Commercial, Military, Products

PacRim Notebook

By Barney O'Shea | March 1, 2006
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Growing Pains

Looking back over 2005, the Australian helicopter industry is really going ahead. I won't take up a lot of space quoting great numbers of statistical details, but just go to the vital points.

We've already noted that the country's helicopter fleet had doubled in about 11 years. The latest figures, from December 2005, show the Australian helicopters registered to be 1,284 out of a total a number of aircraft of all types of 12,400. The average registration rate has been nearly eight helicopters a month. This is actual helicopters registered for any reason--new machines, those coming back on the register after long-term maintenance and machines brought into the country.


Rob Rich, the president of the Helicopter Assn. of Australasia (and editor of Heli News, the Australian industry's major publication) has revised his estimate of how long it will take Australia's rotary-wing fleet to double again. Last year, he'd figured it would take a decade. Now he sees that happening in six years. At the same time, our neighbor New Zealand registers one helicopter to every two in Australia, New Zealand being the world leader in the ratio of helicopters to population.

The helicopter industry is working hard to support this impressively growing fleet. The major problem confronting it is a lack of skilled personnel at all levels. Pilots with experience are in short supply, as is evident in the flying instructors corps. Its members are moving into operations where the pay is greater for the hours being flown and benefits are available such as allowances (for emergency service shift work) and special rates (in the offshore and burgeoning executive transport markets). The number of such attractive positions is increasing.

The same is true on the maintenance and service side of the industry. With helicopter manufacturers or their in-country representatives expanding facilities, experienced people are needed at all levels.

The greater numbers of machines require more recording and planning, which is an area that has until now been neglected. This makes the experienced planning and maintenance control clerk an invaluable commodity.

Training technical maintenance personnel has always been a major source of concern, with a regular shortfall of apprentices who cover full license requirements in their training then do special training to type on helicopters. It is difficult for helicopter maintainers who work with an emphasis on-demand duty (and much time spent in isolated locations) not to be lured away by the appeal of the regular hours and shift loadings promised by airlines.

The growing fleet leads on to demands for graduate aircraft engineers to design modifications and possible changes to aircraft structures for repairs or special-role aircraft. This can be seen at Australian Aerospace, which is growing and is committed to long-term maintenance of the Eurocopter ARH Tiger and NH90 Mult-Role Helicopter for the Australian Defence Forces. British Aerospace and Boeing already have major work for combat and helicopter aircraft of the Australian Defence Forces, with deeper level maintenance and life-of-type contracts being implemented with civil industry to relieve the demand on uniformed personnel. The shift is aimed at ensuring continuity and improving maintainability and reliability. In recent months, advertisements for all classes of technical maintainers have been posted continuously.

Industry and the supporting universities, colleges and training organizations have been working hard to overcome their shortfalls. Unfortunately, it does not look as if the shortages will be overcome for a long time.

An engineer takes about six years to acquire the training and experience required to become competent at a junior level requiring supervision. The same is true for the licensed engineer or aviation mechanic. Reducing the workload of aircrew has led to use of more complex systems that the maintainer must keep healthy. It takes a great deal of time, in particular, to keep abreast of new avionics technologies.

Emergency services run into problems of another nature: the management of personnel to comply with flying safety regulations, with a demand for cockpit and aircrew management to integrate the specialist roles of all the crew. The overall management requirement is not new, but the increase in demand by numbers alone has created problems.

Associated with this is high-risk management, with AEROSAFE in Sydney providing an excellent service for our emergency services seeking to eliminate high-risk operations and improve safety in this hazardous area.

One does not have to look back very far in history to recall horrendous incidents costing lives and expensive badly needed aircraft due to poor risk management.

T.B. "Barney" O'Shea helped introduce helicopters into the British Army Air Corps and assisted in setting up the Australian Army Aviation Corps. A recipient of the American Helicopter Society's Gruppo Agusta International Fellowship, he is a guest lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and other universities. He can be reached at

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