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Why you don't make any money! By Willie Dykes

Foreword: The article is a little raw. It is an attempt to describe a 37 year love/hate relationship with this industry. The open-endedness is deliberate. Though it's a little hard to see in the exchanges contained in online forums, I have found helicopter pilots to be among the most intelligent, clear thinking, and broad minded people on the planet. They don't need to be told what to do. This problem of ours needs all the creativity and energy we can muster from the boys. If the discussion/debate is kept loud and noisy, the solution will emerge-usually from the least likely source. Your site is the best thing we have going for us. Power to the people.

This article is an excerpt from a comprehensive downloadable EBook titled, "Everything you every wanted to know about becoming a helicopter pilot!"

This EBook has been produced by Justhelicopters.com and is offered by TheHelicopterStore.com. This EBook is the single most comprehensive source of information available today and is a must read for people interested in Becoming a Helicopter Pilot!

To read excerpts and learn more about this EBook visit www.thehelicopterstore.com or click the "website" link at the top of this article.

ARTICLE:

Foreword: The article is a little raw. It is an attempt to describe a 37 year love/hate relationship with this industry. The open-endedness is deliberate. Though it's a little hard to see in the exchanges contained in online forums, I have found helicopter pilots to be among the most intelligent, clear thinking, and broad minded people on the planet. They don't need to be told what to do. This problem of ours needs all the creativity and energy we can muster from the boys. If the discussion/debate is kept loud and noisy, the solution will emerge-usually from the least likely source. Your site is the best thing we have going for us. Power to the people.

When I first started flying helicopters commercially, I thought I was going to get rich. After a few years that started to look silly, so then I wanted to earn enough to make a down payment on a single family dwelling and own a two year old car. Since that, too, stayed just out of reach, I decided I just wanted to make as much as a bull cook. As most of you know, a bull cook doesn’t cook. They do all the heavy, dirty, and menial work around a camp or an oil rig. This is not to demean the position or worth of the bull cook, for in the leaky lifeboat of camp life, the pilot would be thrown overboard long before the bull cook if freeboard became an issue. Bull cooks make about 50% more than helicopter pilots in most camps, for working a better schedule.

Helicopter pilots almost made bull cook wages in Alaska back in the 90's when the USGS was setting up for a summer field campaign. Wages for all the personnel needed to operate a camp were set by the contract, so that the bidders wouldn’t have to cut each other’s throats with slave labor. The helicopter pilots (flying Hughes 500's or Bell 206's) were to be paid just like the other hands, with straight pay for a normal day, and overtime for anything over. All this at the same, preset, uniform level for all bidders. Since the pilots would naturally be available for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, the potential monthly stipend was an eye-opener. The goose was strangled, however, before the first egg was laid. The helicopter operators got together and lobbied the government for a change in the pay scale. They said, not just in essence, but in fact, “We can’t pay helicopter pilots that much money!” What they meant was, if they paid their little bird drivers over twice what the medium and heavy drivers were getting, the older drivers would demand the jobs, and they would have no experienced hands to operate the bigger birds. Paying helicopter pilots as much as bull cooks would wreck the industry as we know it! The pay scale was changed, the industry was saved, and the bull cooks retained swaggering rights on pay day.

So that begs the question-should we really be making any more money for what we do? Have you ever looked at what you guys do for a living? Guiding a contraption that is nothing but a gas bomb surrounded by slashing blades that will disintegrate at the slightest contact down through holes in huge trees and among jagged rocks. Hovering over mountainous waves in a gale at night with a guy attached to you by a swinging cable, so far out in the ocean that you probably won’t have enough gas to get home. Scud running through towers, power lines, and notches in the hills with just enough vis for an “OH s**t” before you hit something, carrying somebody’s broken child in the back that’s dying by the second. Spending your entire workday shifting your concentration from instruments at three feet to the end of a 100' cable while using both hands and feet to maintain your position in the air, where just shutting your eyes for ten seconds to ease the strain would cause a violent, fatal, zillion dollar wreck. Doing twenty or thirty landings a day while poking around in the summertime soup that’s the GOM. I know you feel relatively safe, and even enjoy it some, but you have to look at it objectively. The U.S. Forest Service pays its firefighters 25% more for working around helicopters than for just fighting raging forest fires. The Emergency Services folks in the region where I flew EMS required that a fully staffed fire truck be present whenever a helicopter landed off an airport. That’s when I started asking myself “Am I a cross between Evel Knievel and the Lone Ranger?” If I am, then why is everybody else on the job making more money, and working a better schedule?

I know, I’m a weenie and a whiner. If you gave me money, next I’d want a life-it never ends. The Oriental axiom that everything is just as it should be at any given time needs to be brought into play.

Once upon a time, there were almost no helicopters around. They were operated by a handful of men who could be described as promoters, pioneers, bandits, or visionaries. The general public regarded the machines as a novelty, and their niche in aviation was tiny and tenuous. Then came WW Viet Nam. All of a sudden, these middle aged entrepreneurs had access to capable, reliable machines and an endless supply of child pilots. Personnel problems were non-existent. Pilots would work for whatever was offered, or offer to work for nothing. Many were single, rootless drifters who saw one place as being just about as good as another. Camp life was real life to them. The operators cannot be blamed for taking advantage of such a windfall. They were abetted by young drivers who were anxious to prove that it wasn’t for their lack of bravery and dedication that the war was lost Unlike the horde of airplane drivers that came out of WWII into the airline industry, the young helicopter pilots flew almost exclusively single pilot on jobs where not more than a few drivers saw one another at a time. They grew frustrated, suspicious of their bosses and brethren, and bitter from the powerlessness of their situation.

It was during these years from about 1965-1975 that many of the industry standards became set in stone. It wasn’t because they were well thought out, or even reasonable, and very little of it was done on purpose. It’s just the way things were. Pilots could be had for nothing, and so they became pitiful objects in their own eyes and the eyes of those they worked alongside. In many venues, including the home, a man’s paycheck is a measure of his worth. The profession and the skills associated with it must not amount to much if it doesn’t pay well. The fiercely competitive operators were not about to give an opponent a break by laying out more for wages unilaterally, so everybody soldiered on, building resentment and ill will. From the pilot’s point of view, since you made no money and had no life, there was no reason for loyalty or rationale for longevity on any particular job. Thus the gypsy helicopter pilot was born. He could usually be depended on to do a journeyman’s job for a time, but often left for other pastures with little warning. The operators of the time were best represented by a remark that is attributed to Bob Suggs of PHI. When asked if he worried about a shortage of helicopter pilots, he is said to have replied, “I can get all the helicopter pilots I need in the gutters of New Orleans.” If it hadn’t been true, everyone would have just laughed.

Nowadays, a lot of young folks who investigate the profession end up walking away scratching their heads. Flying helicopters looks like it would be so cool, but the parts of the scenario don’t add up. The work is demanding and often patently dangerous. The training is outrageously expensive and will not result in your being hireable. The job allows little time or space for anything resembling real life, and the pay seems fairly ordinary. Their question is, “Why would anyone do this?”

The only way a game this silly could continue is if everybody agrees to play. The operators are in business, and in modern business practice, if long range planning has a significant impact on the short-term bottom line it will be ignored. There may be a train wreck coming in the form of a pilot shortage, or pilot revolution, but they have to hear some brakes screeching before they act. The customers are only too willing to put on the blinders when assured by the operators that helicopter pilots are not affected by fatigue and circadian rhythms like other humans. This voluntary delusion also allows them to believe that a person who is chronically peeved about his schedule and compensation will do them a wonderful job. Pilots aren’t like other people, they have a code-don’t they?

The pilots are playing just as hard as anybody else. The only way to perpetuate the myth that “I’m the only one who can actually fly these things worth a damn” is to belittle and put down the rest of the guys. The logging pilot calls the EMS guy a weenie because he only averages an hour a day of flight time. The EMS guy calls the logging pilot an idiot, because anybody who does what he does should be making at least 150 grand a year. Relationships among disciplines and among individual drivers are characterized by condescension and disrespect. Killing everyone else in the room is a proven shortcut to proving your individuality. Flight training philosophy in the U.S., military and civilian, is based on the “Kick me beat me” system where the instructor gets to lord it over the student and eventually convinces him that his reward for taking it will be that he will get to kick and beat others someday. Fun, but not exactly uplifting. A no-fly decision by one pilot for weather or other operational safety reasons is seen as a direct challenge and call to action by every other pilot in the neighborhood. As a result, no day is so long, no log is so heavy, and no weather so funky that the customer won’t fully expect some dummy to try it. Helicopter pilots see their fate as totally unconnected to that of anyone or anything else. Interesting, if juvenile, perspective. If nobody dies, the operator, customer, and the pilot are tickled to death to call blind luck good procedure.

This combination of factors has produced a perception of helicopter pilots that is pervasive in American Society. Perception is always stronger than truth, and is almost impossible to fight. The aggregate perception is of an iconoclastic, back biting, uppity tradesman.

That’s why you don’t make any money. .

Market forces may eventually make material changes in the situation, but don’t count on it. Every incipient pilot shortage is preceded by a military buildup or a recession. The number of patients killed by stressed-out, fatigue-muddled EMS crews will cause the medical insurance agencies to rethink air transport. It will remain more of a carnival ride than a profession. The only person who could possibly be counted on to save you is a lonely actuary trapped in some lonely cubicle in an insurance agency, who runs the numbers on accidents. He will find, to the horror of all involved, that tired pilots drop things and bump into things, just like everyone else.

Since the picture is bleak and unlikely to change, the only real mystery that remains is why anyone would do it. There’s an answer, and it’s not good news. The sensation of rotary wing flight is such a powerful drug that it blocks out all reason in those unfortunate enough to have used it. The mindless linear zooming that airplane drivers call “flight” has a certain limited appeal. Just being up in the air is novelty enough to entertain a few-take balloons for example. But being the mind in the body of a bird is the kind of feeling that would cause a person to behave strangely. The ability to savor this feeling while performing useful work is an addiction that can only lead to poverty, obscurity, and bitterness. It’s a terrible job, but you like it too much to quit. You’re screwed.

The guys who are saying shut up and cowboy up, and the commie firebrands crying union are all pulling for the same cause. They are trying, one through stoicism, one through pay scale, to bring some respect into the helicopter industry. You don’t make no money cause you don’t get no respect, and you don’t get no respect cause you don’t make no money. Like I said, you’re screwed.

Comments

Matt cobham
# Matt cobham
Wednesday, March 10, 2010 2:40 AM
You took the words out of my mouth! Now come to uk and see how much worse it is here! This is a ridiculous industry full of passionate people who are constantly screwed for more and more money and just don't seem to get any where! My career has been a battle all the way with my family constantly asking me why I do it?? My only answer is coz I love it!

I can't imagine not being a heli pilot but it has put no money on the table for me really since I started, but I find myself constantly holding out for it! Now I'm back in uk doing my jaa conversion looking at the industry here which has far less opportunity and lots more regs!!!

Anyway that's enough ranting it's just good to see I'm not the only person who feels exactly like I do!!

I wish the writer all the luck he deserves with this career choice and can only say to just percivier

Blue skies

matt
hookjockey
# hookjockey
Wednesday, March 10, 2010 3:33 AM
Very well written and very true, but you forgot to mention one very important reason why pay is so low. There are a lot of commercial pilots who are retired military. Their military retirement augments their pilot pay enough that they get along pretty well. So when the union comes a knocking they tend to tell them that they are doing okay, meanwhile the pilots who do not have the good fortune to have a retirement check to fall back on are trying to make do with meager wages, that are not at all commensurate with the skill and experience required, or the risk to life and limb.

I am one of those retired military pilots, and I am quite comfortable, so I know firsthand how difficult it is to get me riled up about pay issues.

Having made that admission I must also say that it is ridiculous that someone babysitting a computer while reading a novel at 30,000 gets a paycheck with five zeroes on it, but a guy whose hands have to remain on the controls or the contraption falls out of the sky is lucky to make a living wage.

I don't know the answer. I don't like unions because they seem to be more interested in perpetuating themselves than actually doing anything to help their members. They often don't seem to know the old adage that you should pick your fights, and some things are not worth fighting about. Still it is hard to argue with the fact that pay has been rising in our industry largely due to union contracts that have been very hard fought.

So what is the answer? I don't know. The bad news for you non-military-retired types is that the current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing a whole new crop of experienced rotor jockies who will be more than glad to work for the current pay scale, at least at first.

David Parsley
Wednesday, March 10, 2010 4:44 AM
You really hit the nail directly on the head Willie. It was interesting to see that I made the right decision over 25 years ago to give up something that I really enjoyed, for a life. Yes I was one of the 30,000 helicopter pilots the military trained for Vietnam. And yes the cooks on the rigs in the GOM made more than the pilots, in fact the lowest paid oil rig worker made more. I did have one advantage over many Vietnam era helicopter pilots, I had a University degree and years of corporate accounting expertise to fall back on.

I left a well paying position in 1979 as controller for a restaurant chain to fly for PHI at much less money. Why would a sane person do this? Well you explained this very well when you said “The sensation of rotary wing flight is such a powerful drug that it blocks out all reason in those unfortunate enough to have used it.” For someone who has never flown a helicopter, it can not be explained, and for those of us who have, it needs no explanation.

I also went to the GOM because the only real enjoyment I was having was flying one weekend per month with the 300th Assault Helicopter Army reserve unit. After several years of talking to other reservist about the Gulf I decided to do it.

Over four years in the GOM followed by 18 months in Dallas on Care flight and Channel 4 news and the reality of never having a life became very clear. I also experienced some of the same problems of being pushed to fly in bad weather. My reply, thought not well received was, “you are flying with my favorite person in the world, and I will not get that person killed today”!

I miss those days very much but I just had to bite the bullet and start working on a future with some financial security. At least now at my age there is no temptation to go back, those insurance guys you mentioned will never allow any one over age sixty to return to the air.

I can relate to the pain most of you are feeling, and say best of luck, and fly safe.

David Parsley
Gates
Wednesday, March 10, 2010 6:41 AM
This is a very well-written, true look at this industry. I am glad that a very realistic opinion has been spoken concerning the trials and tribulations of low hour pilots that are addicted. As a young, certified flight instructor, I had entered this industry due to the lure of its excitement. I have published general aviation magazines, flown all sorts of helicopters and whored myself out to get any chance in the cockpit.

I have adopted a new attitude. I have determined that I have worked hard to earn the hours, the time. Now, I need to make enough money doing something completely different to justify a turbine helicopter of my own to fly recreationally. All this regulation, time and money investment and scrapping for work. Who needs it. Let's bring the adventure back. That's why I started it in the first place. I'm flying for me from now on!

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