How has the helicopter impacted society? How has the airplane impacted society? Today, we will discuss the helicopter uses. Vertical flight has come a long way since Leonardo da Vinci first dreamed up the concept of an “aerial screw” more than five centuries ago.
Modern helicopters are safer, more efficient and more useful than ever before. They operate in harsh and remote environments, fly into tight spots and perform missions that no other type of aircraft could ever accomplish. Helicopters affect our lives in many ways.
How Has The Helicopter Impacted Society
Here are five of them:
When every second counts, first responders and medical professionals count on helicopter air ambulances to transport accident victims and critically ill patients to the hospital. Countless lives have been saved since the first civilian hospital-based helicopter air ambulance service was started in 1972 and Air Ambulance News reports close to 400,000 rotor-wing medical transports a year in the U.S. alone. No one wants to take a medevac flight, but it’s comforting to know they’re available.
You’re safer and more secure thanks to military helicopters flown by defense forces the world over. They’re used to transport troops and supplies, perform search and rescue missions, evacuate wounded and injured service members, serve as airborne command posts, and much more. Military helicopters not only defend the homeland, they’re often deployed to support civilian search and rescue operations on land and at sea and to fly humanitarian missions to help disaster victims.
Helicopters help us discover, produce and preserve the natural resources we use every day. Electric utilities use helicopters in many ways, including the inspection of powerlines in remote areas. Oil and gas companies explore new resources and transport workers to offshore oil rigs with helicopters. Helicopters also carry sophisticated instruments that let forestry and mining companies keep an eye on their resources and assets.
Search and Rescue
Whether it’s the Coast Guard looking for a stranded sailor, a hurricane victim being plucked from a rooftop, the sheriff’s department trying to find a lost child, or a paramedic picking up a hiker with a broken leg, there’s simply no substitute for a helicopter when it comes to search and rescue. Every year thousands of people look to the sky and listen for the comforting “whop whop” of rotor blades when they need a helping hand.
Helicopters are a key tool used in aerial firefighting, especially in remote regions. Smokejumpers can rappel onto the scene of a forest fire or wildfire from a helicopter. But more often helicopters are used to dump water or retardant on the blaze. Some helicopters, called helitankers, use internal tanks while others use buckets suspended beneath the aircraft and filled by dipping them in a nearby body of water. Sometimes helicopters extinguish a fire before ground crews even arrive.
The military pipeline
Ever since the birth of the helicopter industry, the military has played a key role in providing a seemingly never-ending source of well-trained and experienced pilots and mechanics to the commercial sector. The explosion in requirement for helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War ultimately provided many of the leaders of today’s commercial helicopter industry — and it’s the impending retirement of those highly experienced heads that will be felt so keenly over the coming years.
But another shortage in another industry looks set to have an impact on the helicopter industry that’s as unexpected as it is significant. The fixed-wing industry is facing a severe labor shortage of its own, and it has become sufficiently severe for it to look to tap into the helicopter world’s long-standing military pipeline to help meet its demand.
Over the last couple of years, rotorcraft transition programs have sprung up across the U.S. The programs, tailored specifically for military personnel leaving the service with rotary ratings, offer to cover many of their costs to train as fixed-wing pilots — and dangle the proposition of a structured pathway to a lucrative career at the end of the program.
SkyWest Airlines, for example, offers up to $27,500 through tuition reimbursement and bonuses for rotary pilots; GoJet will fund up to $51,000 in fixed-wing training time for military rotor pilots; while Envoy provides up to $23,000 towards transition training and offers a new hire signing bonus of $17,100. And there are many others.
According to UND, three such programs transitioned over 500 military pilots in 2017 alone, with a success rate of 95 percent.
“That is more than enough to justify the cost to the regional airlines,” said Higgins. “It’s increasing, [and] it’ll absolutely have a staggering chilling effect on the number of rotorcraft pilots that are able to enter the commercial industry because the regionals are poaching them. And they’re very successful with them.”
Does this mean more needs to be done in the helicopter industry to ensure pilots leaving the military stick with rotary? Currently, HAI and HFI offer a free military-to-civilian transition workshop at Heli-Expo each year, and they plan to take this workshop on the road in the future. They also offer resources to allow military personnel to figure out the best and easiest method to transition to a life in the commercial industry, said Allison McKay, VP of HFI.
“Airlines have the resources to dedicate towards the promotion of their programs and they really make it easy for those that are transitioning to go right into training, which is paid for, and the guarantee of a job on the other side,” she said. “The Military to Civilian Transition Workshop is designed to highlight why they want to be a pilot and/or a maintenance technician on the rotorcraft side, and there are benefits to our segment of the industry that these workshops are designed to highlight.”
As most operators don’t have the same resources as airlines, HFI is trying to support them and augment their recruiting efforts, McKay added.
“We are going to be launching a pilot recruitment video that’s specific to rotorcraft,” she said. “We already have a maintenance technician recruitment video that’s up on our website. We’re trying to give them some tools that they may not have the ability to produce on their own.”
The rewards offered by a career in the airlines aren’t just appealing to military pilots, of course. For both those getting ready to embark on their careers, and those who have years of experience behind them, the financial carrot offered by the airlines may be enticing. Last September, HAI and HFI held a HeliFutures workshop with a number of HAI members to discuss labor supply issues and how the industry can continue to attract and retain talent.
“If you don’t believe that you can be competitive alone with salary, then you’re going to need to get creative with your benefits,” McKay advised operators. “Identify things that your employees want that are outside of the salary discussion — maybe it’s a student loan or repayment program while they’re working with you, or the hours. See what kind of vacation time they want, start really identifying what benefits your employees really find the most valuable and then start ramping those up.”
For those looking at just getting started in the helicopter industry, the financial disincentives are real. The prospect is typically at least $90,000 on training to get up to a certified flight instructor (CFI) rating and then a long haul to build hours to reach job opportunities in other sectors, without the potential of the bumper paycheck the airlines can offer.
UND’s research on the fixed-wing market — where it costs a lot less to get certifications and ratings — found that prospective pilots make a consumer decision when choosing their career. “They absolutely weigh the risk, which is the cost and time and effort; versus the reward, which is the future employment opportunities,” said Higgins. “If they’re doing it on the fixed-wing side, there’s no doubt they’re going to do the same thing on the rotorcraft side. And . . . the cost of training is staggering, absolutely staggering. I do think that that is a critical problem.”
While he said there is no “magic bullet” solution to this, financing — through scholarships or grants, from either industry or government — is clearly part of the solution. The other is the introduction of a clearly defined career path.
“One thing that we saw on the fixed-wing side that really helped with that risk-reward consumer based model, is if a student, even a relatively new student to the industry, has a path through the industry,” said Higgins.
Bridging the Experience Gap
Attracting new entrants to the industry is one thing; keeping them once they’ve got their pilot’s certificate or license, but don’t have the experience required for many jobs, is quite another.
Dennis Pierce, the owner and founder of Colorado Heli-Ops, a flight training and utility operator based in Denver, Colorado, said he was clearly seeing a lack of “mid-time” pilots in the 1,000- to 2,000-hour range in the industry.
“There’s absolutely a shortage, without a doubt,” he said. “I have operators that call me every other week, or every month and say, ‘I need another pilot — can you find me somebody?’ ”
He pointed to at least a “30 percent” drop of resumes landing on the desks of major operators he had spoken to as an indication of the changing climate in the industry.
“They’re worrying — they’re looking every day for new pilots,” he said. “Part of that is because a lot of pilots are going to the fixed-wing side, because of the offers and benefits and the offer to pay for training. But also people are getting openings all over the industry, because operator A might lose a pilot to operator B, because operator B’s high-time pilot went to the fixed-wing [industry].”
At the Helicopter Association of Canada’s (HAC’s) annual convention in November 2018, an entire session was dedicated to the labor shortage facing the industry.
The busy fire season last summer highlighted the scale of the issue in the country, said HAC president Fred Jones.
“When operators are parking machines because they can’t find drivers for them during the summer months, that’s an indication that it’s already bad,” said Jones. “I gauge it by how many calls I receive in this course of the summer — and this summer was the worst one. I probably received calls from about 25 different operators that were looking for pilots. [They] were looking for experienced pilots, admittedly.”
And therein lies what appears to be the crux of the issue — at least for the time being — for many operators. Whether or not it’s the sharp end of the forecast shortage, a demographic shift is taking place in the helicopter industry as the Baby Boomers retire — and take their decades of experience with them.
“To be clear,” said Jones, “from [HAC’s] perspective: there’s not a shortage of pilots; there’s a shortage of experienced pilots.”
This “experience gap” in the industry was reflected in the comments UND received in the responses to its survey. As one respondent wrote: “The problem with this industry is an oversaturation of jobs that require very high levels of experience, and a major deficit of jobs in which pilots can build that experience.”
Matt Zuccaro, HAI’s president and CEO, agrees that the issue facing the industry today is a shortage of experienced pilots rather than an aggregate number of rated helicopter pilots. He said the industry needs to figure out how to help young people coming in make that transition to more experienced roles. He noted the 1,000-hour level — along with some turbine time — seems to be a key landmark in opening up other opportunities.
“That’s a heck of a commitment . . . to build up to 1,000 hours and get yourself some turbine time, but I would propose that the standards for certain mission profiles really don’t require that much time,” he told Vertical. He said some of the “more controlled environments” in the helicopter industry — such as aerial tourism — would be a good fit for pilots long before they reach that 1,000-hour mark.
“I really don’t see why we can’t be talking of people transitioning into that type of a mission or similar ones, that have a controlled environment with surveillance and oversight and good structure, to be in the 500-hour range,” he said. “That would help everybody, quite frankly.”
Such a lowering of the minimums for operations would require buy-in from operators, customers and insurance underwriters, he noted. But with the rigid structure of a solid safety management system (SMS) and the various other safety protocols in existence in today’s operating environment, he believes it’s possible.
“I’ve seen plenty of absolutely great young pilots who are in that range of 500/750 hours, who have an excellent safety culture, the mature pilot skills, and the technical knowledge to be just as safe as anybody else that’s out there,” he said. “I think we need to rethink this in a more aggressive manner.”
Beating a path
The idea of having a more clearly defined pathway through the industry to help bridge the experience gap has taken concrete form with the launch of various operator-led programs. Dennis Pierce has created one such program for students at Colorado Heli-Ops. He launched Aviation Futures in 2015, in partnership with Black Hills Aerial Adventures, Papillon Airways, Air Evac Lifeteam, PJ Helicopters, Aero Tech Inc., and T&M Aviation.
Under the program, CFIs at Colorado Heli-Ops are eligible to take seasonal flying positions at Black Hills (a helicopter tour company based in Custer, South Dakota) after reaching 500 hours. This allows them to build their commercial flying experience while keeping their instructor jobs at Colorado Heli-Ops. As they hit experience milestones, they can interview for jobs at the other participating operators.
Last year, two of the company’s CFIs alternated two-week shifts at Black Hills and Colorado Heli-Ops. “It helped us by not losing two CFIs, and it helped [Black Hills] by filling one pilot slot,” said Pierce. “This program allows [pilots] to stay, current, operating, flying and it just makes them better pilots. This year we had three people go to Rotorcraft Leasing in the Gulf [of Mexico]. It’s working.”
Another career pathway program — the SkyPath Pilot Program — has been launched by Mark Schlaefli of Sundance Helicopters, an Air Methods subsidiary. The program started in conjunction with flight school Leading Edge Aviation Inc., of Bend, Oregon, and has expanded to include the University of North Dakota’s aerospace program.
A candidate applies for the program through select part 141 partner flight schools, and as the pilot progresses through ratings, they are evaluated for their performance. Once they have reached a level of certification defined by the school, they are interviewed by a panel from Sundance and the flight school. If they’re accepted into the program, the candidate continues through their ratings at the school and eventually, once they’ve become an instructor and after a period of dual time (and once part 135 minimums are met) he or she is eligible for a guaranteed interview with Sundance.
“There’s no such thing as guaranteed jobs in the world, but it is about as close as you get to that,” said Schlaefli. “We should have been, as an operator, directly involved with developing and mentoring new pilots all along. This is something we should have been doing for years.”
There are currently five people in the program from UND, and Schlaefli expects the first SkyPath graduates to arrive with Sundance in spring 2020. He hopes to ultimately bring through 10 to 15 pilots each year through the program.
“If we can do that, then we’re going to have a great supply of qualified people, we can lower minimums, and have increased performance and increased safety — and I think it will do the industry good,” he said.
The program is focused on pilots right now, but Schlaefli aims to broaden it to maintenance technicians; he said the shortage of engineers was actually his biggest concern.
“We just had some discussions with Southern Utah University, who is in a very unique position with their offering a maintenance course, and have actually been successful in having some regulations changed to allow them to develop a rotorcraft specific track for mechanics,” said Schlaefli. “They are going to learn rotorcraft and very specific things [related to rotary-wing maintenance] from the beginning — which I think is huge.”