By Jennifer Cairns 01 Feb 2023 6 min read

How I became an Air Ambulance Pilot

Meet Jop, an Air Ambulance Pilot. Jop has been flying helicopters for almost 10 years, and is an Air Ambulance Pilot in the UK, flying the AW169.



Where did the dream start for you?

Aviation has influenced me from a very young age and I always wanted to apply for the best pilot jobs. I grew in up in a small town in The Netherlands. My dad was an airline pilot, so I got to experience what flying was all about since I was a kid, which I am very grateful for. Seeing him fly a big plane while sitting on the jump seat as a 10 year old kid is something you don’t forget, and has definitely shaped my life in more ways than I probably realise.

My preference quickly changed from airplanes to helicopters though. While I really liked airplanes, I was in complete awe every time I saw a helicopter hover in the air like a spaceship.

A pilot at my local gliding club showed me around the main Dutch offshore helicopter base. He let me sit in the cockpit of one of those massive helicopters that I hadn’t seen in real life before - I loved it! This, combined with seeing the air ambulance land a few times and seeing how they saved people’s lives using aviation and medicine combined, resulted in me having made up my mind when I was about to finish high school: I was going to dedicate my life to becoming a professional helicopter pilot.


What were your first steps to get into the industry?

Becoming a helicopter pilot is unfortunately still slightly less straight forward or accessible than a fixed wing pilot journey. Fixed wing schools are well established, have good connections to the industry, and offer streamlined paths that often lead straight to a seat as first officer in Europe. The helicopter industry is a lot smaller, which means the process of becoming a helicopter pilot is less defined.

During the last year of my Aerospace Engineering degree, I networked as much as I could, learned from people ahead of me in the flight training process, and volunteered at local helicopter events. I made a massive excel spreadsheet to grade and assess all the helicopter training schools around the world.

My main concern was applying for pilot jobs and getting that first job after training, as that’s usually the biggest hurdle to overcome (similar to fixed wing pilots). I chose to start my journey in the UK, at a flight school that offered scholarships and needed flight instructors. I was offered a flight instructor scholarship, and was teaching people how to fly for about 2 years. I absolutely loved the flying and the job itself. I made lots of connections and kept studying as hard as I could, to get myself out there.

When I finished my Instrument Rating, I had about 800 hours of experience. Still not a lot, but definitely enough to start applying for jobs with more complex aircraft. I applied to a lot of different companies, but was lucky enough to get an interview with Specialist Aviation Services (SAS), who have various air ambulance contracts across the UK, and they use a helicopter type I really wanted to fly: The AW169.

SAS has been a massive contributor to my progression and success, and I’ve recently been promoted to HEMS commander. I absolutely love the job, and the AW169 is an amazing helicopter to fly. It’s really fulfilling to be able to fly helicopters, while also contributing to saving people’s lives. I love being surrounded by people I can learn from.

When I joined as a First Officer, I worked together with commanders who have been flying for longer than I’ve been alive. They are a great source of inspiration and knowledge, and I consider myself very lucky to have flown with all of them.


Did you face any challenges, and if so, how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was actually jumping in the deep end and moving abroad to start the next phase of my career. Leaving my home country, my friends, family, and relationships.

While it wasn’t a massive distance between The Netherlands and the UK, you still get submerged in a completely different culture, with lots of unknown variables. Every second you spend away, you feel like you really need to make it count.

I was about to spend a large amount of (borrowed) money to pursue my dream, in a different country, with no guarantees regarding jobs or progression. This definitely felt like a leap of faith at times. But I did my homework, studied everything there was to study, made a plan based on everything I knew, and gave it 100%. I am really happy to say it all paid off, and I would do it all over again!


What advice would you give to aspiring aviation professionals currently searching for a job?

Dedication is probably what it comes down to most in my opinion. Realising that aviation comes with a lot of sacrifices before you get in, is important in order to keep a realistic picture of the steps to take. Putting yourself out there as much as possible is something that is also overlooked by many. It’s not just about your performance in flight.

Genuinely striving to add value to other people’s lives without expecting anything in return will (ironically) contribute massively to your own success. It’s absolutely true that there’s always some luck involved in creating success, and I can see my own instances where I was simply at the right place at the right time.

However, creating these opportunities of being at the right place at the right time still requires work, dedication, and having a clear goal. If you do your research and make a clear (realistic) plan, all you need to do then is give it everything and enjoy the journey.


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