Are We Training Pilots Right?

Randy Rowles 2019 Winter

It is no secret that the helicopter industry is experiencing a shortage of ­qualified pilots. Pilot recruitment has become a “let’s make a deal” scenario, pitting employers against potential pilot employees.

How did the pilot employment market shift so strongly toward the job applicant? There are many factors driving this change.

Facing a similar pilot shortage, the airline industry has found helicopter pilots to be the low-hanging fruit they desperately need to fill their recruiting quotas. While bad news for helicopter operators, this opportunity was welcomed by many helicopter pilots, as the long-term benefits of an airline pilot career often outweigh those of a similarly experienced and tenured helicopter pilot. Predictable scheduling and the ability of a somewhat normal lifestyle with family and friends is often more attainable as a career airline pilot.

This leaves the helicopter industry in an extremely difficult position. We must change how we recruit, train, employ, and engage newly minted helicopter pilots.

Yes, change is hard. But we have no choice if we want different results. A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, something we as an industry are guilty of.

The financial debt a civilian-trained individual will incur in pursuit of a helicopter pilot career is staggering. In many cases, helicopter pilot training programs cost in excess of $85,000 to $125,000, with the only litmus test to being qualified to receive training is your personal credit score. Do we want to attract the best and the brightest to the cockpit or the folks with the biggest wallets?

Helicopter operators must become more involved in shaping early pilot training. According to Federal Aviation Regulations, helicopter pilots with 500 hours total, 100 hours cross-country, and 25 of those flight hours at night can be pilot-in-command of a VFR helicopter operating under Part 135. However, this scenario is very rarely exercised. In fact, there’s no reason why that number of flight hours couldn’t be reduced from 500 to a more reasonable 300, based on the proficiency of the applicant and mission requirements.

Spoiler alert: it’s not the insurance industry imposing these limitations. It is often an operator’s clients who determine pilot flight-hour requirements. As an industry, we need to step in and create meaningful, relevant criteria for evaluating pilot experience and ability.

The FAA should reexamine its policies on simulation training and remove hour limitations that blindly favor actual aircraft flight hours versus simulated flight hours. Simulation, even on relatively inexpensive flight training devices, delivers excellent training opportunities that cannot be safely duplicated in an actual aircraft.

Operators need to evaluate pilot applicants based on their proficiency in flight and their ability to exercise positive aeronautical decision-making. Instead, we’re still using the same antiquated flight-hour metrics. These don’t tell the real story of a pilot’s qualifications and worse, they drive training costs to a level that many desirable pilot applicants just can’t afford.

Folks, a lot of the reasons limiting the pool of qualified helicopter pilots are coming from inside the house! It’s not the airlines, technology, or even those often-blamed millennials. Our inability to change—or disinterest in changing—the way we train and mentor our pilots is the single most detrimental issue standing in the way of a helicopter industry that will be viable for years to come.

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