The Aerospace Industries Association recently reported that shipments of U.S. civil helicopters reached an all-time high in 2005. How indicative is this of the overall health of the rotorcraft industry?
I would agree the industry itself is robust. It’s very active. All the aircraft and staff are completely engaged in answering demand from the client base. It’s a positive industry, there’s no doubt about it. Assuming that we have no anomalies of any significance and the economy continues what it has been doing, we’re looking pretty good. I’m really optimistic about what it looks like here for the next couple of years.
Pilot demand is up as well?
Yes, and actually that’s a problem on the reverse side. The demand for qualified flight crews and technicians is great for a number of reasons. One, to meet the retirements that are coming up. There is going to be a significant retirement wave due to the Vietnam effect. They’ve all been in the industry for 35 or 40 years and they’re getting ready to retire–both mechanics and pilots.
Plus you have the issue that we are doing well as an industry, so there is increased demand for staff to meet the increased business activity. On top of that you have customer requirements to maintain minimum qualifications in staffing positions that are assigned to all the various contracts. So there are myriad things that operators are facing and it’s getting pretty tight out there.
Has the demand for qualified flight crews translated into higher wages?
Yes, for two reasons. One, you have the competitive needs of various operators that are in the same marketplace. That tends to create a competitive atmosphere for qualified staff. The other reason is that the industry has become globalized. You’re not only competing with local operators, you’re competing with an international community. That creates a very active marketplace in terms of personnel recruiting.
The NTSB recently issued a series of recommendations directed at EMS helicopter operators urging the adoption of terrain-warning avionics and so on. What’s been HAI’s involvement in similar safety initiatives?
I happened to be over at the meeting that the NTSB had. We certainly are interested in addressing the issue. I think it’s important to note that, in general, the EMS industry as a whole is a safe segment. They’re transporting tens of thousands of patients safely and saving lives every day of the week. That said, we certainly want to respond to the fact that there has been an anomaly of accidents that has occurred and got everybody’s attention.
It’s part of an initiative related to our International Helicopter Safety Team. We will look at all the data that’s available relative to EMS’s accident and incident history, and then categorize it and research it so that we have realistic factors that rise to the surface that we can look at, try to address, and try to mitigate with remedial action. It’s a big endeavor–it’s an international endeavor–and it’s driven by the desire to achieve the highest level of safety that we possibly can and not rest on the fact that we do have hundreds of thousands of passengers moving around the world by helicopter safely and conveniently. But one accident is too many, and we really have to have that attitude.
Your goal is to cut accidents by 80 percent. Is achieving that goal as simple as focusing on remedial pilot training issues, or is there more to it?
Well, no, it’s a twofold issue. One, you acknowledge the fact that these events can happen, and you certainly address the training, the proficiency and you also deal with aircraft performance and make enhancements wherever possible in that arena.
But you still go back to the root issue. Why did the engine quit in the first place? We’ll address that end of it, where if the engine does quit the pilot knows how to handle the emergency, but we also want to attack the issue of engine failures. If we concentrate on why we’re having engine failures, then we never have to address the second issue, which is how the pilot should respond.
But you do have to be ready for it; that’s just common sense. A mechanical failure is a potential issue, just as with any piece of equipment or machine. You can’t deny there could be mechanical anomalies that the pilot will have to deal with, but you should push really hard to minimize or eliminate them. The airline industry took the same approach by attacking the issue of in-flight engine shutdowns, and they’ve been all but virtually eliminated statistically from the fleet.