By Ed Van Winkle | April 12, 2018
The looming helicopter pilot shortage in the U.S. will certainly bolster our illusions of grandeur. There was a lot of discussion about this topic at Heli-Expo in Las Vegas at the end of February. A Helicopter Association International (HAI) study predicts there will be a shortage of 7,649 pilots in the U.S. over the next 18 years. So let’s examine how this shortage might affect law enforcement aviation units and what could be done by unit commanders to proactively address the problem.
There is not a central clearinghouse for pilot data for law enforcement aviation units. But it seems pretty clear that there is already a shortage of law enforcement helicopter pilots. And if HAI’s study were correct, that shortage will continue to be an issue and may get worse.
It may get worse because the study is based on an expected increase in the total number of airframes over the next 20 years. However, the number of law enforcement helicopters has remained relatively constant over the past 10 years. With the proliferation of drones across the industry and the aging military surplus fleet, it is more likely that the law enforcement helicopter fleet will remain flat or decrease in size over the next 10 years.
Across the U.S., most aviation units require their pilots to be sworn law enforcement officers, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. Prospective pilots are usually required to have three to five years of experience with their agency, which means there is a limited pool of individuals from which to choose. And even if the candidate has a private fixed-wing rating, it could take six to 18 months to fully train a person as a commercial helicopter pilot with the necessary operational experience to fly effectively with a tactical flight officer (TFO).
This still doesn’t address why there is currently a shortage of law enforcement helicopter pilots. One reason is that many aviation units were formed when the 1208 program began releasing surplus aircraft to local agencies back in the mid-1990s (approximately one-third of the U.S. law enforcement fleet is military surplus helicopters). Many of these senior pilots are now retiring, creating the need to train new pilots. Other pilots are leaving to fly for air-medical operators, and still more are leaving to the airlines.
The exodus of pilots from law enforcement agencies is even more problematic due to the way that government operates — it moves at the speed of molasses. Most law enforcement administrators will not hire or train new pilots until there is an actual vacancy created by a retirement or resignation. So, if it takes up to 18 months to train a pilot, there would be long-term pilot vacancies within aviation units. These vacancies would create a higher workload for the existing unit members with no relief in sight.
Now that we understand some of the reasons for the helicopter pilot shortage in law enforcement — as well as the limitations of working for government agencies — we can develop some solutions for dealing with it to keep our pilot staff at full strength.
Have a succession plan. The first step in dealing with vacancies is to plan for them before they happen. If your unit develops TFOs into pilots, then start training them early, even if they become pilots before you have a vacancy. Consider asking your administration to allocate an additional pilot position to your unit to facilitate training new pilots. If this isn’t possible, then get approval to develop a pool of back-up pilots using former military or fixed-wing pilots from within the agency to fill future vacancies.
Be flexible with requirements. It may be necessary to relax or bend your current requirements when selecting pilots for your unit. I’m certainly not suggesting that unqualified applicants be selected, but it may be necessary to hire a skilled pilot from another agency who does not have the required amount of time on the road as a patrol officer, deputy or trooper. Be creative.
Offer competitive pay. One of the biggest challenges in law enforcement aviation is keeping pay competitive. Ways to keep pay at a higher level is by offering a flight-pay bonus or by creating a pay scale for pilots that is separate from the steps offered for other sworn members. Many agencies have successfully done this with support from the administration and labor unions. Competitive pay can also encourage existing pilot staff to remain with the agency.
Consider non-sworn pilots. Even though most agencies use sworn pilots exclusively, some agencies are adding non-sworn pilots as part of their pilot staff. Sworn pilots often retire from service to come back as non-sworn pilots who continue working for the agency for many years.
The shortage of law enforcement helicopter pilots will be an issue for many years to come, but aviation unit commanders can take steps to minimize the effects of the problem on their agencies. Having a succession plan, being flexible with selection requirements, offering competitive pay and considering non-sworn pilots are several ways we can keep our positions full and continue to focus on our mission of catching bad guys and protecting the public.
Ed Van Winkle is a retired captain from the Gainesville, Florida, Police Department, where he was a helicopter pilot and unit commander for the Gainesville-Alachua County Joint Aviation Unit. He is currently the Director of Law Enforcement Sales and OEM Projects for CNC Technologies, and he is also an active helicopter pilot and CFII.