HAI Convention News

Helicopter industry hanging ‘help wanted’ signs

 - March 13, 2007, 7:41 AM

The helicopter industry as a whole is as healthy as it has ever been, at a time when the retirements of Vietnam-era pilots and mechanics are causing a shortage of qualified personnel.

HAI president Matt Zuccaro said the situation has not reached the crisis level yet, but he added that the shortage is being felt by operators who are having trouble filling the seats of their helicopters with qualified pilots.

HAI has launched an outreach program aimed at bringing more young people into the industry, including a mentoring program that lets students with an interest in the field work alongside seasoned pros.

Zuccaro talked with HAI Convention News about the current state of the industry and the outlook for the future.

What are some of the factors responsible for the health of the industry?

The overall economic picture in the U.S. and the international community is very good. That’s causing more people to use helicopters. People are also more readily accepting the helicopter as a legitimate business tool and a necessity in conducting everyday activities.

The advances in technology and the capability of the aircraft have also opened up the marketplace. So it’s a combination of a good economy, good equipment for the customer base and increased acceptance of helicopters. It’s all coming together at one time to give us probably one of the best markets, activity-wise, that I’ve ever seen.

You’ve mentioned in the past that there is a pilot shortage on the horizon. Has that shortage materialized, and how big of an issue is it for the industry?

It is an issue. The shortage is here, and I think the proof of that is that a number of the major operators are having difficulty filling their cockpits and acquiring maintenance personnel.

I recently heard about an operator who had an aircraft down because he didn’t have adequate maintenance personnel to get it up and turned around on a normal schedule. Also, pilots are becoming difficult to find, certainly pilots who meet the criteria of a client base that has its own standards.

I’ve talked to operators who are having the problem today, and obviously the logical thing is to see what you can do to enhance the interest level of young people coming into the aviation industry in general, and steer them toward the helicopter industry.

How can you do that?

We’re doing a couple of things. We’ve sponsored mentoring programs and career days, where we put young people in contact with the people who are in the jobs, performing them on a day-to-day basis. We’ve expanded our education courses and are working closely with universities that have aviation programs to develop rotorcraft-specific courses and flight training programs. We’re really reaching out in any way possible to get to the young people when they’re at the decision-making point in their lives.

And we’re also very conscious that not only are we competing with other segments of aviation but also with all the other opportunities that are out there for these young people, especially in the technical fields. This is not an easy task, and it’s one that we consider to be a major initiative that we’re going to stay engaged in because we anticipate that the industry’s going to grow.

We also are getting hit at the same time with the retirement of the Vietnam-era pilots and mechanics. That’s all happening at once. You’ve got higher demand and a reduction in the available workforce at the same time.

What are you hearing from member companies about the shortage and how they think it will affect their ability to continue in the years ahead, as even more Vietnam pilots and mechanics retire?

In the first phase, they will be able to meet regulatory requirements. What’s happening now is that they’re having difficulty meeting specific client requirements because many of them require higher qualifications and experience levels than the regulations require.

It will eventually propagate down to actually getting people who will meet regulatory requirements and that the insurance industry will find acceptable. If we do this right and we’re smart, we can hopefully turn a corner and get people who are thinking about aviation careers and steer them toward the helicopter community.

Has it gotten to the point of being a crisis?

It’s not acute yet. There are enough pilots, just not as many as we prefer. We have to come up with new protocols for utilizing pilots who might not have the in-depth overall experience that we’ve become used to. And it can be done.

The military pilots certainly complete flight school and are given full duties and responsibilities. They have good protocols in place just like we do.  If we accept that maybe we have pilots with a little less overall experience and flight hours but they’re still well qualified and professional pilots, we just need to have the proper controls and management oversight to address that factor.