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The New Frontier

There is a growing tendency from high-profile customers to stipulate increasing pilot-hour requirements from helicopter charter companies.


May 8, 2012
By Michael Bellamy

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There is a growing tendency from high-profile customers to stipulate increasing pilot-hour requirements from helicopter charter companies. These rigid requirements are often the result of aviation consultants who are more familiar with fixed-wing operations, and who, by introducing them, are defeating the very foundation with which they are charged – safe and efficient helicopter operations for the client now and in the future. By increasing the experience level for even the most undemanding charter flights, they are rapidly eliminating future resources as more and more senior pilots look to retirement.

Mandating higher and higher levels of experience satisfies an immediate specious requirement, but also seriously impedes efforts by progressive companies looking ahead to future operations with qualified pilots and engineers. Why would a potential helicopter pilot entertain the thought of investing $60,000 in flight training if they knew that, upon completion, they would be faced with several years of meagre wages and non-flying duties? This is precisely the course we have legislated ourselves into, and if all involved parties cannot reach an accord that satisfies safety concerns and allows younger pilots a chance at a career, then where will future pilots come from?

Newly minted helicopter pilots are never allowed to proceed directly to the captain’s seat in a charter operation. First, the company must be assured he/she has the right attitude, work habits and familiarity with helicopter operations even before flying skills are assessed. This doesn’t happen overnight, and even when the candidate has met with universal approval from all company departments, will the company be confident enough to invest in flight training? I have witnessed a low-time non-flying pilot so versed in a particular client’s operation that he provided recently arrived experienced pilots with a comprehensive briefing necessary to complete the job. But only when this knowledge and commitment to company endeavours is in place will advancement to flight training begin.

Never is there a more apt pupil than a pilot who has spent the past year or more with the hopes and aspirations of what’s next – he/she never loses sight of the dangling carrot. Of course, it would be difficult for them to do so, anyway, given the ever-increasing regimen of exams completed, flight training undergone and assessments endured. These newly minted pilots soon become immersed in the company culture and only when this happens, will management be comfortable in assigning to the beginners.

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But now, introduce a consultant’s arbitrary requirement that all pilots – regardless of the task – must have attained 1,500 hours of flight experience. This stipulation includes nothing to highlight pertinent experience, the company’s comprehensive training, or its continuous assessment. It’s simply an autocratic stipulation based on specious knowledge and is often contrary to the very passenger’s recommendation that will be riding with that pilot in the first place.

Not so many years ago, field operatives representing major companies had a reference book that contained helicopter companies approved by the contracted consultant. This reference manual assured them that all government and company standards were in place for a particular company and patronage was left to the end user based on their past experience and familiarity. When a newer pilot was offered up for a particular task, the representative was consulted and only with the client’s approval was the pilot assigned. The advantages were numerous. For example, the pilot was flying with an experienced helicopter operator able to provide him with pertinent landing site information and so on. With this amenable procedure, a neophyte could safely be kept on track garnering that now-mandated experience.

So, what happened to eliminate a field representative’s authority? Was there a serious safety infraction that mandated a change? How are experience levels to be gained if draconian rules are put in place eliminating the very processes by which companies can hope to meet higher and higher standards?

In the past number of years, it appears consultants have evolved into adversarial combatants sanctifying ever-stricter requirements on the premise of safety with no thought as to the eventual consequences. Aviation safety consultants, clients and charter companies directly involved in helicopter operations should be seeking an accord to discuss the looming pilot shortage – not making it more difficult for young pilots to get into the profession in the first place. Once this attitude shift occurs, then, and only then, will pilot requirements be met and safety standards upheld.


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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