Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
The Elusive Search

July 18, 2011  By Michael Bellamy

A young man strides through the hangar door looking for the chief pilot, a hopeful smile on his face. In his hand, he carries a bundle of photocopied resumés.

A young man strides through the hangar door looking for the chief pilot, a hopeful smile on his face. In his hand, he carries a bundle of photocopied resumés. It’s a scene repeated time and time again across Canada, as newly minted helicopter pilots embark on a campaign for that first job.

At the beginning of the job search, expectations are always high – and for good reason. Flight schools often encourage new recruits with predictions of high demand, and articles they have devoured in aviation magazines may support this sentiment.

But reality is not so benevolent. After numerous rejections, many may seriously consider returning to their old jobs and shelving the dream, at least for a while. Too often, basic flying skills are left to languish, awaiting a better time, or are never practised again. The licence that was achieved occasionally bears witness to the fact that this once eager job seeker was also at one time a helicopter pilot.

With commercial helicopter operations in Canada, there is no shallow end of the pool that new pilots can wade into to gain experience. Management has to be supremely confident in a pilot’s abilities, before entrusting them with the company’s reputation and, more importantly, the lives of passengers. So, how then do you outfit that 100-hour pilot with the skills to survive in this competitive and demanding industry?


Many helicopter firms have been burned in the past when it comes to training new pilots. Seeing promise in a low-time candidate, they may have invested considerable money in training that candidate, only to watch helplessly as the competition lures them away, capitalizing on someone else’s foresightedness.

Such firms can’t be blamed for venturing down this avenue. After all, they’ve heard the promises before and are hesitant to invest in a candidate when there is such poor chance for a return. And besides, there still exists a ready supply of mature pilots with skills in place.

Candidates with above-average knowledge in computer programming, or electronics, may find themselves employed with a particular company, but not in the profession they had first anticipated. With the enthusiasm and optimism of youth, however, they will try any task where they can put their new skills to use – and in the process, establish a reputation with the company. Once this is satisfied, the expectation is for a “Pilot Proficiency Check” and their name appearing on the pilot roster.

On a recent indoctrination to Great Slave Helicopters in Yellowknife, I was very impressed to see that management has instituted what they refer to as their “HOC” (helicopter operations co-ordinator) program. The program enables newly licensed pilots to do yeoman duties while learning about the industry from the ground up. These pilots are providing valuable service: flight following, courier duties, maintaining sling gear and all manner of preparing aircraft for the next dispatch.

The HOC program enables pilots to develop important skills before they venture close to the big money seat. The program also lets them witness the happiness and loyalty other employees develop.

The HOC program also benefits supervisors, providing them the opportunity to evaluate real-world scenarios the new pilot may be exposed to, be they in-the-field situations or demanding customers. Other firms, large and small, likely have similar programs, and they’re all a terrific benefit for younger pilots – even if all they can provide is a tour of their operation, a coffee and encouragement. After all, pilots are not born with 5,000 hours to their credit.

A new generation of pilots is entering a world that is much different from the one I, or many of my older colleagues, were exposed to. Modern helicopters have more capability and are more reliable, and customers now generally opt for a machine that will exceed their requirements rather than just meet them. The industry is immersed in safety criteria generated from myriad sources. Most are informed and constructive, while others are based on specious knowledge – but all are obligatory and here to stay. Gaining flight experience in this environment makes it a lot easier to adapt to and accept change.

For all of the new pilots reading this, please don’t give up. Somewhere, there is a job with your name on it. Prepare yourself as much as you can, and remember, “The helicopter is not a shady lady – she just works in a tough neighbourhood.”

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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