Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Industry Catch-22: Operators Search for Solutions

The global shortage of experienced helicopter pilots continues to bite into the industry, with Canadian operators suffering along with everybody else. In response, operators here are ramping up their efforts to find experienced help wherever they can. Unfortunately, they have yet to find a quick fix to this very serious problem – and one may not exist.


May 27, 2008
By James Careless

Topics
catch1
Until the new
generation of helicopter pilots accumulate enough flight hours to
satisfy everybody, the global shortage of helicopter pilots will
continue. (Photo by Chris Bernard)

The global shortage of experienced helicopter pilots continues to bite into the industry, with Canadian operators suffering along with everybody else. In response, operators here are ramping up their efforts to find experienced help wherever they can. Unfortunately, they have yet to find a quick fix to this very serious problem – and one may not exist.

Why the Shortage?
For decades, the baby boomers have been the helicopter industry’s main source for experienced pilots, many of whom gained their hours in combat missions in Vietnam. But now the boomers are reaching retirement age, and there just isn’t a similarly sized generation of younger pilots standing by to replace them.

Ironically, there are lots of new pilots graduating from flight schools. But since they usually only have 100 or so flight hours under their belts, most customers don’t want to fly with them.

“It’s the old Catch-22 situation,” says Randy Simonneau, chairman of the Helicopter Association of Canada and director of operations for Heliqwest Aviation in Edmonton. “Pilots come out of school with their government-issued commercial licences and 100 flight hours, but don’t have enough hours to meet minimum requirements for insurance or potential clients. Without 1,000 or more flight hours logged, these pilots cannot ease the current shortfall. So we’re stuck.”

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The result is an ongoing squeeze on the helicopter industry. While young pilots try to find work somewhere so that they can rack up precious flight hours, operators are hard-pressed to keep their existing fleets flying. In fact, Helicopters magazine learned of one helicopter carrier that, although not wanting to be interviewed, confirmed it had sold some aircraft rather than fly them with less-experienced pilots.

catch2
One path to ease the
shortage of experienced pilots (that is being met with resistance) is
to reduce the number of flight hours required for certain tasks. (Photo
by Chris Bernard)

What Can Be Done?
As business people, helicopter operators understand the law of supply and demand. In this instance, the supply of experienced pilots is small, while the demand is large and ever-growing. As a result, operators have to do what they can to attract the attention of potential employees in any way they can.

Some, like Great Slave Helicopters in Yellowknife, seek new talent the way they always have. “We’ve been having challenges finding pilots since we started in 1982,” says company president Adam Bembridge. “We use conventional recruiting methods to find our people, and there’s always lots of competition for good pilots.”

Great Slave tries to offset its pilot shortage by training new pilots at its own school, then grooming outstanding graduates for eventual high-end work through post-graduation employment and more flight hours. “This helps us find good people locally,” Bembridge says.

The same is true at Helicopter Transport Services in Carp, Ont. “We bring in new pilots and have them work as ground crew for the first year,” says Murray Vhaslock, the company’s operations manager. “After that, they are assessed by a senior pilot. The ones who are assessed positively start flying basic missions, building up their hours and experience under our supervision. From these people, we eventually get a few experienced pilots that we can count on.”

Other operators are looking outside of Canada for new talent, and they are finding it. “We advertise all over the world for pilots, and attract them here from out of the country,” says Bill Karman, president, operations manager and chief pilot at Kluane Helicopters in Haines Junction, Yukon. “We’re looking for guys that I don’t have to babysit, who do their paperwork and keep their machines clean. We’ve done well; we have crews from outside Canada who come back every year to fly for us.”

catch3
Pilots come out of school with their government-issued commercial licences and 100 flight hours, but don’t have enough hours to meet minimum requirements for insurance or potential clients.


“Heliqwest recruits experienced pilots from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe,” says Simonneau. “Bringing non-Canadians into the country does require jumping through some immigration hoops. But the government is proving to be cooperative, because they know about the shortage. So we don’t experience serious delays in getting work permits and other documentation for these pilots. Better yet, those under 25 qualify for student visas, which are easier to obtain.”

Finally, some carriers are targeting experienced pilots already at work in Canada with high wages, benefits, and good working conditions. “Our pay is up to the industry standard, and we offer comprehensive benefits to our employees,” says Great Slave’s Bembridge. “We also have employee-owned aircraft programs, which is a real incentive for many pilots.”

“We offer our pilots a three weeks on/three weeks off schedule,” says Chad Calaiezzi, operations manager for Expedition Helicopters in Cochrane, Ont. “This works well for us, since most guys don’t want to spend more than three weeks in the bush at a time. As a result, we’ve been able to build a roster of 20 pilots to fly our 11 helicopters.”

Possible Futures
Until the new generation of helicopter pilots accumulate enough flight hours to satisfy everybody, the global shortage of helicopter pilots will continue. This shortage will restrict the industry’s ability to serve its clients, likely resulting in higher per-hour rates being charged by operators trying to survive, and less helicopter use by companies not wanting to pay these rates. (“We are going to have to up our rates by a few hundred dollars an hour, in order to pay our pilots a decent wage and keep them,” says Bill Karman.) In this way, the law of supply and demand will ultimately start to balance the situation, until the current crunch eases.

Unfortunately, such a “resolution” will definitely hurt the Canadian helicopter industry by limiting its growth and driving potential clients elsewhere. That’s bad news for operators and new pilots who manage to reach the 1,000-hour mark, only to find that the jobs are no longer out there.

Is another path possible? Some say “yes,” namely by reducing the number of flight hours required for certain tasks, so that new pilots could start covering some of the shortage without compromising flight safety. “We’ve got to be able to bring low-time fellows into the industry,” says Kluane’s Karman. “It’s the only way to start easing the shortage that we’re all faced with.”

However, this last tactic is running into a lot of resistance. “The problem is that there are a lot of self-professed “industry experts” – really unaccredited auditors – who keep convincing their clients to raise the bar on minimum flight hours,” Simonneau says. “There are pilots with specialized skills who may only have a few hundred hours on their resumé, but have become expert at certain tasks – good enough to do the job safely at most levels. Yet we can’t use them, because their clients have been told that they shouldn’t.” He adds that some operators are making clear to their clients that they either fly with competent pilots with fewer hours for some jobs, or they won’t get to fly at all.

Will this tactic work? Chris Bernard, chief pilot at Abitibi Helicopters in Calgary, is skeptical. “The oil and gas industry has gotten together to get tough on minimum hours,” he says. “They understand what we are going through, but they are also focused on safety more than ever. For instance, Shell is looking at requiring twin-engine helicopters, newer types, with dual experienced pilots.”

One thing is certain: Unless something changes – or is changed by government – Canada’s helicopter industry will continue to be stifled by the pilot shortage that dogs the world. That’s bad news for operators, customers, and the new generations of pilots currently building up their flight hours.



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