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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Eye on Maintenance: Bristow Takes on a Big Bias

BRISTOW GROUP SEES A LOT OF fertile ground to be plowed in finding new helicopter mechanics.

Folks in this industry spend a lot of time talking about the shortage of pilots. In fact, a look back over the 40 years of Rotor & Wing will reveal that the earliest issues of the magazine cite concerns about that shortage.

Perhaps its visibility reflects a skewed view; most of our readers are or have been pilots, as are many of the people we meet in the field. When we meet those folks, though, they quickly come around to what they consider a more serious and critical concern: the shortage of skilled helicopter mechanics (or engineers, as they are known in many parts of the world).

The conventional wisdom is that there is a general shortage of mechanics that will worsen in coming years as fleets (commercial airline, general aviation, and rotorcraft) increase. Anecdotal information certainly supports that, with aircraft mechanics lured away by the automobile and computer industries, and even by amusement parks. (Central Florida’s concentration of amusement parks, for instance, needs workers skilled in sheet metal, composites, and electrical, electronic, hydraulic, and pneumatic systems and has drawn a number of FAA-certificated airframe and powerplant [A&P] mechanics to its rolls.)

A number of factors foster a shortage. Airlines, which have always been the big draw to the maintenance career field, have become much less pleasant places to work. Other fields rarely require working overnight or outdoors in frigid temperatures and foul weather. Also, for many younger people computers are just more intriguing than aircraft.

With all that said, some helicopter industry leaders are optimistic about the prospects of building a steady supply of new mechanics. Patrick Corr is among them.

Formerly the head of Helicopter Adventures, Inc., the flight school based in Titusville, Fla. and Concord, Calif., Corr joined Bristow Group when it bought the school in April. He now serves as Bristow’s senior vice president of global training and part of the 10-member senior management team charged with running Bristow day to day.

Corr sees the pilot shortage as easier to solve than the dearth of mechanics. "There is an abundance of young people who think flying helicopters would be great," Corr said.

That’s not the case for prospective mechanics, many of whom don’t even consider rotorcraft because of a bias against helicopters that is built into the aviation training system.

The vast majority of instructors at mechanic training schools come from the fixed-wing side of the house, with those drawn heavily from airlines. They know that world and steer their students toward it. "The A&P schools I’ve visited in the U.S. almost totally ignore helicopters," Corr said.

Like many biases, this one rides on a stereotype that is based on a lack of knowledge or outdated knowledge. The instructors and leaders of these schools view rotorcraft as rudimentary, obsolete collections of equipment, while fixed-wing birds are considered advanced and complex, i.e. more fun and challenging to troubleshoot and work on.

These mentors also portrayed airline jobs as carrying the benefit of free travel to exotic places. As Corr notes, the novelty of flying standby on popular routes that airlines served with packed flights wears thin pretty quick, and airline mechanics are more likely to spend years doing the same tasks than working a range of troubleshooting challenges.

But it is that very bias that makes Corr hopeful. He’s convinced that a fair share of aspiring mechanics will turn to helicopters once they are educated about modern rotorcraft and the challenging maintenance jobs associated with them.

"We want to show them the opportunities in the helicopter world and the sophistication of helicopters, emphasizing the global career opportunities they could have," he said.

While the view of helicopters as simple, old-technology aircraft might have had some justification 20 or 30 years ago, he said, today’s rotorcraft have glass cockpits and advanced avionics, make extensive use of composites in structures and rotor heads, and have sophisticated aspects like full-authority digital engine controls and rotor track-and-balance systems.

"All of these are things that have been improved and become extremely sophisticated," Corr said. Instructors and students at mechanic schools "would be surprised."

They also would be surprised at the range of job opportunities this industry offers, he said. There are big companies with worldwide operations, like Bristow, and "small, intimate companies where a mechanic can do challenging work."

So Corr aims to surprise those instructors and students.

Starting this year, he said, Bristow will take its aircraft to visit mechanic schools so the students and faculty can see the birds firsthand. The company plans to do that on a quarterly basis, starting in the U.S. Gulf Coast region, where Bristow supports Gulf of Mexico offshore operations.

Bristow also is making greater use of mechanic apprentices in its operations, and is going outside traditional aviation sources to find them by visiting automotive and other mechanical trade schools. "We can turn people on who had no thought of going into aviation, simply because they haven’t thought about aviation maintenance," Corr said.

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