Commercial

Tackling Challenges for Industry’s Helicopter Pilot and Tech Shortage

By Amy Kluber | September 28, 2018
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Inside a twin-engine helicopter cockpit showing modern dashboard and cyclic control stick.

File photo

The U.S. helicopter industry is bracing for an anticipated pilot and maintenance technician shortage over the next two decades that could cripple the industry, but the aviation community is forming a plan of action to meet the crisis head on.

Not only will there be fewer pilots available to fly helicopters, the aircraft will spend longer times in hangars awaiting maintenance. Operators then are unable to carry out some of their contract work and take on new work, as Helicopter Association International (HAI) President Matt Zuccaro detailed to attendees at an industry meeting this week aimed at tackling this issue.

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Representatives of helicopter operators and industry associations gathered Sept. 26 at Heli-Futures, a meeting aimed at addressing and discussing the pilot and maintenance technician shortage, at HAI’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Participants, including R&WI and representatives from operators such as Air Methods and Reach Air Medical Services, huddled in a group-work setting to identify ways of addressing the anticipated shortage of qualified pilots and aviation maintenance technicians in the U.S. over the next 20 years.

The meeting stemmed from a HAI-commissioned study released March 2018 at Heli-Expo. Conducted by the University of North Dakota, the study projects a shortage of 7,469 helicopter pilots in the U.S. between now and 2036. For maintenance technicians, the study also projected a shortage of 40,613 in that time frame.

“We’re getting a lot of feedback from our members that they cannot fulfill some of their contract means in terms of experienced pilots,” Zuccaro told attendees at the meeting Sept. 26. “The other one is the maintenance qualifications and personnel. That is actually much worse than the pilot shortage.”

Cost of training becomes prohibitively expensive for many aspiring pilots and techs, Zuccaro noted.

“If you’re a civilian wanting to become a helicopter pilot, one of your biggest challenges is coming up with the initial investment,” he said.

And once a pilot-in-training receives certification, there are barriers to entering the market as a pilot builds the flight hours necessary to be hired as anything other than a flight instructor, Zuccaro added.

Compounding the problem, pilots and technicians are being poached by fixed-wing aviation industry, which has a better track record of presenting career-growth opportunities and benefits.

The group-led discussions identified the top three anticipated industry challenges as the lack of available pilots and technicians, retaining qualified personnel, and affordability and accessibility of education.

Other challenges included perception issues in the mainstream media toward the safety of helicopters and lack of contract offerings.

HAI’s Helicopter Foundation International Vice President Allison McKay, who hosted the meeting, said the association’s aim is to implement measures now, using this meeting as a starting point. The association hopes to have updates about its progress at Heli-Expo in Atlanta in March.

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