The helicopter industry searches for the next generation

The helicopter industry has been predicting an impending labor shortage for years. By all accounts, it’s here.

A wet start to the 2022 wildfire season in some provinces likely reduced the total number of blazes across Canada last year. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) recorded 4,883 wildfires in 2022, compared to 6,525 in 2021.

Yet, despite a slower operational tempo and fewer fires, there were times when helicopters still sat on the ground because there was no one to fly them.

Yellowhead Helicopters operates 42 Bell and Airbus aircraft, and typically hires four or five freshly licensed pilots each year. Heath Moffatt Photo

In his 30 years in the helicopter industry, Corey Taylor has never seen that happen.

“We had Forestry calling, and we had multiple aircraft parked with no one to fly them. Over and over again, we had to say ‘no,’” said the manager of business development at British Columbia-based Yellowhead Helicopters Ltd. “It’s been situation critical for years, but we have finally reached a crisis point.”

It’s not much different in the United States.

The pilot shortage isn’t just felt in the utility sector – air ambulance operators have also been impacted. Mike Reyno Photo

“What we see is a lot of operators have reported difficulty in finding qualified pilots,” reported Cade Clark, VP of government affairs for Helicopter Association International (HAI). “For example, a TV crew reached out to me a while back, looking for comment on why a Florida air medical unit with two helicopters had one grounded because of the pilot shortage.”

So, what’s happened to all the helicopter pilots?

It’s a many-faceted question with several factors contributing to the perfect human resources storm.

Taylor is convinced that part of the problem is that it now takes five to seven years to produce an employable helicopter pilot.

“Most of the work we do involves hand and foot skills,” he told Vertical. “It’s not like in an airplane where you can learn to take off and land and be paired with a senior captain. That option is not open to us for the vast majority of our work. It takes practice, practice, practice.”

Yellowhead, which operates 42 Airbus and Bell helicopters, typically hires four or five freshly licensed helicopter pilots each year. They start working dispatch, the ramp, or in the hangar, learning the business from the ground up.

“We give our new pilots easier [flying] tasks to build their time,” explained Taylor. “We hand pick the tasks to help pilots build their skill sets. To take them to a point where they are employable from a client perspective, it takes about five years here.”

Taylor is referring to the general consensus among forestry, resource and utility clients that pilots with less than 1,000 hours total time are inexperienced and therefore too risky to hire. However, it hasn’t always been that way. Taylor himself fought fires in his first year as a helicopter pilot, with no requirement for hourly experience.

Then, about 20 years ago, he said a crop of private advisers came on the helicopter scene.

“It started in the oil-and-gas patch. These advisers go to clients and offer to evaluate air operators for them. Overnight, companies doing some of the easiest and most controlled types of helicopter flying were requiring pilots with 1,500 to 2,000 hours. Newer pilots were effectively shut out from jobs that had previously allowed them to gain experience while building time.”

Taylor said that today, 200- or 300-hour pilots who have been flying sightseeing or ferry flights are ready to tackle something more challenging. The problem is, there is almost nothing for them to do. The situation is creating an industry bottleneck and preventing pilots from progressing in their careers.

Yellowhead is among a group of operators advocating for competency-based requirements rather than prescriptive hourly thresholds. To nudge clients in that direction, the operator is contemplating a sliding fee schedule. Essentially, a 2,000-hour pilot will command one rate, while an 800-hour pilot recommended by Yellowhead will cost the client less. That could be a powerful incentive for budget-conscious organizations who regularly contract helicopter services.

The staffing situation is further compounded by the fact that there are simply more aircraft to be flown these days. The Canadian commercial helicopter fleet has been growing, even while the pilot supply has been shrinking — from 2,504 machines in 2008 to 2,955 in 2022.

Pilots by the numbers

From 2017 to 2019 — the last pre-Covid years of solid data — Transport Canada information shows the total number of helicopter pilots in the country steadily declined from 3,872 to 2,990. The number of those under the age of 30, or the industry’s so-called next gen, also decreased during that period. However, the change is even more apparent when you look at older data, which show 669 pilots under 30 in 2008, compared to just 363 in 2019.

While the number of Canadian helicopter pilots has been falling, the fleet of Canadian-registered rotary-wing aircraft has been growing. Heath Moffatt Photo

At the other end of the spectrum, the ranks of older rotary-wing pilots aged 60 and up have increased slightly, as aviators decide to stay in the job a bit longer. In 2008, there were 314 pilots over 60, compared to 357 in 2019.

Transport Canada tables also show that fewer commercial helicopter license and airline transport pilot license-helicopter (ATPL-H) qualifications have been issued in recent years. In 2008, a combined total of 435 licenses of both types were awarded (260 to Canadians and 175 to foreign applicants). Contrast that to 2019, when a total of 247 commercial and ATPL-H licenses were issued (172 to Canadian and 75 to foreign applicants). The numbers show a drop of 43 percent. 

“We know there’s been a gradual aging of the pilot pool and a loss of total numbers, but it’s been somewhat offset by the fact that more people stuck around longer,” said Bob Spracklin, provincial aviation services coordinator at the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA). “As demand increases, we’re discovering the next generation is not really there.”

Bob Spracklin said a greater number of guaranteed long-term summer firefighting contracts could add a level of stability for the industry. Mike Reyno Photo

Spracklin, who has four decades of helicopter industry experience, works at Saskatchewan’s provincial coordination center in the air operations division. He deals directly with all aircraft that are hired to fight fires in the province, ensuring there are enough assets to meet preparedness plans. In a quiet season, Spracklin oversees about 30 hired aircraft; in busy times, there could be up to 80. 

“In the 2022 season, we had helicopters parked when the pilot hit their duty limit,” he said. “Five years ago, there would have been a replacement in the system; now, there’s none. Even with air tanker pilots, there’s a greater turnover in the last couple of years than in the previous decade. We had a tanker grounded for a while last summer for lack of crew — that was the first time ever. We’re just not carrying spare pilots.”

Spracklin said the pilot shortage becomes even more serious when combined with the current lack of helicopter maintenance engineers. Last year, he also saw helicopters sitting in hangars because there was no one to work on them.

To attract younger people, he thinks the industry’s image may need to be refined.

“[We need to] realize that young people are looking for satisfying work,” said Spracklin. “Maybe we need to tweak our image to talk about when something goes wrong, who is there to help? The helicopter pilot. The need for that kind of response is not shrinking as natural disasters become more common.”

In terms of combating prescriptive hour requirements, Spracklin suggests that advances in simulator technology have the potential to create a better pilot at a lower level of experience than ever seen before.

“How can you prove to a power transmission company that a lesser-experienced pilot can get the job done? Sim training is valuable, because you can put students in those situations to demonstrate competency.”

He was also part of a working group that created specialized training to develop helicopter competencies for wildfire pilots. Three online modules prepare pilots to work on wildfires, building their aerial firefighting knowledge base. For the 2022 season, this online training was mandatory and will be required moving forward.

“Through this training, we are better able to make sure we have pilots who have the right competencies for the jobs we are assigning them. It positively impacts the safety of our operation.”

Spracklin said another strategy to help combat the helicopter pilot shortage is increasing the number of guaranteed long-term summer contracts, which will provide a stabilizing influence.

A consuming industry

The Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) has been watching the pilot and maintenance engineer shortage develop for several years. Association president Trevor Mitchell said the industry saw a significant drop in numbers after the pandemic. “It was a big enough driver to push people into retirement or another career.

“This is a very consuming industry,” he continued. “The ones who are in it for the long haul live and breathe helicopters day in and day out. That’s not for everybody.”

Mitchell also cited the experience gap as a major hurdle for bringing new pilots along into the helicopter business — and he’s in favor of sitting down with clients and insurance companies to educate them about the current crewing environment.

In fact, Mitchell said HAC is in the early stages of working with a major auditing firm to develop a more performance-based approach. But closing the experience gap — although it would be a major accomplishment — is only one of several necessary steps to address the Canadian helicopter pilot shortage.

“The problem won’t be fixed overnight or even in five years,” he noted. “We need to develop good, solid programs to get men and women into schools, find financial assistance, and help them develop their skills. Once we get enough people coming in, we need to work on retention. That’s going to look different for every operator.”

At Yellowhead Helicopters, Taylor said retention is a key focus. The company has offered wage increases and covered the cost of equipment and training, as well as committing to lock in pilot schedules  —  barring serious catastrophe.

Spracklin said that advances in sim technology could create better pilots with a lower level of experience than seen before. Heath Moffatt Photo

“We can’t keep everyone happy, but I like to think we can keep them by listening to them and taking care of them,” added Taylor.

Luckily, Mitchell said this is an unprecedented time of cooperation within the industry, with flight schools, air operators and industry associations trying to get as many people as possible progressing through it. He’s even seen two operators share pilots — one is busy during the summer and the other during the winter, so it’s an arrangement that works.

HAC is working to connect with young people to educate them about careers in the helicopter industry. In 2022, student pilots and maintenance engineers were invited to the HAC conference in Calgary, where they had ample opportunity to connect with operators and aircraft maintenance organizations (AMOs).

The association is also working to improve access to funding for any type of aviation course, recognizing that the tuition costs are an impediment to many students. HAC plans to start its own bursary fund as well.

“Yes, flight training is expensive,” agreed Mitchell. “But has anyone laid that out compared to a university degree for the same earning potential? The big difference is not the dollars and cents, but the time frame in which the money is required. Flight training happens quickly, while doctors can be in school for years.”

Widening the people pipeline

In the United States, other initiatives are underway to attract more people to the helicopter industry.

HAI’s VP of government affairs, Cade Clark, helped develop an education pipeline program in Utah called Utah Rotor Pathways. He said the association is trying to map out defined career paths for students and their parents, while creating a pipeline for young people to enter the helicopter industry.

“We have a lot of industry veterans — the pioneers, if you will — aging out. We don’t have the ranks to replace them. The issue we have in the rotary world is that we have a high bar for access. What I mean by that is cost. It’s expensive to get into the industry, and once you graduate you still aren’t considered experienced.”

Clark pointed to part 121 air carriers as a sector to emulate, saying they have new employees supported from the beginning to the end of their careers.

“Vertical flight is not vertically integrated,” he said. “Most of our operations are small mom-and-pop operations; there is no large operator that can fund recruitment from ab initio to retirement. There is a more decentralized career path.”

He pointed to the Utah program as an encouraging development. Essentially, it brings together industry, universities and high schools to deliver helicopter pilot and maintenance training at 32 high schools in the state. Students earn college credits in high school and have an easier transition into university aviation programs offered at Southern Utah University, Utah State University, Utah Valley University, and several community colleges. Upon graduation, they benefit from mentoring, internships and job interviews at industry partner operations.

The financial barrier to pilot and maintenance training is significant. HAI is working at the congressional level to find solutions. Brent Bundy Photo

Clark said the pandemic offered the chance to expand the Utah Rotor Pathways program to reach rural students through online programming. He said there are plans to expand the program to other states, too.

HAI is also working at the congressional level to lower the financial barrier to helicopter pilot and maintenance training. Ideally, said Clark, the FAA Reauthorization Act can be amended to focus on workforce development programs in the aviation sector, including funding for state initiatives.

In addition to establishing pathways for young people joining the helicopter industry, HAI is working to make it easier for military rotary-wing pilots to transition into civilian jobs.

Greg Brown is director of education and training at HAI and a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot. This year at Heli-Expo 2023, he is coordinating the Mil2Civ transition forum, which will help military pilots and mechanics learn how to make the transition into civilian work, including resume-building, social media and networking tips.

The show will also feature a career fair. Last year, over 25 companies participated and Brown said several job seekers were rewarded with offer letters following the event.

“We invite local schools, pilots and technicians to come into Heli-Expo and visit the career fair,” he explained. “They can walk the show floor and talk to pilots and mechanics, opening the door to many opportunities. Building a network of contacts is so critical and it gets that excitement going in the industry.”

HAI hopes to create a stronger pipeline to the civilian helicopter industry from the military. Skip Robinson Photo

Brown said HAI is examining the inflow of people to the vertical lift industry overall and concentrating on how to enhance that pipeline.

“One of the things we’re looking at is introducing middle school children to the many opportunities in the industry. Seeing the excitement in their faces is amazing; exposure is a big deal. We have to show them what they can do out there.”

Brown is also the staff liaison to a new HAI Workforce Development Working Group, created to address the shortage of helicopter pilots and mechanics. The first meeting was held in December 2022, so the group is just beginning to roll.

“We’ve gathered folks from the industry to think outside the box. What are the things we can do to shape the workforce coming into the industry? How can we cultivate and retain the current workforce? We need to look at it from a diversity standpoint, too, to generate interest with women and minorities.”

HAI’s Workforce Development Working Group hopes to address the shortage of pilots and mechanics. Greg Brown says the group is looking at innovative solutions. Brent Bundy Photo

In the U.S. and Canada, several efforts are underway to attract the helicopter industry’s next gen. But all these programs will take time — a commodity that Yellowhead’s Corey Taylor said may not be available.

Some operators fear that the industry in Canada is one busy season away from a crisis point. Heath Moffatt Photo

“The past couple of (fire) seasons have been kind of slow, so a lot will depend on how things shape up this year,” he said. “It would not take much of a fire season and suddenly, all hell will be breaking loose. I think we’re going to reach a crisis soon, maybe during a high-profile event.

“We’ll have a lot of helicopters parked, and the media will say, ‘Why don’t we have any pilots?’”

Social Messaging