What’s it like to be a helicopter pilot?

This morning I awoke from a cold sweat from a nightmare that would not leave me. In seconds the moment is clear and the visions were not a nightmare at all. They were memories of a former life stuck beneath fluorescent lights, trapped inside of a cubicle, monotonously repeating the same tasks over and over again.

Seconds later reality hits me, the sun strafes across the floor as I gaze at the sky. This is my new home, where every day I am free and the view from my office to the office of my peers is through the gaps in a cloud. There is no feeling like looking down at the world from my seat watching the dynamic landscape change beneath me. The view is never the same, and it never gets old.

It only takes one flight, and in one moment you become an aviator. Your life is changed forever and there is no returning to an office. One of my greatest regrets in life is not having become a pilot sooner. This is how life should be lived and my sky is limitless.

“It only takes one flight, and in one moment you become an aviator. One of my greatest regrets in life is not having become a pilot sooner.”

What was your first helicopter flight like?

The life of a helicopter pilot means a new adventure every day. Wherever you take your career as a pilot, from flight instructor, to daring rescue flights, to thrilling tours over breathtaking landscapes, you’ll be embarking on a journey unlike any other. For many pilots, that first flight is unforgettable, launching a lifelong passion for aviation. We asked some of our flight instructors and flight school students what inspired them to become a helicopter pilot. Here are their stories!

High-altitude rescue sparks a new adventure

Joe Bailey

In 2016 I was on a climbing adventure, opening the season to fresh tracks and untouched wilderness on Denali. I always followed adventure. That day, temperatures reached sub-zero around a windy corner. I came down with a freak, fast onset of HAPE—high-altitude pulmonary edema. I was picked up in a helicopter by Denali National Park rangers. 

It was when the helicopter picked up with the Alaska mountain range below that I knew this was awesome! It was an amazing learning experience and still my motivation to be a pilot today.

new helicopter pilot standing next to a helicopter
A helicopter rescue at Denali National Park sparked this pilot’s passion for aviation. Thanks to Joe Bailey for the photo!

From helicopter simulator to reality after an exhilarating intro flight

Brandon Vonfreter

I really never had any idea that I wanted to become a pilot, especially not a helicopter pilot at that!

My mother was a flight attendant for Lufthansa. Growing up in Europe, I got to fly jumpseat with the pilots and witness them in action. Seeing them work in their cockpits with all their little buttons and controls, I thought it was way out of my league and way too hard to be a pilot, but here I am now with my private and instrument licenses and just 2 hours away from getting my commercial license.

What really sparked that interest again was playing on a heli simulator. Just flying around and picking people up and dropping them off in the sim was so much fun for me, so I booked my first intro flight with a 1-hour block. I ended up hovering during my very first hour of flying the R22 and it was history from there!

Independent really feels almost like my second home.

Helicopter pilot after passing checkride for private pilot's license
Brandon Vonfreter experienced the excitement of flying through a flight simulator. Now, he’s a pilot himself. Thanks to Brandon for the photo!

Flight paramedic takes the controls

Russell Johnson

I’ve always wanted to fly. My career choices led me to become a flight paramedic. Flying in the back for a living pushed me even further in a career in aviation. Being so close to the controls without being allowed to touch them was just too much for me to handle. I’ve just gained my private pilot license and am working on my instrument and commercial ratings with Independent. 

Best decision ever.

helicopter pilot showing checkride pass
After passing his check ride, Russell Johnson won’t be sitting in the back anymore.

Former mountain rescue takes to the sky for a more intense thrill

Ben Habecker

In 2007 I was working with Denali Mountain Rescue on a West Buttress Patrol at a medical camp at 14,700 feet. A Japanese climbing team got stranded at Denali Pass (18,200ft) overnight in blizzard conditions. We rescued them, one with HAPE. We brought him to the 14 camp, but the hyperbaric chamber wasn’t enough; we needed to get him to a lower altitude. 

Blizzard conditions were persistent, but a small hole opened up and the Denali Llama got a 5-minute weather window to get into camp. After a fast, hot load, Mr. Kobayashi and the Llama ripped out of there. The window closed, blizzard conditions came back in. 

The chills I felt as we loaded him into that aircraft and watched it pick up and fly out that little blue hole were intense. Hooked ever since.

helicopter pilot selfie with R44 helicopter
 Pre-flight selfie with helicopter pilot Ben Habecker at the Independent Helicopters hangar.
helicopter landed on a hillside with sunset and mountains in the background
The life of a helicopter pilot means a new adventure every day.

A helicopter pilot achieves his 40-year dream of flying

Peter Recknagel

It must have been around 1980, when I was 10 years old, that my father showed me a picture from when he was in the military in East Germany. That picture of a Russian fighter jet left a deep impression on me. Later on, during my time working in DHL (Germany) a coach told me, “You are a born pilot.” He told me I shouldn’t miss my chance to apply with Lufthansa to become a pilot. 

I followed that advice and failed the first test. So I changed direction and learned Chinese instead. My Chinese name became 鹰飞, meaning the flying eagle. I worked for 20 years at Frankfurt International Airport, but I always felt there was still something to make me become a pilot.

After moving to the US with my family in 2019, and with the tourism industry hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, I took a chance to try to finally become a pilot. Thanks to great teachers and CFIs, I made it to my PPL in 2021. I’m heading for the commercial one now. 

It took 40 years from seeing the photo of my father’s fighter jet to becoming a pilot. Sometimes, things take a bit longer.

historical photo of Russian fighter jet
Russian Fighter Jet close to the City of Görlitz, former East Germany, around 1963.
historical photo of East German pilot in 1963
Recknagel’s father at the age of 20.

First-time flight in a homebuilt airplane inspires a new pilot

Pico Nazzaro

A former co-worker owned his own airplane, an RV9a which he built himself—all 14,000 rivets set by hand! We would pass in the hall and I would ask him questions about aviation. Eventually, he took me up and I was hooked. 

I had been in small planes before, but never a 2-seater and never in the cockpit. He had so much enthusiasm and willingness to help me learn. He convinced me that it was within reach to become a pilot, which I had never considered. We flew a few times and eventually took a trip from NJ to Oregon over 9 days. It is certainly a privilege to be among those who have tasted flight, but certainly not only for the privileged. 
It took me about a year and a half to get my fixed wing certificate while I was working full-time. Three weeks later, I hopped into a helicopter for my first lesson. Now and then over the years I had dreams where I would be flying as if in a helicopter, but I would look around and there was no aircraft. It felt like it was just me sitting, flying an invisible helicopter. I can now say my dreams have become reality.

helicopter flight school student with flight instructors and helicopter
For Pico Nazzaro, it all started with a joyride in a coworker’s home-built fixed wing. Now, he’s ready for his own adventure anytime as a helicopter pilot.

“It is certainly a privilege to be among those who have tasted flight, but certainly not only for the privileged.”

aerial view of R44 helicopter flying over water
There’s no feeling like looking down at the world from the pilot’s seat of a helicopter.

Ready for the thrill of your next adventure?

What did your first flight feel like? What inspired you to become a pilot? Tag us @independentheli on Facebook or Instagram to share your stories!