features A day in the life of a superyacht helicopter pilot

Helicopter pilot Jim MacKay tells us what life is like on board a 50-meter private yacht during a cruise of the Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska.
Avatar for Jim MacKay By Jim MacKay | January 4, 2021

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 34 seconds.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on therotorbreak.com.

While there are no exact definitions as to what constitutes a “superyacht,” these mega luxury vessels are generally considered to be ships that exceed 79 feet (24 meters) in length and have their own professional crew. Costing tens of millions of dollars (at the lower end), they can contain things like swimming pools and movie theaters, in addition to numerous high-end suites made with the very finest materials and finishes. Some of these floating mansions even have their own helipad and helicopter.

The cruise plan saw the yacht travel up the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska, before returning to Seattle at the end of September.

I got the chance to see for myself what life was like on board one such ship — a 164-foot (50-meter) private yacht — over the summer of 2018. The couple who owned the boat were both certificated helicopter pilots, although the husband was no longer actively flying, and the wife had fewer than 500 hours total time. The 150-day contract included flying with and instructing the wife in a meticulously-maintained Bell 206L-4 LongRanger. The cruise plan saw the ship depart Seattle, Washington, on May 1 to cruise the Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska, then return to the Seattle area at the end of September.

I saw the position listed online and was immediately interested in joining the cruise. I contacted the boat owner’s aviation manager, but he already had another pilot under consideration. I thanked him, indicated I was flexible, available, and asked him to keep me in mind if the situation changed. A couple of weeks later, the manager called me back. He told me the original pilot had withdrawn, and said because I had been responsive and professional, he wanted to invite me to Seattle to interview and meet the owners. The interview itself went very well, and I was contracted for the duration of the cruise.

The Bell 206L-4 was meticulously maintained, and the author and deck crew worked hard to ensure it stayed that way.

Superyacht flying contracts may include a variety of arrangements. Mine stipulated $450 per day, with no benefits. Room and board, uniforms, and travel expenses (to meet the boat in Seattle and return home to Boston at the conclusion of the contract) were also included. At the time, I had around 200 hours of flight time in the Bell 206, but was not current in it. So, I fronted $6,500 for a two-day 206L-4 refresher course, and negotiated into my contract that the cost would be reimbursed as an expense upon my successful completion of the cruise. 

Flight operations were never conducted while the yacht was in open water or while underway, so the helicopter always had a steady deck from which to take off and land.

Onboard, I was not required to complete any duties except those related to flying the helicopter. In fact, the deck crew untied and secured the aircraft for flight operations, washed it, and refueled it (from the 1,000-US gallon/3,785-liter micro-filtrated Jet A supply onboard). During the course of the summer, we flew once every week or two. About once a week, at the request of the owner, I taught a ground lesson in the main salon or dining room. When not flying or instructing, my time was my own. When we were alongside a dock, after coordinating with the ship’s captain and signing out, I was free to depart the boat and only had to return prior to the scheduled departure time.

Life aboard the boat

The crew was amazing. Several became friends and our lives continue to intersect. In mid-2019, I airlined to Ohio to join our boat’s engineer — a student pilot at the time — and had a great adventure flying a Cessna 172 he purchased back to Port Angeles, Washington, in two days. In February 2020, the senior deckhand left the boat, returned to England, and is actively pursuing his commercial helicopter pilot certificate. In August 2020, I briefly reunited with the owner and crew at the marina in Auke Bay, Alaska, during that summer’s cruise.

My accommodations aboard were very nice! When I boarded (the day before departure), the captain offered me a choice of spacious and comfortable guest cabins — instead of berthing me in the much smaller crew spaces.

Of course, put any nine people in a confined space for months at a time, and there will be conflicts and irritations. Working out in the onboard gym, watching a movie in my cabin, or getting off the boat for a walk and meal in town usually put things in perspective.

About two weeks after departing Seattle, when the crew joined the owners ashore for a formal dinner at a resort they had previously visited, I volunteered to stand anchor watch. Within 30 minutes of the crew departing, the winds off the bow increased to more than 35 knots, the shoreline began to move forward in the bridge windows, and the GPS plot appeared to indicate we were dragging the anchor. I texted a picture of the GPS plot to the captain and spoke with him on the radio. Along with the boatswain and the senior deckhand, they returned to the boat in time to hoist and reset the anchor to keep us off the rocks. No longer the “new guy,” I felt like quick decision-making and timely communication cemented my place on the crew.

Next, the food: It was amazing! The incredibly talented chef prepared lunch and dinner each day, and the meals usually included two or three choices for main dishes. Burger Wednesdays were highly anticipated and fixings for the Kobe ground beef included avocado, fried eggs, and bacon. One of the chef’s favorite sayings was: “Bacon is like duct tape — it fixes everything.”

Since we were cruising Alaskan waters, once the anchor dropped, the chef often fished or dropped crab pots off the stern, and dinner would include seafood not more than a few hours out of the water. Once a week, the chef cleaned out the crew refrigerator and we would have leftovers night. (Although, he would combine and reimagine the food in delicious ways so it never felt like we were eating leftovers.) Hungry between meals? The head stewardess (yes, “yachties” still use that term) always kept the crew pantry stocked with water, soda, Gatorade, juice, and both healthy and not-so-healthy snacks.

Because we were cruising north of Seattle and often anchored in deep, narrow fjords, satellite Wi-Fi could be slow or non-existent — certainly there was not enough bandwidth to stream movies. Our talented ship’s engineer managed the yacht’s IT network and entertainment system, including a movie server with thousands of titles loaded. Most of the time, onboard Wi-Fi was adequate for email, paying bills, and light browsing. Every two to eight days, we would tie up to a dock for anywhere from a few hours to three days, in order to refuel or reprovision the boat. When on a dock near a town big enough to include a McDonald’s, public library, or a bar, I would often walk there to use free, higher speed Wi-Fi to update my iPhone and iPad apps, as well as the Garmin helicopter navigation databases as required.

A typical day

An average day usually saw me dropping my laundry off on my way to the 7 a.m. crew meeting. Each morning the captain, engineering, flight, deck, and interior departments spent about 15 minutes reviewing the plan for the day. After the meeting and breakfast, I would clean up my cabin and bathroom, and change linens according a schedule posted by the chief stewardess.

Having spent time in Angola and Iraq, I was accustomed to operating in austere environments overseas, so I came prepared to be self-sufficient. I even brought a travel printer and a small bag of office supplies. These were not necessary. Of the six printers on board, I had network access to at least three. The stewardesses maintained an administrative space stocked with all manner of office supplies.

During my Air Force career, I had trained for shipboard operations while flying a Sikorsky MH-53J/M Pave Low. While flying for Chevron off the coast of Angola, I had landed on pitching, rolling, and heaving oil tankers. Based on my background, I approached this position with questions about the operating environment and limitations. Although the aft sundeck on the yacht was smaller than anything on which I had landed, we never conducted flight operations in open water or while underway, so the deck was always steady with no pitch or heave. 

Once we got the aircraft started, in light wind conditions — even at idle — the torque of the helicopter would cause the yacht to slowly swing around the anchor. In stronger winds, the boat would weathervane. To avoid superstructure-induced turbulence, I would radio the captain to request positioning thrusters in the hull to hold the bow steady about 30 degrees off the wind, so we could take off or land directly into a headwind.

Every two to eight days, the yacht would dock for anywhere from a few hours to three days to refuel and reprovision.

The size and position of the helideck did not allow for a preflight inspection of the tail boom or tail rotor. Several times during the five-month cruise, when we landed ashore for a picnic, refueling, or during one of a couple of training flights, I took the opportunity to inspect the tail and check the gearbox oil level. 

The deck crew helped look after the helicopter, untying and securing it for flight operations, and refueling it.

Although we had a plan to fly a mechanic to a marina to complete a periodic inspection in the middle of the cruise, it turned out not to be necessary. We flew 18.4 hours during the five months of the cruise, and the deck crew and I were diligent about keeping the aircraft clean and protected. When I flew the aircraft to the hangar after we returned to Seattle, the aviation manager said it had never been in better condition following a cruise.

The position of the helideck didn’t provide for a preflight inspection of the tail boom or tail rotor so the author took the opportunity to do so when the aircraft landed on the shore.

My experience was a great entrance to the exclusive environment of superyacht flying, and has led to additional opportunities. The owner has invited me to continue flying and instructing with her, as well as to join the boat for future cruises as my schedule allows. 

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  1. Hello Jim,
    I love your story about cruising on a yacht as helicopter pilot. Like you I am accustomed to operating in austere environements, overseas. At the beguning of my career I flew for several years on tuna boats (~ 4500 hours). Before to start my helicopter training, I did 3 summer seasons as crew on yachts in France and I know exactly what means working and live on a yacht. This is the kind of employment, even seasonal, I would like to do, but I don’t know how to get contacts.

  2. Nice story. In 2002 I flew from Cabinda shore base to a platform off Angola. (Chevron). Maybe you were the pilot.

  3. This is a great insight into this kind of life. My friends and I met you on the slips in Kodiak when we were admiring the boat that summer of 2018. The helicopter and yacht was amazing to see, even snagged photos of it.

  4. Wow sounds like an awesome adventure. Hard to fathom how much people spend owning a vessel like this. The crew costs alone would be beyond the means of even well heeled normal people.

    1. You’re absolutely correct. I work in the yachting industry in S Florida and the yearly cost of operating these mega yachts is more than most people will make in a lifetime. Just to fill the fuel tanks on some of them is $500k+ depending on the cost of fuel.

  5. Nice job Jim, I know you had some fun.
    I was supposed to do something similar but in the Mediterranean in a Dauphin.

  6. I love the story as I’m an adventurer at heart
    If someone on this list or knows someone that need volunteer help on cruise like this vessel or sail boat adventure or any kind of travel adventure I would like to hear from them
    I’m an electrician by trade, an engineer by profession, early retired and living the dream
    I’m open to any suggestions or leads that would land a role like the story above
    Thanks again for sharing your story

  7. Thank you for that insight into the life on board a yacht like that. If you have any more adventurers please write about them go well stay safe

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