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By Bryan Cox - Professor, ERAU Helicopter Program - On November 6-7, I had a chance to accompany 11 helicopter specialty students to a seminar called “Helisuccess 2011” in Las Vegas, Nevada.  This Seminar is designed to offer helicopter industry professionals, who may be new to the industry, or in a transition phase of their career, an opportunity for learning and networking.  The seminar is hosted by Lyn Burks; owner/developer of the popular helicopter industry HeliSuccess Jobfairwebsites Justhelicopters.com and Verticalreference.com.  Lyn currently holds an ATP/CFII Helicopter with nearly 6000 hours of flying experience.  He also serves as a helicopter industry recruiter who has written several online EBooks and articles about Career Development in the helicopter industry.  I met Lyn once before a few weeks earlier at a Night Vision Goggle (NVG) conference in Dallas, Texas.  Since then we talked over the phone a few times coordinating for students attending HeliSuccess, but I had yet to get the opportunity sit down with Lyn to get his thoughts on the future of the helicopter industry. On Saturday, November 6th while over 200 seminar participants were receiving yet another world class presentation on professional development for helicopter pilots, Lyn agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions relating to the helicopter industry and ERAUs Helicopter specialty program:

Professor Cox:  Based on your current view of the Helicopter industry, how do see the job outlook for students interested in a career as a helicopter pilot?

Lyn Burks:  I see the job outlook from two standpoints; a short-term job outlook and a long-term job outlook.  Most of your students are probably interested in the long-term job outlook – and when I say that, it is maybe three to five years.  In my estimation, the long-term job outlook is very good because the statistics are in favor of the pilots looking forward.  We’ve been talking in our industry for many years about when the pilot shortage would actually come – or if a shortage would ever come because of the Vietnam era helicopter pilots that came into the market back in the late sixties and early seventies.  They were what I term as the baby boomers of the helicopter world because that era produced the most helicopter pilots.  Those pilots are now hitting sixty to sixty-five years old and the thought process is that those pilots, at some point, around sixtyish, would retire.  Airlines traditionally would force the airline pilots to retire at 60 with a recent increase to 65.  In the helicopter industry, there is no standard as far as age goes. You will not get an employer to say what it should be, would be, or could be.  You have to look at a combination of factors.  For those pilots retiring now, there is some attrition. That opens the logjam and creates more movement from the bottom to the top…However, the economy is down, 401k’s are down, pilots are healthier, they are living longer and enjoying what they are doing. That means that many pilots keep flying until their medical falls off.  That’s where the real growth explosion from the bottom up will occur as that era of pilots really start to retire.  We’ve been saying this for the last five years; “here they come”, but they are just not coming.  We know they are out there and that 20% of our pilot population are in those ranks.  So, when 20% of your pilot population starts to leave…the flight training industry – the bottom end of pilot production, fails to keep pace with the attrition rate.  In fact it’s not right now – if you look at how many helicopter pilots there are in the United States and compare that to how many are being produced in the country; there was a quick up-tick from 2002 – 2006 when Silver State Helicopters was pumping out pilots, but it has since leveled off.  So right now we are in the level-off phase, so as those baby boomer helicopter pilots start to leave – the flight schools are not producing as many pilots. There is a lot of reason why flight schools are not producing as many pilots as they were but a significant issue is financing for training.  That is setting up for the perfect storm in my mind.  My prediction is that as the baby boomer helicopter pilots start falling off, there will be a two or three year period where all of the sudden we are going to say… “Wow”, we are losing all of these pilots and the flight training industry will have been “turned off” for three to five years.  This means that the pool of pilots will not be there ready to fill those seats.  This is likely to cause a significant experience gap.  That is going to occur in the next three to five years, so I’d say the three to five year outlook for helicopter pilots is going to be good for entry, good for upward mobility, just because of those dynamics.

Professor Cox:  Do you think the helicopter industry has or is doing a good job of mentoring the next generation of helicopter pilots?

Lyn Burks:  No.  The whole mentoring idea in the helicopter industry was non-existent as little as four or five years ago.  It came to be with events like this (HeliSuccess); this idea was birthed in 2007.  That’s about the exact same time that Helicopter Association International (HAI) started their pilot mentoring series through their flight training committee.  HAI had an effort where they would do these one hour panel sit downs where experienced pilots would talk to inexperienced pilots. That was the only time that real mentoring was occurring.  HeliSuccess was the first real large-scale commercial effort to have a program designed to encourage mentoring and provide mentors.  So, now that it’s starting to catch on, my answer is that we could be doing much better.  I think in the airline industry, there are a lot more formal mentoring programs.  In our industry we tend to “eat our young”, but that culture is slowly changing.

Professor Cox:  What were your initial thoughts when you found out that Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University had started a helicopter specialty program?

Lyn Burks:  My thought was...long pause… what took you so long?  The whole industry has been void of combining flight training with traditional academic education and it’s only been in the last four to five years that it’s become in vogue or popular.  And only then because the flight schools were running out of flight funding resources and colleges were the safe haven to run toward to get VA money, Federal Student Aid funding, and things of that nature. So that’s the trend now; flight schools have been running toward the colleges, but they really don’t have a vested interest in the academic side. In contrast, ERAU has a vested interest in combining aviation education with flight training so again I say….what took you so long?

Professor Cox:  Given that Embry-Riddle helicopter students will spend four years in college until they finally enter the job market; when would you advise them to start attending conferences such as HeliSuccess or HAI?

Lyn Burks:  For the very small cost of an event such as this (HeliSuccess), the earlier the better. This event is going to help shape their perspective of the industry early on so that they know the right questions to ask during their education.  I don’t think that there are any negatives to any person who has 25 hours and a few classes at Embry-Riddle…there’s no negative at all because they’re going to meet and interact with real industry people.  I know that institutions such as ERAU place emphasis on exposing their students to the real world; it does not get any more real than HeliSuccess.

Professor Cox:  What advantage (if any) do you feel a 4-year education from ERAU might offer someone desiring a career as a professional helicopter pilot?

Lyn Burks:  Number one, I think you can never say there is a disadvantage to a higher level of education, you can’t say that at all. If you have two people standing side by side, all things being equal from the flight standpoint: one person has a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science or Aviation Business and the next person with a degree in Art or none at all…the person with the degree is going to have the competitive edge.  So from the standpoint of being hired, you’re going to have a much broader perspective of the world on the business side of things based on your education, you are a better employee when you understand how the aviation business runs as opposed to someone who knows nothing about business.  I also think the standpoint of future opportunities for promotion is critical.  I was in a position myself where they required a bachelor’s degree, working for a Fortune 200 flight department and they had an Assistant Chief Pilot position come open and you had to have a bachelor’s degree or greater to be eligible for that position.  I did not have a bachelor’s degree, so here is a situation in my helicopter career where if I had wanted to take that opportunity, I couldn’t compete with my peers because I lacked that education.  Luckily, I didn’t want the position, but if I had wanted it, I would have really harbored some regret toward that.  From the standpoint of promotion in the real world, if you’re going to be a manager; because someday you’re going to lose your medical certificate or the desire to fly as a line pilot, the next thing you’re going to look at is management.  Very few people in the helicopter industry work their way into management without a college education.

After the interview, Lyn quickly resumed his role as master of ceremony and I found myself tingling with excitement.  Did I just hear what I thought I heard; the helicopter industry has been waiting for a University like ERAU to help fill the void caused by retiring baby boomer helicopter pilots.  Upon returning to campus, I had come to realize that ERAU was indeed on the radar screen of important helicopter industry players; that should make all of us feel pretty darn good.  HeliSuccess is held every year in Las Vegas so you can bet (no pun intended) that next year’s event will include even more ERAU representation.


Online Editors Note: This article and interview was recently written and published in the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Newspaper.


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