When you think about it, the helicopter industry is truly amazing. Especially when you consider how many of today’s mega-service-providers started out as “one ship” operations. Take Era Group, for example. The company was started in 1948 when an adventurous young pilot named Carl Brady started Economy Helicopters and brought a Bell 47A to Alaska to provide aerial mapping services to the U.S. government. The success of that initial venture led Brady to expand to support the region’s growing petroleum industry. And the rest, as they say, is helicopter industry history.
Today, as a subsidiary of Seacor Holdings, Era Helicopters is a leader in the operation, support and training for helicopters and crews supporting a variety of land based and offshore industries around the world. The company is proud of the fact that they hold the oldest standing Part 135 helicopter air carrier certificate in the U.S.
While the company has grown from a single Bell 47A to a global fleet of some 170 helicopters, one thing hasn’t changed—the company’s commitment to training pilots to be able to make good decisions that ensure the safety of those they serve.
Back in Mr. Brady’s day, “training” was whatever you did in the past 15 minutes that you could reuse in the next 15 minutes. But, to have any future on-the-job-training and helicopters just don’t mix.
So, as you might surmise, it wasn’t long before the rapid growth and expansion of the business meant that Era’s leaders decided that they had to make training a core part of the company’s expanding business model.
“Training has always been a primary effort. From a regulatory perspective it’s not a choice, but Era has always placed an exceptionally high value on quality training beyond the regulations,” explained Randy Rowles, vice president/general manager of the training center. “Management really started getting an idea to grow our training offerings when they realized it wasn’t just us who needed quality training.”
One of the major contributors to the company’s decision to jump into the training business with both feet was the availability of cost-effective simulators in the helicopter industry. Era Training Center opened its dedicated training center in Lake Charles, La. in 2008. Highlighting the center were new Frasca International flight training devices (FSTD) for the Eurocopter AS350B2 and EC135.
While the company knew that these new simulators were critical to providing the best training possible for their in-house pilots and maintainers, they actually had even bigger plans in mind.
“Like any good helicopter company, you just don’t acquire an asset and not try to produce some additional revenue from it,” Rowles said. “So they built the capability to offer training to pilots outside the company, into the Training Center’s operating portfolio.”
Today, the Era Training Center is the only operator-owned training facility in the Gulf of Mexico region to hold an FAA Part 142 training certificate. The facility does not only provide training for Era pilots, but also pilots that work for direct competitors. That’s right, they actually train pilots for their competition.
“We’ve gotten really, really good at building and maintaining strong relationships. Not only are our competitors now our customers, but our vendors are also our competitors,” Rowles said. “Even FlightSafety will send their instructors to us. We train them up on the actual aircraft, then back-train them into the simulator devices so their customers get the highest level of training quality.”
The unique difference between Era and a lot of other companies “is the simple fact that we have extensive experience in the operation of the aircraft we train in,” he added. “For example, right now we are one of the highest-time operators of the AS350 in the world. So when we train someone on that type, a lot of the information comes directly from the experience we have on the aircraft in many different situations.”
“What’s really unique about our training center is our model,” Rowles said. “Most Part 142 facilities, in helicopters I think all of them, rely on Level D, full-motion flight simulators for all of their training. We do it differently.”
Era’s model “is built around the assets that we have available. Because of the fact that we have the aircraft right here, the decision was made to have our Part 142 training program created around having 75 percent of the training done in the simulator and 25 percent in the actual aircraft,” he said. “We’ve invested heavily in Frasca International Level 6 training devices that require the actual aircraft to be used to complete the training curriculum—that’s very unique in the industry.”
According to the company, with Era’s 75/25 split students gain proficiency with basic aircraft operations including pre-flight, start-up, run-up, autopilot, systems operational procedures and engine shut-down in the FSTD, which dramatically cuts down on “dead time” in the actual aircraft. In addition, students also use the FSTD to perform and practice normal and emergency procedures before performing the same maneuvers in the actual aircraft.
As a complement to the training provided by the Level 6 FSTD, Era also relies heavily on scenario-based training. “With the advent of the new-generation FSTDs and the high-quality visual graphics, we’re able to integrate, for our offshore pilots for example, a number of the more challenging offshore platforms and the environments they are actually operating in,” Rowles said. “We also use it for our air medical customers. We have a lot of scenarios built into that type of training.”
Rowles stressed that Era’s training scenarios are created to give pilots and crews not only experience in particular locations or situations, but more importantly to give them the knowledge and experience to make good decisions no matter what the situation or location.
“We get a lot of information from IHST (International Helicopter Safety Team, www.ihst.org) accident data. What you see it that no matter how far you look back, you find that we have not found any new ways to break a helicopter. It just keeps happening over and over again,” Rowles said.
“The key is to identify the causes and understand how to prevent them. We look carefully at what their (IHST) analysis team and implementation teams recommend and go from there.”
The biggest thing is not just telling someone about it, he continued, “but showing and enabling them to make a decision in the same circumstances that will avoid an accident.” Era has a safety reporting system “which goes out to everyone. Any employee at any time can stop work if they see anything that is not safe. That situation is then put in the online reporting system and shared with the whole company.”
Rowles admits that this type of honesty can be hard for many people to face up to. “Sometimes your baby is called ugly and it’s real,” he quipped. “But you can’t hide from the truth … not if you want to learn from it.”
Whether it’s a new procedure in reaction to something on the company’s Safety Reporting system or a change in aircraft operations brought on by information from the helicopter’s Flight Quality Assurance (FOQA) technology, Rowles said that Era’s processes are always changing to improve efficiency and safety.
And when there’s some new information or procedures to share with the company, it all channels through the training center. “Depending on the timing or criticality of the information, we use a combination of recurrent training and our company Intranet to get information to our pilots and mechanics,” Rowles said.
“One example is something we just released to our mechanics. Through our SharePoint system we just released 22 new maintenance training videos that are on key support elements we’ve identified through the efforts of our maintenance technicians to improve our inspection and maintenance procedures.”
“We put those videos out there and we can tack who goes in for the remote training,” he added. “We have a whole e-courseware department here at the center. We truly believe in the value of computer-based training.”
Rowles also explained that if the situation is more time-sensitive, the company will dispense new information through a combination of its current field-based instructors and by sending instructors from the Lake Charles out into the field for hands-on instruction.
“Of course, all of our mechanics and pilots come back here at least once a year for recurrent training,” he said. “Most of our pilots come here every six months for a 61.58 proficiency check or instrument recurrency training.”
While it’s true that Era is one of the largest helicopter operators in the world, they’re not immune to the same problems facing everyone else in the industry: Namely the looming shortages of qualified pilots and mechanics.
But, true to the spirit of the company’s founder, they’re taking an active role in doing something about it. “There are a number of new things we are looking at here at Era,” Rowles said. “We realize there is a gap between from when a pilot is certified to fly a helicopter up to the point where that pilot reaches the experience level to be considered for employment.”
That gap “extends from when they typically get their ratings at around 200 hours until they can be brought back in and trained to fly a medium-twin at around 1,700 to 2,000 hours,” he added. “We’re actively engaged with that gap analysis now and determining the best way to extend the training cycle out through more of that gap. The solution will require industry participation.”
The first thing the industry needs to do, he thinks, “is to take responsibility for it. As an operator you can’t expect everyone else to help ensure you can find the pilots that you will need. You need to take a championing approach and lead qualified candidates to their own success. Era is fully engaged in a leadership position to engage the industry and training community to help establish and cultivate a standardized program to meet emerging needs for pilots and mechanics.”
Another new, and really unique program that Rowles discussed is Era Training Center’s introduction of its Second-In-Command (SIC) Familiarization Course for the AgustaWestland AW139.
Operators realize “that one of the problems with bringing new pilots into a crew environment is that they aren’t trained to be co-pilots,” he said. “Pilots are pilots. They are trained from the beginning to think on their feet and for themselves. Other than the U.S. military, there is no component that actively trains pilots to be in a supporting role—until now.”
According to the company’s information the SIC Familiarization Course will include the same ground and FSTD training as the PIC, but without the aircraft requirement. There is no regulatory certification, FAA or otherwise, involved. It’s purely a course to train second-in-command pilots a high degree of standardization for the AW139 helicopter. The course also encourages the use of customer-specific checklists and documentation to enhance the SIC’s supporting role in the two-pilot crew environment.
“We’ve taken the bull by the horns and decided that we need to teach, particularly the young pilots, early on in their careers—that’s who this is created for—how to be good, supportive and capable pilots flying in the left seat,” Rowles continued. “This program was developed to meet our needs and the needs of our various customers. Because we are such a large operator, we tend to feel the need for things before other operators do.”
Era saw the need “to enhance the skills of qualified SIC crew members for the AW139, so we created a new program to train them,” he said. “Now that we’ve introduced it, other operators are saying they need it too.”
Whether it’s introducing new aircraft types, or pushing the envelope of training and ensuring the future availability of qualified pilots, Era Group and Era Training Center tackles each new opportunity with the same dedication and commitment to doing something new that motivated Mr. Brady to fly his Bell 47A into Alaska’s great unknown.