Lack of qualified pilots a concern for operators

 - October 4, 2007, 6:43 AM

“I am stunned by the salary demands of some minimally qualified pilots,” Scott Swain, chief pilot for KBH Corp. in Clarksdale, Miss., told AIN. “I’m familiar with what the salary surveys say for copilots, but they include experienced people in the averages. In addition, we’re in a rural area with a significantly lower cost of living than the major cities.” KBH, a manufacturer of farm machinery, operates a Westwind with a full-time captain and copilot.

Swain said finding qualified, desirable second-in-command candidates has become tough. “I’ve got some resumés on my desk right now but they’re pretty low time, as low as 1,000 hours total time. I wouldn’t have even considered them a few years ago. Today...well, we’re assessing if we can use them safely and practically.

“Twenty years ago nobody wanted to fly for the commuters, so pilots looked to corporate aviation,” he said. “But today the regionals are the primary route to the airlines. We lost a guy to a regional who took a pay cut simply because he knew it would be a direct line to the airlines. The motivation has changed. A lot of young guys are only in it for the big bucks, not for the love of flying. This is a good company,” Swain stressed, “but we’re about one-and-a-half hours from Memphis so we’re out in the sticks. We have a hard time just getting resumés.”

‘They Need to Lower Their Income Expectations’
One general consensus of opinion among chief pilots is that inexperienced applicants simply have to lower their income expectations. Most chief pilots believe that where a candidate received their training and the nature of the training can influence a candidate’s desirability, but all suggested candidates need to set their economic sights underneath regional starting pay. “Let’s face it,” the chief pilot of one small flight department who was looking for a copilot on a King Air 200 said, “if they were actually worth the starting pay they wanted, they wouldn’t be applying here to begin with.”

“After 37 years in the system I’ve gotten fairly good at finding the right people,” said Jim Waits, aviation department manager for Columbus, Ohio-based World Harvest Church, which operates a JetStar 731.

“First and foremost, we use local talent whenever possible,” he said. The last copilot he hired had low total time but a good, local-resident background, including a current instrument flight instructor rating and a four-year degree. “His was one of the few truly honest pilot resumés I’ve seen. Normally you have to cut the flight time on their resumé in half,” Waits said. “But you know, after you talk to someone a while you know where they’re coming from. I want to hire someone who wants to stay here, and we’re willing to invest in the future of the right person.”

Bill Sims, chief pilot for the Dothan, Ala. trucking company AAA Cooper Transport, said, “Today, insurance companies are driving the train. We have a Citation V and a King Air 200, and we prefer to crew both as two-pilot airplanes. Because we have only three pilots in the flight department, we’re sometimes forced to fly the King Air single pilot. From time to time we’ll even take on a contract pilot if we need to operate both aircraft simultaneously with two-pilot crews.” Sims said they have talked about hiring a fourth full-time pilot as a second-in-command.

The Problem is Economics
“We have TCAS in our King Air, which helps, but in the Citation it gets really busy in a terminal area, especially in the Northeast corridor around New York. We really like to have that extra set of eyes in all our aircraft. As it is, if we have a pilot on vacation we can hardly move two airplanes because now we’re short two seats, but the problem is economics.”

Last year, when management asked Sims how much the flight department had spent the previous year on hiring freelance copilots, the total was about $14,000. “That would nowhere near cover the salary and benefits of a full-time person,” Sims said. “We just don’t fly enough to justify a full-time copilot in addition to our three full-time, type-rated captains, not when you consider who we’d have to hire.”

Sims said the company’s insurance carrier is USAIG, and while he was quick to say it was an excellent insurer he pointed out the stipulated minimum requirements for an unnamed copilot would be 4,000 hr TT, 2,000 multi-engine PIC and 50 hr jet time to qualify for the right seat in the Citation. “I can hire anyone off the street if they have those qualifications,” he explained, “or I can make my case with USAIG on a pilot with lesser qualifications, but I then must put them through an SIC program at FlightSafety. The rub is that the SIC program is really the same as the PIC qualification program. I sent two guys there, and they were really put through the wringer. They did everything required for a type-rating applicant. Sure, we definitely got our money’s worth out of the training but it was overkill for what I needed. We didn’t need such an expensive, intensive program.”

Reflecting on university flight-training programs, Sims echoed others when he said, “Students just graduating don’t meet the minimum insurance requirements. Even if we put the student through the FlightSafety SIC course, the insurance company must approve them on a case-by-case basis. It’s a really long, drawn-out, inflexible process.”

Doing Time
One of the more common comments dealt with pencil-whipping logbooks. “I look over every resumé we get, and you’d be surprised how many say 1,500 hours total time and 500 hours of jet,” one chief pilot said. “You make one or two telephone calls and that bubble bursts pretty quickly. I’ll tell you what,” he stressed, “I ended up hiring a young applicant who honestly listed ‘zero’ after the words ‘Turbine Time.’ I’m a believer in hiring for attitude, and training for proficiency.”

Most chief pilots agreed that it is unlikely a candidate looking for their first corporate aviation job will have jet time. Many said they would be happy to see some right-seat King Air time, for instance. In many cases, a well educated, well trained pilot with a good attitude and work record can be successfully sold to the insurance company. At the same time, there was a general consensus among chief pilots that while total time isn’t the main issue, anyone with less than approximately 1,200 hours and no instrument flight instructor experience would probably have significant gaps in their knowledge. But some in academia disagree, saying that while that was true of the traditional flight-training programs, modern university programs are rising to the occasion.

Altitude Chamber
Rick Weinberg, chief pilot at the University of Illinois Institute of Aviation, said it held its first turboprop course last spring. Students with commercial, instrument and multi-engine ratings take a ground school that covers turboprop aircraft systems and operating procedures, high-altitude flying, physiology and a trip in an altitude chamber. The students then get seven hours of turboprop training in a flight-training device. Upon successful course completion, students get some practical flight experience with FlightStar, the local FBO, which operates a Falcon 10, Falcon 20 and King Airs.

At the University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, students take an advanced turbine and turboprop systems course. According to Kent Lovelace, chairman of the department of aviation, the course includes advanced aerodynamics, human factors and aviation physiology, including three rides in an altitude chamber. Soon to be included in the course will be time in a level-6 CRJ flight-training device.

“All the students enrolled in the professional flight program will go through 20 hours of sim time (10 hours in each seat) in addition to the academic course,” Lovelace told AIN. “Our students are definitely prepared for a corporate copilot position. Many of our graduates have left here and moved into the right seat of a Dash 8, F-28, CRJ or other similar aircraft.”

NBAA to the Rescue
Recognizing the need to match flight-training programs with its corporate membership, NBAA is in the process of developing a corporate aviation bridge program that will help put qualified university flight-school graduates into corporate copilot slots. But academic institutions aren’t the only source of quality graduates with the potential to fly right seat.

According to Jay Elder, director of marketing for airline training for FlightSafety Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., the school’s airline direct-track graduates will be well qualified. “The program was designed to prepare low-time pilots for regional jet and corporate flight-department copilot positions. It is a 10- to 15-week advanced training program, including ground school, line-oriented flight training in Senecas and 36 hr of advance training in a level-D Saab 2000 simulator with a full glass panel.”

Students of the program get 18 hr of training in both seats of the simulator, with emphasis on cockpit resource management. Elder said the idea for the program came out of the fact that, traditionally, regional airline new hires lacked experience in a crew environment, and especially on any type of advanced equipment such as a flight management system. “They weren’t transitioning well,” he said. “This program fills in the gap between completion of commercial, instrument, multi-engine and the multi-pilot, advanced system turbine environment.”