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Dream Jobs: Helicopter Pilot

Ken Schwabenton, helicopter pilot at Points North Heli-Adventures, spends more than 50 days a year skiing untouched Chugach powder. And that's just a side perk. Here's how he got the job, the weirdest places he's ever flown, and what it feels like to fly.
posted: 10/20/2010

Ken Schwabenton, helicopter pilot at Points North Heli-Adventures is one lucky SOB. Not only does he get to log nearly 50 days a year in untouched powder in the Chugach Range in Alaska, but it’s his job to scope sweet lines from the metal bird. Take a look at what it takes to get a job piloting a helicopter, what it’s like touching down on the top of a deserted Alaskan peak, and what the faces of his clients look like when he pulls away.

When did you first become interested in flying helicopters?
I was working in Yosemite National Park as a search and rescue technician when I was first introduced to helicopters. I had grown up flying airplanes but was just blown away by what you could do with a helicopter.
After three years of climbing in the summer and ski patrolling in the winter, I borrowed some money and went to flight school in Oakland, CA. After flight school it is a long process of working your way up through the industry to get to a job you want.

What does it feel like to fly?
It feels like freedom. It’s amazing to drive a machine that can take you where nothing else can. The control we have on a calm wind day is so precise we can put a helicopter skid on things the skiers have a hard time climbing out on to. But when the wind starts to blow the landing zones have to get a lot bigger and there are a lot of places we cannot go.

Whare are the most interesting places you’ve flown?
The best is the mountains of Alaska. Weirdest? Dolly Wood, Tennessee, or maybe Biker week in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Any safety precautions before you fly?
The clients go through a two-hour safety briefing before flying with us. A group that can enter and exit the helicopter safely and efficiently can go to much smaller landing zones than groups that are tripping over each other with gear and other junk blowing around.

How do you land on the top of a mountain?
Two words: very carefully.

What is it like lifting off away from your clients?
That’s the best part of the job, the ride down is the safest and most fun. The helicopter is in autorotation (gliding) and there is no excess weight to take away from maneuverability.

How do the clients deal when you leave them on the top of the mountain?
The clients all have goggles and helmets on, so I can’t see their faces, but I can imagine their expressions are probably a mixture of excitement and pure fear. The rest is up to them, though, and I am waiting at the bottom to hear about how awesome it was and let them do it again.

 

Not quite the job for you? Check out the rest of our Dream Jobs series.

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