Although the rotary-wing community seems to be less impacted than the airline community, there are differences as to how various vertical flight operations have been affected. US Editor Chuck Weirauch surveys the helicopter training market.
In mid-October, aviation jobs search company JSfirm.com had posted 96 active online listings for Helicopter (Rotary-Wing) Pilot Jobs, primarily for positions in the United States. Those job openings covered a wide range of categories, including Helicopter Pilot, Instructor, Police Helicopter Pilot, and Utility Helicopter Pilot. A large number of the listings were also for air ambulance and search-and-rescue pilots.
While such pilot jobs continue to be offered during the pandemic, certain areas of the rotary-wing sector of aviation have been more affected than others. According to James Viola, President and CEO of Helicopter Association International (HAI), the two operator segments most severely affected by the infection have been those involved with offshore petroleum and tourism. However, there is “still a lot of flying going on,” particularly in fighting fires on the West Coast and rescuing people in the flooded areas of the Midwest and South, he reported. Viola most recently served as the FAA’s Director of General Aviation (GA) Safety Assurance.
It is still too early to tell just how many helicopter pilot jobs have been lost to the pandemic, and so far the versatility of the rotary-wing flight industry “has kept us engaged, not suffering as much of a drop in pilot jobs as in the airline industry,” Viola said. Even so, previous studies had shown that there had been a significant shortage of helicopter pilots, just as there had been on the airline side, prior to the pandemic. Some indication of that trend can be seen in the FAA 2020 count of “Estimated Active Airmen Certificates Held (Rotorcraft) – 14,248 in 2019 (latest data available), as opposed to 15,566 in 2015.
Two other factors could help keep the helicopter pilot pipeline open, according to Viola.
One is that rotary-wing pilots previously “poached” by airlines may start to come back to a vertical flight career as furloughs hit the airline industry. Another is that there is a burgeoning future for pilots in the urban commuter vertical-take-off-and-land (VTOL) industry, as well as in the unmanned aerial system (UAS) community.
The pandemic malaise has varied widely. At one time, HAI member Civic Helicopters in Southern California estimated that their business was down as much as 80%. Yet, Firehawk Helicopters in Florida reported that so far there has been little impact on its business operations. A spokesperson for Palm Beach Helicopters stated that its flight training is down by 25%, but only because Covid travel restrictions were keeping international students from traveling to training at their facility.
Airbus Helicopters assured its customers that its North American Training Center in Texas remains open, with the proper Covid safety protocols in place. FlightSafety International also reported that its regional training centers will stay open as well, with health precautions being taken.
In addition to the loss of pilots because of the economic impact on air carriers and operators, another major concern for both the fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft communities is the reduced amount of pilot flight time during the pandemic due to flight restrictions. Leaders in both communities understand that with less flight time, pilots tend to lose not only their flight skill proficiencies but the ability to make proper aeronautical decision-making choices as well.
“I would hope that flight schools are keeping their enrollments up, with more going vertical, and keeping the training moving,” Viola said. “Flight training is definitely critical to safety and aeronautical decision-making, since it is all about risk mitigation and developing repeating safe flying fundamentals. But right now we are not getting the same amount of flight hours as before. Fortunately, there are ways that you can specifically address that problem through training.”
“We want to make sure that the schools keep producing pilots with the training that is going on right now, and in fact we have taken some measures to encourage them to do so,” Viola continued. “We don’t want them to stop, because this pandemic is a temporary thing. The schools are adapting now and keeping up with the social distancing for the training, and it’s great to see positive results with that effort.”
Pivot to Online Training
Brian Moore, Senior VP of Operations for FlightSafety, agrees with Viola about the safety issues caused by the reduction of helicopter pilot flight times. “There definitely has been some reduction in the amount of flying activity out there, and the challenge of that is maintaining proficiency,” he said.
Another problem is that customers are becoming reluctant to travel to helicopter training facilities because of Covid travel restrictions, Moore reported.
“What we have seen overall, in both rotary- and fixed-wing, is that folks are hesitant to travel because of the imposed restrictions of travel. And obviously on the economic side as well, as companies are being impacted in sectors such as in the oil and gas industry. We have seen a bigger hit internationally than domestically – all related to travel restrictions.”
To help deal with the reduced flight time dilemma, as well as that of traveling to training locations, the FAA and EASA have been working with training providers to allow more student flight training credit hours to be applied to online and distance learning curricula.
According to Moore, both regulatory agencies “were great and extremely supportive” in providing approval for the company’s 90-day LiveLearning ground school curriculum.
While FlightSafety already had web-based learning modules established to be offered to customers, the new ground school courseware introduced the “live” element into the online lessons by allowing customers to attend the classes and interact with instructors through digital corporate video meeting software platforms such as Webex and Zoom, Moore explained.
“We introduced a LiveLearning component into our training curricula back in March,” Moore said. “We got on top of this right away, with it initially geared towards the fixed-wing community, and then into the rotary-wing side as well. This is the ability to deliver the ground training portion of the curriculum via Live Learning, with a real instructor leading a class in the classroom and doing it virtually. Online customers see the same course that is being presented in the classroom, with the same visuals. Students have the ability to interact with the instructor in a couple of ways with tools that allow them to virtually raise their hand and ask a question through the platform’s audio-video capability. We use the same LMS as we do with our non-instructor led, self-paced e-learning and maintenance courses.”
So far, the LiveLearning methodology has been extremely well-received across both the fixed-wing and rotary-wing community, with more than 1,800 pilot events taking place since March. The LiveLearning approach will be expanded and become a part of how the company delivers training from now on, along with its traditional classroom delivery, Moore pointed out.
“This is not the same as getting into the cockpit,” Moore summarized. “But this LiveLearning approach gives students the ability to at least stay sharp and up to speed on the equipment and the procedures, as well as interact with instructors and peers, to at least maintain as much proficiency as they possibly can in this manner.”
For its part, the HAI Safety Working Group has developed a number of safety and training-related webinars for its membership (both members and non-members can access them at www.rotor.org/resources/hai-webinars), including one published in September that is particularly relevant to current times, entitled “Regaining Pilot Proficiency.” The hour-long video is listed under “September Webinars.”
“We are also trying to do other things for our members to help improve their safety practices and procedures, as well as on accreditation and other programs such as safety management systems,” Viola said. “But the main message for now is that this would be a good time to build on or reinforce the foundations of your company. That’s so when the pace picks back up, you can capture those policies and procedures during this little bit of a slowdown. So, when we come out of it in the next six or nine months, we can have a good safety foundation and processes in place.”