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By Barry Pomeroy - The answer to the shortage of qualified helicopter pilots and the ‘gray area’ for certified low time commercial helicopter pilots are; Interns - voluntary second pilots in VFR/SPIFR commercial and HEMS operations. I am Barry Pomeroy, I am a low time Commercial pilot with an existing career, and I am writing this as the result of a Internshipfailure matrix analysis after observing and participating in the industry for approximately six years. I attend, listen, and read everything I can get my hands on from the helicopter world.

This discussion is to present a known solution to the critical helicopter industry pilot staffing shortage problem. The problem stems from the dwindling experience pool of professional pilots who are leaving the industry by attrition due to retirements, health disqualification, and internal management promotion. There has also been growth of the helicopter industry without a dramatic influx of experienced helicopter pilots who meet the current FAR and industry insurance standards.

There are simply not enough entry level helicopter pilot jobs which can train and season new pilots to qualify for the industry wide pilot need. There is however, an extremely large pool of commercially rated pilots and CFI’s whom are certified by the FAA, but ineligible for employment due to insurance minimum PIC requirements and the more important lack of specialized skill sets required for complex aircraft operation and mission profiles.

There is a very small pool of available experienced pilots standing around reading the want-ads and available on your timetable if you are an employer. And in that group of unemployed line pilots, let’s face it, they all know where they would rather be, and it might not be your organization regardless of what they tell you when you hire them. Much better odds are that in the large pool of FAA certified professional pilot intern candidates, there may be hundreds of them who specifically want to work in your industry, in your region, or even for your specific company. How many of you have met them at your booth at the EXPO, or have received their meager flight time resume’s? All heart, but nowhere near what your insurance or your customers would hire as a line pilot. Unless, they were a low cost second pilot, and a future expert ‘new’ line pilot that was under contract to remain with you after an internship.

At no time should an intern pilot be used to supplant a professional line pilot for mission critical work or to subvert a labor management collective bargaining agreement. An intern is a paid and/or compensated subjective ‘employee’ in support of active operations specifications and flight profiles.

The first component of my solution is the model of internship and necessity. Many companies cannot afford to lose an experienced pilot or multiple pilots due to illness, competition, accidents, retirements, or aircraft availability. When it does occur, the time to train another pilot with experience can consist of regional complexities, company culture, aircraft differentials, local regulations, mission specific regulations, and any number of other Help-Wanted requirements often seen in pilot advertisements. Once a line pilot is on board and the basics requirements have been met, there is an evaluation period and undoubtedly a skill building period which may exceed months or longer to get back up to full productivity for the man-hours of burning fuel and working on the customer’s time clock.

The helicopter industry shows that the overwhelming majority of commercial operations are not done by large companies, but by a pool of small to medium sized operators. However, even the large number pilot employers also can suffer from the shortage of seasoned pilots when new contracts come in and require immediate servicing, or when logistics prevent separating the crews of complex aircraft and the increase in risk that accompanies putting brand new employees into complicated missions without long term training, evaluation and mentoring. What are the answers?  Think military and public aircraft modeling; internal mentoring and low cost professional pilot internships.

When you think about it, who else does this pilot shortage apply to and how do they handle it? The US military has faced this problem for decades and continues to evolve in its management of that need. The basic answer is that they provide all or at least 95% of the basic flight training required for all of their missions in house. Can you imagine having to select, hire, and provide basic training for all your entry level pilot positions? It’s not even reasonable to consider. But, the days of getting hardened, mature pilots out of the military en-mass is over. Many more now remain in the military for the one-of-a-kind opportunities. Still, some are getting voluntarily discharged while several hundred or thousands of PIC hours short of the private industry insurance minimums. They frequently may have exclusively combat mission specific training in large complex two pilot aircraft, which may not to apply to getting straight to work flying your single pilot light or medium turbine aircraft to civilian customers’ standards.

So what can the commercial industry apply from the military model since providing basic flight training to entry candidates is not feasible? Well, we know that there is a pool of certified pilots ready and willing to work and continue learning. And we have to pay them and require them to meet standards if we put them to work. Many come from walks of life and professions that prove their maturity as reliable as well as a college degree does for the military. Some come with family stability, and commitments which may include student pilot flight training loans. Those who are civilian and military trained will be more than happy to work with a final employment contract at the end of an internship required to participate.

What can a company expect to gain from establishing an internship program for helicopter pilot? There are so many options that it is really up to the directors to establish what their needs are and set out to build a program from scratch that is tailored to that company. For discussion, let’s hit the basic needs from above. An intern that is properly vetted and selected will be ready and willing to start almost immediately. They don’t have other flying commitments in the industry and will most likely not be under a contract someplace else. The recency of newer pilot's up-to-date FAA training and education likely means that they are ready to learn when they show up at your facility. They cost less to hire and compensate than a line pilot who will have his or her own expectations and habits to break which may or may not be what you desire. An organization can set the timelines for your internship program, including critical promotions or failures that would release you and the intern from any obligations.

An intern is a blank slate that your company can develop into what you want as an employee now, and later on as a line pilot working for your organization. If your minimum PIC time for a line pilot is 1500 hours, 2000 hours, or 3000 hours, you have from the intern’s current total time, until he or she meets your minimums to prepare him or her. So when you finally hire your own intern at the completion of the internship, he or she will have hundreds if not thousands of hours in your mission with time-on-task.

That means that as soon as a successful intern satisfies your requirements to become a line pilot, and you want to hire that person; they already know your mission, your company policies, your insurance requirements, your region, your community, your risk management practices, your aircraft, your pilot culture, your standards, your customers, and your expectations of him or her. If they have completed the internship and applied for your line pilot positions, they want to be there purposely. Not because that was the only way out of the Grand Canyon, or a pyramid type flight school operation. The transition can be seamless and part of the process or it can be terminated at any time before the pilot is hired under a final contract. The internship and final contract concept benefits the company more than it does the pilot, however, the pilot also benefits by putting his training to work much sooner than they otherwise would.

So what can a company who needs a source of seasoned pilots, affordable operations insurance, and willing employees offer? For starters; flight time, mission training, mission equipment, mentoring, one on one observation and evaluation, and fractional wages that may include student loan repayment in lieu of a benefits package.

Any company which operates a complex turbine powered helicopter, that is only required to have one pilot, may take the opportunity to use an intern as a secondary pilot. The secondary pilot provides an immediate increase in safety as an aid to VFR aircraft separation, IFR pilot work load reduction, elongation of PIC time on task for critical mission tasks for the senior pilot, and line pilot scheduling improvements. A company that is flying with a shortage of line pilots will have the ability to rearrange the location and work usage of line pilots for mandatory usage as intern pilots gain experience and meet objectives in the work program.

As interns meet goals and objectives within the specific mission profile more responsibilities can be placed on them. When an intern has met the on-going evaluation standards for an advanced flight internship, perhaps insurance minimums, then a time commitment type ‘final’ professional pilot contract can be required to complete the intern/employment. The minimum standards to complete during an internship may be the attainment of a twin engine rating, FAR135 check off; aircraft type rating, IFR pilot rating, MEL familiarization, navigation equipment proficiency, or mission equipment and policy proficiency training. Time weighted evaluations along with behavior and grooming standards, relocation, education, and fitness profiles may also be used by companies to help interns integrate into the organization.

The company will immediately see a reduction in capacity from the space in the second seat otherwise used for an observer, income generating personnel, and a weight increase inside the aircraft. While that transfers over to dollars and cents as a possible negative, the enhancement of flight safety, and the utility of an intern during the service life of the agreement is sure to absorb the cost through efficiencies alone. The company may have to pay the intern a nominal wage and provide safety equipment such as a uniform, flight suit, safety shoes, communications equipment, and mission specific training. However, the secondary pilot – intern may be used to perform non-flight responsibilities, support operations, and should be provided every opportunity to operate the aircraft as the PIC for prepositioning, repositioning, recovery, maintenance, and limited mission flights.

When a company with an intern program is looking for a new line pilot, it can either take in a total stranger from as far away as across the state, nation, or globe; or it can look within its intern program and see who meets their needs. An intern with 1800 hours that has been flying the non-critical HEMS flight legs, with real IFR time, night hours, NVG time, and all of it in your existing fleet; may be sitting in one of your facilities right now, with 1500 hours in your aircraft, having flown with 100% supervision by a senior pilot. Who would you rather have?

So the questions remaining for operators might be; can we have this program with our existing aircraft or mission profile? How soon can we get set up? Which missions can afford the weight increase of a non-required second pilot? How long until we can use an intern in a two pilot operation? What package do we want to offer an intern? What will our basic requirements be? Who can we trust to manage a mentoring program? Where will we find intern candidates? How long should the internship phases last? What will we commit to mentoring an intern? How long should the final contract require them to work for our organization after their internship is completed?

Is there an incentive by the federal government that supports this program? Yes, and more should be pursued through the FAA and the Education and Commerce Departments.

The recommendation I would make is that there are two phases of internship, selection and qualification, followed by contractual obligation of the intern to complete the internship and employment period. If completed to the pilot and the agency’s satisfaction, they would result in an employment contract commitment during the second phase of the internship and extend beyond hiring as a line pilot.

The first phase of a helicopter pilot internship should include the following; selection and memorandum of understanding, equipment supply and training, aircraft familiarization, facility familiarization, regional operations familiarization, Safety training, aircraft type rating and flight training, education and work schedule as needed for worker and organization needs dictate. Training should take place outside of the active mission with the exception of corrective training and skills development mentoring. Evaluations should be ongoing throughout the first phase.

The second phase of a helicopter pilot internship should be initiated after a thorough review of performance, organizational goals, negotiated benefit, and terms of agreement. Additional training and responsibility may result in more pay, another aircraft type or mission access and some solo PIC work that is not affected by mission regulations. All flight training should be provided by scholarship or the organization employing the intern.

Specific professional development goals and bench marks should be openly documented and the organization should freely provide assistance. An employment contract should be negotiated or dictated and both the organization and the employee should make the decision to enter into it freely during Phase two. There will be release clauses for safety, injury, and eligibility based prior experience, on EEOC law and FAR’s.

The phases may be of standard duration, or based on flight time benchmarks and performance objectives. Every attempt should be made to benefit the intern as much as the organization and build an SMS culture. Insurance underwriting may have allowances or rating that assists or costs organizations for having a program.

A possible national standard benefiting from this type of program may be the new NTSB/FAA rule proposal for HEMS programs and SPIFR risk management in accident reduction. What better “second qualified crew member” on larger single to medium twin engine aircraft to use NVG and support risk management reduction than a carefully selected intern-pilot, vetted and trained for your current and future needs.

The FAAST team, AOPA, HAI resources, and corporate contacts have been open-minded about this proposal for a wide area internship initiative. What the concept needs is national leadership and examples to follow. Two very successful and modern programs recently in the spotlight are Helijet in Vancouver Canada, and Chautauqua County Starflight in New York. Both have a legacy of internship programs and a pipeline for future pilots. Both also see an increase in safety, utility of the employee, and an arguable reduction in costs.  If we look aggressively and creatively for an out-of-the-box solution for qualified pilot shortages and safety. But we need to do so with solution as the goal and not merely obstacle identification such as in airframe use, modification, and fuel management.

I also believe that the accreditation and SMS progress in our industry would be greatly served by establishing this kind of real industry outreach to not only new pilots, but also to those still dreaming or planning for a career in our industry, especially for those preparing to invest in rotorcraft education of all kinds; engineering, piloting, maintenance, and marketing.

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