Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Size Shouldn’t Matter

There is a tendency, among aircrew, to equate helicopter size with pilot competency and experience. The same can be said for customer perception. The assumption goes, the bigger the helicopter, the greater the accumulation of pilot expertise at the controls. And because of this, pilots of heavier machines usually receive a greater amount of respect from other aircrew and customers.


May 3, 2011
By Michael Bellamy

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There is a tendency, among aircrew, to equate helicopter size with pilot competency and experience. The same can be said for customer perception. The assumption goes, the bigger the helicopter, the greater the accumulation of pilot expertise at the controls. And because of this, pilots of heavier machines usually receive a greater amount of respect from other aircrew and customers.

Pilot evolution from lights to intermediates, and then on to mediums in a customer-oriented industry is a necessity for a successful charter operation. However, pilots don’t always follow this sequence as quickly as they may like. The unique skills and expertise they gain in light machines is invaluable though, and perhaps it is time to adjust pay scales and attitudes to reflect this.

Usually a candidate for medium training will have to accumulate in the neighbourhood of 3,000 incident-free hours and have a solid reputation with the operator’s clientele before being considered for the endorsement. Easy to understand, then, why some Jet Ranger and Astar pilots unfortunately regard their current endeavour as a rite of passage to that coveted seat in a bigger helicopter.

During a recent after-hours “there I was” session, an acquaintance who is an ex-military pilot remarked that he went from 200 hours on a Bell 206 right into a Bell 212. Not unusual for a military pilot, as there is nothing in the military roster to fill the gap. However, missing from the pilot equation is the invaluable customer liaison experience that charter pilots gain. Civilian operators, understandably, capitalize on the singular experience of these ex-military pilots and slot them into mediums tasked for VFR, or IFR point-to-point passenger flights. I am not insinuating that military pilots are capable of nothing else.

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However, their training and experience took them down different avenues, and once in the civilian job market, they are reminded very quickly of their experience levels when looking for a job.

Many of the medium seats out there are being grabbed up by retiring military pilots, leaving civilian pilots who have worked long and hard polishing bush skills and customer relations feeling a bit snubbed. The reality is, you may be flying a light or intermediate, but the skills you’ve developed are of immeasurable value to your customers and your employer.

The charter pilot has to be able to adapt, safely, to tacit pressures without compromising his or her best judgment and expertise at the controls. Customers can be very disparaging if they feel the pilot is deliberating too long when assessing a confined area or even worse, wasting money on a protracted slow approach. Management does not relieve the pilot of responsibility even when the machine is on the ground, expecting decisions that satisfy not only safety but also the bottom line. (For example, overreacting to a malfunction by landing a machine in an inaccessible location, (compounding the return-to-service costs) does not gain you points).

Not To Be Discounted
I once witnessed a Jet Ranger pilot quietly join a group of relaxing medium drivers at a fire camp. When asked what he was flying, he self-effacingly nodded towards his Jet Ranger. “Just a jet box,” he replied. I was perturbed by his deference. Here was a pilot tasked with transporting fire services personnel in and out of unprepared sites to survey new staging areas and pumping sources. What he accomplished day after day at the controls of that 206 needn’t have taken a back seat to any of the medium drivers in the group. Management expected him to fly as many hours as possible, provide the client with safe transportation, and on top of that, keep his machine clean and presentable at all times. Yet, he still felt that he had to apologize for the fact that he was only flying a light.

Light and intermediate helicopters are the most prevalent charter machines in the country, yet because of the connotation of size, pilots and engineers dismiss them as befitting a pilot with novice skills. In reality, the reverse holds more truth, and in the helicopter world size shouldn’t matter. For that IFR, multi-engine and medium endorsement, there is always a bank card, but those light to intermediate flying skills in a charter operation – priceless!


A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.


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