Helicopters Magazine

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Armstrong: An Ongoing Dilemma

April 2, 2008  By Ken Armstrong

Solving the Helicopter Pilot Surplus/Shortage

Canada has a significant surplus of trained helicopter pilots but our industry has a severe shortage of same. Say what? Although many student pilots have put their savings and time on the line to obtain the very expensive rotary-wing rating, many of them are finding it impossible to find jobs. This seems absurd in an industry starving for pilots as expensive helicopters sit grounded due to a lack of aircrew.  How could this be?

The first culprit is the underwriting industry that effectively surcharges insurance premiums on low-time pilots, making them unattractive to operators who in effect have to pay extra to hire relatively inexperienced pilots. Truth to tell, it’s difficult to blame the insurance companies who are simply attempting to manage risk – however, it may be time to re-evaluate their premiums with some industry co-operation on tasking limitations for new hires.

A prime cause of this mess lies with many of the provincial forestry management teams and oil companies that demand unreasonably high experience levels of their charter pilots. These organizations have not honestly acknowledged that experienced high-timers are retiring from the industry and that the shortage of crews is critical. While one can understand their position of setting high experience limits to theoretically increase safety margins for their personnel, they are destroying the industry that supports them and the end result is that many operations will lose the rotary-wing support they desperately need as the pilot shortage reaches meltdown proportions.

Operators must also bear blame for sometimes sending relatively inexperienced pilots out on overly challenging missions. This high-risk activity to cover a job benefits no one if an accident ensues. Finally, the novice pilots need to assess their safety practices and thereby reduce their accident rates.


As an accident investigator/expert witness, I commonly observe pilots flying in a manner that violates a broad spectrum of procedures and safety considerations and it appears at times we have learned nothing in the way of safety culture since the 1960s. Safety is an attitude, and our industry needs to employ those who operate in a mature manner and run off those who risk the lives and property of others. Retaining a risky pilot to fill a slot is of no benefit to the
industry or its clientele.

Operators need to work with organizations such as forestry and oil companies to determine the risk in various ventures and utilize low-time pilots on those tasks that do not exceed beginning pilots’ judgment or skill levels. Operators must also stress that new pilots must follow the letter of the law as it relates to gross weight, C of G, and  weather – to name a few. These clients almost always respect and treasure a pilot who declines a trip because it is too dangerous. These pilots must not develop an attitude that they are out to prove they are as good as anyone else – that concept is not provable and generally leads to accidents.

Typically, entry-level pilots are young men and women who bring personal attributes to the industry such as innovation, state-of-the-art training in developing technology, an eagerness to learn and please customers, and a willingness to adapt to changes. Still others are middle-aged, starting a new life after very successful careers in other fields. They can bring different approaches and management skills to the industry. Those of us who are “crispy critters” generally don’t excel at these characteristics. Many of us believe we already know it all and aren’t overly open to change – i.e., advances. The novices possess a willingness to learn and are more adaptable and resilient to long duty hours and challenging sleeping conditions in camp environments.  For forestry, oil industry and other clients, they are amenable to changing methods and to new safety regimes, and in many instances may well be safer than high-time pilots with aging physiology – many of whom are getting out of touch with system changes.

The industry should work with clients and crews to increase safety and reduce required crew experience while selectively placing low-time pilots in less challenging tasks. Otherwise, insurance companies will lose premiums, operators will lose revenue and clients will lose production when the lack of pilots grounds helicopters. (A lose-lose-lose situation). How about it? Are we prepared to work toward a solution for the mutual benefit of all?

With thanks to Charlotte McGill of Aberdeen Helicopters Ltd., who asked me to address this topic in an article.


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