Emergency medical service helicopters can save lives by transporting patients to hospitals in time for the treatment they need. The pilot is a crucial part of the team, providing a safe journey so the medical staff can focus on the patient. It takes significant flight experience to be an EMS helicopter pilot, but it can be extremely rewarding.
In this article, we discuss what an EMS helicopter pilot does and how to become one.
What is an EMS helicopter pilot?
An EMS helicopter pilot, sometimes called an air ambulance pilot, is a person who flies patients to the health care they need as quickly as possible. They may operate in remote areas where it would take several hours to transport a patient by road, or they may work in a more heavily populated area to reduce the transportation time traffic would add. They usually work for a helicopter vendor company that provides the hospital service with helicopters, pilots and mechanics.
What does an EMS helicopter pilot do?
An EMS helicopter pilot transports patients from the scene of an injury to a hospital, or from one hospital to another. They focus on operating the aircraft while the medical staff cares for the patient, so medical training isn’t necessary for their position. Here are some tasks an EMS helicopter pilot might do at work:
Complete preflight checklists, including reading any flight condition notices, reviewing staff, and inspecting helicopter before the shift
Prepare a helicopter to respond efficiently to calls, usually launching within five to 10 minutes of the original notice
Operate helicopter, navigating through good and adverse weather, occasionally at night, using night vision systems
Balance the helicopter’s load and operation to accommodate patients and medical staff
Assist medical staff with cleanup and non-medical duties on-site to increase efficiency
Log flights after completing them and prepare a helicopter for the next trip
Ensure craft and pilot are up to all Federal Aviation Administration requirements
Operate industry standard craft like the Robinson R-44, Bell 407, Airbus H125 and 130
How to become an EMS helicopter pilot
Becoming an EMS helicopter pilot requires special training, many hours of flight time, and at least two licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Here are the steps to becoming an EMS helicopter pilot:
1. Consider a degree
Most companies that hire EMS helicopter pilots prefer or require some college education. This might be an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or specifically, a bachelor of science in aviation technology. Choosing the aviation technology degree path can pre-qualify you for certain licenses and confirm your eligibility for academic scholarships, which can also be a good way to fund your flight training. Alternatively, you might choose to focus your studies in a related field, like physics or math.
2. Physical examination
Before you fly, the FAA requires that you have a medical examination to make sure you are physically fit to control the plane. This step is important for ensuring you have no medical conditions that may impair your flight abilities. You can find a list of qualified physicians, called aviation medical examiners, on the FAA website to learn more about this step of the process.
There are three classes of medical certificates with different renewal periods. If you plan to fly as a student or private pilot without passengers, a class 3 certificate is sufficient. Most helicopter and flight training situations require a class 2 certificate, which allows you to fly as a commercial pilot. Most EMS helicopter pilot positions require a class 2 certificate, but some locations or companies require a class 1.
3. Consider military training
Since flight instruction is expensive, an option for pursuing your flight training might be to join the military. This involves an extended time commitment, but you can get paid to train on a variety of aircraft. The military has separate pilot certifications from the FAA, so military experience alone does not qualify you to operate planes as a civilian. You can earn your commercial pilot certificate without additional training by taking a knowledge exam on the commercial pilot military competence standards published by the FAA.
4. Earn a private helicopter pilot license
As a civilian, the next step to becoming an EMS helicopter pilot is to get your Private Pilot Rotorcraft License (PPL). Find an FAA-approved program, and you can usually get all the training you need in one place. Here are the requirements to earn a private helicopter pilot license:
Ground school: Ground school involves classroom education and instruction before and after practice flight, and covers proper procedures for before and after flights, as well as information about the helicopter.
Flight education: An instructor teaches how to operate the helicopter and perform essential maneuvers.
40 hours of flight experience: The FAA requires 40 hours of flight experience, although this process continues until you can perform all required maneuvers and processes, which can take 60 to 80 hours of airtime.
Passing grade on an FAA exam: The exam involves written and oral portions along with a flight check. The content covers procedures like flight preparation, takeoff and landing, hovering, navigation and emergency procedures.
At this stage, you are likely to train with a Robinson helicopter, like the F-22 or R-44. Some schools may use a flight simulator to teach techniques. Simulator practice time does not count as flight experience, but it contributes toward general instruction hours. With your private helicopter pilot license, you are qualified to fly with visual flight rules, so you can fly at low altitudes and visually determine the route of the helicopter.
5. Instrument certification
Next, you can add an instrument certification, or instrument rating, to your pilot license. The FAA requires this certification for you to operate a helicopter with navigational instruments, called flying with instrumental flight rules. This certification is an FAA requirement for all EMS helicopter pilot jobs since the job can involve operating a helicopter in poor weather and at night.
6. Earn a commercial helicopter pilot license
You are eligible to get your commercial helicopter pilot license (CPL(H)) after you have achieved your private license. These are the requirements for a commercial helicopter pilot license:
Pass the knowledge exam. Candidates pass the commercial pilot knowledge exam 24 months before they take the practical exam.
Attend additional ground school and in-flight instruction. Candidates deepen their knowledge of the helicopter and procedures with additional training, which includes dual flights with an instructor.
Complete 150 hours of flight experience. Within the 150 total hours of flight experience required, a candidate completes hours as the pilot in command and flies cross-country trips accompanied and solo. They also complete training on instrument flying and solo flying.
Pass the oral and practical exams. After a flight instructor certifies the completed training of a candidate, the candidate then completes exams that test their knowledge and involve a test flight.
If you already have a commercial pilot license from the FAA for fixed-wing planes, you may have reduced training requirements to add the helicopter pilot license to your certification.
7. Log more flight hours
Companies that contract with hospitals to supply helicopters and pilots, often called air ambulance companies, generally require 1,000 to 2,000 hours of flight time, far more air time than initial licensing requirements. They also might require specific hours of experience flying helicopters with turbine engines, multi-engine craft, flying at night, or flying with instrument flight rules.
To accumulate these hours, you might get a different helicopter piloting job. Law enforcement programs at the local, state, and federal levels sometimes hire helicopter pilots at lower hour requirements. You might also consider working as a flight instructor, which requires another FAA certification. As you spend hours instructing someone, those flights can count toward your total.
8. Decide whether to pursue an airline transport pilot license
The next level of license after a commercial pilot license is an airline transport pilot license (ATP), which qualifies you to fly large helicopters. It’s not required for all EMS helicopter pilot jobs, but it can make you a more competitive candidate. Some employers might prefer that you already have this license, but others may request that you get it within 12 months of working for them. Here are the requirements for a helicopter ATP license:
Fill requirements. Successful candidates hold a medical class 1 certification, a commercial helicopter pilot license, an instrument rating, and are 23 years old.
Gain 1500 hours of flight experience: Within the 1500 hours, candidates need to ensure a certain number are at night, by instrument, cross-country, and as the pilot in command.
Pass FAA written, oral, and flight exams: These FAA tests determine an aspiring pilot’s proficiency.
Average salary and job outlook for EMS helicopter pilots
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for all pilots was $202,180 per year in 2021. This salary average may differ depending on your geographic location, setting of employment, and level of experience. For example, EMS helicopter pilots may be more likely to earn a higher average salary than other types of pilots due to their extensive experience and specialized certification requirements. Additionally, EMS helicopter pilots often work in remote areas, so employers may offer financial incentives to attract pilots to these regions.
The BLS projects a 13% increase in the job outlook for airline and commercial pilots between 2020 and 2030. This outlook may differ for EMS helicopter pilots since they perform a more specialized role when compared to airline and commercial pilots. Additionally, the demand for EMS helicopter pilots may vary by region. Many EMS pilots work in remote areas where ground transportation is inefficient for assisting patients experiencing medical emergencies, so the demand for pilots in these areas may be higher than average.
Skills and abilities of an EMS helicopter pilot
An EMS helicopter pilot has extensive knowledge about the operation and maintenance of their craft. They may have some awareness of medical terms, but they rarely have medical training or duties. Here are some skills for an EMS helicopter pilot:
Physical stamina: Pilot maintain their physical health in order to renew their medical classifications. They can physically lift, load, and push fairly heavy weights to load and operate the helicopter.
Coordination and speed: These skills help a pilot react to unexpected events and adjust course quickly if needed.
Communication: An EMS helicopter pilot establishes good relationships and communicates clearly with airports in the area to ensure their route is clear of other craft at all times.
Knowledge of FAA regulations: Like all pilots, an EMS helicopter pilot must operate their helicopter within FAA regulations, including aircraft maintenance standards, protocols and routes.
Math and science skills: Understanding instruments and plotting the best course depends on a thorough understanding of how the instruments operate and how weather affects the craft’s operation.
I hope you find this article helpful.