Finding training money

February 2, 2011 by Tim McAdams

One large problem facing the helicopter training industry is a lack of funding for students. When the credit crisis hit several years ago, lenders such as Sallie Mae and Key Bank stopped making educational loans for non-degreed programs like flight training. Although this affected both fixed-wing and rotor-wing schools, the higher cost of a professional helicopter program (about $80,000) caused quite a drop in student enrollment.

There are a few options available, such as Pilot Finance, Inc. (; however, its loans are limited to about $15,000. Personal loans, home equity loans, and credit cards are options, yet with tougher credit requirements and the high cost of a professional helicopter pilot program these most likely would not provide enough funding.

Prospective students who served in the US military have somewhat better options. The Montgomery GI bill pays 60 percent of the training cost for ratings above private. However, this still leaves an out-of-pocket cost of over $40,000 for a professional helicopter pilot program. Prior to this year the Post 9/11 GI bill would pay 100 percent if the training was taken through an institute of higher learning (a degree granting institution) and as a result several flight schools partnered with local colleges to qualify. This was a costly and time-consuming process. The flight training industry regained some optimism when a bill was introduced last year to directly include flight schools in the program. However, the optimism was short lived when the bill recently passed with a $10,000 per year cap on flight training.

With entry level helicopter pilot jobs hard to find some might argue that training more pilots is really not needed. Maybe in the short term, but five or 10 years from now there could be a shortage of helicopter pilots.

  • Ehud Gavron

    As a new private rotorcraft pilot I’m struggling with the same thing. I have my private, but a commercial is a long way away. Scottsdale Helicopters has an affiliation with a local college that allows “standard” tuition/student-loans to apply toward training… but that is a rarity. There are none in my hometown of Tucson AZ*

    It would be nice if there was interest on the part of organizations that intend to hire pilots to “sponsor” their education, much like baseball teams will “sponsor” a player in the minor leagues, but then he works for them in the majors for a while at reduced income.


    * Tucson is where not only did House Rep. Giffords get shot… but Loren Leonberger, a civie helicopter pilot working for Pima County Sheriff’s Office, lost his life in a heli crash on 1/31. Recovery wishes for her. Condolences for a fellow pilot.

  • John

    I am too a private helicopter pilot. With 130 hours I am finding it very fustrating trying to get my commercial license. CFI’s tell me there will be a shortage of helicopter pilots within the next 5 years but the cost of training is very expensive to get a commercial and instrument rating. Pilotfinance is near impossible to get any money for training. I wish there was a way for civilian pilots to achieve there commercial license on a realistic budge.

  • Jim Borger

    I have been waiting to see this pilot shortage that I’ve been hearing about for the last 45 years. Don’t hold your breath. I was 20, some were younger, when I flew in Viet Nam in 1966. The war ended officially in 1975. Do the math, somebody 20 years of age then would be 56 today. If you are young, that sounds like an old age but that 56 year old has ten more years before reaching full retirement age for Social Security purposes and I know guys in their 70’s that are still flying today. Don’t look to fill my seat either as I have no plans on retiring any time soon, I’m still having too much fun.

    I have the utmost respect for the guys coming along today, especially those willing to incur that much debt with no gaurantee of employment. They have the knowledge, the skills, and dedication to do a great job. I have tried to convince the powers that be where I work to take on low timers and let us old guys pass on our experience, to no avail. They hired pilots with 200 hour at one time, because they had no choice, but that was before lawsuits became so common and customers required five or ten times that amount.

  • Les

    I trained with silver state helicpters and was lucky enough to get my private license before they closed the doors on us. I used money I had saved back instead of getting loans with high intrest rates. Since I never got any kind of refund for flight time I never used, my other ratings may never come. Helicopters will have to stay with people that have money or run into somebody to sponser them. I have niether so will have to just read about them and stop and watch everytime one flys over. Hate to cry about it but I do wish there was a better way to get funds. Oh, and also make the people pay back for promises not kept.

  • Jack Hester

    When I got my CDL to become a long haul trucker I found a company that paid my training—the stip was I had to work for them for at least a year after training. I am now trying to find a similar situation to get my private pilots lic. There must be some grants or something that could help one get a private. It’s very frustating—I can’t find any help anywhere.

  • Jack McCombs

    I’ve been flying various things for many years now, but I admit to considering rotary wing flying more and more, just for the H of it. I can think of a few different ways to tackle this:

    1. Partnership. Find a couple/few other would-be chopper pilots, and buy a used copter of some sort. It might be something relatively low cost, VFR only, but that will get you through your private certificate. If you have enough partners and enough cash (or borrowing power), you might buy something that is IFR equipped to continue with the advanced ratings, or stick with the VFR ship and rent for the IFR training. Lotsa bucks per hour, but there aren’t so many IFR training hours required in comparison to the total time for a rating. A copter with mid-times remaining on components should do nicely; I doubt that you’d fly off all that remaining time, even with three or four people in on the deal, especially if you already have fixed wing ratings.

    2. The “especially if you have fixed wing ratings” brings up another alternative: It’s cheaper to pick up the airplane ratings from scratch, than helicopter ratings. Helicopter time costs roughly as much per hour as flying a light twin airplane. Get the ratings in a single engine airplane, and then add on the rotary wing ratings. This may or may not save you many hours, depending on the specific rating(s) you’re after, but it can’t hurt. If renting fixed wing through your local FBO is still too much (and believe me, I understand, I’ve been there in the past), once again, there is the fixed-wing partnership or outright purchase, and there is a wide variety of homebuilt fixed wing airplanes available on the market as well, available for considerably less cash than an equivalent factory-built. In other words, “time-builder.”

    3. Build your own. There are kits available that are far cheaper than buying a new helicopter. Rotorway will even take care of the training through private, if you buy one of their kits. Still too much? Can’t get a loan? See (1) above, RE: Partnership.

    4. Leaseback. There is a member of my local EAA chapter who is doing this with a Robinson R-22 (I think, or R-44) at a helicopter school on our home field. The copter school always seems to be busy when I’m out at the airport, so they must be getting their students from somewhere.

    Any other ideas out there?

  • Jim Borger

    Before considering buying anything, give your friendly helicopter insurance salesman a call. Typical cost is 10% of hull value. Now mention the fact that this is a partnership made up of low/zero time students that will be using the aircraft for training. You could buy a lot of flight time just for the cost of insurance, muchless all the other costs of ownership.

    If you want to fly helicopters commercially forget the fixed wing route. It would be cheaper to get the airplane commercial and then a helicopter add on but total time in helicopters is what counts when looking for a job and money spent on airplane time would be wasted. If you can afford to buy and build a Rotorway then you can afford flight school.

    There are no short cuts to that right seat. There are no easy answers.

  • Donovan Owens

    I struggled my way through flight school with the funding like many of you are now. The easiest solution is to join the military, serve your 4 years, get out, and go to a VA approved flight school that offers more than 100% tuition coverage. They cover all your flight training costs, give you about a $1000 per month to live on, all you need to do is take a few courses at Salt Lake Community College while you complete your training and you are set! No strings attached! It really does sound too good to be true but its legit! Contact Upper Limit Aviation in Salt Lake City Utah or check out their website @ The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill covers Private, Instrument, Commercial, Certified Flight Instructor, and Certified Flight Instrument Instructor as well as a transition into a Bell 206 turbine helicopter! You really can not find a better deal. So save yourself about $150K (give or take) and join the military and come see us in a few years!

  • Ehud Gavron

    I put in a lot of stuff… then felt guilty so here’s the rundown:
    1. Military is only an option for some, and of course not everyone is suited to that discipline. There are no guarantees you’ll get to pilot a helicopter. If you can though, it’s a great option.

    2. Buying your own helicopter is more expensive, not less, than renting one or using a flight school’s.

    The rest in detail is below. I respect our military pilots… and everyone else in the industry :)

    Tucson AZ

    To offer more information… I have 135 hours, am 44 years old, and I think that means the military is not an option.

    I’ve looked into ownership, and while I appreciate the previous poster’s suggestion… here are the cold hard facts. I’ve used an R-44 for illustration because it’s easier (the parts all time out at the same time, and base cost is lower, but you do have a 12-year limit). A Bell 206 costs over twice as much used, and more for upkeep.

    The cost of a Robinson R-44 has a straight-line depreciation, with a timed-out value of around $90-$100K and an overhaul of $180-$220K. That makes the set-aside $18.3K/yr on the 12-year plan or $100/hr on the 2200 hour plan, but requires those 2200 hours over 12 years or 183 hours a year (15.25 hrs/month). It’s easier to think of it as “hey why don’t we get a few guys/gals and commit to 15 hours a month!”

    Right. Now add insurance. The company recommended by RHC (Pathfinder) does a depreciated schedule. That’s around $10K/yr. (another $10K/yr set-aside, or another $75/hr set-aside on the 183 hrs/year plan.) Unfortunately this means that there’s no total replacement… just equivalently used replacement. Most financing sources won’t accept this. The nearest choice is around $25K/yr. (About $150/hr on the 183 hours/year plan.) That is full replacement coverage that lenders like.

    So without talking about ADs, SBs, 50hr, 100hr, rotor track and balancing, maintenance, annual, inspections, hangaring, oil, and — dare I say it — FUEL — the minimum cost EXCLUDING THE AIRCRAFT LOAN is $150/hr (insc) + $100/hr (overhaul) = $250/hr.

    I can rent an R-44 in Las Vegas for $360/hr –wet– (blocks of 10hrs, can be used in several sessions)
    I can rent an R-44 in Tucson for $450 –wet– (no minimum commit)

    The cost of ownership is high. Having looked at it in depth it is my opinion this option is not for someone trying to save money. It is for someone willing to pay more for extra convenience… and perhaps the occasional inconvenience. The military option — if you are not ineligible due to age or other factors — that’s a good choice, unless of course you don’t like the rest of what comes with military service.

  • Mike Borkhuis

    What I’d like to know is why flight schools are NOT considered vocational schools??? I can get loans for vocational training for welding, or auto repair, but not for flight school….

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