EMS helicopter pilots

February 27, 2013 by Tim McAdams

Having been an EMS helicopter pilot, I believe it is some of the most demanding flying a civilian pilot can do. The accident rate certainly supports this notion. One would think that this type of job would be at the top of the career ladder. One of those jobs that the most experienced and successful pilots would go after. However, that is not always the case.

Air medical should be an industry where turnover is low and getting in would take patience and persistence.  This environment seems to be more prevalent in corporate helicopter operations. One reason for this might be higher pay and benefits. Despite the demanding work an EMS helicopter pilot is required to do, pay and benefits are comparatively low. Would higher pay help the industry? Is pay and benefits the only issue that needs to be addressed? The debate on this subject seems to crop up a lot, especially the idea of raising compensation levels to help the safety problem. Not that any one individual pilot will fly any safer with a bigger paycheck, but industry turnover will certainly decrease.

I have known many good EMS helicopter pilots who have transitioned to fixed-wing aircraft or left the air medical industry to seek better pay and benefits. Instead of a stepping-stone to a higher paying job, EMS flying could be the career that pilots work hard to achieve. Over time, a low turnover rate will build an experience base of pilots skilled at making the tough decisions uniquely required by EMS flying.

A survey of pilots conducted by the National Emergency Medical Services Pilots Association found the number one suggestion to increase safety was to increase the quality and frequency of training. A close second was improving pilots’ salaries and benefits. Unfortunately, all of these strategies require increased funding at a time when cost pressures are high. However, overcoming these challenges and moving toward increased training and compensation would bode well for the air medical industry.

  • Avi Weiss


    I would agree that EMS flying is risky, and only surpassed by flight training itself, as can be seen by looking at accident stats from a few years back (http://helicopterflight.net/2009.htm).

    Your reasoning that the most demanding flying should be done by the most seasoned pilots applies equally to flight training as well. In fact Bruce Landsberg did an excellent piece on how the current “pyramid of flying” should be stood on its head, whereby low-time pilots apprentice with seasoned pilots, then move to captainship, and eventually into the most demanding of flying: training others. I would concur with this reasoning, but alas, the rest of the industry as a whole for some reason does not.

    Either way, more flight EXPERIENCE, and not simply more flight HOURS, seems to be the shared solution. By increasing the amount of training pilots receive over the course of their careers, there is more likelihood they will be prepared to handle tougher flight situations, and exercise more seasoned judgement to avoid pilot-created dangerous situations.

  • Eddie

    Awesome read.