A joint study by the University of North Dakota (UND) and Helicopter Association International has indicated that a helicopter pilot shortage in the US is inevitable over the next few years. The results show a projected shortage of 7,649 helicopter pilots between 2018 and 2036. By 2020, the University expects a deficit of as many as 2,200 pilots.
A natural cycle?
In 1989 when I received my private helicopter certificate, the helicopter industry was fairly flat, and industry growth was rather stagnant. In the 30 years since that accomplishment, I’ve added every helicopter rating that exists in the US and the helicopter industry has experienced various cycles of expansion and contraction, hiring and layoffs. During those times of prosperity and recession, the availability of qualified helicopter pilots was pretty solid. There always seemed to be numerous applicants for every opening. It was nothing like what industry forecasters are predicting over the next decade.
A new wave of recruitment
Now in 2019, I can’t go a day without being bombarded with ads for airplane/airline training programmes targeted specifically at helicopter pilots wanting to make the move into the airlines. Headlines in bold print speak of pilot shortages at an alarming level, and it’s not just civilian helicopter pilots who are being recruited in large numbers to regional air carriers. Military pilots are also being offered monetary incentives, tuition reimbursement, housing stipends, upgrades in as little as three months to larger equipment, sign on bonuses, higher starting salaries and paid training.
In many cases, helicopter pilots receive full credit of their helicopter flight hours applied toward their eventual airline flight time experience and seniority
In many cases, helicopter pilots receive full credit of their helicopter flight hours applied toward their eventual airline flight time experience and seniority. That last incentive is relatively new and incredibly strategic.
Imagine an experienced helicopter pilot with several hundred to a few thousand hours in helicopters and no fixed-wing rating, but with an interest in making the move to the regionals and one day the majors. The only thing hindering that pilot from making the jump might very well be the expected training costs for the add-on ratings, and the uncertainty of his or her path of starting over and building flight time in airplanes in an industry where opportunities would be determined in large part by the number of flight hours accumulated in airplanes.
Now some programme developers are giving 1:1 credit of the helicopter pilots’ flight time in helicopters toward their airplane flight time credit. This feature has helicopter pilots signing up for these programmes in vast numbers and helicopter companies are feeling the loss.
Behind these successful recruitment campaigns are well-funded flight schools that are working in conjunction with, if not owned by, regional airlines, who are typically partnered with, or are subsidiaries of, major airlines. They have seen the future and know the impact the growing pilot shortage will have on their ability to operate their aircraft. The impact that mandatory pilot retirement, global route expansion, and fewer military pilots being trained (a typical resource of recruitment by the airlines) is being seen across the aviation landscape.
Army considers better pay
Not unaware of the impact a pilot shortage would have on each branch of our military and our national security, the US Air Force has rolled out a series of programmes aimed at retention that include very generous bonuses for pilots to extend their commitments. As an example of the competition being felt for experienced aviators, under one programme the Air Force offered $420,000 for a 12-year contract extension. That programme, once only offered to retain fighter pilots, is now being offered to pilots across several different aviation specialties. In addition, the Air Mobility Command has created a task force and sought out airmen input for ideas to fix its retention problem.
So, what is the helicopter industry to do?
How will the helicopter industry compete with the airlines and the military to attract and perhaps more importantly retain this and the next generation of rotorwing aviators? The first step, in my opinion, is to stop the bleeding. The leaders in the helicopter industry must find a way to make it more attractive to stay than to migrate over to the fixed wing side.
How is this done? Like the Air Force has done, helicopter operators need to join forces, start a task force and address what is an industry issue that will have a long-term impact on all operators. Starting pay for helicopter pilots is substantially higher than when I began flying, but pay scales don’t always favour longevity so much as they favour recruitment. It’s not uncommon for a pilot with eight years in a position to make very little more or even the same amount as a new hire. The company is focused on attaining more than retaining pilots, so as starting salaries are raised in recruitment efforts, the pay scales for existing pilots remain as they were.
Fairness in compensation and a willingness to see things through the eyes of the employee would be a great place for employers to start. Things are moving quickly and while it’s never too late for helicopter operators to make positive changes, a well-funded military and airline industry are your competition.
Competition is fierce
Competing with the military and the airlines for pilots poses many challenges, especially if the airlines are essentially willing to subsidise certificate acquisition and pay stipends during training. When your target customer already possesses a vast majority of the knowledge base and aeronautical skill set that is necessary to be successful, and the only missing element is aircraft type specific, the risk they’re taking is greatly minimised.
Helicopter industry leaders should come together and create a training academy built on a similar blueprint as the airlines are doing. Perhaps future pilots can have training costs deferred against future income and commit to a certain number of years working for the provider of such training. The airlines have the unique opportunity of matching an experienced pilot with a relatively new co-pilot and facilitate the job training in a controlled environment over the course of years as the younger pilot learns from the captain.
With helicopter pilots, however, this isn’t really an option. There are only a few helicopter operations that require two pilots and would also be able to afford up and coming young pilots the opportunity to be mentored in the cockpit.
I would like to see the operators establish a national mentoring team that makes it easier for young pilots to feel part of the brotherhood (or sisterhood) and have the opportunity to learn in conversation from their more experienced and seasoned colleagues
The absence of this training/learning tool can work against helicopter operations, as most pilots embark in the industry and in single pilot aircraft/operations. To fill this void, I would like to see the operators establish a national mentoring team that makes it easier for young pilots to feel part of the brotherhood (or sisterhood) and have the opportunity to learn in conversation from their more experienced and seasoned colleagues.
I don’t know if this would have long-term retention benefits, but as most helicopter operations are spread out geographically, it is very easy to get isolated and perhaps this ‘being part of a team’ concept is part of the attraction to the airlines other than the obvious (long term higher pay and benefits) we must learn to compete in areas where we can, and pay – while substantially better than it’s ever been for a helicopter pilot – won’t be able to compete over a 20-year flying career with that of an airline captain.
Looking forward with hope
On a positive note, now is a fantastic time to become a helicopter pilot. If nothing else, this shortage will create opportunities for advancement, freedom to relocate to preferred venues of operation, upgrades to newer, larger equipment and a rapid career advancement never before seen in this industry. Collectively, we need to nurture the future pilots and student pilots entering the field, and equally as importantly, we need a viable strategy to retain our experienced helicopter drivers where they are and capitalise on their expertise to groom the next generation of professional and safety oriented rotorheads.
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of AirMed&Rescue