So, you’re considering the Rotorcraft Transition Program?

If you read my “How did I get here?” post, you’ll know I’ve always wanted to be a helicopter pilot and never even considered the possibility of being a commercial fixed wing pilot but I’ll be honest, over the last few years it has captivated me, as much as it seems to have captivated almost all of the Rotorcraft industry. The news is filled with headlines regarding the upcoming shortage of pilots and the airlines are struggling to come up with viable solutions. It seems every option is on the table, even the controversial idea of Single Pilot operations, which is something that we haven’t heard the last of.

However one of the most obvious solutions is simply to tap the Helicopter Pilot community and entice them to make the switch. Perhaps it looks like an obvious solution now but it’s been a long time coming and now it’s really picking up the pace. 

It won’t be a long term solution and it’s not without its pitfalls, eventually, the pool of qualified applicants will run dry and if the expected growth in the travel industry continues the airlines will have to look elsewhere.

The already struggling helicopter pilot community is losing more every day due in part to the “Vietnam Era” pilot retirements and, along with an increase in offshore wind farm development and oil price rebound in recent years, the Helicopter Pilot shortage will continue. In fact, a joint study by the University of North Dakota (UND) and Helicopter Association International (HAI) has indicated that the Helicopter Pilot shortage is projected to grow to 7649 pilots in the United States between 2018 and 2036. By 2020 the University expects a deficit of as many as 2,200 pilots. The airlines face a similar problem albeit a bigger one, due to the size of their industry. A recent Boeing study estimates that 790,000 new pilots will be needed worldwide over the next two decades which could leave the US with a shortfall of about 35,000 pilots in the same period.  Along with a mandatory retirement age of 65, contributing to the shortage is the FAA’s change in the requirements for First Officers in July 2013.

It increased the hour requirement for a Restricted ATP but differentiated between Military and Civilian pilots with the former only requiring 750 hrs total time and 250 hrs fixed wing time and the latter requiring 1500 hrs total time and 250 hrs fixed wing time. This led to the airlines creating what is known generally as the Rotorcraft Transition Program.  Although it differs from airline to airline, the concept is that instead of being a pilot in a helicopter with little opportunity for advancement, you could now go to the airlines and work your way from Co-pilot for a Regional to Captain for a Major. Not only that but your pay would start somewhere just shy of what a typical EMS Helicopter pilot might start out with and within 2 or 3 years it can surpass that and continue to grow. Add to the fact that even the training, to get you a Restricted ATP, would be paid for by the airline that hired you.

 For the most part, the participating airlines accept both Military and Civilian Helicopter pilots into the program. Some, Piedmond airlines, for example, are focusing their program to prior military pilots only due presumably to the lower total flight hours requirements for those pilots.

The transition can take anywhere from 3-6 months and quite often starts with an inquiry into the next information event near you that are held around the country. These events, sometimes referred to as Pilot socials are gatherings to be able to ask questions first hand and get a feel for what you might be getting yourself in to. An application process and interview will follow and if you get accepted to a program you will be assigned to a flight school or choose one close to you. The flight school will determine how much training you will require based on your existing flight experience and create a training plan with the aim of getting you to a Restricted ATP as soon as possible. The minimum fight times are below


  • 750 hours total time
  • 250 hours fixed-wing PIC, which must include 100 hours of cross-country and 25 hours of night  
  • 200 hours cross-country  
  • 100 hours night  
  • 75 hours instrument  
  • 25 hours multi-engine  


  • 1500 hours total time  
  • 250 hours fixed-wing PIC, which must include 100 hours of cross-country and 25 hours of night  
  • 200 hours cross country time 
  • 100 hours night 
  • 75 hours instrument time  
  • 25 hours multi-engine time

To start your research I highly recommend you visit the Rotary to Airline Group website. Its aimed more towards pilots leaving the Military but most of the information is invaluable to Military and Civilian alike. Each participating airline also has plenty of information online and there are numerous forums with discussions related to the pros and cons, along with pay scales and domicile requirements.


Is it for me?

Not all programs are the same, Some contribute more money for training than others, Yet, still more want you to have a certain amount fixed wing time and others don’t.

The big questions for most might be, where can I live and what are the affiliations with the Major airlines like? Keep in mind some airlines take the money from your sign-on bonus to pay for any fixed wing training that you need and you’d get to keep any unused portion of that money. Other airlines see it as separate money and you get to keep any sign-on bonus offered. It goes without saying the appeal varies from one pilot to another but the new opportunities, new environment, ability to live in a certain location and a fairly attractive payscale and schedule will have most helicopter pilots at least consider the program at one stage or another.

Some Participating airlines and a link to their RTP or Career information page:

Commut Air
Compass Airlines
Piedmont Airlines
Envoy Air
MESA Airlines
Horizon Air
Skywest Airlines
Trans State Airlines
GoJet Airlines
PSA Airlines



Helpful links:

An interesting Boeing study on the pilot and technician outlook for 2018-2037 can be found here


Another helpful information source is Coast Flight Academy. They have affiliations with multiple airlines as well as a stand-alone Transition Program of their own.


The Rotary to Airline group is a useful resource and includes a very helpful “Pilot Domicile” map so that you can see participating airlines near your city of choice.


Infinity Flight Group provide their Helicopter Transition Program in Partnership with Piedmont Airlines and Mercer Co Community College, although their program does not require that you go with Piedmont/American Airlines if that’s not your choice.


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