Bridging the Gap... Helping low-time pilots enter the industry.
Lyle Wattsby Lyle Watts


There is dilemma in our industry. For a number of years, many of our customers, in their desire for increased safety and efficiency, have been requesting fairly high minimum-experience requirements for helicopter crews - generally in the range of 1000 hours as pilot in command. Very recently, the efforts of companies and of organizations such as the Helicopter Association of Canada, have convinced several government agencies to look at lower numbers such as 600 hours PIC, 100 on type, and where applicable, an "approved" mountain course. This may help to ease the situation, but there is still a sizeable "gap" to be bridged. The dilemma is how to get a 100-hour pilot up to the magic number where they are considered "acceptable" by prospective customers without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

Some background...

Although this gap has always presented a problem for the low time pilot, in the past, it was fairly easy for the operators to accommodate their customers. Previously, there has been a reasonably good supply of proficient pilots available. But this began to change about three years ago.

After a number of fairly slow seasons, Canadian operators were suddenly confronted with a summer of increased mining activity, a busy fire season, and an abundance of international contracts. The result was, that many of the "qualified" pilots that used to be available for backup when flying got busier, were suddenly either working, time-expired, or out of the country.

I normally receive a number of calls in the summer from operators wondering if I have come across any good pilots who are looking for work. But in the last few years, the calls have been changing. They went from ... "We would like about 2000 hours of (Bell) 206 time and some long line work" to ... "Do you know anyone with 200 hours on a turbine?" It was apparent that the demand for pilots was there, but the only pilots immediately available with the required experience had to be brought in from outside Canada. This stopgap worked for the first year or so, but then Immigration Canada became more hesitant to issue work permits for foreign pilots. The smart operators saw the writing on the wall and realized that it was time to reinstate a recruitment program for lower time pilots if they were to avoid being caught again in the same predicament.

I think its important to state, that there isn't a pilot out there, who leaped instantly from 100 to 1000 hours (except for those who added an extra zero to the end of their actual log book total and added some "creative writing" in between). In the "old days", we all went through the period of building experience gradually. Some took several years to build up their time. Others were fortunate enough to land a good contract that allowed them to add several hundred hours in their first year. Most of us picked up time gradually, 3 or 4 hundred hours a season. As we gained experience, we were allowed to fly more demanding operations until one day we had the ultimate promotion... a turbine endorsement.

Things happened more slowly in the industry 20 years ago! Back then, we would wait patiently for 15 minutes while a hot dog boiled on the camp stove. Today we stand in front of the microwave for 15 seconds and shout, "Hurry up!" Many of today's junior pilots are so anxious to become highly paid S61 logging captains, that they have overlooked the fact that there is no "microwave" available for a helicopter career. With the exception of the Robinson R22 and R44, there are relatively few piston ships in commercial use nowadays, and therefore many junior pilots are now graduating with a turbine endorsement. With little more than their licence in hand, they expect to jump straight into the captain's seat and fly off into the sunset. (Of course this is just an illustrative metaphor. If they really were planning to fly at night, they would also be required have the appropriate night rating, second pilot on board, IFR rating, multi engine aircraft, flight instruments, panel lighting, lifesaving equipment, survival kit, reliable timepiece, functioning landing light and ELT if they are intending to carry passengers for hire. Please reference the CARs for further details.)

Will the CARs help the situation?

All kidding aside, (well... some kidding), the requirements of the CARs may well work in favour of allowing lower time pilots entry to the industry. Requirements for co-pilots and IFR ratings have been modified somewhat, so as to offer more opportunity for a pilot to build time. The reductions in the flight duty time limits will likely influence many operators to hire more lower-time pilots and accelerate their training programs. They will utilize them for the "lower-risk" operations, and the higher-time pilots’ flight duty time allotment will be reserved for the more demanding operations. But despite these changes, operators still experience difficulty filling vacated or newly created positions.

What have the operators seen as solutions?

Many operators are large enough that at least some of their work falls into a category that I will label "lower risk". I use the term somewhat loosely. Some of you may not agree as to whether this label is applicable to all the examples given below. However, it can be agreed that some operations, require a greater level of expertise, and therefore may not be appropriate for a low-time pilot, while other tasks can be conducted with a high degree of safety by most knowledgeable pilots. My criteria for these "lower risk" flight operations, include: work at low gross weights, low density altitudes, high power reserves, favourable weather conditions, and lower daily flight duty times. All of these conditions work to improve safety by promoting peak performance from the pilot while minimizing fatigue induced hazards.

All companies have a requirement for some internal flying that may not involve passengers, or a paying customer, and therefore might be suitable for time-building a junior pilot. Some examples are ferry flights, and test flights following maintenance. Some operators may also be able to use the pilots in areas where the customer requirements are more flexible, such as tourist flights, sightseeing or photography trips.

Also, many helicopter companies are becoming very innovative and moving away from strictly charter work to conduct business operations that require helicopter support on their own. For this type of operation, they have the flexibility to use whatever pilot they feel competent to do the job. One example of this, is a company that owns its own timber sales, and uses its aircraft to log them. This sort of operation also often allows the set up of a monitored flight training program, where a junior pilot is able to fly with a training pilot while dropping off the in-house fallers, or collecting chokers, etc. Some single-engine logging operators utilize a low-time pilot as co-pilot to help transition him or her into the field.

There are other fairly straightforward operations that may require only minimal specialized pilot training, such as power line, pipeline, gas well and traffic patrols. These involve lots of cruising, and not too many landings at unprepared sites. Using lower-time pilots in these sorts of operations allows them to build their experience in a relatively controlled environment.

Another approach that is used by many operators is to hire low-time pilots to work on their ground support crews. This gives them the opportunity to observe the pilots closely and assess their personality, flexibility and ability to "go the extra mile". At this point in the hiring procedure, many operators are only vaguely interested in the pilot's ability to fly. After all, they all hold the same piece of paper (i.e. their pilot licence). The philosophy of these companies is, that since integrating these pilots into their operations will require a lengthy program of training and orientation that may cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000, they want to be really sure that they are spending it on the right people.

The scenario often goes like this. At the beginning of the season they hire 8 or 10 pilots at minimal wage level to perform ground tasks. Halfway through the summer 3 have quit because their tents leaked. By the end of the summer 3 more are gone because they either wanted a holiday in Australia, or because ski season was starting and they didn't want to miss any time on the slopes (or equally off base excuses). Over the winter, the remaining four are then put to work on the shop floor. By next spring two more have dropped out and surprisingly enough the two that are left are the ones chosen to take the spring flight training course. The likelihood of these two not working out by this stage is greatly reduced. The system appears to be working well for most companies that have applied it.

Incidentally, as a side benefit of hiring a recently graduated low time pilot, I suspect that many companies could then be assured that at least one of their pilots would be able to read and interpret the new TAFs and METARs.

What can low-time pilots do to help themselves along?

Recently, at HeliExpo, I took an informal poll of many of the operators who took the time to stop by our booth. I wanted to find their opinions on the junior pilots that they had recently hired. Commonly, they were disappointed with recent graduates' level of operational background knowledge. The operators felt there was much left to teach these pilots to get them ready for the flight line. Worse, many of the pilots didn't seem to realize that they weren't yet ready! But the biggest complaint, was that after they gave these pilots a break and got them out flying, the new pilots seemed to have very short memories of who gave them their start. They often soon left to join a higher bidder across the field. Its no wonder many companies are reluctant to put the time, effort, and financial commitment into bringing these new pilots aboard.

Knowing that there are at least some operators out there that are willing to give a new pilot a chance, what can you do to try and ensure that you are one of the ones chosen for further training? The best piece of advice I can give a low-time pilot is to search for an operator that has a substantial amount of "lower risk" flying available. Your primary goal then, is to continually demonstrate to the operator that your dedicated nature, cheerful personality, positive attitude, flexibility, willingness to cooperate, assist their customers, and relocate wherever necessary, along with your ability to "go the extra mile" (incidentally, these are nautical miles) are just what they need.

This may sound straightforward to many of you veteran pilots out there, but its new ground for many young people today. For reasons unclear to me, there seems to be a general attitude that just because someone is willing to spend $50,000.00 to get the licence, the world will automatically provide them with a job. To make matters worse, once they have the job, many will now feel, that all that is required, is that they "show up for work", and the paycheque will take care of itself. Some don't even feel it necessary to go that far. I heard of one lower-time pilot who was recently given his walking papers after just a few weeks of trial employment. Apparently, he phoned in to say that he wouldn't be able to fly that day, because there was a hockey game on TV that he wanted to watch instead. Keep your eyes open for this sort of situation, because if you are the next pilot to arrive on that operator's doorstep (and you indicate no interest in hockey), you may be a prime candidate for the newly opened position. There is a certain amount of "being in the right place at the right time" in this business. Search for these opportunities, or even better... try to create one.

I love to tell the story of a young pilot, (now a Transport Canada Inspector), who on hearing of a potential job opportunity caught the red eye flight out west to see the operator. Not wanting to spend the money on a hotel, he stayed at the operator's office. No one was around that early, but this particular morning, there were two aircraft sitting outside the hanger. Taking a small chance, he took it upon himself to wash and clean the aircraft and push them out on the flight line. When the owner arrived to open up the office and saw the aircraft ready to go, he was dumbfounded. No one currently employed in his organization had done this sort of thing recently. After a short trial employment, the candidate was hired. He had demonstrated the "extra mile" principle that seems to be lacking in many of today's junior pilots.

You have to show the operator why they should hire you, and not someone else. Several of my students take it upon themselves to ensure that they are knowledgeable in areas such as dangerous goods, critical surface contamination, underwater egress, cost of aircraft operation, technical logbook requirements, and contract bidding procedures. They research a potential employer's background and areas of expertise, in advance of arriving for an interview. Some have taken the aerial-application written examinations prior to applying for a position at a spray operation. Some decide to take extra flight training on the particular machine that the company operates (especially if it is one of the less common types) to make themselves more marketable.

How can a training school help?

In my discussions with many Canadian operators over the last few years, it has become obvious that the operators themselves often do not have the resources of time, and personnel to carry out some of the intermediate training that is required to transition a pilot to the work force. Low time pilots will always need more training. Yet just arriving on an operator's doorstep with an extra 25 hours of undirected flying, in my opinion, is, in itself, not a sufficient advantage to a low time pilot's job search, to justify the extra cost.

A potential solution that I envision developing, is an intermediate "industry standard" training course, carried out by an independent training school. This type of course would address some of the more advanced industry training requirements, such as more sling load work, confined areas, mountain flying, bucketing etc. Much of this material used to included in the basic 100-hour training courses, but was squeezed out when the licensing requirements for instrument flying and more solo cross-country navigation were introduced about 10 years ago.

Such a program will only be effective for both the operator and the junior pilot, if such a course is developed with the input and therefore the blessing of industry. A certificate of satisfactory completion will then carry weight in the industry. I would like to invite any operator that wishes to contribute further input as to what they view as their needs and requirements for such a course, to contact me. Development of this course is now in progress. I urge operators to be a part of its creation.

If low-time pilots are able to see that this type of transitional course is recognized by industry, then they are more likely to consider it a worthwhile expense. I know that not all pilots will be able to afford this extra training. But, there are some who will justify it, and thereby save the operator of some of the costs of integrating a new low time pilot into their organization.

I also know there are several operators who could utilize this outsourced approach more cost effectively than trying to develop and maintain a similar in-house program.

This is not to say that in-house training programs should disappear. It will always be necessary for the operator to provide specialized and recurrent training in their particular areas of expertise. There will remain, however, many intermediate areas of training that can be taught successfully by competent personnel outside their organization. This is an area where an independent training school can help to bridge the gap.

In conclusion...

It has always been difficult for a pilot to find that all-important first break. But recently, with the current shortages of experienced pilots, and a relative abundance of flying in Canada, the potential is that it will become somewhat less difficult over the next few years. Operators with foresight are taking the time to consider the future of their operations as their higher time pilots either retire or move on to greener pastures. Hopefully with the cooperation of pilots, operators, training institutions, and the customer, we will be able to move to a more equitable situation in the coming years.



About the Author

Lyle Watts holds an Airline Transport Pilot Licence valid for helicopters, endorsed with the Class I Instructor and Group IV Instrument Ratings. He has been involved with flight training in B.C. for over 35 years, and has served as a DPE in the Pacific Region since 1981.

He is currently the Chief Flight Instructor for Heli-College Canada Training Inc. located in Langley, B.C., Canada