Helicopter Foundation International VP Allison McKay. Photo by Mark Bennett
The mood at Heli-Expo this year is expansive, which continues the trend of recent shows. New aircraft models have arrived, or will shortly, and sales appear brisk. Some markets are contracting but others expanding and, of course, more gadgets and equipment and avionics.
All this excitement, all these improvements, however, are heading for some tough times — not because companies can’t develop and manufacture the goods, but because the industry is facing a growing shortage of trained and experienced pilots and maintainers. And the solutions are not in place to reverse the trend.
Researchers at the University of North Dakota teamed with Helicopter Foundation International and Helicopter Association International to examine available data and conduct their own surveys to examine the issue. Their results paint a picture of growing demand with trailing supply.
Elizabeth Bjerke, an associate dean and professor at UND, one of the authors of the study, stressed that the data they used is more of a snapshot, from which they extrapolated their predictions, rather than a more detailed examination that would incorporate forecasts across the many industries, markets and sociopolitical forces that could affect the future. Still, based on what they learned of the recent past and the current state of affairs, they say the future is in trouble.
Their predictions span the next 18 years and show a slight improvement in the deficit of available helicopter pilots in the U.S. in the next three years, though supply is still falling short of demand by more than 350 per annum. The trend out to 2036 worsens, though, with the cumulative deficit increasing to a total of 7,649 pilots at the end of the forecast period.
The recent trend of pilot supply and demand has been stable, if in deficit, with an approximately equal number of pilots entering the field as have been retiring, but the ratio is expected to worsen over the next 12 years. Exacerbating the problem is commercial fixed-wing aviation, which has been seeing a resurgence of profitability.
Regional airlines are actually reaching into the ranks of rotary-wing aviators and enticing them out. In the past year alone, more than 500 helicopter pilots transitioned to the regionals by, at least in part, paying for their training to fill their own ranks.
Based on their survey, with 76% of respondents coming from North America, operators are having a tougher time finding and retaining qualified pilots, with 54% of operators reporting hiring pilots with less experience than in previous years and 65% reporting losing pilots to other operators, presumably for better pay or other benefits after having increased their skills and flight hours with their now-former employer.
And not only do 64% of operators foresee difficulty in hiring qualified pilots, 54% believe these difficulties will probably affect their ability to grow their operations.
The supply of mechanics is also expected to lag, with numbers that far outpace those of pilots. By 2036 the authors of the study project a shortage of 40,613 certificated aviation mechanics in the U.S. alone. Indeed, 67% of operators in the survey report increased difficulty in hiring qualified personnel, 60% have had to hire those with less experience and 54% expect these difficulties to interfere with their ability to grow those operations.
Without minimizing the challenges, though, the report also looked at possible avenues to address the problems facing the industry. Helicopter Foundation International VP Allison McKay observed that this study “affords us the luxury, now, of knowing what the problem is. The airlines have known it longer than we have, and they have been able to create programs to address the shortage.”
They suggest the efforts start with outreach, exposing younger generations to the values and opportunities of rotary-wing aviation, which means reaching them where they congregate — and that means social media: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Further that with videos, stills and virtual reality.
Then, once you have their attention and interest, there must be more support from organizations and institutions in the form of scholarships for both pilots and mechanics. This is especially so for helicopter pilots, whose training costs are double those than their fixed-wing counterparts.
Once in the industry, an approach taken by fixed-wing operators is known as a defined career path, with integrated training and then operational opportunities to develop skills and build flight hours toward long-term employment in the field.
Military helicopter pilots are also seen as, possibly, an untapped resource that could be encouraged to take advantage of their skills and help fill the gap, though challenges might exist with lack of currency and training for commercial, rather than military, operations. The U.S.'s GI Bill may be just one avenue to making this course a reality.
The authors make particular note, though, that as this report is just a snapshot, the issues and numbers need to be monitored with data collected and analyzed in an ongoing manner, so progress can be measured and new or revised programs developed.