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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Editor’s Notebook

Ernie Stephens

Civilian Training vs. Military Training

I’m frequently asked what the best way is to earn a helicopter pilot’s license, considering how much it costs to go to a flight school. They don’t have to go into much more detail than that, because I’ve been watching the cost of helicopter rentals rise ever since the mid-1980s when I thought $89 per hour for an R22 was outrageous.

Guess what? Military flight schools actually do charge tuition.

Today, schools are getting upwards from $250 per hour for dual flight instruction in the U.S. Multiply that times the 40-hour minimum required by the FAA, and a private license costs around $10,000.

But while a private license is all well and good, not many people can afford to rent a helicopter for $210 per hour, let alone buy one outright. That’s why private rotorcraft pilots almost always have to move up to a commercial license so someone else can pay them to fly.

The money thing is rarely as big an issue with those who want to fly airplanes for fun or profit. Dual instruction in a two-seat Cessna 152 is currently around $115 per hour; less than half that of helicopter training. And with rental costs for that same plane averaging around $95 per hour, borrowing a plane for some fun every other weekend or so isn’t a huge deal for the aviation novice. (Well, at least it wasn’t before the economy went into cardiac arrest!)

So, while the common man is able to earn an airplane license with little more than a hiccup to their savings account, the would-be helicopter pilot often has to consider a second mortgage, part-time employment and living off of bread and water for several years in order to come up with anywhere from $10,000-$15,000 for a private ticket — a license that is useless for making money with — and another $15,000-$17,000 to earn a commercial license. And while we’re adding up the numbers, plug in $8,000 for a helicopter instrument rating, since most employers require their pilots to have one. So, on the low side of the equation, the total for a marginally marketable license is $33,000, but can get much, much higher.

And then there’s the other option: The military.

I don’t think anyone, including my friends who own flight schools, will argue with me when I say the best trained helicopter pilots in the world learned how to fly in the armed forces, especially those who graduated from the U.S. Army’s school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. (Okay, you folks who learned at Pensacola are a really close second!)

The best part of military flight school is the overall experience. Instructor pilots are all handpicked men and women who could roll the aircraft inverted and trim your hedges with it while calculating fuel burn down to the third decimal place. And when the training is all done, the soldier has earned the equivalent of a commercial license with an instrument rating, received some great night vision goggle training, tried their hand at long-line operations and been checked out on at least one turbine helicopter.

So, if someone is looking for a helicopter pilot’s license, enlisting in the military seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, I’m not so sure.

Back in 1990 when the U.S. launched Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, a couple of Army reservists I knew looked like deer caught in headlights. They were basically good men, but they admittedly enlisted solely for the free flight training. The idea of ending up in a shooting war was so remote; they had given it little consideration. Yes, they still served bravely and honorably, but they became acutely aware that military flight school actually has a tuition. It includes one-year deployments, time away from family, living in the desert, being shot at, maybe being injured and sometimes being killed. For the record, I salute the men and women of the armed forces who risk their lives for what they believe in and understand the risks that go with the wings. But I wholeheartedly discourage the military route for those who are just looking for a license.

Between the economy and the across-the-board high cost of learning how to fly in the civilian world, it’s easy to see why joining the military seems to be a sensible option for learning how to fly without breaking the bank. But military aviation is a dangerous and demanding occupation that can’t be entered into lightly. One must be ready to live where the government tells them to live, fly what the government tells them to fly and go into harm’s way when the government orders them into harm’s way.

So that I don’t leave you thinking that I’m discouraging people from getting a pilot’s license, let me state two things. First, much as I would have liked to, I didn’t earn my wings in the military. (My vision was below their minimums.) I paid for my license out of my pocket. Second, even if it had cost twice what I paid for it back in the 1980s, my first solo flight made it worth every dime! Thanks, Todd.

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