At Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) there are some things that don’t change much over the years. After flying the T-6A in Phase II, student pilots “track select” to either the T-38 for fighters & bombers, the UH-1 for helicopters and CV-22s, or the T-1 for everything else. I’ve recently noticed student pilots discussing online which order to list the options for track select, and they’re going through exactly the same thought process as I did in their shoes.
For today, we’re going to focus on the helicopter track. This represents the road less traveled in the USAF as there are only three airframes and a handful of assignments available. (Many of the same factors play into similar decisions for Navy and Marine Corps pilots.) This track also makes things interesting in a post-military career transition. However, Air Force helicopter pilots get to fly challenging and important missions that are worth it for the right pilot. Let’s take a look at why you might want to choose the UH-1 at track select, and what that will mean for your future.
Table of Contents
- USAF Rotary Wing Airframes and Missions
- USAF Helicopter Assignment Options
- Track Select Gamesmanship
- Helicopter Jobs After Active Duty
- Rotary to Airline Transition
USAF Rotary Wing Airframes and Missions
The HH-60 is based on the same airframe as the US Army’s UH-60M Blackhawk, the Navy’s MH-60R/S Seahawk, the Coast Guard’s MH-60T, and the civilian Sikorsky S-70 that appears in numerous variants. It’s an older design that still exists because it’s a good overall airframe that has been upgraded and modified repeatedly throughout its life. The primary mission of the Air Force version is Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR).
The CSAR mission is near and dear to the heart of all pilots. When one of us has a very bad day and needs help, it’s rescue pilots and their crews who will be riding in, frequently under fire, to save us. They have the potential to make an immediate difference in each of our lives. No self-respecting pilot lets an HH-60 crew pay for drinks at a bar.
The Air Force’s other helicopter is the UH-1N. Though it’s technically named the Iriquois, everyone calls it the Huey. This design has been in service since the Vietnam War, and it’s still flying because it’s simply a great aircraft.
The first mission where an Air Force pilot can encounter the Huey is at Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training – Helicopter (SUPT-H) at Fort Rucker, AL. (Technically, pilots here fly the TH-1H variant.) You should hear pilots pine for the simplicity and fun of that mission! Once you graduate SUPT-H and do an operational assignment, you’ll be eligible to return to “Mother Rucker” as an Instructor Pilot. Sure, it’s Alabama, but the town of Dothan is actually a decent place. It’s close enough to the beach to matter and also reasonably close to bigger cities like Atlanta.
(The USAF recently awarded a contract to replace the TH-1H to with Boeing/Leonardo’s MH-139. If you want to fly new hotness, you might consider going back to teach after deliveries start in 2021 or so.)
Operationally, the UH-1N has two main missions. It’s first is VIP transport in Washington D.C. Huey pilots there get to fly anyone from generals to senators. It’s fascinating flying in part because you get to fly (and land!) in airspace that most pilots would get shot down for even looking at funny.
The other main Air Force Huey mission is missile field transport. Our nuclear missile bases cover vast swaths of the US. Getting crews to and from the silos isn’t always feasible by car, so you get to shuttle people back and forth. However, it’s not all milk runs. You’re also a critical piece of a sort of Air Force mini-aerial cavalry. In case of an attack, it’s the base’s UH-1Ns that will work with large Security Forces squadrons to fight the Commies. A friend of mine who did this job described it having a giant helicopter playground where he got to play and innovate all the time for training. I think any helicopter pilot could like that job!
(There are also a couple units that still use the UH-1N for search and rescue. Check the list below for those.)
The final rotary-winged aircraft in the Air Force isn’t a helicopter. It’s a tilt-rotor called the CV-22 Osprey. This aircraft works exclusively for Special Operations since it replaced the MH-53J several years ago. The CV-22 is special because it’s fast…so fast that slower fighter and attack aircraft have a tough time keeping up on escort missions. It does infiltration/exfiltration of Special Operations Forces (SOF) to places and for reasons that we can’t discuss on this open-source website. Just know that the mission is awesome. I have yet to talk with a CV-22 pilot who didn’t love the aircraft. If you want to log meaningful combat hours in the USAF, the CV-22 is the way to go.
Although we can’t go into too many specifics here, you can read about an exciting CV-22 mission where a friend of mine won the MacKay Trophy for heroism and fancy flying. (Be careful, this article will either make you never want to fly the CV-22, or will make you forever incapable of wanting to fly anything else.)
USAF Helicopter Assignment Options
Although mission will dictate a lot of how much you enjoy your job as an Air Force helicopter pilot, location is also important. (If you have a family, location may be even more important!) For better or for worse, there aren’t that many bases with rotary-wing units. Here’s the current run-down.
TH-1H Huey (Soon to be MH-139)
- The only place to fly this one is at Fort Rucker, AL. (Yes, that’s an Army base.) You’ll spend about 6 months there for training, then you can go back as an IP later in life.
- F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming (Missile Support)
- Malmstrom AFB, Montana (Missile Support)
- Minot AFB, North Dakota (Missile Support)
- Andrews AFB, Maryland (VIP Transport)
- Fairchild AFB, Washington (Rescue)
- Yokota AB, Japan (Transport and Rescue)
- Eglin AFB, Florida (Flight Test)
- Kirtland AFB, New Mexico (Rescue)
HH-60G (Soon to be HH-60W)
- Moody AFB, Georgia
- Davis-Monthan AFB, New Mexico
- Nellis AFB, Nevada
- Aviano Air Base, Italy
- Kadena AFB, Okinawa, Japan
- Hurlburt Field, Florida
- Cannon AFB, New Mexico
- Kirtland AFB, New Mexico (Rescue)
- RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom
- Kadena AFB, Okinawa, Japan
HH-60 and CV-22 Reserve Units
We’ll discuss more about this later, but there are also several great units where you can fly USAF helicopters in the Guard or Reserve. Most of them are HH-60 units, though a former Active Duty CV-22 pilot may be able to do some CV-22 instructing at Kirtland AFB.
- Anchorage, Alaska
- Mountain View, California
- Nellis AFB, Nevada
- Tucson, Arizona
- Kirtland AFB, New Mexico
- Patrick AFB, Florida
- Westhampton Beach, New York
Here’s a screenshot from the BogiDope Map showing those locations:
Track Select Gamesmanship
When I was a UPT student at Laughlin AFB, helicopters were very unpopular. One guy in our class wanted them, and he got it. When I was back at Laughlin AFB as an IP, helicopters were quite popular. You essentially had to be in the top three in your class to get one. Don’t assume you can slack off and get one because nobody else will want it.
If you really, really want to fly rotary-winged aircraft, you’ll need to let your IPs know. Then, you need to actually perform well so that they’ll want to fight for you. More than once, there were classes with two or even three students who really wanted helos. The IPs communicated that fact up the chain early and we got extra slots that had been allocated to bases where fewer (or no) students wanted helos.
In the airlines we say “bid what you want, want what you bid.” A lot of students get stuck in a mindset of, “I know I won’t get my #1 choice. I’m going to put X instead of Y so that I’ll get one of my top choices.” Don’t do that. Nobody cares. You should not put helos unless you really want them.
This shouldn’t be something you have to think hard about. If you read my descriptions of those missions and it got you very excited, then you’d probably be okay there. If, after reading the descriptions of those missions, you still don’t feel strongly either way, I recommend leaving it to someone else.
Helicopter Jobs After Active Duty
We’ve already mentioned the Guard and Reserve rotary-wing flying opportunities in the Air Force. These units are located at fantastic places, depending on what type of climate you like living in. You could do a whole lot worse than applying the Ideal Military Career Path at one of these units.
If you have your heart set on living somewhere else, you may have the option of transferring to the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard to continue your military service as a helicopter pilot. You could transfer to Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve components.
The Marines have MV-22s that might make for an easy transfer for an Air Force CV-22 pilot. However, in my opinion, if you think you might eventually want to transfer to another branch of service, your best bet is to fly the HH-60. The other branches all fly these aircraft, and they’re common in Guard or Reserve units.
Most of these services will allow you to transfer at the same rank you had on Active Duty. However, if you transfer to the Army be careful what you choose. Army officer helicopter pilots don’t fly very much. After a certain point in their career, they’re expected to spend almost all of their time on staff work and administrivia. If this is how you aspire to spend your career, then go for it. If you’re transferring for the flying, then do not, for any reason, go to the Army as an officer.
The Army may give you the option to change over to become a Warrant Officer when you transfer. If you’re making the switch to do a lot of flying, and potentially pursue an airline flying career as well, this might be the right option for you. They’ll probably make you start out as a lowly WO-2, but if flying is your focus, that shouldn’t be a big deal. There’s a lot more to this discussion, but it’s frankly beyond the scope of BogiDope’s expertise. If you’re faced with this choice, talk to some Army pilots and think hard about your ultimate career goals.
Outside the military, the US Government has a wide variety of helicopter flying jobs available. US Customs and Border Patrol, the FBI, the Department of Energy, and many other agencies have pilot jobs available. As a military pilot, you’re likely to have lots of hours and qualifications, making you very competitive for these jobs. They’ll frequently credit your years of military service toward a federal retirement. If you continue serving in the Guard or Reserves, you may be able to earn both a civil government pension and a military pension.
Outside the federal government, many lower levels of government have helicopter flying jobs as well. Most law enforcement agencies have some type of rotary-winged aircraft. Some fire departments are large enough to have an air wing as well. I have a friend who flew for our county sheriff’s office for many years and has a seemingly bottomless fount of amazing flying stories to tell…like the time that the biker he was tracking attacked a cop on the ground. My friend cornered him, landed the helicopter, jumped out, took the guy down, and arrested him. Bad. Ass.
Many corporate flight departments also have helicopters for transport. These are frequently very nice aircraft with all kinds of bells and whistles. These jobs (and the Customs and Border Patrol) frequently offer dual-qualification opportunities for pilots with fixed-wing experience and ratings. These jobs are good deals in and of themselves, but if you want to pursue fixed-wing flying later in life, they’re a godsend.
Another exciting and meaningful type of helicopter flying is air ambulance. These pilots work odd hours and usually have to sit alert for days at a time. However, they get to fly on NVGs and land places that even many helicopter pilots would rather not go. If these pilots are flying, they’re out because someone is hurt and mission success is a life-or-death matter. If you’re going to miss exciting, fulfilling flying after leaving Active Duty, this is a great option.
We’ve gone through some of the higher-paying helicopter pilot jobs that can potentially offer pretty decent schedules. There are some other great helicopter jobs out there. Many of them are considered more “entry level,” though they’d make awesome side-hustles if your family wants to settle down somewhere specific. Some examples include:
- Helicopter Flight Instructor
- Oil platform transport
- Aerial tour pilot
- Civilian search and rescue outfits
- Aerial camera work (Hollywood)
We’ll leave things here for now and move on to one other type of job that military helicopter pilots can get after Active Duty: airline pilot.
Rotary to Airline Transition
It used to be that the airlines weren’t interested in hiring helicopter pilots. This may have been one of the main factors that made choosing helicopters at track select in UPT unpopular. Thankfully, an ongoing pilot shortage has changed all this.
Every regional airline is hurting for pilots. Both they and their insurance providers realize that a military helicopter pilot has a wealth of real-world flying experience that no 1500-hr Cessna CFI can ever hope to match. Almost every regional airline worth working for now has a rotary-wing to airline program that caters to military helicopter pilots. Some programs even pay a training allowance for a pilot to go earn fixed-wing multi-engine ratings and log enough hours to meet Part 121 airline requirements.
These are great deals, and I believe that a helicopter pilot should not hesitate to take advantage of one as a start to an airline career. The regionals could absorb every single helicopter pilot to come from the DOD and still find themselves woefully short-staffed.
I talk to a lot of pilots who don’t want to do a regional airline touch & go because they think they’re above the small-time companies. (For a description of the Regional Airline T&G, check out this issue of TPNQ.) Don’t listen to the people who bad-mouth this path. Regionals fly under Part 121 just like the majors. Being a captain there puts you in command of a crew carrying up to 76 passengers. There are actually some major potential advantages to stopping by a regional before you go to the majors. It’s a great way to become an airline pilot.
I know that some helicopter pilots end up nervous about jumping into an airline training program for a multi-engine turbojet aircraft after doing little or no fixed-wing flying for several years. It’s definitely something to prepare for, but please don’t let this fear keep you from making the move. The regional airlines know exactly who they’re dealing with. They’ve trained many pilots like you in the recent past. They know your strengths and weaknesses, and they have lots of practice focusing on what you need to be ready. If you’re really worried, do a few extra hours of civilian flying to prepare, but I think that it won’t even be necessary for most professional military aviators.
Outside of the actual flying, there’s a rapidly growing organization, the Rotary to Airline Group, or RTAG, dedicated to helping helicopter pilots make that transition. They have a thriving Facebook group, and they’ve held fantastic conventions for the last two years. If I were a helicopter pilot, I wouldn’t hesitate to join that group.
I also happen to be the Staff Writer for The Pilot Network, a community of almost 30,000 pilots working together to help each other achieve their aviation goals. From online articles, to podcasts, to our quarterly newsletter, TPNQ, to our annual conference, TPNx, we also have a wealth of resources for any pilot looking to transition from the military to the airlines. We have a private community website that requires a subscription, but you can get free access to everything we produce at www.tpn-go.com, our Facebook group, or the other links I just listed.
It is absolutely possible to be a military rotary-wing pilot and then transition to the airlines. This just scratches the surface of the resources available to help make that happen.
Tracking helicopters in UPT gives you awesome opportunities to fly awesome aircraft accomplishing awesome missions. A rotary-wing military pilot has access to a variety of unique careers that won’t even be options for pilots who have only flown fixed-wing aircraft. Although they won’t have all of your options, the current hiring environment makes airline pilot a very realistic future job for any military helicopter pilot. Basically, tracking helicopters in UPT gives you all the options.
Although there are a lot of great reasons to be a helicopter pilot, I don’t recommend choosing it at UPT track select on a whim. You should only prioritize helicopters if you have a deep desire to be a part of that mission throughout your military career.
If you fit that description, you need to let your UPT flight commander know about your goals and you need to work hard to rank as high in your class as possible. In my experience, UPT classes get an average of 1 helicopter slot at most. If there’s more than one person in your class who wants helos, it’s possible for your leadership to get more, but it will only happen if you start communicating early, and you make it overwhelmingly obvious that you’re worthy of the opportunity.
Good luck if you’re approaching UPT track select! We hope that you’ve earned your shot at the type of flying you want. If that happens to include rotary-winged flying, you have an exciting career ahead of you.
The feature image for this post is a Kirtland AFB HH-60 taken by 2nd Lt. Jered Trujillo: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5530174/training-hh-60-helicopter
The gorgeous HH-60W shot is on Lockheed Martin’s flickr page, and comes from their main page here: https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/products/sikorsky-hh-60w-combat-rescue-helicopter.html.
The TH-1H image is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4277882/cadets-learn-about-their-pathway-blue.
The UH-1N picture is courtesy of: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5256235/cherry-blossom-take-off.
The USAF CV-22B refueling is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5124583/mc-130j-commando-ii-flyover-mi-amigo-75th-anniversary.
The CV-22B fast-roping is from: https://archive.defense.gov/photos/newsphoto.aspx?newsphotoid=13900.
The CV-22B canyon run is from: https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/125336/cv-22-osprey-flies-first-search-and-recovery-mission/