Mounting evidence shows there is a real shortage of pilots and mechanics, and this is especially true for the rotorcraft industry, according to a study conducted by the University of North Dakota (UND) in partnership with Helicopter Foundation International (HFI) and HAI. They delivered the results of the study, “UND-HAI Rotorcraft Pilot and Mechanic Supply Forecast,” on Wednesday at Heli-Expo 2018. The goal of the study was to quantify the helicopter pilot and mechanic shortage over the next 20 years.
According to the study, helicopter labor supply continues to drop, with the annual deficit of helicopter pilots now at 370 this year, and that number is only expected to grow to 490 in 2036. The cumulative projected shortage of helicopter pilots in the U.S. between 2018 and 2036 is 7,649. New helicopter pilots entering the rotorcraft field have equalled those becoming inactive or retiring, which has unbalanced the industry since 2009.
The study forecasts an even larger shortage of 40,613 certificated aviation mechanics in the next two decades in the U.S. At the international level, 70 percent of operators find it harder to hire mechanics and 75 percent of those hiring mechanics were only able to find personnel with less than the desired experience. “More than 57 percent believe that the inability to hire mechanics in the coming years will interfere with their growth and expansion plans,” according to the study.
Further, China is poised for aggressive expansion, which will result in more labor supply issues worldwide as personnel are attracted to China with offers of larger salaries.
As the industry continues to collect data, it is finding that more helicopter pilots are transferring to the regional airline industry due to attractive incentives. For example, GoJet’s Rotor Transition Program offers $26,000 for helicopter pilots to train toward their fixed-wing certificates. Similar programs are also being offered by other airlines. Pilots also find the fixed schedules offered by the airlines a powerful incentive to give up flying for smaller companies with irregular schedules.
The study didn’t analyze the attraction to young people of advanced technology found in modern aircraft, but this could be taken into account in future research. “That is something we talked about. It didn't come out in the survey, but it’s something that could help increase the pilot supply a little bit,” said Elizabeth Bjerke, the associate dean and professor at the UND department of aviation.
There are large expectations placed on the shoulders of the newest generation. While they are considered digital natives, they still desire structure and job security, according to the study. For those willing to begin the path to become helicopter pilots, the challenge is to create more operator partnerships that assist in defining attractive career paths and lead them out of the 200- to 1,000-flight-hour gap where it is difficult to find work as a paid pilot.
Financial support for helicopter flight training and further availability of programs designed to attract and retain pilots and mechanics stood out as partial solutions. A policy reform that eases the liability issue for individual mechanics operating in good faith is one suggestion. Another is to help military mechanics to convert their experience into civilian certification, something that HAI has been actively promoting.
“Now we have concrete evidence that there is an issue with a shortage of pilot and maintenance technicians,” said HAI president and CEO Matt Zuccaro. “It could constrain our future growth and our ability to handle the current need. That gives us the direction and motivation to work on what are the solutions—how do we remedy this situation and address it moving forward?”
Zuccaro offered other suggestions: “Develop outreach, internship, and mentorship programs and give people the opportunity to actually experience the helicopter industry first-hand.” He also mentioned the availability of military pilots and maintenance technicians with significant training and experience as an available and critical part of the industry. HAI held a Military-to-Civilian Transition Workshop on Tuesday at Heli-Expo, and it was attended by dozens of military pilots, mechanics, and veterans, as well as career mentors and hiring companies.