Helicopter Pilot

WHAT YOU DO: Depends on the day, but the list includes: Fight fires, hunt fugitives, film movies, cover news for TV and radio, and shuttle skiers, hikers, and anglers in and out of the backcountry. "I've followed car chases, dropped skydivers onto a racetrack, and jostled with 20 other helicopters at forest fires," says Aaron Fitzgerald, who worked as a TV news pilot in Los Angeles before starting aerial-film-production company Airborne Images. But one thing is always the same: the killer view. "I see some beautiful country," says Chris Templeton, who flies heli-ski groups for Telluride Helitrax and fights fires in summer.

WHY NOW: An industry survey in 2006 reported helicopter executives complaining about pilot shortages. Meanwhile, Vietnam-era pilots are retiring and the number of helicopters in operation is expected to double, to 18,800, by 2030.

THE NUMBERS: Salaries range from $10,000 for beginners to more than $300,000 for pilots performing tricky technical tasks like aerial construction, but midrange is around $70,000. Hours are reasonable, but contract or seasonal work leads to a nomadic lifestyle.

BREAKING IN: Earn a commercial license with 150 hours of training at Bristow Academy (heli.com), which offers instruction in Florida, Louisiana, and California, then build toward 1,500 hours of flight time (required by most employers) in a low-wage flight-instructor position. See job listings at jsfirm.com and rotor.com.

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