Does the helicopter industry have a people problem?

In March 2018, at the industry’s marquee event — Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo — academics from the University of North Dakota (UND) told the industry it was facing a very real, and very severe labor shortage. Based on interviews and surveys completed by 250 helicopter companies and operators, the UND predicted a shortfall of 7,649 helicopter pilots and 40,613 mechanics (across all aviation sectors) in the U.S. between 2018 and 2036. Such numbers would clearly have a staggering impact on the industry.

A study from the University of North Dakota indicates a shortage of 7,649 pilots in the U.S. between 2018 and 2036. Mike Reyno Photo
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A similarly-focused study has not been completed in the world’s second-largest commercial helicopter market — Canada — but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that operators there, and elsewhere in the world, are finding it increasingly difficult to fill cockpits with experienced pilots, and hangars with maintenance staff.

But when UND unveiled its findings, the feedback was mixed — at least in the comments section underneath our report on the study on Verticalmag.com. In fact, it was the biggest and most passionate response we received on any story last year. Frustrated pilots claimed that, despite a wealth of experience and expertise, they were finding it difficult to land a job. If there really was a shortage, surely it shouldn’t be this hard, they argued. Other, newly-qualified pilots, fresh from investing tens of thousands of dollars to get their qualifications and build their hours, complained of similar experiences.

We had a comparable response when we posted the story on our Facebook wall.

“There is no helicopter pilot shortage, there is a pay and quality of life shortage that drives away qualified and experienced helicopter pilots,” wrote one. “If helicopter companies paid a low six figure wage, certainly what someone with the experience and skills to operate complex helicopters is worth, then a lot more pilots would choose the industry, especially military pilots.”

Another wrote: “Asking people to invest 100K and then suggest they work on the ground for two years to ‘earn the right’ is not a proper corporate philosophy to attract and maintain good people. [They] need a sponsorship and mentorship program that supports them and earns their loyalty.”

So what’s really going on? Is there a problem with recruitment, retention, or bridging the experience gap between newly-qualified and desirably-hirable? Or is it a combination of all of these? And if so, what’s the solution?

The forecast that got the industry talking was the result of an in-depth study of the helicopter industry’s labor situation, commissioned by HAI and its sister organization, Helicopter Foundation International (HFI). Of the 250 companies surveyed — which included operators large and small — more than half said they had found it harder to hire pilots in the last year than in previous years, while more than two-thirds reported the same challenge with mechanics. And looking ahead to the next five years, more than 60 percent of companies said they expected it would become increasingly difficult to hire pilots and mechanics; less than two percent of companies said they thought it would become easier.

More pilots are projected to retire or leave the industry over the next 12 years than are joining it. Airlines will be competing for prospective pilots in North America, as will the growing helicopter industries in China and India. Skip Robinson Photo

And a familiar pattern is found overseas. According to the HFI, 70 percent of international operators are finding it harder to hire mechanics, 75 percent say they’ve hired mechanics with less experience than in previous years, and over half believe the inability to hire mechanics in the coming years will interfere with their growth and expansion plans.

The root of the issue, according to UND’s study, is simply that more pilots are projected to retire or leave over the next 12 years than are joining the industry. This imbalance will be exacerbated by a growing demand, particularly from emerging markets as they turn to foreign pilots to help grow their fledgling industries.

Dr. Jim Higgins, department chair and associate professor at UND, and one of the study’s authors, admitted that the results had received “a healthy dose of skepticism,” but said he had faced a similar reaction when UND first predicted a shortage of fixed-wing pilots in 2009 — a shortage the regional airlines are now scrambling to cover.

“When you’re an individual that’s put the time and effort in, has built an incredible resume and done all the things you need to do . . .  and you’re not experiencing some success, not securing a job — I can see how it would be easy to say, ‘This forecast is full of crap,’ ” he told Vertical. “But the truth is, we looked at it just across the industry. It’s probably true that in certain areas, and in certain nuanced aspects of the industry, there might be some overpopulation [of pilots].”

However, he said there was no skepticism among those that are doing the hiring in the industry. “They feel it already,” he told Vertical. “They’re having to lower their minimums and their basic qualifications, [and] take on more in-house training, which of course increases their expenses. . . . Before, there may have been hundreds of applicants for a single position; there’s not anywhere near that number anymore.”

The military pipeline

Ever since the birth of the helicopter industry, the military has played a key role in providing a seemingly never-ending source of well-trained and experienced pilots and mechanics to the commercial sector. The explosion in requirement for helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War ultimately provided many of the leaders of today’s commercial helicopter industry — and it’s the impending retirement of those highly experienced heads that will be felt so keenly over the coming years.

But another shortage in another industry looks set to have an impact on the helicopter industry that’s as unexpected as it is significant. The fixed-wing industry is facing a severe labor shortage of its own, and it has become sufficiently severe for it to look to tap into the helicopter world’s long-standing military pipeline to help meet its demand.

The lack of maintenance personnel is likely to be the most severely-felt shortage across the aviation industry. The UND predicts a shortfall of over 40,000 mechanics for all fixed- and rotary-wing operators in the U.S. Heath Moffatt Photo

Over the last couple of years, rotorcraft transition programs have sprung up across the U.S. The programs, tailored specifically for military personnel leaving the service with rotary ratings, offer to cover many of their costs to train as fixed-wing pilots — and dangle the proposition of a structured pathway to a lucrative career at the end of the program.

SkyWest Airlines, for example, offers up to $27,500 through tuition reimbursement and bonuses for rotary pilots; GoJet will fund up to $51,000 in fixed-wing training time for military rotor pilots; while Envoy provides up to $23,000 towards transition training and offers a new hire signing bonus of $17,100. And there are many others.

According to UND, three such programs transitioned over 500 military pilots in 2017 alone, with a success rate of 95 percent.

“That is more than enough to justify the cost to the regional airlines,” said Higgins. “It’s increasing, [and] it’ll absolutely have a staggering chilling effect on the number of rotorcraft pilots that are able to enter the commercial industry because the regionals are poaching them. And they’re very successful with them.”

Does this mean more needs to be done in the helicopter industry to ensure pilots leaving the military stick with rotary? Currently, HAI and HFI offer a free military-to-civilian transition workshop at Heli-Expo each year, and they plan to take this workshop on the road in the future. They also offer resources to allow military personnel to figure out the best and easiest method to transition to a life in the commercial industry, said Allison McKay, VP of HFI.

“Airlines have the resources to dedicate towards the promotion of their programs and they really make it easy for those that are transitioning to go right into training, which is paid for, and the guarantee of a job on the other side,” she said. “The Military to Civilian Transition Workshop is designed to highlight why they want to be a pilot and/or a maintenance technician on the rotorcraft side, and there are benefits to our segment of the industry that these workshops are designed to highlight.”

Students at the University of North Dakota’s aviation program take notes during a classroom session. The University has joined a couple of pathway programs to help its students establish themselves in the industry after graduation. Wes Van Dell Photo

As most operators don’t have the same resources as airlines, HFI is trying to support them and augment their recruiting efforts, McKay added.

“We are going to be launching a pilot recruitment video that’s specific to rotorcraft,” she said. “We already have a maintenance technician recruitment video that’s up on our website. We’re trying to give them some tools that they may not have the ability to produce on their own.”

The rewards offered by a career in the airlines aren’t just appealing to military pilots, of course. For both those getting ready to embark on their careers, and those who have years of experience behind them, the financial carrot offered by the airlines may be enticing. Last September, HAI and HFI held a HeliFutures workshop with a number of HAI members to discuss labor supply issues and how the industry can continue to attract and retain talent.

“If you don’t believe that you can be competitive alone with salary, then you’re going to need to get creative with your benefits,” McKay advised operators. “Identify things that your employees want that are outside of the salary discussion — maybe it’s a student loan or repayment program while they’re working with you, or the hours. See what kind of vacation time they want, start really identifying what benefits your employees really find the most valuable and then start ramping those up.”

For those looking at just getting started in the helicopter industry, the financial disincentives are real. The prospect is typically at least $90,000 on training to get up to a certified flight instructor (CFI) rating and then a long haul to build hours to reach job opportunities in other sectors, without the potential of the bumper paycheck the airlines can offer.

UND’s research on the fixed-wing market — where it costs a lot less to get certifications and ratings — found that prospective pilots make a consumer decision when choosing their career. “They absolutely weigh the risk, which is the cost and time and effort; versus the reward, which is the future employment opportunities,” said Higgins. “If they’re doing it on the fixed-wing side, there’s no doubt they’re going to do the same thing on the rotorcraft side. And . . . the cost of training is staggering, absolutely staggering. I do think that that is a critical problem.”

While he said there is no “magic bullet” solution to this, financing — through scholarships or grants, from either industry or government — is clearly part of the solution. The other is the introduction of a clearly defined career path.

“One thing that we saw on the fixed-wing side that really helped with that risk-reward consumer based model, is if a student, even a relatively new student to the industry, has a path through the industry,” said Higgins.

Bridging the Experience Gap

Attracting new entrants to the industry is one thing; keeping them once they’ve got their pilot’s certificate or license, but don’t have the experience required for many jobs, is quite another.

Dennis Pierce, the owner and founder of Colorado Heli-Ops, a flight training and utility operator based in Denver, Colorado, said he was clearly seeing a lack of “mid-time” pilots in the 1,000- to 2,000-hour range in the industry.

Many military pilots are turning their back on the helicopter industry when they join the civilian world, with lucrative careers offered by regional airlines along with the offer to help fund rotorcraft transition training. Skip Robinson Photo

“There’s absolutely a shortage, without a doubt,” he said. “I have operators that call me every other week, or every month and say, ‘I need another pilot — can you find me somebody?’ ”

He pointed to at least a “30 percent” drop of resumes landing on the desks of major operators he had spoken to as an indication of the changing climate in the industry.

“They’re worrying — they’re looking every day for new pilots,” he said. “Part of that is because a lot of pilots are going to the fixed-wing side, because of the offers and benefits and the offer to pay for training. But also people are getting openings all over the industry, because operator A might lose a pilot to operator B, because operator B’s high-time pilot went to the fixed-wing [industry].”

At the Helicopter Association of Canada’s (HAC’s) annual convention in November 2018, an entire session was dedicated to the labor shortage facing the industry.

The busy fire season last summer highlighted the scale of the issue in the country, said HAC president Fred Jones.

“When operators are parking machines because they can’t find drivers for them during the summer months, that’s an indication that it’s already bad,” said Jones. “I gauge it by how many calls I receive in this course of the summer — and this summer was the worst one. I probably received calls from about 25 different operators that were looking for pilots. [They] were looking for experienced pilots, admittedly.”

And therein lies what appears to be the crux of the issue — at least for the time being — for many operators. Whether or not it’s the sharp end of the forecast shortage, a demographic shift is taking place in the helicopter industry as the Baby Boomers retire — and take their decades of experience with them.

“To be clear,” said Jones, “from [HAC’s] perspective: there’s not a shortage of pilots; there’s a shortage of experienced pilots.”

This “experience gap” in the industry was reflected in the comments UND received in the responses to its survey. As one respondent wrote: “The problem with this industry is an oversaturation of jobs that require very high levels of experience, and a major deficit of jobs in which pilots can build that experience.”

Colorado Heli-Ops’s Aviation Futures program seeks to help its graduates build their hours through partnerships with operators in various industry segments. Dennis Pierce Photo

Matt Zuccaro, HAI’s president and CEO, agrees that the issue facing the industry today is a shortage of experienced pilots rather than an aggregate number of rated helicopter pilots. He said the industry needs to figure out how to help young people coming in make that transition to more experienced roles. He noted the 1,000-hour level — along with some turbine time — seems to be a key landmark in opening up other opportunities.

“That’s a heck of a commitment . . . to build up to 1,000 hours and get yourself some turbine time, but I would propose that the standards for certain mission profiles really don’t require that much time,” he told Vertical. He said some of the “more controlled environments” in the helicopter industry — such as aerial tourism — would be a good fit for pilots long before they reach that 1,000-hour mark.

“I really don’t see why we can’t be talking of people transitioning into that type of a mission or similar ones, that have a controlled environment with surveillance and oversight and good structure, to be in the 500-hour range,” he said. “That would help everybody, quite frankly.”

Such a lowering of the minimums for operations would require buy-in from operators, customers and insurance underwriters, he noted. But with the rigid structure of a solid safety management system (SMS) and the various other safety protocols in existence in today’s operating environment, he believes it’s possible.

“I’ve seen plenty of absolutely great young pilots who are in that range of 500/750 hours, who have an excellent safety culture, the mature pilot skills, and the technical knowledge to be just as safe as anybody else that’s out there,” he said. “I think we need to rethink this in a more aggressive manner.”

Beating a path

The idea of having a more clearly defined pathway through the industry to help bridge the experience gap has taken concrete form with the launch of various operator-led programs. Dennis Pierce has created one such program for students at Colorado Heli-Ops. He launched Aviation Futures in 2015, in partnership with Black Hills Aerial Adventures, Papillon Airways, Air Evac Lifeteam, PJ Helicopters, Aero Tech Inc., and T&M Aviation.

Sundance Helicopters’ SkyPath Pilot Program aims to offer qualified certified flight instructors a fast-tracked entry into flightseeing operations. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Under the program, CFIs at Colorado Heli-Ops are eligible to take seasonal flying positions at Black Hills (a helicopter tour company based in Custer, South Dakota) after reaching 500 hours. This allows them to build their commercial flying experience while keeping their instructor jobs at Colorado Heli-Ops. As they hit experience milestones, they can interview for jobs at the other participating operators.

Last year, two of the company’s CFIs alternated two-week shifts at Black Hills and Colorado Heli-Ops. “It helped us by not losing two CFIs, and it helped [Black Hills] by filling one pilot slot,” said Pierce. “This program allows [pilots] to stay, current, operating, flying and it just makes them better pilots. This year we had three people go to Rotorcraft Leasing in the Gulf [of Mexico]. It’s working.”

Another career pathway program — the SkyPath Pilot Program — has been launched by Mark Schlaefli of Sundance Helicopters, an Air Methods subsidiary. The program started in conjunction with flight school Leading Edge Aviation Inc., of Bend, Oregon, and has expanded to include the University of North Dakota’s aerospace program.

A candidate applies for the program through select part 141 partner flight schools, and as the pilot progresses through ratings, they are evaluated for their performance. Once they have reached a level of certification defined by the school, they are interviewed by a panel from Sundance and the flight school. If they’re accepted into the program, the candidate continues through their ratings at the school and eventually, once they’ve become an instructor and after a period of dual time (and once part 135 minimums are met) he or she is eligible for a guaranteed interview with Sundance.

“There’s no such thing as guaranteed jobs in the world, but it is about as close as you get to that,” said Schlaefli. “We should have been, as an operator, directly involved with developing and mentoring new pilots all along. This is something we should have been doing for years.”

There are currently five people in the program from UND, and Schlaefli expects the first SkyPath graduates to arrive with Sundance in spring 2020. He hopes to ultimately bring through 10 to 15 pilots each year through the program.

“If we can do that, then we’re going to have a great supply of qualified people, we can lower minimums, and have increased performance and increased safety — and I think it will do the industry good,” he said.

The program is focused on pilots right now, but Schlaefli aims to broaden it to maintenance technicians; he said the shortage of engineers was actually his biggest concern.

“We just had some discussions with Southern Utah University, who is in a very unique position with their offering a maintenance course, and have actually been successful in having some regulations changed to allow them to develop a rotorcraft specific track for mechanics,” said Schlaefli. “They are going to learn rotorcraft and very specific things [related to rotary-wing maintenance] from the beginning — which I think is huge.”

Watching the Clock

Such pathway programs have the potential to help redefine the perception of what counts as industry experience — and with it, redraw the boundaries to different types of operation. Aviation Futures allows its CFIs to begin commercial work at 500 hours, while Schlaefli said SkyPath is also looking at the possibility of lowering that 1,000-hour barrier.

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According to the Helicopter Association of Canada’s Fred Jones, the fire season in Canada highlighted a shortage of experienced pilots in the country. Heath Moffatt Photo

“The more we discussed it, the more we figured out that there’s a lot of guys that have 1,000 hours that were just fine at 600 hours,” he said. “Then they did 400 one-hour sessions, 400 times, for the rest of the log book.”

The solution, he said, would be to add an initial operating experience component. In this, a pilot with 750 hours would go through the normal part 135 training program, and then for his or her first 20 to 30 hours in the aircraft, they would fly in an aircraft with dual controls with an evaluator on board. A debrief would follow every flight to help bring that individual up to speed.

“We feel, if we have a known quantity that is going through the program that we’ve gotten to know, participated in their professional development, and then observed, one-on-one, in the field doing exactly what we do every day, [that] we’re going to have a much more predictable outcome than the guy I just hire off the street.”

But why is it that the aviation industry as a whole uses hours as a marker of competency? This question emerged as Dr. Suzanne Kearns, a professor of aviation at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, was doing research for a textbook she was writing.

“I spoke to someone who told me to think of it from a regulatory standpoint — if an accident happens and it comes across your desk as a regulator, and you need to show that you’ve done something, he said the easiest thing to do is to throw a few hours of training at the problem,” she said. “It gives the impression that you’ve made a difference, when in reality you know it may not have actually solved the problem. For me, that mindset that it’s easier because you can count [hours] and it’s easily tracked and it’s easier to get your head around — that’s one of the prevailing reasons why we use hours rather than the idea that it’s the best way as a metric of skill — that was mind-blowing .”

An alternative approach is a competency-based method, but such a system is complicated and requires a bit more sophistication, said Kearns.

The University of North Dakota recently joined the SkyPath Pilot Program, launched by Mark Schlaefli of Sundance Helicopters. Wes Van Dell Photo

“All of a sudden, the responsibility for saying somebody’s done relies on an individual [to] not just count up hours, but to really know what that person’s capable of and feel comfortable that they can act autonomously as a professional,” she said. “It’s tricky, but I think it [provides] a lot of opportunities.”

Several years ago in Canada, HAC created and made available a competency document for wildfire operations that has subsequently been adopted by the wildfire contracting agencies of several provinces.

The document doesn’t specify that pilots have to have flown a set number of hours, but is instead broken into a number of core competencies for wildfire fighting — and pilots must be able to prove that they can do these competencies to get the work.

“We’ve still got some issues to work through on it, but I think it has been a significant success for the industry, and a significant success at getting young pilots into the system,” said Jones. “But that’s only one industry.”

Geoff Packer, founder of HeliSpeed, believes he has another solution to variable labor requirements. Packer established HeliSpeed in 2015 to supply experienced specialized pilots and maintenance engineers to the industry. While based in the U.K., HeliSpeed has 736 pilots on its books from 39 different countries. When an operator needs to add a pilot or mechanic to its staff on a temporary basis, HeliSpeed can provide a detailed match in experience and required ratings from those registered with it. It can also serve as a subcontractor to farm out pilots from overstaffed operators during slow periods.

“We started off supporting Airbus with test pilots, and we still do that,” said Packer. “We also support different MROs in testing their aircraft and getting them serviceable, and we do ferry flying around the world.”

Legislative action

The issue of a labor or skills shortage hasn’t gone unnoticed by the government. When the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act 2018 was finally passed by the U.S. Congress in October, it contained language directly addressing the need for greater outreach promoting aviation as a career. Among several measure, the act called for the creation of a Youth Access to American Jobs in Aviation Task Force, which has been challenged with developing recommendations and strategies to encourage students, from their junior year of high school, to pursue courses that would lead to a career in aviation. To bridge the gap from education to joining the industry, the task force will also be responsible for identifying and developing pathways for these students to secure apprenticeships and careers in aviation.

Air Method owns both Sundance and Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, providing a potential pathway for pilots of those two companies into the emergency medical services industry. Skip Robinson Photo

In developing its plan, the task force is expected to look at what encourages or discourages young people from pursuing careers in aviation, look at how aviation stakeholders can support those looking to join the industry, and explore ways to enhance apprenticeship and other mentorship programs — including grants and scholarships.

In recognition of the extreme gender disparity in aviation, it also called for the creation of a Women in Aviation Advisory Board, to develop strategies to encourage more women to join the industry.

While acknowledging that the act is focused on the fixed-wing community, Zuccaro said it was at least recognition of the danger posed by the labor shortage aviation is facing.

At Heli-Expo 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia, HFI and HAI held a second HeliFutures workshop with its members to discuss the progress made over the last six months. As ever, the show also included a careers fair and the military-to-civilian transition workshop.

While he knows it will take time and effort to solve the labor issues the helicopter industry faces, Zuccaro said he firmly believes it still holds a special appeal that will continue to encourage people to explore the opportunities it can provide.

“I think that’s one of our greatest attractions in the helicopter industry, is the diversity you could have over a career is just phenomenal,” he said. “The different things you can do and experience, and the benefit that you’re doing to the real world greater society. And I think that’s one thing that we’re trying to promote and show, is that we are unique, we are different, and we can offer you a really exciting career that’s rewarding.”

 

 

16 thoughts on “Does the helicopter industry have a people problem?

  1. When the industry finally realizes that the hour benchmarks that we put so much stock in, are probably one of the worse way to measure pilot skills and competency, perhaps progress can be made in making the industry a more inviting place to ‘future’ employees.
    Two pilots with 1000 hours, can be, and probably are, two completely different individuals, with completely different skill sets and abilities, yet we measure them the same way, by numbers in a log book.
    HAC’s competency program is a step in the right direction. People should be given opportunities based on what they know, what they can do, and whether they have the abilities to do something, not by arbitrary hours set by a customer that thinks a 1000 hour pilot is ‘safe’, but a 750 hour pilot is not.
    Painting everybody with the same brush is not the best way, it’s not even a good way.
    In regular life, when we call for a plumber to fix our toilet, we never ask how many toilets he has logged repairs on. We don’t care, and probably don’t think that it would have any bearing on whether he is qualified or capable of fixing ours. Yet we’re perfectly OK with thinking that hours alone, is the benchmark that makes a safe employee.

  2. “There is no helicopter pilot shortage, there is a pay and quality of life shortage that drives away qualified and experienced helicopter pilots.”.
    Exactly. And a shortage of good managers. People quit jobs and careers due to bad managers. I work in a different technical industry but the problems are the same.

  3. There are many reasons for what will become an absolute disaster in the aviation industry. After the military I spend a few years in the civilian aviation maintenance industry (A&P). It is a demoralizing environment. A cohort of 50+ yo immature, uneducated, and selfish nitwits are effectively running off this industries future work force. Im happy now to have finished my graduate degree and am finally among my peers (25-30yo) in a supportive and enriching setting.

  4. I completely agree, there is a retention and recruitment problem (as in recruitment money, not a lack of willing pilots, but lack of carriers to pay well enough for us not to go airlines…).

    I know operating costs have everything to do with what you get paid as a pilot. I know the oil and gas industry has a direct impact on those wages… i.e. – with low gas prices, folks aint operating S67’s when they have 407’s and 206’s to fly around. Companies looking for rotorwing contract services aren’t gonna pay a high operating cost for a big aircraft when they can pay less and get the work done with a small airframe, so there goes your 6 figure pay piloting a S92/H225/AW139 and such. All you find out there are the AS350/EC135/B206 jobs and they pay what a regional pilot in his first year gets… so hell yeah you have a retention problem.

    What upwards mobility do I have flying med, or oil and gas, when all we have are these tiny birds to fly since the companies cannot afford to operate the big aircraft? Airlines offer almost unlimited pay increases until you are in the ridiculous tax brackets, if you continue on to international carriers. 300K plus vs capping out at around 80 for the same amount of work? On top of that, the same skill levels too?!? Oh, dont get me started down that road… I would put a EFIS/glass cockpit qualified heavy rotorwing pilot up against a giant airline busdriver in terms of aviator skills any day of the week… but, I digress. Contract work overseas pretty much, to answer my own question. That is where we go. Otherwise you are going to be in the 60-70K range for the rest of your career unless you work a lot of overtime, or get lucky with some geographical bonuses as well.

    So – what is going to happen to us all?

    Well, we’d better be careful, before we are all replaced by freakin robots and drones.

    What needs to happen, is the operating costs need to be commensurate with the costs needed to retain pilots.

    Corporate level decisions need to account for this now, not just how much the CEO can make on a contract. That is, unless they want to use drones and robots in the future.

    Maybe the pilot shortage is planned? You know, slowly weed out the human factor, by paying us peanuts, and the end game is less cost to operate, less liability, no need to question a pilots intuitive nature about weather, mission risk vs reward, etc…

    That is the little conspiracy theorist in me talking, but it is possible that we could all be replaced eventually, and this is the precursor to that happening.

    Anyways, it aint because us rotorwing pilots want to fly airplanes. In my opinion and in most of my buddies, it is opposite. The only reason 90% are jumping to airlines is the ability to grow. Fixed wing is boring, plain and simple, but it is a better life in the long run. Fix pay = fix retention.

    1. I have never replied to a post in my life. However, what you said is exactly what is happening, and how all rotor wing pilots feel. A rotor wing pilot has more demand placed on him, more qualification requirements, higher saturated work environment, and a higher skill set than a fixed wing will ever need. Yet salary is laughable in comparison to what “companies” want for experience and flight time. Not even worth my time. It’s borderline insulting. No. It IS insulting.

      90% of job postings are “2000-3000 hrs with 1000-1,500 hrs PIC time, and bachelors”
      And they pay 60k-80k.

      Or I can just go fly fixed wing with literally half the time….and be on a rocket ship ride through the pay charts, earning hours much faster than rotor-wing, and be heavily compensated throughout my career.

      300k a year to fly 3 years in China with about 4 years airline experience.

      Or 75k a year to fly a helicopter with your 8-15 years experience.

      Yep. Great mystery as to why helicopter pilots are simply giving up.

  5. I also believe the constant growing fear of pilots losing their jobs to computers and automation in the near future is a massive deterrent. Where is the security of investing so much money in yourself and it can all be taken away by a computer. We have so many passionate pilots that believe so much in their jobs and they would jump at any opportunity yet the big manufacturers of our aircraft are pushing to remove us. The whole point of flying is the passion by the people who love it. That’s the drive.

  6. At some point, if an operator wishes to keep the doors open, they must open the wallet and pay / treat people better. I have no issue with companies failing because they cannot find/hire people. People will naturally seek better employment options–compete or lose. If you reduce the minimums, you will certainly get what you are paying for!

  7. The U.S. rotorcraft industry is a complete disaster…and joke. When I was separating from active duty I couldn’t believe some of the interview feedback I received from prospective employers….”well we want to see more light ship time” “you seem to have a lot of open ocean time but no rig landings…we look for operating in/around rigs” “I know you’ve done combat operations but fire fighting is SO DIFFERENT”…”You need more long line experience…precision hoists don’t count”. Give me a break. No REPUTABLE fixed wing operator tells some F-16 driver “we’d like to see some more multi-engine and IFR time…and don’t forget those GPS approaches”. Operators continually have a changing set of standards. It’s about time they take notice. Keep it within the FAR’s for hiring requirements and stop coming up with your own litmus test for what makes a good pilot.

    Second your employee should NEVER pay for the job. That means PER DIEM dude!! If you want me to work in the sticks then it’s YOUR responsibility to pay mileage, transportation, lodging and per diem. No this isn’t a whiney pilot–that’s called INDUSTRY STANDARD in the fixed wing world. Get with the times. It’s not a privilege for me to work for you. It’s a contract.

    Finally get on board with development. I’ve never seen an industry so aloof that it won’t hire folks and train them up within. The fixed wing 121 & 135 operators have been doing this for decades…hell European outfits still do this with apprenticeship pilot programs (e.g. Lufthansa and others). Stop putting the chicken before the egg…”we need a pilot with 500+ hrs of precision long line”. Well riddle me this batman…how am I supposed to get this if no one employs me after my 10 hrs in part 133 ops?

    P.S. I currently have a rotary wing job that pays extremely well. In fact it pays for all the things outlined in my above posts and has optional tracks for pilots to move into management if they desire. It is possible. I hope the rest of the industry will start to mature out of the infantile state they’ve been in for the last few decades.

  8. Wow… so many good comments and wisdom in one place. Nothing to add. Now only the people in the management need to read this and rethink their “I can get a pilot just around the corner anytime” attitude.

  9. 1000 hours is kind of a benchmark in the USA and probably Canada. In Europe it’s more like 2000 and for some jobs it’s 2000 of which 500 in command of twin engine helicopters.

  10. “The more we discussed it, the more we figured out that there’s a lot of guys that have 1,000 hours that were just fine at 600 hours,”

    This has to be my favorite slap in the face by an industry who has no one to blame for its problems but itself!

    By the way, they are still responding to my 800 hour resume with, “Thanks for the resume, call us when you have 1,000 hours.”

    1,000 hours to give rides,…who came up with that ridiculous number?

  11. An excellent if somewhat disheartening article. We all know the helicopter industry is broken. Here in th UK the attitude that until you have 2000 TT, 500 twin and an IR makes you incapable of finding your own arse with both hands, the assistance of a mirror on a stick AND an atlas still holds sway. I overheard one (ex-military) 109 driver telling one of his old squadron mates that ‘really, they would only employ ex-military Pilots (with the above minima) – although they had made an exception for an ex-Navy pilot with ‘only’ 1500 TT, as they considered that shipboard operational experience might mean he had a sufficient skill level. If any ‘civvie’ pilot applied, the minima went up to 3000 TT minimum as they (civvies) just didn’t have the ability’. How would I describe that pilot? Um……stegosaurus? Brontosaurus? Whatever – a dinosaur. I have also been told that I need more experience before I can be considered for Air Ambulance work as ‘ you need experience in off airport landings’. Oh. Ok. So the fact I have 1000 hrs instructing and I TEACH off airport doesn’t count? As we are in a situation in the UK where most senior positions are filled by the self-important ex-military ‘club’, the situation won’t improve anytime soon. The helicopter industry is the classic catch-22 example you need experience, but nobody is willing to give you the experience. There is the fabulous mythical land of ‘ somewhere else’. Management needs to WAKE UP.

  12. I thought it was interesting how you said that there may be a significant drop in helicopter pilots between 2018 and 2036. My brother is wanting to go to school so that he can get his flying license and become a helicopter pilot. If he decides to stick with that career path, it would be good for him to fly for a company that keeps their helicopters properly repaired and maintained with the latest technology.

  13. Gentlemen and Gentlewomen of the rotary-winged world, greetings and salutations! You are skilled, knowledgeable, and courageous, one and all. You have been my brothers and sisters in aviation adventure for 33 years now.

    I’m a baby-boomer military-civilian professional helicopter pilot with just over 9,000 hours. ATP, CFII, etc… I am NOT a Vietnam Vet, though I admire them greatly.

    The fixed-wing industry standards of pay, working conditions, and benefits all fall from unionized airline pilots. Just like the 40 hour week, pensions of old, and time and a half for overtime do in most industries in the US. We don’t get paid what we deserve. We get paid what we negotiate.

    We rugged individualist chopper pilots (an American icon) mostly take what we’re given. We’ll do anything for a flying job. “Will fly for food” is a not-so-funny tee-shirt joke.

    My observation and humble opinion are that the roots of this phenomenon in the US a result of the Vietnam war. High school to flight school warrant officer pilots flew 1,000 hours in combat in mostly turbine machines in one year. Over there, they lived in tents, ate bad food, got shot at, dug ditches as collateral duty, and were paid less than $1000 per month. They came home to the disgraceful welcome that all Vietnam vets got.

    In the mid 70’s, the HEMS, offshore oil & gas, pipeline, and seismic sectors expanded. Better working conditions (compared to in the war), slightly better pay, and helo pilots were “a dime a dozen”. Complain about anything, turn down a flight for weather or a “minor” mechanical and you could be easily replaced.

    Helicopters are unstable and fragile – even an S-92 – compared to fixed-wings. All missions from air tour to logging to SAR are on a high risk scale compared to F/W.

    Helicopter Pilots are a tiny part of the aviation industry. But, we are a very special, very valuable part. We’ve got to muster the collective self-esteem to expect and demand being paid what we are worth!

    The only way we can do this is through collective bargaining. Join, support, or form professional unions. The PHPA and GHPA are already available.

    No one need worry about the quality of our work deteriorating as we get more organized. We have an intrinsic work ethic that says “get the job done – rightly and safely”. We’d always rather be flying if we can.

    The lowest pay I took was $25K in 1995 for Air Log in the GOM. The regular highest pay I took was $120K in 2010 for CHC in Africa. I think I’m worth at least $75/hour for an eight hour duty day. Some contracts might cause me to expect $100/hour; depending on travel & risk. I think the thousand-hour pilot with a turbine transition is worth at least $50/hour for the same day. My auto shop charges me $100/hour for labor.

    My brother in law is a Delta 737 Check Airman out of LAX. $450K for 400 flight hours per year. He looked at the antique Puma I was slinging navy cargo with (including lots of million-dollar missiles and bombs). He said “You know we have pursers who make more than you do”.

    We’ve got to stand up together for our group, not just our selfs, boys and girls.

    Pull together! Organize. Negotiate. Work hard. Fly smart. Fly safe.

    Scooter, out.

  14. Telling a military trained pilot
    with 1500 hours (who flew MEDEVAC in combat) that he doesn’t have the “experience” to get a civilian LIFEFlight (EMS) job is why people say “screw this industry,” and go to the airlines instead!
    YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF HELI INDUSTRY! Stop letting insurance weasels tell you who to hire!

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