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A new program aims to provide helicopter pilots at the early stages of their careers with a defined path for achieving their professional goals.
Called Aviation Futures, the program was created by the Broomfield, Colorado-based flight school Colorado Heli-Ops in cooperation with Black Hills Aerial Adventures, a helicopter tour company based in Custer, South Dakota. Other helicopter operators who have agreed to take part in Aviation Futures include Papillon Airways, Air Evac Lifeteam, PJ Helicopters, Aero Tech Inc., and T&M Aviation.
Under the program, certified flight instructors at Colorado Heli-Ops will be eligible for seasonal flying positions at Black Hill Aerial Adventures upon reaching 500 hours of flight time. That will allow them to build real-world commercial flying experience while retaining their instructing jobs at Colorado Heli-Ops.
As they achieve additional flight experience milestones, these pilots will have the opportunity to interview for positions with other participating operators, and will receive priority hiring preference if their interviews are successful.
According to Colorado Heli-Ops founder Dennis Pierce, Aviation Futures was conceived with two complementary goals. First, it will benefit promising lower-time helicopter pilots, who often struggle to establish the experience and connections needed to advance to the next stage of their careers. While structured career development programs are common in fixed-wing aviation, such opportunities have been generally lacking for helicopter pilots.
“We knew the industry needed a career path,” he said.
Additionally, the program will provide participating operators with a stream of vetted, high-quality pilot candidates — an increasingly valuable resource as airlines step up their recruiting efforts for skilled helicopter pilots.
“The search for quality pilot applicants is an ongoing challenge and a program such as this can only help to streamline recruitment of suitable candidates,” stated Simon Whiteley, assistant director of operations for Papillon. “We look forward to working closely with Colorado Heli-Ops, Black Hills Aerial Adventures, and other partners within the Aviation Futures program to help nurture the next generation of professional helicopter pilots.”
Most of Colorado Heli-Ops’ flight instructors were hired after completing their professional pilot training at the school. According to Pierce, pilots who train at Colorado Heli-Ops have a head start on commercial operations in that they are exposed to important industry concepts — such as flight risk assessment tools and safety management systems — from day one of their training. As he described it, “We make really skilled and professional pilots that have higher-order thinking skills and do all of their training at high altitude.”
They also receive early exposure to Colorado Heli-Ops’ commercial helicopter operations, with some of them having the opportunity to build flight time during ferry flights associated with the company’s pipeline inspections. In fact, the Aviation Futures program builds on an established initiative by Colorado Heli-Ops to connect lower-time pilots with empty co-pilot seats on cross-country ferry flights, giving these pilots the opportunity to build valuable flight experience in different models of aircraft.
According to Pierce, last year the company facilitated over 100 hours of free flight time, most of it in turbine-powered helicopters. In some cases, the experienced pilot in the other seat was the owner of an Aviation Futures partner operator.
As pilots progress through the Aviation Futures program, it is envisioned that the program will maintain a verified record of their flight experience that can be shared with future employers. “We’ll have a chain of references that will reduce employers’ risks,” explained Dave Dziura, Colorado Heli-Ops’ chief pilot and chief flight instructor.
That’s appealing to operators at all tiers of the program, including Air Evac Lifeteam, which requires its operational pilots to have a minimum of 2,000 hours of flight time to meet Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS) standards.
“Air Evac Lifeteam is pleased to be an industry partner in support of the Aviation Futures career path program developed by Colorado Heli-Ops,” stated Tony Bonham, senior director of flight operations for Air Evac Lifeteam. “As the pilot shortage increases, we view this program as a resourceful method to develop a pool of qualified helicopter pilots for both the near and long term.”
Pierce said the first and second tiers of the Aviation Futures program are already active, as Colorado Heli-Ops has placed two of its flight instructors with Black Hills Aerial Adventures for the summer season. These pilots are working a rotating schedule of two weeks at Black Hills Aerial Adventures followed by two weeks at Colorado Heli-Ops, and will be able to return to flight instructing full-time at the end of the tour season.
Pierce said he hopes to see more helicopter operators from a variety of sectors join the program as industry partners in the future.
“We’d like to cover as much of the industry as we can,” Pierce said. “It works for us and it works for them.”