Yes, helicopter pilots are in demand. In fact, in the last few decades, helicopters have become not only a more popular tourist option, but are used increasingly in film crews, traffic reporting, and as private hire vehicles for rapid transit options for the rich.
That means the opportunities for helicopter pilots to carve out a career niche in the world of aviation have grown steadily, with occasional booms.
As of 2019, Southern Utah University estimated there were around 15,000 helicopter pilots in the U.S., and that there were hundreds of job openings. The University anticipated that the helicopter sector of the aviation workforce would continue to grow over the next two decades.
It was bolstered in those predictions by a study from Boeing, which claimed that by the year 2037, if demand for helicopter pilots was maintained only at its current levels, there would be a shortage of some 59,000 helicopter pilots worldwide.
That in turn meant that for at least the next 18 years from 2019, good helicopter pilots would be almost guaranteed a job in this growing industry.
There is a logic to this prediction. Helicopter piloting only became an official career in the late 1950s. That means those who were in the first wave of professional helicopter pilots (assuming they took to it young), are either newly retired or are on the verge of retirement, creating a significant drop-off in the number of qualified helicopter pilots.
In fact, more helicopter pilots are retiring than are training to fly. The result is an industry where demand, even at its present rate, is being met by an insufficiency of qualified pilots.
That said, demand is increasing – because of the additional uses to which helicopter pilots are being put across the transit, tourism, and entertainment industries.
So what we will likely see in the next two decades is almost a golden age for trained and experienced helicopter pilots. A shortage of qualified people to fill an increased number of positions should drive salaries for helicopter pilots up as they work to fill a lot of demand with a scarcity of peers.
We would also expect to see additional incentives to train as a helicopter pilot for at least the first decade we can reliably think of ourselves as post-Covid, to help supply the growing worldwide need for reliable helicopter pilots.
Will the effect of the pandemic depress the helicopter pilot market?
It seems very unlikely. In fact, probably the opposite will be the case. After a long period of enforced no-fly behavior, once the all-clear is given for widespread international or transnational air travel again, we can expect at least a short-term boom in aviation of all kinds.
But what might happen is that more people will find the value in a smaller, more personal aviation service, for instance a kind of distance-limited sky-Uber service (Skuber?), using helicopters to avoid the social clustering of traditional mass air transport by plane.
What is a helicopter pilot called?
A helicopter pilot is called…erm…a helicopter pilot. Or a pilot. Or, if you want a tinge of old-fashioned class, an aviator.
We would absolutely love to tell you that helicopter pilots have their own unique name, distinct from that of other pilots, but sadly, the elegance of language never granted them anything unique.
This could well be because the profession was invented in the mid-20th-century, when a utilitarian approach to language was in vogue. So a helicopter pilot was always the name for someone who piloted a helicopter.
Even were we to try to add a little mystery and swish to their job title now, it would take some invention to escape the clumsy or the ugly.
If we follow the line of logic that lets us call people who fly balloons balloonists, then people who fly helicopters might be known as helicopterists, but that feels clumsy, in a way that an ornithopterist (one who pilots a flying machine with flapping wings) doesn’t. And on that basis, what would we call people who pilot airships? Airshipsters?
A logical contraction would give us a helicopterot – crunching the front of helicopter and the end of pilot – but again, it fails to feel natural after 70 years of simply calling helicopter pilots helicopter pilots. Maybe a truncation would be better – a helicop? Maybe not, unless they had the badge and the gun to go with it.
One option that might work, were we determined to give helicopter pilots a single distinctive name to mark them out from all the pilots of fixed-wing aircraft, would be to steal from Greek naming conventions.
One of the largest flying dinosaurs has become known as the archaeopteryx. The word translates as “ancient-wing” – archaeo meaning “old or ancient,” and being the source of our words archaeology, archive, and the like.
The end of that word, the “-pteryx,” translates directly from ancient Greek as “wing or feather.” So if we wanted to give helicopter pilots a distinctive name, we could call them a helicopteryx.
Although they might very well ask us not to – especially en masse, where we’d never be entirely sure if they were helicopteryxes or helicopterices.
No, all in all, perhaps it’s just as well we’ve only ever known them as helicopter pilots…