Is There a Looming Global Shortage of Helicopter Pilots?
By Matt Callan
The military and commercial fixed-wing communities are experiencing a critical pilot shortage. According to a 2011 International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) study, the commercial air transport industry will need to add 517,000 pilots by the year 2030.
In an article on Patrick Smith’s popular blog, Ask the Pilot, U.S. regional carriers, faced with a crippling shortage of pilots, have been bending over backwards to attract new hires — and to hang on to the pilots they already have. Salaries are soaring, and airlines are offering retention bonuses north of $30,000.
But even with those incentives, recruiting sufficient pilots is a challenge. A 2017 article in Fortune reported that Horizon Air canceled hundreds of flights, while SeaPort Airlines and Republic Airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing pilot shortages as a causal factor.
Of course, these incidents point to a shortage of fixed-wing pilots. What about the helicopter industry? Are we also facing a future where missions will be canceled or put on hold until pilots with the appropriate training and experience are available?
All Indicators Point to Yes
The military trained more helicopter pilots during Vietnam than any other time in military history to date. At the peak of the war, 575 pilots each month graduated from the US Army’s primary helicopter training at Fort Wolters, Texas.
Altogether, the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association estimates that more than 40,000 helicopter pilots served in that war. However, those Vietnam-era helicopter pilots are now either retired or retiring. Direct U.S. military involvement in the war ended in 1973, meaning that the youngest Vietnam-era pilots are now hovering around 65 years of age.
Kenny Keller, the founder of the Helicopter Online Ground School, writes that the retirement of many Vietnam-era pilots has created a shortage in the helicopter air ambulance [HAA] sector. Because of the challenges associated with the mission, that sector in particular requires highly experienced pilots, generally looking for those with more than 2,000 flight hours, instrument training, and turbine time. According to a friend of Keller, “At this time, [HAA operators] do not have enough qualified pilots.”
Looking for some hard data on the helicopter industry to back up this anecdotal evidence? Helicopter Foundation International (HFI), the charitable arm of HAI, has commissioned the University of North Dakota (UND) to conduct a study on staffing projections for rotorcraft pilots and mechanics. The study is scheduled to be completed at the end of March; more information about the study and follow-on work will be announced at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2018 in Las Vegas.
Next Generation of Aviation Professionals
On November 27–28, 2017, I attended the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP) Summit at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) headquarters in Montreal, Canada. The NGAP Summit brought together experts from government, industry, and academia to develop a strategy for meeting the demand for more aviation professionals. Discussions at NGAP recognized some of the inherent problems in attracting millennials to aviation careers.
Aviation as a STEM Career
Exposed to advanced technology from an early age, millennials are attracted to the careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, both because they feel at ease in the technical environment and they see these jobs as growing and future oriented. As a result, many technical firms (think Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Microsoft) are recruiting young people right out of college before they can be introduced to aviation.
Yet piloting is by definition a technical career, and the modern cockpit is full of the latest technology. The helicopter industry needs to do a better job of demonstrating what pilots do, how they do it, and the rewards of the career. We also need to rebrand our industry as a STEM career and raise awareness of its opportunities among young people, educators, and others who promote STEM career opportunities and recruiting.
Awareness of Our Industry
Another roadblock to recruiting more young talent into helicopter aviation is that it’s simply not that well known or understood outside of our industry. How many people can tell you what general aviation (GA) is?
I hope that 100 percent of ROTOR readers would reply, correctly, that GA is all civil aviation outside of scheduled airline operations, but I doubt that many of the general population could define it. And if they can’t define it, they probably don’t know that it is a thriving segment of aviation that in the United States alone generated 1.1 million jobs and $219 billion in economic activity in 2013.
Even within aviation, our industry is sometimes not well represented. Except for my attendance at NGAP as an HAI representative, there was a noticeable absence of engagement with the helicopter community and no mention of the critical shortage of helicopter pilots.
Unfortunately, we are in competition with our fixed-wing brethren for pilots, and so it is unlikely they will solve our problem for us. The rotorcraft industry needs to step up and create our own plan for handling the pilot shortage. The HFI-UND study will be the first step.
The Noise Factor
Noise resulting from aviation operations was mentioned at NGAP as a major factor affecting our industry’s reputation. What was once a source of amazement and awe (think “the sound of freedom”) is now something that tends to deter a young person from seeking us out.
Noise is also a factor in the future sustainability of our industry, as shown by recent attempts — some successful — to limit helicopter operations because of noise complaints. We must pay attention to this issue!
Competition for Talent
Interest in pilot careers among today’s young professionals is waning, and it was interesting to note that a career as a pilot was only one of the many possibilities discussed at NGAP. A list of possible aviation-related occupational areas of interest circulated at the summit included 21 different career fields — everything from aeronautical engineering to university flight instructor.
During breaks at the NGAP Summit, I was fortunate enough to participate in some speed-mentoring sessions where I met with young professionals who showed an interest in aviation. I was highly impressed by their education level and commitment, but interestingly (and unfortunately), not one of the young people I mentored was interested in becoming a pilot. Instead, the young people I spoke to mentioned an interest in aviation law or aviation management. Another spoke of his ambition to become an aerospace engineer. Still others mentioned working for ICAO or as an airplane inspector.
Another major issue affecting the decision to become a helicopter pilot is the large financial investment required. While obtaining a rotorcraft private pilot’s license can cost as little as $15,000, going from zero to 150 hours — the amount needed to obtain a commercial pilot rating — will cost around $80,000.
And while the median annual wage for commercial pilots in 2016 was $77,200, in the short term, new pilots often need to work two jobs to survive while they build their flight hours — after they have already made a substantial investment in their new career in both time and money.
Our industry as a whole needs to review the issue of how pilots enter the industry. Are we welcoming them and easing their path, or erecting hurdles for them to jump over? The recruiting strategies that worked in the early 1970s, when the market was flooded with pilots returning from Vietnam, need to be updated.
On the bright side, here’s some positive developments that may entice new recruits to the helicopter industry:
- Over the long term, the return on a young person’s investment in flight training is bright. Pay as a helicopter pilot is competitive with the rest of the economy, and there is a steady demand.
- Education opportunities are available, including scholarships. In fact, HFI annually offers scholarships for aspiring pilots, as well as maintenance students. For young women looking to join the helicopter industry, organizations such as Women in Aviation International (WAI) and the Whirly Girls have robust scholarship programs for future pilots (and in the case of WAI, for maintainers as well). As women currently make up only 6 percent of helicopter pilots and 2 percent of maintenance technicians, tapping this pool of aviation talent could pay off big.
- Hundreds of high schools and education programs nationwide now include learning tracks for aviation studies in STEM curricula. Unfortunately, less than 1 percent of these programs utilize helicopters as the basis for training. HFI is working to expand the number of high school and postsecondary schools that offer helicopter-specific courses or instruction.
- Numerous college programs discussed during the NGAP summit provide courses leading to college degrees in aviation-related fields. University training is a major contributor to aviation careers and could play a vital role in attracting young professionals to helicopter aviation careers. Given the current importance placed on earning a college degree, our industry should embrace this type of training and include it in typical industry career paths.