It has never been easy to break into our industry for low-time pilots. “You need experience, to get experience” is the old adage – and it has never been truer. As long as I can remember, in our industry, there has been a shortage of experienced helicopter pilots.
It used to be, that your first flying job meant that you would work around the hangar until a suitable job came up (one that was in-keeping with your skill and experience levels) – and sometimes we even stretched that principle. Early in my career, I can remember getting instruction from two firefighters on the assembly and use of a drip torch. You had to be patient, but once you started flying, and the fires started to burn, you could find yourself at the end of your first season with a few hundred hours. Now, young pilots could find themselves on the dispatch desk for two or three seasons before they even start to accumulate any significant time. It has become an endurance contest for new commercial pilots.
What’s more, now customers impose their own experience and flight time requirements on operators through their contracts – and operators are more careful about complying with those requirements. It is no longer just about matching the job to the skill level of the individual pilot. The discretion of the operator to assign a pilot based on their knowledge of his/her experience has been diminished, in favour of a system where the customer can arbitrarily impose a minimum experience requirement. Operators are compelled to assign a 3,000-hour pilot to a timber cruising contract or a duck survey contract – jobs that were ideally suited to building time for young pilots. No heavy loads, no tight confined areas.
Here is some advice for young pilots:
- Hone your interview skills and highlight the areas of your non-aviation experience, so you can be useful to the operator while you are waiting for the opportunity to fly to arise. That may mean emphasizing your IT skills, or your administrative skills, or your mechanical skills; or your sales experience; or your living and working experience in a remote environment, for example. Ask the operator if they have any structured program for the integration of low-time pilots
- Overhaul your resume to make it stand out from a pile of resumes – what skills can you bring to the company that you are applying to? Were you a firefighter? Were you a driller? Have you worked in a camp environment, before?
- Focus less on what the company can do for you and more on what you can do for the company
- Give yourself up to the fact that you may spend extended periods of time in the Hinterland – embrace the prospect. The commercial helicopters industry does most of its work in some of the most remote locations in Canada
- Give yourself up to the fact that there may be periods of time when you are disconnected from your friends – even today, there are some camps without Internet service
- Visit with the companies that are high prospects. There is still no substitute for meeting with operators face-to-face
- Learn to recognize the most common types and models of helicopters – yes, you may need flash cards . . .
- Attend the HAC convention (we have a student rate) or the HAI convention, and arrange in advance, to meet with Canadian operators
- Avoid forming long-term romantic relationships during the early years of your time in the industry (sorry). Following a gypsy is not nearly as romantic as it sounds, I was informed . . .
- Use (in the best possible way) all the contacts you have in the helicopter community
- If you have not already decided to pursue a career in the helicopter industry – and even if you have – this spring attend the Careers in Aviation Expo in Toronto (April 9) or Calgary (May 14) http://www.careersinaviation.ca/expo/
Fred Jones is the president/CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada and a regular contributor to Helicopters magazine.