Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Becoming a Commercial Helicopter Pilot on a Budget

It’s never an easy thing to write about yourself and the achievements you have made without sounding smug or somewhat boastful. However when I started to look seriously at embarking on the commitment that working towards a CPL (H) is; I would have found an account of those that had gone before very useful. Both in making decisions and also in realising that for all the negatives that are banded about, there are plenty of successes that don’t get talked about. So it is with that in mind that I write this passage to help those that are thinking or that are mid way through their training towards their CPL and hopefully give people an idea of what is involved.

My interest in helicopters started, in rather a clich√© manor, when I was a around six on a summer holiday with family to Chamonix. Staying at a campsite 200 metres from a mountain rescue centre gave me the pleasure of being able to watch the Alouette 3’s flying in and out, training and rescuing climbers from Mt Blanc and the surrounding mountains. It sounds rather sad, but the sound of the turbine starting up would send me tearing up the path to catch a glimpse of the aircraft as it took off. And many an hour was spent sat on a rock chucking grit into puddles until the sound of the Alouette on approach made the waiting and hanging around all worth while. From those moments on I always wanted to do what those guys did, I wanted to be a helicopter pilot more than anything else. It was an ambition that has stayed with me to this day and I think it is the biggest driving force that has kept me motivated through some of the more challenging elements of the training.

Some years on, after finishing university it was time to start working towards the goal that I set myself, in some form or another, fifteen years earlier. Unfortunately I didn’t have a nice pot of money being kept warm for me ready to chuck at the training. I needed to raise somewhere in the region of fifty thousand pounds to fund me through the CPL. This seemed like a huge amount to raise, and to be honest it is pretty daunting especially if you are fresh out of university with no assets to secure a loan.

My advice to anyone embarking on this route is to research everything and speak to as many people as you can, trawl the forums and visit schools. Get every option outlined before you commit to anything. Personally I was immediately attracted to the idea of doing an integrated course either in America or the UK; it seemed ideal as I could crack my CPL out in about a year. The big problem with this for me was that you need a lump sum to be able to drop everything and study full time, so after trying to secure the funding that seems to be available for fixed wing studies; that is just not there for rotary, I set about looking for other options. I had read about the modular way of studying, and after a visit to Surrey Police Air Support Unit and chatting to some of the pilots there, I decided that this was a perfect option for me. I could make inroads into the training whilst working and funding my training as I went along. It seemed like the ideal option, because I could potentially do it without getting into too much debt.

So I set about getting a decent job, and sales seemed like the ideal thing, it gave me the opportunity to make decent money fairly quickly, and the great thing about it was that the harder I worked the more money I would make, which meant the more flying I could do. So let me recommend hard work and software sales as a great way of funding your CPL studies if you are thinking of going the modular route.

The next step in my journey was probably the most important decision to date, and for anyone out there looking, make sure you visit as many schools as you can, like anything in life, you get a feeling for the place and if it feels right, crack on. When I popped down to Goodwood and met Paul Andrews, I knew that here was a school that cared about what I wanted to do, not as a potential 50 grand, but as a student, who was keen and wanted to make a professional career out of flying helicopters.

I began my training steadily, working towards my PPL (H). Just to explain for those that aren’t aware, the modular route to CPL (H) is set out as follows: Achieve your PPL (H) and then build your hours to 155, while completing 9 or 14 ground exams, then undertake a 35 hour CPL course, followed by the CPL skills test.

The PPL section took me just under a year to complete, and I took my PPL test and passed with 47 hours. Many people would not need to take a year to complete their PPL, but only being able to fly at weekends and the ever present financial strain meant I couldn’t do it any quicker. However the training I received at Phoenix Helicopters was fantastic and structured in a way that meant despite not being able to do tens of hours flying every week I was still making decent progress each lesson. I then embarked on my ground studies with CAPT online. This is where things started to get a bit tougher and the real motivation is definitely required. I opted to complete 14 ATPL exams purely because of my future ambitions within the industry, and it made sense to complete all 14 in one go. So I began studying in my spare time, I wanted to complete all 14 exams within a year and also complete my hours building in the same time frame. I found it really helpful to pick a realistic time frame and work to that. It gives you a drive and puts just enough pressure on to make sure you keep studying hard.

So I would get up early before work, do a couple of hours study and then go to work, come home and study for most of the evening. It was important for me to keep the momentum with the studying going so I kept on my target, but I won’t lie: it was quite hard work, splitting my time between a full time job and studying. I found that if I worked too hard at one, the other would suffer. But I needed to succeed in one to keep doing the other, so my advice here would be to split your time equally and give yourself something to look forward to each week. For me it was the hours building, the flying I would do at the weekend.
The hours building can be great fun if you push yourself, definitely don’t just sit at your local airfield buzzing around in the circuit for 100 hours. Get out there and “spread your wings”. I was lucky that Paul at Phoenix helped me to do that. Giving me constructive hours building that would benefit me when it came to the CPL syllabus was invaluable. I flew to France, Newquay, Silverstone and Norwich to name but a few places. I was able to really get to grips with the London Heli-Lanes as well as transiting some of the busy airports such as Gatwick. The whole time it was building my confidence, and I can honestly say it has stood me in good stead with the rest of my flying. Plus I have plenty of grateful friends who I have taken along on many of the trips. Another great opportunity that I was given by Phoenix was to fly the aircraft up to maintenance at regular intervals. If you can be flexible when you fly i.e. take days off work to do it, you can save a huge amount over the course of your hours building doing these repositioning flights. Phoenix offer a discounted rate per hour for repositioning flights, and again it is great practice for pushing your skills in all areas of the flying and I managed to save a fair bit of money on these flights.


With the help of Paul at Phoenix and Phil and CAPT, I managed to pass all 14 ATPL exams and had all of the hours required to start my CPL training within the time frame that I had set myself. At this point I was in with some luck and Paul was able to offer me a job working on the operations side of things at Phoenix. It was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. Working in and around the helicopters has been fantastic, and my advice would be if you get the opportunity to get into the industry at any level, as long as it doesn’t jeopardise your training, then take it! You start to learn more about the industry, how a company is run, how the CAA works in the real world and the administration side of an operation, which is equally as important as being a competent pilot. I believe it has stood me in good stead to date, and hopefully will give me other skills to offer further down the line in my career.

From this point I was able to commit full time towards my CPL training, and to be honest I think that it is necessary to commit to the 35 hour course (30 hours plus 5 hours night) full time, as it is pretty intense and there is allot that you need to take on board and polish throughout the course. It may end up being counter productive if there is not much consistency in the training a trap that you could fall into if you were not able to fly most days. There is plenty of information on what is involved with the CPL training documented on the Phoenix website, so I wont go into that too much, but let me tell you now, be prepared to realise your experience level. After flying around for 100 hours you feel pretty confident in your ability. That is until you start the CPL training! I found the standard to be very high, and it was a great feeling to be learning at a much more professional and purposeful level. Again Phoenix Helicopters offered all the support and advice that I needed to complete the training and pass my CPL skills test. Passing that test was one of the greatest feelings of achievement that I have experienced in my life to date. The combination of all the hard work, financial strain and the feeling of achieving a goal that I had held onto for about twenty years was just immense. It is all worth it when you get there.

I hope some of you have found this useful and if you ever want to have a chat about my experiences feel free to give me a call at Phoenix, but my advice would be as follows:

Work hard, and be prepared to really graft for what you want, it isn’t a walk in the park, but if you have a dream that you want to achieve keep that in the forefront of your mind and work towards it. Break everything down into manageable steps and congratulate yourself on completion of each step. Never let people persuade you that it’s not worth it or that you won’t ever get a job or any of the other negative things you see on many of the forums out there. Take advice, talk to everyone and make your own assessments on things. Finally pick your training school and training environment carefully, it could be your ticket into the industry and the job you have always wanted, and be prepared to do any sort of work to get you in the door. A good attitude and a team spirit as well as passion for your chosen profession will go far. Good luck.


By Alastair Lovell