Study confirms looming helicopter pilot and maintainer shortage

The results of a new study confirm that the helicopter industry is expected to face a serious shortage of qualified pilots and maintenance personnel over the next 18 years.

According to a recent survey, two-thirds of HAI members are already finding it more difficult to locate and hire qualified mechanics. Skip Robinson Photo
According to a recent survey, two-thirds of HAI members are already finding it more difficult to locate and hire qualified mechanics. Skip Robinson Photo

The study, performed by the University of North Dakota (UND) in collaboration with Helicopter Association International (HAI) and Helicopter Foundation International (HFI), predicts there will be a shortage of 7,649 pilots in the United States alone between 2018 and 2036. That deficit will be driven largely by an expected 1.5 percent increase in the country’s total number of airframes over the next two decades.

While this number is concerning, it’s the results of the maintenance personnel forecast that are most alarming. In a presentation at Heli-Expo 2018, Dr. Elizabeth Bjerke of UND revealed that the U.S. is expected to see a cumulative shortage of 40,613 certified aviation mechanics between now and 2036.

“Industry as a whole has been talking about it, but I’ve seen a lot less being done than on the pilot side,” said Bjerke. “However, we do believe the mechanic shortage will be much more pronounced [than the pilot shortage] if something drastic isn’t done soon.”

A survey of more than 250 HAI operator members, three quarters of them from North America, shows that 67 percent are already finding it more difficult to locate and hire qualified mechanics.

The shortage of helicopter pilots and aviation maintenance personnel is also being felt internationally.

Bjerke said one of the biggest threats to the personnel supply is the growing helicopter industry in China. In 2017, there were only one thousand helicopters operating there; but as the country’s population and infrastructure continue to expand, China will need to import industry expertise. As its industry grows, it will siphon off pilots and maintainers from the rest of the world.

Closer to home, regional air carriers in the U.S. also represent a threat to the supply of helicopter pilots. As they scramble to fill their own cockpit seats, these operators are offering candidates rotary to fixed-wing pilot transition programs.

The UND reached out to three regional airlines to find out if helicopter pilots are showing interest in these conversions.

“Lo and behold, the interest in these transition programs is very high,” said Bjerke. “In 2017 alone, 500 [rotary] pilots transitioned through their programs with a 95 percent completion rate. That was at just three of these airlines. Many more are offering these programs.”

While operators reported hiring pilots from the traditional streams – the military and civilian training schools, for example – poaching within the industry is also prevalent as larger companies with better incentive packages draw employees away from smaller operators.

In fact, 64 percent of survey respondents reported that when pilots leave, they are going to fly for other companies.

Operator input

“There were a lot of thoughts out there from the membership on the shortage,” noted Bjerke. “We put comments together to try to get a more in-depth perspective.”

She said one common theme is that while the fixed-wing industry has well defined pilot career paths, those don’t really exist in the helicopter industry.

“There are lot of pilots with 250 hours, but the industry really needs people with high time and experience. So how do we take someone with lower experience and bridge them all the way through?”

On the maintenance side, some people felt efforts should be made to recruit and re-train qualified military mechanics to help bridge the experience gap.

“There is a lack of preparation and knowledge needed when it comes to maintaining rotorcraft,” said Bjerke. “The fear here is there are a lot of seasoned, experienced mechanics retiring soon, and there isn’t that level of experience coming up through the ranks.”

Youth connection

Attracting the next wave of helicopter pilots and aviation mechanics is a big priority for HAI and HFI.

“Our industry needs to take a hard look at how we do things,” said Matt Zuccaro, HAI president and CEO. “We really don’t have a choice. These numbers show a future where the growth of our industry will be curtailed because operators won’t have the workforce they need. But we have the option to change that future by acting proactively now to recruit the next generation of pilots and maintainers.”

Bjerke made several recommendations to address the looming shortage, including harnessing the power and creativity of young people themselves.


“We work day in and day out with this new generation, Generation Z,” she said. “They are very different. They are digital natives. We need to embrace current technologies to communicate with this generation.”

She suggested ideas such as creating and posting more helicopter pilot and maintenance videos on YouTube, Instagram and other social media sites, as well as designing helicopter filters for Snapchat and harnessing the power of virtual reality (VR).

“There are so many VR opportunities; it’s already being used in maintenance training. How do we support this technology to get it down into the K-12 education system?”

Bjerke also encouraged industry members to create internships so students can help them identify the best ways to communicate with their generation.

The creation of defined career pathways for helicopter pilots and maintainers will also go a long way to attracting Generation Z, which Bjerke said enjoys structure and job security.

As an example, she pointed to a recent partnership between UND and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Concerned about its future supply of pilots, the government agency is working with the university to give student trainees the skills they need to join its ranks.

Bjerke also said industry must invest in things like recurrency training programs, financial assistance and more rotary scholarships for both flying and maintenance.

The impending labour shortage has the potential to severely cripple the helicopter industry. As Bjerke indicated, “drastic” action is needed.

Implementing solutions will require a united effort from all stakeholders – including government, industry, military, finance, insurance and education – to ensure there are enough young recruits to keep both rotors and wrenches turning.

9 thoughts on “Study confirms looming helicopter pilot and maintainer shortage

  1. It is very interesting to continually read about the pilot shortages, but still the industry does not respond to change the situation. Locally in South Africa salaries are low with little or no company benefits for pilots. Company employees are being looked after while pilots are being exploited to the point where a lot of us are thinking of changing career paths and leaving aviation entirely. Getting a helicopter licence is very expensive and getting even more so by the day, while salaries do not follow and in some places even decreasing. Until companies change their behaviour towards pilots, I do not see the current situation changing.

    1. Although the pricing to get A & P certified is not anywhere near the cost of a pilots rating I must say the results & behavior to value an AMT are exactly the same as above. So many individuals holding an A & P would not dare risk more money to become pilots. The ROI, risk, & work life balance just isn’t there like it used to be. Of course that is compounding because the more shortages we have the harder everyone needs to work for less to keep the same pace or hopefully grow. With that, I see many colleagues move to other industry & take their skillset with them.

  2. This commentary is timely to wake up the leaders in this industry. We already are feeling the pinch with experienced pilots and maintenance engineers at our company. The option to bring in low time inexperienced pilots has been thwarted by customer and insurance requirements on jobs that could easily be completed by low experienced personel.
    Even for myself, a 20,000 hour helicopter pilot am looking to moving to an airline position as there is a increased ceiling in remunerations. Our pay has been dropped as the resource industry went quiet. I’ve seen my pay drop 30% in the last 15 years. No pensions, benefits unlikely as companies try to survive until the next oil boom. I wish the companies luck trying to operate without qualified and experienced people that are in the industry now. These people are the mentors to help solve the experience gap that has developed. They will be lost to retirement and transition to the airlines where they will experience benefits and wage increases.

  3. I feel the same as those respondents above. As critical as maintenance is to safe operation of aircraft, the pay is woefully inadequate! I feel most A&Ps are in it for the love of aircraft. There needs to be a cocerted effort to begin recruiting in the middle schools. I also feel that women/girls need to be heavily recruited. Women are overlooked when it comes to mechanical careers.

  4. I am so fed up, and tired, of articles like this. There are NO pilot or aircraft mechanic shortages. What there is, is an inability for businesses and operators to pay proper wages, and invest in their staff. In the last few years, there has been a complete collapse in the helicopter industry, and one only needs to look to international helicopter forums to see the amount of unemployed pilots and aircraft mechanics that are out there. It is true, that more and more pilots are considering the fixed wing route, and even I, after 16 years as a pilot, have been considering it. The only thing holding me back from joining the fixed wing industry, is my lack of faith in the future of that industry as well.
    Even since becoming a pilot, I have continued to face the consistent roadblocks of not having the “requirements” for certain jobs or companies. It all starts out with no turbine time, no job. No multi-engine time, oh forget it. You don’t have 50 hours on this type (that would cost $25,000 – $80,000), then don’t bother applying to us. You don’t have 200 hours night, only 188, sorry, we don’t want you. It is never ending, and exhausting.
    After spending almost seven years with one of the largest helicopter operators in the world, and having zero progression or advancement opportunities, pay cuts, and benefit cuts, you start to wonder what is even the point in staying in this industry.
    Every person that I have met in the last few years, that has ever expressed interest in becoming a pilot or aircraft mechanic, my only advice to them is, stay well the hell away from the helicopter industry.
    The U.S. continues to suffer these so called pilot and mechanic shortages, but only because they do not want to pay pilots and aircraft mechanics wages that make it worth while to even consider. These shortages have been falsely publicized, partly because of the EMS industry, claiming they cannot find enough staff, yet that industry is considered one of the more hazardous industries in the U.S. It is tiresome to see the constant advertisements for positions across the country, to be ignored when applying, and then discover that they really don’t want to hire people for all these positions, because they would much rather pay people over time instead.
    I wish people would stop writing and publishing these articles, Just like I have seen with the fixed wing discussions, of the impending pilot and aircraft engineer shortages. It is a sham. It starts with the aircraft manufacturers, and works its way down through operators and media outlets, then flight and mechanic schools. If they can keep the industry flooded with pilots and aircraft mechanics, then they can keep the wages down, and treat their staff like they are always replaceable.
    “Look, here are the published, studied, and proven numbers. The industry is facing a sever shortage. Salaries are going to be huge. There is going to be so much work for the next 30 years!” With no consideration taken into account for future oil prices, advancements in technology, and not to mention the fact that half the helicopter industry is about to be wiped out due to the advancements of unmanned aircraft. But hey, don’t worry, that huge surplus of ex-Vietnam pilots are all gonna be retiring now, and there will be so many jobs and opportunities available.

  5. Are many AMT’s in world that have a Dreams to work in outher countries but the rules not acept us. I work with Sikorsky Aircrafts models S-76 series and S-92 on Brazil with MM in English Language and I can’t works with the same aircra and MM’s, on USA or in outher Country.
    The rules are the same betwen this countries, the Brazilian rules are the translate of the rules FAA.
    The import of workers qualified are scape to this lag.

  6. A diesel mechanic with the same amount of training will make more working on a 60k truck then a newbie A&P working on a 747? How is that possible? The math does not work on that? How can you expect a young kid to go spend 100k or more, to learn how to fly and then go make minimum wage to build hours? The pay is terrible for the time invested and the liability on the pilot or mechanic. It is true that you have to enter the helicopter industry because you love it. However there needs to be a clear career path and a light at the end of the tunnel to be able to pay your bills while getting there. Remember the people with the business degrees own the aircraft. All the others work and fly them. This is usually not the other way around.

  7. Sam resumed the all story about this B/S pilot shortage.
    As he said, stop taking us for prostitute who love flying and should be available any time at any cost. After 25 years, I have seen no change in this industry except the traditional complain of not having enough “QUALIFIED PILOTS”. Yeahhhhhh. There is a lot of people who have spent a lots of money and are going nowhere, and at the end, switch to a different job because there is no hope. And for the rest, well, it’s easy, you never have what they need, so your life is miserable until you can find something decent after so many years. An insanity !!

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