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Thursday, April 1, 2004

New Paths to the Top

James T. McKenna

Retirements of Vietnam-era pilots and growing acceptance of civilian training among employers are creating new job opportunities for helicopter pilots.

Things are looking up for flight training in the United States. Flight school operators from California and Colorado to Connecticut and Florida say they are booked with students who are finding it easier both to pay for their training and, if they choose, to find jobs flying helicopters down the road.

The optimism is spurred by a number of factors. For one, many professional helicopter pilots are retiring, particularly those of the Vietnam War era, and their seats must be filled.

For another, civilian operators long dominated by military-trained pilots are becoming more and more willing to consider job applicants trained at civilian schools. This is pragmatic. For years, the military has been releasing fewer pilots to the civil job market, and many of those are experienced in aircraft like the AH-64 Apache that have no direct civil equivalent.

The trainers' outlooks also seem to be brightened by an improving U.S. economy and confidence among consumers that the economy will continue to improve. A healthier economy is clearly good news for those seeking a career flying helicopters.

"Consumer confidence is back up," said Regina Fyola, manager of Broomfield, Colorado-based Rotors of the Rockies, whose services include flight training. They operate three Schweizer 300Cs and a Bell 206 L3. "We've seen continued growth."
Mike Zemlock, owner of Zemlock Helicopter Service in Chino, California, agreed. Training business at his company, which operates three Bell 47s, has "picked up quite a bit since the start of the year. We've had to turn people away."

A recovering economy also helps increase demand for training from those flying for pleasure, and Fyola and other flight school operators said they are seeing growth there, too. At Rotors of the Rockies, Fyola said, that growth comes primarily from men 20 to 50 years old who own their own companies and are looking for recreational outlets.

"The helicopter is their Porsche," she said.

All this growth is not to say that flight schools face a glut of students. Some said they are getting more requests for training than they can handle. But others said they would welcome more students. "The numbers are still relatively small," said Patrick Corr, president of Helicopter Adventures, the major flight school with bases in Titusville, Florida and Concord, California. "It would not be a good thing if there was a sudden explosion of flight schools."

A major force in the training market today is a change that flight school operators and aircraft manufacturers said has been occurring slowly in the last 15 years or so. Over those years, most pilots learned to fly and built their time primarily through service in the U.S. military.

Tom Milton typifies that group. In 1965, he was a 19-year-old with an interest in flying but not much hope of earning his tickets. In a chance encounter at LaGuardia Airport, he was advised by the head of the Air Line Pilots Association not to give up hope, and to look into the military as an avenue to a flying career. Milton signed up for the Army's Warrant Officer Candidate program in 1968 and did three years active duty, including one flying Hueys in Vietnam. After a brief hiatus from the military, he joined the New York Army National Guard, where he served for 30 years.

Today, Milton is chief police of the Nassau County, N.Y, Police Department's aviation unit. But many pilots like him have been retiring at an increasing rate. That has affected the job market and the paths for advancement for professional pilots in two ways.

One, obviously, is that the growing number of retirements has created a cascade of job openings throughout the industry. As the oldest and most experienced pilots retired, their most senior subordinates succeeded them, vacating their own jobs and creating a vacuum that draws less-senior pilots up the employment chain. The end result has flight instructors leaving for more-lucrative flying jobs and opening up slots for new pilots looking to build flight time.

A number of flight schools today report a steady turnover of flight instructors.

"There are a lot of openings out there" for civilian-trained pilots, said Brendon Gari, manager at Hummingbird Helicopter Service. Based in Yalesville, Connecticut, that company does corporate, construction and charter work and helicopter sales as well as training, primarily with two Schweizer 300s.

The other effect on the job market stems from the change in the balance of pilots supplied by the military versus civilian sources. There are far fewer pilots flying helicopters for the U.S. military today than there were 30 or 40 years ago. Many of those in the service are making careers of the military. So as the large numbers of Vietnam-era veterans retire, there simply aren't matching numbers of military-trained and experienced pilots to replace them. Pilots who trained at civilian schools and gained most of their experience in civilian jobs are taking their places.

"I still hear people advising young pilots, 'Start in fixed-wing, build some time, get in to the military," said Helicopter Adventures' Corr. "Those days are gone."

Corr and other flight school operators said civilian-trained pilots are just as competitive as military-trained ones in today's marketplace, perhaps even more so. One reason is that, as the dominance of military veterans in management at civilian operators wanes, a civilian training background becomes more acceptable in job applicants.

"Now, quite a number of people doing the hiring are civil-trained," Corr said, so they understand and are accepting of such backgrounds in applicants.

Another reason that civilian-trained pilots are gaining some advantage in the marketplace is the change in the nature of military flight operations. The military no longer is the essentially endless source of flight hours that it was in the 1960s and '70s. Budget constraints forced caps on flight time. Also, military pilots of that era gained time in UH-1s and OH-58s, versions of which were operated throughout the civilian world. Today, many military pilots gain most of their time in specialized aircraft like the Apache and versions of the Sikorsky Black Hawk, which have few counterparts in civil operations.

Pilots schooled in the civil world, on the other hand, get experience in the very aircraft that prospective employers operate.
The growing importance of civil training in helicopter careers has captured the attention of training products and services suppliers, which are investing in ways of meeting that demand. At the high end, for instance, Eurocopter is partnering with FlightSafety International to develop full-flight simulators for the AS350 and EC135 at its American Eurocopter unit in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Toward the lower end of the price scale, Environmental Tectonics is marketing its GAT-II HELO multifunctional helicopter flight trainer, designed to emulate the performance of a generic, light utility helicopter in a realistic flight environment. Its related GAT-II General Aviation Trainer won FAA approval as a Level II flight training device in January.

Carlsbad, California-based FLYIT Simulators reports that it has more than 30 of its Professional Helicopter Simulator in service around the world. Transport Canada has approved the unit as a Level-2 flight training device. The FAA has approved it as a flight simulation device. The simulator is a two-place, tandem-seating cockpit with dual controls that provide for hands-on instruction in hovering and all-flight maneuvering. It includes a complete instrument panel displayed full size on a LCD monitor, and switches and controls hard-mounted and designed to replicate size, shape, color and location of those in a real aircraft.

A reflection of the appeal of a helicopter-flying career may be the rising number of aspiring pilots who have no flight experience but want to work full-time on getting their tickets.

"There's a lot of demand for people doing full-time training," said Candise Tu, manager of Civic Helicopters in Carlsbad, California. The full-service company does training with a fleet of three Robinson R22s and three Schweizer 300C, and also has an MD500 and a Bell JetRanger available for instruction. The students are drawn by "job prospects down the road and entry-level jobs now," she said. The sightseeing industry attracts many.

Civic Helicopters was just acquired by Silver State Helicopters.

Among experienced pilots seeking training, law-enforcement is an active sector. Zemlock said 30-40 percent of his students are law officers "who are looking to get into an aviation unit or are being funded" by their employer.

Hurdles remain for those seeking to start a helicopter career through civilian training, the largest of which remains finding a way to pay for school. New options are opening up on that front, however. Outfits like Pilot Finance Inc., a privately owned company started in 1999, and the Pilot Career Foundation work with flight schools to offer training financing to students.
Both are focused largely on fixed-wing training, but the foundation, a nonprofit group affiliated with Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah, is making a push into the rotorcraft training business (see page T16). The foundation helps students secure loans, then helps them control the spending of the loan money by given them a Flight Card-sort of a debit card to pay for flight training at schools that are members of the foundation. Its "one mechanism that is really working out," said Hummingbird Helicopter's Gari.

Another hurdle remains the time and training requirements to start the pursuit of a flying career. Flight school operators said pilots need at least 200 hr., and sometimes 500-1,000 hr., of flight time to be appealing prospects. Also, Civic's Tu said, "you need to get your CFI-I" instrument instructor rating.

That raises another change that Helicopter Adventures' Corr noted: more students are pursuing an instrument rating. "Ten or 15 years ago, it was unusual for a helicopter pilot to pursue an instrument rating," he said. "Today, it's unusual for a student to go through a program without getting one."

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