Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Pilot Training Peaks

These are good times for Canada’s helicopter flight schools.


July 6, 2007
By James Careless

Topics

These are good times for Canada’s helicopter flight schools. In fact,
when you factor in strong student enrollment and the number of jobs
available in oil & gas, mining, and corporate transport, “It’s the
best I’ve seen in 25 years,” says Cathy Cress. She is chief flight
instructor at Chinook Helicopters in Abbotsford, BC.

Ironically,
the good times are putting serious strains on Canada’s helicopter
flight schools. In particular, they are scrambling to find enough
instructors, and trying to hold the line on tuition fees in the face of
rising operating expenses.


WHAT’S DRIVING THE BOOM?

As
helicopters win increasing acceptance in the natural resource,
corporate transport and government/emergency sectors, it makes sense
that more pilots would be needed to fly them. “There’s a shortage of
experienced pilots,” says Jeff Sullivan, president and chief flight
instructor at Helicopters Canada in North Bay, Ontario. “The shortage
is due to the fact that a lot of pilots are coming to the end of their
careers and are retiring,” he explains. “There was a big hiring spree
in the industry in the early 1970s. Now those people who came in then
are leaving, and new pilots are needed to replace them.”

Private
pilot students are also increasing the rolls at National Helicopters in
Kleinburg, Ontario, just north of Toronto. “Many businesspeople in
southern Ontario are training to be pilots, and then buying their own
private aircraft,” says Andrew Dunt, National’s chief flight
instructor. “We have National grads who own R44s, JetRangers, and even
two that have bought Eurocopter EC120s.”

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International students
are being trained as commercial pilots in Chinook Helicopters’ Robinson
R22, R44, and Bell 206 instructional aircraft. Chinook is teaching
international students from Azerbaijan, Thailand and Nigeria.

“Companies
such as Canadian Helicopter Corporation are required to hire a number
of domestic personnel when they set up in other countries,” says Cathy
Cress. “In turn, they send those students to companies such as Chinook
here in Canada for training.”

One would expect Canadian
helicopter schools to capitalize on the current lack of pilots by
churning out as many as they can as fast as they can.

However,
that’s not what’s happening. For one thing, tuition costs $40,000 or
more, Dunt says. For another, the 100 hours of flight time accumulated
by graduate commercial pilots is not enough to suit many potential
employers.

“Most jobs require 1,000 hours’ minimum flight time,”
Dunt explains. “This makes it impossible for new pilots with 100 hours
to get hired for work such as fighting fires or aerial construction. As
a result, new pilots have to start by performing entry-level jobs. They
have to be prepared to spend a year on the ground working for a
company. Or they have to do something else during the winter months,
and then take another shot at getting into the industry next summer.”

Meanwhile,
the market’s demand for experienced pilots “is making it hard to keep
instructors,” says Cress. “We could be teaching more students if there
were more instructors available.”

To cope with the lack of
instructors, helicopter flight schools have devised some clever and
practical solutions. At National, “most of our instructors are drawn
from our own graduates,” says Dunt. “Once they graduate, we select the
best of them to work for us.

“They start on the ground, so that
we can assess which ones have the drive and motivation to go further.
The motivated ones gradually move up to flight work, until they’ve got
enough hours to go for their instructors’ licences.”

Meanwhile,
at GFT Aerospace Technologies in Gander, Newfoundland, “I don’t use
Canadian pilots as instructors,” says president and CEO Patrick White.
Instead, he hires pilots from other countries to teach GFT’s students,
with “Norway being an especially good source.”

The reason GFT
looks abroad for teachers is not due to an anti-Canadian bias. In fact,
White would be happy to hire Canadian pilots as instructors, but the
Transport Canada requirement for them to have 250 hours of flying time
makes it difficult for him to do so.

“If someone has accumulated
250 hours, then they must already have a job in the industry,” White
explains. “Helicopter flight schools only take you to the 100-hour
mark, so the only way to get the next 150 hours is to work for someone.
There’s no other way to do it, because paying for flight time yourself
is just too expensive. For us to attract a Canadian pilot with 250
hours’ experience, we have to convince them to acquire their
instructor’s licences, then quit their current job to join us. We also
have to pay them the same amount of money or more.”

Add the fact
that many Canadians are unwilling to locate to Newfoundland, and it’s
just easier for GFT to hire non-Canadian pilots. “They work in the US
for two years, then their visas expire and they come work with us for
two years,” says White. “After that, many of them go on to get jobs in
Canada. Given that there’s a shortage of trained pilots here, it’s a
win-win for everyone.”


MORE CHALLENGES

In addition to coping with prosperity, Canada’s helicopter flight schools have other issues to contend with.

“The
biggest challenge of running a flight school is dealing with the
operating costs,” says Jeff Sullivan. “Fuel is costly, insurance rates
are high, and equipment is expensive as well.”

The only good
news in this regard is that “the rising Canadian dollar has helped
lower some of our costs,” Cress says. “For us, our major challenges are
cash flow and the weather,” says Joanne Leyburne, sales and marketing
manager at Great Lakes Helicopter in Kitchener, Ontario. “Still, we see
ourselves expanding in the near term, by adding another R22 to our
fleet in the new year.”

Many of the helicopter flight schools
that spoke with Helicopters Magazine are also looking at expanding
their operations. The reason is that the combined forces of increased
market demand and pilot retirement bode well for these schools’
prospects.

Looking ahead, “I think things will keep going
booming as long as the economy remains strong,” says Sullivan.
“Actually, I foresee the next five to ten years as looking really good.”


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