By Staff Writer | January 1, 2008
Regarding your Eye on Maintenance column, I offer this to qualify my opinion ("Bristow Takes on a Big Bias," November 2007, page 58). Helicopters are my passion. I started receiving Rotor & Wing in 1975. I received my bachelor’s degree in aviation maintenance management and my airframe and powerplant mechanic’s license in 1984. I attended a university in southern Illinois whose aviation maintenance program was highly recommended to me by Petroleum Helicopters’ then-head of maintenance. It was, at that time, the only FAA A&P school with a two-year Helicopter Theory and Maintenance course. (Other schools had maybe a two-week course or possibly helicopters were "mentioned" in their curriculum.) The staff and curriculum were top-notch. Many instructors were Vietnam veterans, ex-manufacturer reps, and experienced helicopter mechanics.
After graduation, I worked for Sikorsky and McDonnell Aircraft in their logistic support divisions. Since 1991, I’ve been an airframe and engine overhaul aviation maintenance technician for a major airline.
I earned my degree to expand my opportunities. I earned my A&P license to embrace my passion. However, the realities of life soon took hold and I had to make a decision. Do I work for a helicopter operator and receive little pay and hardly any benefits or work for a major defense contractor for better pay, benefits, and working conditions? Do I work for a major airline and receive relatively great pay, benefits, working conditions, and flight privileges? Hmmm.
It’s true many A&P schools "miss the boat" on helicopter maintenance. But it is not because helicopters are viewed as obsolete or rudimentary technology. It is the nature of the helicopter; it requires much money to maintain and operate.
Most operators barely function "in the black." Pilots, parts, manufacturer rework, and insurance are expensive. There is little money left over for the overworked, underappreciated, yet highly dedicated mechanic.
I enthusiastically applaud Bristow’s initiative to tour U.S. A&P schools with its equipment. Other operators should take note. But aviation maintenance students today are more industry-savvy. Operators are going to have to make a more concerted effort and offer better incentives to lure them. I am a dyed-in-the-wool rotorhead. Show me a helicopter and I am a happy man. However, life requires making a living and today’s helicopter mechanics barely make enough to live.
Regarding Ernie Stephens’ column, I’m a pilot for a small law enforcement agency that barely survives with surplus and used equipment ("Are We Losing Our Support?, November 2007, page 56). We have a combined aviation unit with the county sheriff’s office, which works well for us. We are lucky to have what we do, considering the size of our agencies and budgets. We do get great support from our agencies and they give us everything they are able to. When tax revisions put a giant hole in our budget, the chief had to compile a list of possible cuts to make ends meet. He did so with the input of our agency commanders. None suggested aviation even be put on the list. This was not always the case here.
Now, we do not have a shiny new helicopter. But I know if the agency could, it would buy us one. I credit this to a few things, none of which I think you will find revolutionary:
Marketing — We are always talking to our guys, educating them on what we can and can’t do and why. We offer up our stats. We ask what they need from us, and follow up with officers after calls to see how they felt about the service we provided. We show up at the stations regularly to make sure we don’t become faceless names on the radio.
Few levels of supervision — We report directly to a captain, who reports directly to the chief.
Work — We try to fly as much as possible. And like your article on proactive patrolling, we try to always be doing something, even just showing up on traffic stops ("Proactive Patrolling," September 2007, page 60.) When a guy radios, "Thanks Air One, I’m 10-77 (under control)," we know he’s happy with our service. We also try to schedule our shifts and plan our patrol flights for when we are needed most. Having a good callout plan has helped a lot. too. Making sure someone is always available to respond to a call that is bad enough to call out an aircrew makes a huge difference.
Finally, we take the tactical flight officer job seriously. In some places, TFOs are considered second-class citizens and the job’s complexity is not given proper respect. It is incredibly tough and requires substantial training and experience. You can’t simply throw a patrol officer in the left seat and blast off. The best equipment, a brand-new helicopter, and an incredible pilot are all for nothing without a competent TFO.
We do spend a lot of time training our TFOs. We have full-time TFOs, with several backups who are not allowed to fly unless they are current per the chief TFO. They find bad guys and lost people and provide patrol with every bit of info they could want from us. That makes the guys on the ground happy with us. That makes it up the food chain to the big cheeses.
I know a lot of aviation units are doing the same, and probably more, and still experience poor support. In short, things are going good here as far as support goes. Now, if we could just get a bigger budget!
Officer Bryan Smith
Gainesville Police Dept.
Joint Aviation Unit
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