtract, multiply, and divide (preferably in your head); you know enough math to be an airline pilot.


Psychological Suitability

Have you really thought this out? Are you ready to “strap on a helicopter” and fly around the turbulent skies? Are you willing to handle the challenge of landing a helicopter on a North Sea oilrig during a snowstorm? You had better be, because twenty people will have put their lives in your hands and one mistake could lead to disaster. Will you be a serious trained professional on the day when the engine fails or will you go to pieces and freeze at the controls? These are not abstract questions – they are real situations. In a lifetime career as a helicopter pilot your courage and skills are likely to be tested to their limits on several occasions. Some students never give this issue a moment’s thought.



After money problems, the most common reason students fail to complete their training is opposition from their partners or family. If you are single and self-funded this may not be a big issue, but for anyone with a family it can be the most important one. Is everyone in the family on board with your decision to pursue a helicopter career? Are they okay with the financial sacrifices? How about the safety risks? You may find yourself cutting back on your kid’s birthday presents while you are spending hundreds of dollars on a single training flight, can you live with that? It is going to be very hard to do this without your family’s enthusiastic support. If it is not forthcoming, you must question whether learning to fly is really worth the risk of losing your family.



Where did this idea come from, and just how determined are you to succeed? If you first started looking up at every passing helicopter when you could barely talk, we are already feeling confident in your choice. You do not have to have seen Apocalypse Now and read Chickenhawk to have the right stuff, but this would be a promising sign. Can you already identify many helicopter types? Do you recognize the words NOTAR, Fenestron, autorotation, and K-MAX? Are you willing to fly off a tuna boat or wash helicopters and hangar floors for flight time if that is what it takes to succeed? Would you accept half the income you make now if you could fly helicopters instead? Your significant other says it is “me or helicopters”- that is an easy choice right? The industry will demand a great deal of sacrifice in the early years – but if you are highly motivated, there are some great adventures and some wonderful opportunities awaiting you.