Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

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T-Rex
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Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#1 Post by T-Rex » Sun Sep 04, 2011 10:32 pm

Hello all. I'm new to both the forum and the world of flying. (Apologies for the length of post.)

I've suddenly developed an inexplicable (and surprising) urge to fly a helicopter. I don't quite understand it because I've never had more than a passing interest in helicopters or in airplanes (sure I built a model as a kid, though not a very good one) or in flying; yes I've been to an airshow (very cool), and have flown in small planes (also cool), and went to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (tremendously cool) but I certainly didn't get any urge to fly an airplane. But one flight in a helicopter and I was smitten. So what is it about helicopters?

I first rode in one a year ago. I probably had a stupid grin on my face the entire time, and couldn't think of much else afterwards (I'm sure my wife got tired of hearing about it). Something about seeing how the pilots maneuvered them with such delicate precision, I guess. I did some reading, found out about discovery flights and really wanted to take one. But I let it simmer for a year (not wanting to do anything rash, plus life got in the way) ... and then had another flight this year. That sealed it. I got to sit in the front this time (probably with the same stupid grin), and spent more of the 20 min. flight studying the pilot and the instruments than I did looking at the spectacular mountain scenery. (The pilot probably thought I was loopy given that I didn't say a word.) Since then I really couldn't think of much else and that's been going on for a couple of weeks now. I'm reading voraciously about helicopters and pilots (both online and in books) and (day-)dreaming about being a part-time mountain rescue helicopter pilot. (Before anyone points it out, I'm guessing that mountain rescue is one of the more difficult piloting tasks, and takes years of experience before even contemplating. But hey, that's why it's called dreaming.)

Okay, so finding this site threw a cold water bucket of reality at me: I had naively thought "there can't be too many pilots out there, it costs so much and requires so much dedication", and then I found this site which quickly proved me wrong. So I've been lurking for a couple of weeks, soaking up what wisdom I can from those who have made a career out of it.

But I can't get flying a 'copter out of my mind. Oh, did I mention I'm in my 40s? And that I have already spent over 20 years in a completely unrelated (deskjob) career? I realize I must be out of my mind for thinking of starting at the bottom again -- especially after finding out just how hard it is for a low-time pilot to find work these days. My wife said maybe this can be my mid-life crisis. (Two points on that: 1) I chuckled when I came across posts where 20- and 30-somethings thought they might be too old to be starting their flight career; and 2) I always told my wife that for my mid-life crisis she got to choose between either another woman or a '60s Corvette -- maybe now I have a 3rd option ). Anyway, she is wonderfully 100% behind whatever I choose to do -- she's telling me to take a discovery flight and see if: (a) I find out I shouldn't quit my day job; or (b) I really want to do this. And I thought she'd be terrified at the idea!

So anyway, I'm planning on going for a discovery flight to at least give it a try, at one of the FTUs in Springbank. Are they worth it?

I know/suspect/fear that the whole thing is a pipe-dream, given the effects of age on physical health (eyesight especially -- I'm finding out this week if mine would even qualify), and the realities of the industry. For example: is there such a thing as a part-time career in helicopter flying? Are there jobs to be had around Calgary or do they all generally start out in the northern frontier? Are there obstacles to being my age and entering the field (with employers or with co-workers)? Is it even remotely realistic? A PPL sounds so, well, ... pointless (unless one can afford their own 'copter) since I doubt there are many rentals. Alternatively, $50k could pay for a lot of discovery flights with no added pressure...

I'm not sure if I have a specific question, but I'm bursting with the desire to learn more and to find out if any of this sounds feasible. Any constructive comments/critiques/questions are welcome. Any pilots out there 40+ who could picture starting out in their 40s? Even if the whole thing isn't realistic, my curiosity is piqued.

Thanks!

tr
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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#2 Post by North Shore » Mon Sep 05, 2011 8:13 am

Does your day job give you the financial freedom to buy your own machine and fly it on your own time? Might be a better solution...

There are a number of questions that you've got to answer here. Does your wife's job enable you to support the kids/mortgage/pension/savings, for the first few years while you are off chasing your dreams? Are you prepared to spend a huge chunk of cash to learn how to fly on the gamble that you'll get a job afterward? Are you willing to sacrifice your comfortable lifestyle to go and live in bush camps for 42 days in a row? How far into your 40's are you? There's some truth to the old saying abut old dogs and new tricks. What's your health like? It'd really suck to invest $70k, get a few years in (just paying back the $70..) and then lose your medical..

I'm sure that there's more..perhaps some of the helo guys could chime in here?

Find a NON puppy-mill flight school, and have a serious chat with them about how realistic you are being.

OTOH, as an older guy, you've been around the block a few times, and thus are less prone to doing rash, young man things. You're probably a little more stable, and know what you want..

Good luck!
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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#3 Post by Petit-Lion » Mon Sep 05, 2011 4:50 pm

Hello, my first post in AvCanada too.

It's feasible. One guy I know just started such a second career in his 40's. He spent huge amounts of cash, then he worked hard in the company for little money, but he managed to become indispensable : hangar rat, administrative tasks, ground instructor... Then he took the flight instructor course (at full price) and became a CFI. Now he flies a lot, less than 2 years after his license, which is exceptionally short (the industry average is 7 years, and only for those who do not give up while waiting).

So you have to spend a lot, to work a lot, to be skilled at many things, to accept hard work for peanuts, AND to be lucky enough so that the operator needs you one day before you get discouraged. Nothing is guaranted.
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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#4 Post by T-Rex » Tue Sep 06, 2011 9:13 am

Hey, thanks for the input guys, much appreciated.
North Shore wrote:There are a number of questions that you've got to answer here.
I know I have a lot of questions to ask myself (and have been asking). I (we) do have the financial stability to pursue flying, but not so much that I'd be able to buy my own machine. Health is pretty decent, though there's no denying that years at the computer and being in my (early) 40s do add up physically. I know what you mean about old dogs, North Shore, as I've been really asking myself if I have the aptitude to fly the machine and handle everything else that a pilot must be aware of. Learning certainly doesn't get any easier as one ages, but I do what I can to challenge my brain and keep it active. I'm thinking flying would definitely do that. I'm also hoping (and have witnessed) that age does give one an edge in handling things maturely. I've seen it in martial arts, which I didn't start until my 30s.

I don't think I could go for the endless days in a bush camp. It isn't the nature of the work that dissuades me, but at this point I wouldn't put my wife through that.
Petit-Lion wrote:So you have to spend a lot, to work a lot, to be skilled at many things, to accept hard work for peanuts, AND to be lucky enough so that the operator needs you one day before you get discouraged. Nothing is guaranted.
At least it sounds like it's feasible getting into the industry late in the game. My concern isn't the hard work, it's that employers would assume that someone with 20 years work experience would figure themselves to be to "overqualified" to do the menial stuff. I certainly wouldn't shy away from the menial stuff, and in fact it might be a nice change.
but he managed to become indispensable : hangar rat, administrative tasks, ground instructor.
I've seen several references to being a "hangar rat" on the forum ... just what does that entail? Hanging around even off-hours? Getting chatty with everyone? And just what kinds of things does one do as a rat? Sweeping, cleaning, painting? Getting coffee? I really have no idea. And I make terrible coffee.
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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#5 Post by North Shore » Tue Sep 06, 2011 3:09 pm

And I make terrible coffee.
I wouldn't worry about that. Most of the coffee I've seen in hangars over the years comes out of Bunn (hard to f$%k that up..) coffee makers, whitened with coffee-mate. Not exactly hote-qzine. ('Course, I'm in fixed wings - helos might do things differently 'cos they get paid more :wink: :lol: )

You've pretty much nailed what a hangar rat does..

Don't discount your other experience - a company might be very interested in your 15-20 years experience in another field - it might come in useful to them...
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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#6 Post by sky's the limit » Tue Sep 06, 2011 10:35 pm

T-Rex,

I'll give you the same advice I give to others who have asked me this question directly in person: It's better to have an unfulfilled dream than to live a nightmare, and this has a very high probability of ending in tears.

Has it been done? Yes. But, I can count the number of people I've run into who've done it successfully on one hand, and it can be a very miserable road. I would urge extreme caution before spending that kind of money because it will take years to get where you want to be, IF you can get there at all.

I know this sounds harsh, but I have seen too many come to helicopters later in life, some from scratch, others fixed-wing converts. It is a very tough industry to break into, and learning what you need to know to operate a helicopter safely for a living takes years, and most employers will look at you that way. This is not fixed-wing aviation, meaning there are precious few places to hide and make a good living doing simple things. I used to be a fixed-winger, so I'm not slamming it, just pointing out they are very different sectors of the aviation industry and this side is really unforgiving.

My advice would be to take the Fam Flight, see what it's all about, and then go get a fixed-wing PPL to scratch the itch.

Sorry to be blunt, but it's late and I'm wiped. Just got home from my last tour for the summer, been a long few months!

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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#7 Post by T-Rex » Fri Sep 09, 2011 7:24 pm

North Shore wrote:I wouldn't worry about that.
Ha! You haven't seen me make coffee. I don't drink the stuff, so I don't have to suffer the results.
sky's the limit wrote:It's better to have an unfulfilled dream than to live a nightmare, and this has a very high probability of ending in tears.
Hmm, I thought it was supposed to be "it's better to try and fail, than to not have tried..." or something like that. :smt040
*sigh* It's always hard to know what dreams are worth pursuing, and usually a person thinks of them too late.
sky's the limit wrote:Sorry to be blunt, but it's late and I'm wiped.
Hey, no need to apologize. In fact, your advice was basically what I was expecting, given the reading I've been doing. And I suspect that harsh truth myself when I really think about it. But it's been fun daydreaming about it, and picturing it for a moment or two...

Man it sounds like a tough industry -- something that surprised me. Basically, the employers are hoping people are after the glory factor in flying instead of paying according to risk and mentoring junior no-time pilots into solid resources. I guess they want the prospective pilots to fight it out (high tuition for essentially little qualification) and bank on only the few who are really driven to stick with it. Good way to keep supply of experienced pilots down, and quality of skills up among them, I guess.

stl: I haven't come across it, so please forgive me if it's been posted already -- mind if I ask about your career path? What kind of jobs did you start out with as a RW pilot? I'm just very curious.

Anyway, I appreciate everyone's comments. It was fun conjecturing and I learned a heck of a lot so far that I didn't know about helicopters and piloting. I've also developed more respect for those who pursue it and stick with it to turn it into a career; you certainly have the odds against you.

I'm definitely going to go for a FAM flight and who knows, maybe I'll just do that everytime I have an itch. And I'd better do it soon; I think if my car's handbrake were on the left, I'd be tempted to pull it up while driving to see if the car starts to lift...

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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#8 Post by sky's the limit » Sat Sep 10, 2011 9:03 am

Hey T,

Yes, it is a brutal industry in many ways as the supply outstrips the demand on the low end of the scale, and flight schools have become an industry in and of themselves in recent times with little care whether or not the grads get work. While I feel I have been extremely fortunate in my rotary career, I've seen some epic struggles and abuse over the years, and not just of low-timers. There are a good few high time guys who never quite figure out how to stand up for themselves either, but that's another story.

I came from an extensive FW background, lots of bush time, off-strip work, and some IFR, so when I made the transition it was more just a matter of learning to keep the stupid thing pointed in the right direction! Bush craft is bush craft, and decision making is decision making, so after the first 50hrs working or so things went very quickly. Most of my FW career was in the mountains, and most of my heli career has been in the mountains, and while it certainly transferred flying in the hills in a helicopter is a much more intimate experience, so that took some time to understand as well (that learning never stops). I really wanted to be a good long line pilot, and that process started when I had about 150hrs rotary in the Jet Ranger and it was like having to learn to fly all over again... But once you get even passable at it, it's addictive!

One of the guys who taught me to fly tail draggers early in my FW life had done just about everything there is to do and gave me some great advice: Fly anything and everything you can get your hands on, in as many applications as possible because it's all related. I did that in FW and I took the same approach in helicopters and it has paid off nicely over the years. He was 100% right because I've drawn on all kinds of previous experiences when approaching new things, and to teach myself as quickly as possible how to do something I haven't done before.

Flying the Bell 206 is a great way to learn helicopters. It is a great a/c, but one that has some very serious design flaws that must be respected - like the t/r, and the main rotor - so if you can learn to fly it well in the mountains and on a long line, you can fly just about anything. From there the usual Astar transition was made, then the Bell 212, Hughes 500, TwinStar, 204 and 205 followed. Each has their own niche in the industry, and each can and will teach you more than you can imagine if you are willing to learn.

Trying to find the most challenging work has always been something I've enjoyed, and I gave up opportunities for stable, full-time work often for the chance to do shorter term things that I felt I needed to try and get good at. These days I'm a contractor so I only work what I want, and as much (or little) as I want. Staying interested is really important for me, some guys seem happy to do the same thing for years on end, I'm not one of them. Change and challenges are crucial to my mental health!

Anyway, years later the process is still playing itself out, I'm still learning new things all the time, and still trying to find the most interesting things to do. Sometimes you have to suffer through some bordom to make a pay check, but generally I have a good time when out flying. Either way you meet some great people along the way and if you're lucky some of them become friends for life. Dealing with the bullshit is easier in groups! Lol

Let us know how your Fam Flight goes!

stl
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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#9 Post by T-Rex » Mon Sep 12, 2011 7:25 pm

stl - thanks for the insight, I appreciate your candor. Sounds like you really made the most of your career so far and have a true passion for it; something quite rare. I think I've lost some of that passion for mine (software development, which can also be a cut-throat industry); maybe/hopefully it's only temporary, but I think it's been going/gone for a while now. Anyway, it's great that people like you (and others here) spend the time to help educate newcomers like myself. (By the way, the pictures you've posted around the forum here are pretty awesome.) Thanks again.

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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#10 Post by Petit-Lion » Mon Sep 12, 2011 8:52 pm

Funny, I come from software development too... While the aviation industry is harsh, I have no regrets from the IT industry! :)
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Re: Discovering helicopters in your 40s - late to the party?

#11 Post by T-Rex » Mon Sep 12, 2011 9:26 pm

So did you switch (are you the guy you know? :wink: ) or are you still in IT and fly for recreation?
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