Helicopter manufacturers, suppliers and operators are preparing for their annual pilgrimage to the Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo, held this year in Anaheim, Calif., which should provide a welcome break from the brutal winter weather that has battered most of the U.S. The show officially opens on February 24, and exhibit hall days are February 25 to 27. The theme for Heli-Expo 2014 is “Engage in the Future of Vertical Aviation.” HAI expects some 20,000 attendees this year, visiting 700 exhibitors and viewing 60 helicopters flown and trucked in for the occasion in one million sq ft of Anaheim Convention Center exhibit and meeting space.
As of early January, the weekly tracking numbers for this year’s Heli-Expo were already better than those for the same period for last year’s show in Las Vegas, according to HAI president Matt Zuccaro. The show has grown bigger each year for the past five to six years, he said. “We’re using every square inch available [at the convention center].”
Activities include HAI Professional Education courses, Inspection Authorization-renewal classes, the HAI Helicopter Industry Job Fair, committee meetings, HAI Rotor Safety Challenge sessions, workshops and technical briefings. There is still plenty of time to sign up for many of the activities planned at this year’s show, and more information is available at the HAI Heli-Expo 2014 Program & Exhibit Guide (online at heliexpo.rotor.org).
This year’s golf tournament is planned for February 23 at the Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, Calif., and proceeds all go to the HFI Scholarship Fund (see rotor.org/golf). To get started at Heli-Expo 2014, plan to attend the HAI Welcome Reception on February 24 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the convention center’s outdoor Anaheim Grand Plaza. The ever-popular HFI Heritage Helicopter Display will be in the arena lobby. This year, the annual Salute to Excellence Awards will be held on February 26 at 8 p.m. at the Anaheim Marriott. Tickets are $85 for members and $100 for non-members.
Back by popular demand, the HAI Rotor Safety Challenge returns with more sessions and three simultaneous classrooms open to preempt last year’s standing-room-only crowding. The Safety Challenge is free for Heli-Expo attendees and exhibitors, and people don’t need to be registered attendees to participate. The Safety Challenge presents 44 events, and most are eligible for FAA Wings and AMT program credits. Attending at least six events qualifies a participant to receive a certificate of recognition. The events begin with an NTSB session on “Lessons learned from helicopter accidents” on February 24; the remainder of the sessions run on February 25 and 26. “We’re proud that the safety forums are open to members and non-members,” Zuccaro said. “We don’t want to put impediments to attending [safety sessions] on anybody.”
Priming the Pipeline
Given the number of Heli-Expo sessions and events focused on developing fresh talent for the rotorcraft industry, it’s clear that a key issue is promoting careers for new entrants, helping existing participants further their careers and filling jobs that are opening as Vietnam-era pilots and mechanics retire. These efforts are recognized not only by the HAI’s Professional Education Courses, which begin on February 20 in Anaheim, but also by CFI, pilot and maintenance technician mentoring programs, the Helicopter Foundation International Outreach to Students and the Helicopter Industry Job Fair. This year, the Job Fair will be held on February 25 from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and participating companies include Air Evac EMS, Air Methods, CHC Helicopter/Heli-One, Hillsboro Aviation, Med-Trans, PHI, Reach Air Medical and Reliance Aerotech Services. As always, there is no charge for job seekers.
“We have a pilot and mechanic shortage right now,” said Zuccaro, “and we see it getting worse before it gets better.” Three years ago Vietnam-era personnel began to retire, and the pipeline of new pilots and mechanics is insufficient to meet the current needs of the industry. Fewer military pilots are leaving to switch to civilian careers, and the military these days is training fewer helicopter pilots than it used to.
The rotorcraft industry is facing two obstacles to recruiting new pilots: the high cost of training, about $80,000 to reach the flight instructor level; and the degree of specific training needed to fill many jobs, such as fire-fighting, external load carrying and electronic news gathering.
One solution, Zuccaro said, is “to come to the realization that we can maintain the same level of safety with less experienced personnel as long as we realize that’s the situation and change the way we do business to reflect that.” The typical entry-level requirement for a commercial helicopter pilot is a minimum 1,000 hours of flight experience. But flight instructors with 500 to 700 hours, he said, “are excellent candidates to enter the commercial marketplace. We have to move away from the [idea] that the level of flight hours determines safety. It really doesn’t; it’s their culture and their attitude.” To bring new pilots up to speed, Zuccaro suggests employing them in fields where less specialization is required, such as air tours and charter, then building on that experience for more specialized flying.
In fact, he pointed out, insurance underwriters price their policies based on accident statistics, not on arbitrary flight-hour requirements. “Lots of policies allow the operator to assign any pilot the operator wants, with no minimum hours,” he explained. “We have to address what the requirements and restrictions are, rather than false criteria, and promote the industry to the best of our ability and make sure we’re competitive.”
On that note, HAI is also focusing on mentoring programs to help new and existing personnel further their careers. HAI chairman Anthony Burson launched the mentoring effort last June. This effort includes outreach to aviation universities and flight schools, including a new HAI student membership that is free for the first three years.
“We’re addressing all the topics and subjects that are of concern to our members,” Zuccaro concluded, adding that he is excited that NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman will join the leaders of aviation groups at the general aviation association CEO Town Hall at 9 a.m. on February 26. HAI will also honor Jim Ricklefs, who founded the California Helicopter Association (the predecessor to HAI), as he celebrates his 100th birthday at this year’s Heli-Expo.