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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Avoiding Career Landmines

By Lee Benson

In my last article (Tips for Younger Pilots,” July 2011 Rotor & Wing), I expressed some thoughts for folks contemplating a career as a helicopter pilot. I’ve received a lot of good feedback on this article and would like to expand a bit and focus on things to think about from a career standpoint.

First of all, I would like to say that I’ve never worked for a bad helicopter company. I define a bad company as one that thought more about their bottom line than my bottom. Yes, I’ve worked for companies that didn’t pay as well as I wished they would have, but I never felt that my safety was compromised. This happened in my career because it was my first goal to work for companies with a good safety record. I had opportunities to work for more money on occasion, but stayed true to my first goal. I am alive today, so I guess it worked.

I’m not gifted with the ability to make anyone my friend, that was my dad; I am not the funniest person in the industry either—that would be Stu Taft. This is a very small industry. Not everyone you’ll work with will be a good match, but try to stay cordial, be professional, keep the rumors and back stabbing to a minimum.

I guarantee you that any enemies you make in this business will be in a position to hire, help or hinder you down the road. If you have kept the interaction civil and professional, the least you can expect is that if your name comes up, this person’s input will be at least neutral.

Maybe this is more true in the past than now, but helicopter work is seasonal. Don’t be the pilot that lets the company carry him through the slow time and then when work picks up, take a different job for another bit of money per month.

Loyalty is a two-way street, if it is shown it should be returned. Then there is the operator that let his senior seven pilots from a staff of 27 pilots go on the same day, because if he employed them any longer he would be required to contribute toward a retirement plan. I was one of the seven that was let go.

My point is, if I’d been in the group of 20 less-senior pilots that this company retained, I would have had my radar up for a new position regardless of the time or circumstance.

It’s important to realize as a young pilot—let me restate that—realize as a pilot in this industry you will never know everything. As a young pilot in particular it’s important that you have mentors that you feel comfortable with. A chief pilot should always see this as one of his responsibilities, not that he has to be the mentor himself, he may not have the time, but he should ensure that the less-experienced pilots on staff have a person to go to.

When I came back from Vietnam and entered the commercial market, the average age of helicopter pilots was probably 24. There were some older pilots around at that time and several of them extended their hand to me as a mentor, for that I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

Today all of us Vietnam-era pilots are at the end of our careers, the pilots that helped us many years ago are watching how we treat this younger generation. Let’s not disappoint them. For older pilots, if you are fortunate enough to train in simulators use them for everything they are worth. Care about your performance in the simulator. Keep an open mind towards changes in your flying habits that the instructors suggest.

Remember that you’ll be as good a hand skills pilot as you will ever be by the time you have 3,000 or 4,000 hours. It’s your ability to remain focused and committed to your flying mentally that separates the good pilots from the excellent.

My last thought on this is I think that a company atmosphere that encourages the pilots to share ideas, problems and solutions is the first step toward the safety culture that IHST (the International Helicopter Safety Team) has identified as the answer to reducing accidents in the helicopter industry.

I always use my former employer, Los Angeles County Fire, as an example because that’s what I know best. When I left, every pilot had more than 10,000 hours, egos—what would ever make you think that?

But here’s my point—not all of the pilots got along with every other pilot, but all of the pilots had at least three or four guys that they could relate to and feel comfortable with. Many years back, one pilot that we had recently hired isolated himself as the only keeper of the flame. He was fired.


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