Texas State Technical College is starting a new helicopter pilot training program to meet the increased demand for specialized pilots in the field, and received three new helicopters Tuesday to get the program off the ground.
So far, 12 students are registered for the two-year program, which is being offered for the first time this fall. The college can accommodate up to 18 students at a time, said Carson Pearce, TSTC’s aerospace division director and department chairman of the aircraft pilot training program.
Pearce is a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot. He said the job market for the pilots has continued to grow, with opportunities in offshore oil rig crew transportation, police search and response, and medical flight services.
“We’ve trained thousands of pilots in airplanes that are flying for the airlines,” Pearce said. “By offering our students the opportunity to excel in rotary-wing aviation, that opens up a whole new market for aviation careers that we never have been able to offer.”
The college on Tuesday received three new flight training helicopters — two two-seater R-22 aircraft and a four-seater R-44 model. Prospective students, staff and media were able to take test flights in the helicopters.
TSTC is leasing the three helicopters, paying about $225,000 annually in lease fees, insurance and maintenance. Pearce said the helicopters would cost about $1.2 million apiece to buy.
The college also has hired three new faculty members to train the helicopter pilots. Lead instructor Trayne White was hired this summer after spending nearly 10 years teaching helicopter flight training with Universal Helicopters, a helicopter manufacturer and flight school.
“In the helicopter, every part of your body is moving,” White said. “You’ve got your feet moving, your hands are moving, you’ve always got something on a control. You’ve got throttle, you’ve got radios you’re working with your hands and then your arms are working the cyclic and collective (control sticks). There’s a lot more involved in flying.”
White noted that there was a shortage of new helicopter pilot students after the Vietnam War ended because many of the Army veterans with flight experience were hired to civilian pilot positions. But many of those pilots are now retiring, which will create significant vacancies.
The helicopter training program costs more than TSTC’s traditional flight program. Pearce said students will end up paying about $160,000 during the two years, compared to about $70,000 for students in the aircraft pilot training program.
But new helicopter pilots also earn higher wages immediately after graduation than commercial airplane pilots, in part because of the differences in pilot responsibilities.
Pearce said helicopter pilots may earn $43,000 immediately after graduation and about $96,000 within five years, while it takes commercial airline pilots 10 years to reach that salary after earning first-year wages of $25,000.
Pearce said airlines typically pay lower starting salaries because of the extensive training new pilots go through to meet the company’s standards for commanding a passenger jet.
“Now, the airline captain is eventually going to exceed the earnings potential of a helicopter pilot, usually in the last 10 years of his career,” Pearce said. “You hear of the 747 captains flying for United or international carriers making between $180,000 to $220,000 a year, but that’s for a select few at the last half or third of their career.”
Planning to enroll
Bond Henderson, an aviation sciences student at Baylor University, is receiving her aircraft pilot training at TSTC through a partnership between the colleges.
She went on one of the test flights in the new helicopters Tuesday, her first ride in a chopper, and plans to enroll in the helicopter flight program in the spring once she completes her commercial aircraft training.
Henderson said she wants to start her career as a flight instructor and eventually become a helicopter pilot for either a private corporation or emergency medical flight service provider.
Henderson’s grandfather was an Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, and his war flying stories first piqued her interest in becoming a pilot.
“He is so excited,” Henderson said. “My whole family is a little bit surprised. I don’t think they expected me to fly airplanes of all things, but they’re of course really supportive. My dad is still like, ‘Wow, so you really do fly airplanes?’ ”