Heavy Lift Helicopter Pilot Life: Mastering the Skies

"We flew to a small town in the north named Djibo, which had been cut off from supplies by militant groups.  There must have been a thousand people waiting for us to land"
heavy-lift-helicopter-pilot

We’re thrilled to bring you this article from Charlie, a very skilled helicopter pilot who generously granted us an exclusive glimpse into her thrilling life in the skies, sharing with you incredible insights into her daily work…

Company, Position & Base?

Columbia Helicopters, BV234/107 Command Pilot, Based in Turkey and Burkina Faso

Can you summarise your job role as a helicopter pilot in one sentence?

I fly heavy lift tandem rotor helicopters performing utility and internal cargo missions.

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

Example of a typical “day in the life” of a heavy lift helicopter pilot?

In the summer months, I fly a bucketed 234 on fire missions in Turkey and the rest of the year I deliver food to remote villages in Burkina Faso for the World Food Programme.

On a typical day, I’ll get up around 4:30 AM, grab a quick breakfast and then head to the helicopter with the crew.  We preflight the aircraft and coordinate with our Crew Chief regarding any maintenance requirements.  The flight missions are very different in Turkey vs. Burkina Faso.  In Turkey, we stand by at the fire base until we get dispatched.  In Africa, we receive a daily schedule of how much food needs to be delivered and to which location, as well as remote fuelling points.  Once the daily missions are complete, we post flight and return to our hotel.  There isn’t much time for anything else!  We work 7 days a week for 28 days, and then get 28 days off.

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

Why did you choose this helicopter pilot job & what path did you take to get here?

I originally began my career as a civil engineer for a major oil company.  After working for a few years in the field, I realised it didn’t provide me with enough excitement and decided to go to flight school for helicopter flying lessons.  I had saved up about 70% of the money I needed to pay for helicopter training school, and I took out loans for the rest.  I have no prior military service so my flight career has been entirely on the civilian side.  But we have many pilots at Columbia who started in the military as well.  When I was finished with helicopter flight school I moved across the country to instruct in New Jersey.  At 1000 hours, I was hired by a tour company in New York City.  I spent 4 years flying helicopter tours, charters and film production.  Then I saw the job posting for Columbia Helicopters and thought it would be a fun adventure.  I was right!  I’ve been with Columbia for over 5 years now. 

2 favourite aspects of this helicopter pilot job?

  • I love the dynamic nature of the utility world.  I have flown supplies & troops in Afghanistan, restored habitat in Washington and ferried the helicopter across the Sahara desert.  Columbia has contracts all over the world which keeps things interesting!
  • I can count the number of pilots I personally know who have mastered the art of L2P2 (longline precision placement) on one hand.  I’m not one of them.  Every hook shot, every load and every water drop is different.  You must be 100% turned on at all times, and I like the challenge.  There is always room for improvement whether you’ve been doing it for 5 hours or 10,000. 

Heavy lift helicopter pilot
Charlie carrying a car

One great thing about your company

Easy, the people!  I work with some amazing crews.  There is a sense of comradery here that you can’t find at other companies. 

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

What do you find the 2 most challenging aspects or impacts?

  • The international travel to and from work can be very tiring.  It takes me the better part of 2 days to get to the worksite.  Working 28 days at a time can also add to the fatigue factor especially if the mission requires a lot of flight hours.  By the time my rotation is over, I’m ready for a break!
  • A very challenging aspect is being away from my family for the entire month.  My husband and I have a fur-child and it’s impossible to explain to her why we leave her with her “second family” while we work.  Fortunately, we have a great support system in Boise that consists of long-time friends and coworkers.

Most surprising part of the job for you?

I’m always surprised by the size of the 234 every time I walk up to it.  It’s just massive, and 10 years ago I wouldn’t believe you if you said I’d be flying this thing!

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

Most memorable day on the job as a heavy lift helicopter pilot?

I have so many great memories from Afghanistan.  But recently the memory that has stuck out would be our first food delivery in Burkina Faso.  We flew from the main city of Ouagadougou to a small town in the north named Djibo, which has been cut off from supplies by militant groups.  There must have been a thousand people waiting for us to land.  And they were all so happy to see the helicopter (and the food).  It really made me feel like I was making a difference in someone’s life.  That mission has been the most fulfilling so far.   

Heavy lift helicopter pilot
Charlie delivering food supplies to the residents of Burkina Faso

If you could go back to the start of your career as a helicopter pilot and do anything differently, what would it be and why?

I don’t think I would do anything differently.  The path I chose was not the easiest one, but it got me to exactly where I am today and I’m very grateful for that.

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

Most commonly asked flying question you get at a party? What’s your answer?

My favorite one is probably, “So you fly helicopters?  Do you ever think you’ll go be a real pilot?”  It’s funny because it’s usually a very genuine and innocent question.  I tell them one day I’ll probably retire to the airlines and become a real pilot. 

Would you recommend your career path to budding or current helicopter pilots right now? Any advice for them?

I would 100% recommend flying helicopters to anyone who is interested.  There is a huge pilot deficit which is only getting worse.  I think it’s actually a great career to get involved in right now.  With the good comes the bad though.  Helicopter pilot training school is expensive at first with little return on investment for a few years.  The schedule and pay can be absolutely abhorrent.  It’s very on hard for families with children.  You need a strong partner who can handle the lifestyle.  I’ve seen many relationships break down during my career.  To someone who wants to fly but wants a more stable environment, I’d wholeheartedly recommend the fixed wing path, specifically the airlines.

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

Rough flying hours per month

It varies wildly given the mission and fire activity.  Anywhere from 10 – 200 hours. 

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

What is your helicopter pilot salary & how does it work? (Understandable if you don’t wish to share this!)

I’d rather not share the exact number, but I will say it’s much less than an airline captain salary.

What do you want your life to look like in 5 years time?

If I’m being honest I hope I’m retired in 5 years.  But I do see myself flying for Columbia long term.

What does a “bad day at work” look like for you

I wouldn’t call any day a “bad day”, but there are days where I learn more than others.  There are days that make me aware I have to sharpen my flying or intrapersonal skills. I’m my own worst critic, so I’ll analyze even the smallest of my mistakes and apply that knowledge on my next flight.

What does a “great day at work” look like for you

A great day consists of good weather, a relaxed crew and a glass of wine after work. 

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

Would you say being a heavy lift helicopter pilot impacts your mental or physical health? If so, in which ways?

Flying a helicopter can be stressful!  There are people with you who depend on you operating the aircraft safely and making sound decisions.  There are ground crews and other aircraft operating in close proximity.  The Chinook makes a lot of wind and drops enough water to be dangerous.  In this way, I feel it impacts my mental health.  But it also makes me a much more decisive and calm person.  Little things don’t bother me so much in real life.  Physically, you are bent over the rib rest all day “out the bubble” when you are longlining.  It can definitely take a toll on your body being in such an awkward position.  A lot of our senior pilots have back and knee problems. 

Heavy lift helicopter pilot
Looking out the bubble

What strategies do you have for maintaining positive mental & physical health that could be useful to other pilots? i.e exercise, social connection, eating healthy etc

I exercise most days, balancing strength training with cardio.  I also meditate for 10 minutes per day and do breathwork.  It’s hard to make healthy food choices in some of our work locations because we have to avoid water-borne illness and parasites.  I will pack about half of my suitcase full of snacks such as tuna and camping meals if I know I’m going to a place where the food is questionable.  It’s also important to listen to your body and follow the IMSAFE checklist.  There are days where I’ve been sick or very fatigued and made it a priority to take care of myself rather than do a mission in a degraded state.

What mental health support is available to you in the workplace? Do you think this is adequate? Any suggestions?

Our company provides an EAP (employee assistance program) which outsources a variety of support services such as mental health and work-life balancing counseling.  The sad truth about the pilot career path is that the diagnosis of a mental health condition such as depression or ADHD can be disqualifying.  Many medications are also disqualifying.  I don’t think that pilots in general get enough support in this area due to the risk of losing their flight medicals.  I wish there was a way to get pilots the support that many of them need, but right now I don’t see a way with the current laws and stigma surrounding mental health.  I hope that in the future alternative therapies become more mainstream, accepted and legal. 

(Stay tuned for our article on Pilot Mental health that will include helpful resources for any pilots struggling. In the meantime, check out the great links at the bottom of this great article by PilotWhoAskWhy


We’d like to seriously thank Charlie for taking the time to answer our questions & for her transparency about her work & life. It’s a hugely impressive career portfolio and we look forward to seeing where the future takes her!

Heavy lift helicopter pilot

To follow her journey, check out her instagram @flycharleefly

Helpful Links

Columbia Helicopters Video

Vertical Magazine; Columbia Helicopters


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