Updated: Jun 24
I'm sure you have heard that the helicopter industry is facing a giant pilot shortage at the moment. In their pilot outlook report Boeing has estimated that by 2038 there will be a shortage of 61,000 helicopter pilots worldwide.
The forecast that got the industry talking was an in-depth study of the helicopter industry’s labor situation in 2019, commissioned by HAI and its sister organization, Helicopter Foundation International (HFI). Of the 250 companies surveyed (which included operators large and small) more than half said they had found it harder to hire pilots in the last year than in previous years, Looking ahead to the next five years, more than 60 percent of companies said they expected it would become increasingly difficult to hire pilots and mechanics; less than two percent of companies said they thought it would become easier.
The question begs to be asked. Why are we facing a helicopter pilot shortage?
I have done some investigating and found the five main reasons why there is a helicopter pilot shortage.
1. Pilots Retiring
More helicopter pilots were trained during the Vietnam War (1955-1975) than at any other time in history. That provided many of the leaders of our commercial helicopter industry today. Fast forward 50 years and most of the Vietnam pilots are retiring, leaving huge gaps in the industry. In fact you are seeing more helicopter pilots retiring than there are entering the industry at the moment. These retirements and the fact that there's a greater demand for helicopters in general have put some strain on the helicopter industry. The demand is overtaking the supply at this stage.
2. Rotor pilots are moving to Fixed wing
The fixed-wing industry is facing a severe labor shortage of its own. Boeing estimated that by 2036 the global airline industry will need 637,000 new commercial airline pilots. A recent study released by the global management consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates that we are likely to see a shortage of 34,000-50,000 pilots by 2025, and this issue may continue to grow throughout the decade.
The shortage has become sufficiently severe for airlines to tap into the helicopter world’s military pipeline to help meet its demand.
Over the last couple of years, rotorcraft transition programs have sprung up across the U.S. The programs, tailored for military helicopter pilots leaving the service, offer to pay for their commercial airplane training, licenses, ratings and offering additional sign on bonuses. They also dangle the proposition of a structured pathway to a lucrative career at the end of the program.
Envoy, the regional carrier of American Airlines' said more than a quarter of its 701 new pilots in 2018 came from military helicopters. They are actively looking for Military helicopter pilots to transition to fixed-wing and on their website they say "Envoy will financially help you reach the regulatory airplane certifications and experience requirements"
A key reason airlines are chasing military pilots is because the new FAA training rules only require them to have 750 hours of additional training, half the 1,500 required of of civilians seeking a commercial pilot license. Military helicopter pilots only need additional training in flying fixed-wing aircraft, which takes about 90 days. For civilians, obtaining a commercial pilot license it can take years and cost more than $100,000.
3. Hight cost of training
How much does it really cost to become a helicopter pilot? Price is probably the most commonly asked question when it comes to getting a helicopter pilot’s license.
Flight school is a big investment. If you go directly to flight school to earn your private pilot license, you can expect to pay about $30 to $40 per hour. This will likely add up to around $10,000 - $15,000 in total. This is just for your private helicopter pilot’s license and will not be enough to get you a job flying helicopters commercially. To be able to work as a pilot you’ll definitely need your private license and commercial license, and your instrument license as well. Getting a commercial license will add about another $30,000-45,000 to your training.
For the bare minimum licenses, you can expect to spend about $45,000-$70,000.
Having your private, commercial, and instrument licenses will qualify you to fly helicopters for a living, but with only these three licenses, you probably won’t be able to find a very high paying job that you enjoy, and some of the most advantageous jobs to have, like being a flight instructor, will not be an option for you unless you pay for more training.
In order to land a high paying job, you should get as many licenses and certifications as you can.
If you decide to go to a university flight school, you are looking to pay around $130,000 to earn your helicopter pilot’s licenses and certifications. This cost can fluctuate depending on tuition fees, fuel prices, and aircraft maintenance. The cost can go up depending on which aircraft you are flying. Depending on your weight, you may have to spend more on your education because you’ll have to fly in the larger aircraft, which takes more fuel.
At a university flight school, you’ll graduate with a degree, advanced training, and more flight hours, all of which will help you land a good job, but it will take you 4 years to do so.
Once you have the required hours and licenses, you can then enter the helicopter industry.
4. Low pilot salaries
The helicopter career path is not much different from the college graduate career path. You will have to be willing to work your way up from the bottom. In the past the total time required before you could embark on your helicopter career was 3000 flight hours. That number has come down dramatically and today we are looking at 300-500 hours to get a job as an entry level flight instructor and around 800-1000 for a commercial pilot position.
Entry level jobs typically pay $20,000 - $30,000 per annum. Mid-level jobs will pay between $30,000 - $50,000.
If you look on popular recruitment websites like Indeed you will see jobs advertised for helicopter pilots with 2000 hours for $37-$40 per hour. You can make $26-$45 per hour doing crop spraying, but you will need a minimum of 1500 hours to be considered as well as agricultural ratings and more.
Emergency services helicopter pilots are looking at $63,000 - $102,000 per annum and Chief pilots are looking at $106,000 per annum.
Let's take into consideration the money you spend on getting your licenses, hours, ratings and certifications ($70,000 - $130,000), You then start your career with earning $20,000 - $30,000 per annum, it will take you a few years to pay back your initial investment. The more you fly, the more hours and experience you will gain. It will take you another 10-20 years to build up your hours and experience to get a job paying you between $60,000 and $120,000 per annum.
Airline pilots also start off with earning $20,000 - $30,000 per annum when they just start out, but with 10-20 years of experience they can earn anything between $160,000 and $300,000 per annum. No wonder military helicopter pilots are so eager to join the airlines.
How did Covid impact the helicopter industry? In March 2020, when the Covid pandemic hit worldwide, helicopter flight training activities took a severe dive, due to entire countries being completely or partly closed down. In April 2020, the worst month statistically, activities were down to approximately 60 % of the level we saw before Covid. This pattern continued throughout the pandemic. Closures, social distancing and stay at home campaigns and job losses, made it nearly impossible for current students to keep flying and for new ones to start training.
The uncertainty about the pandemic and how it will affect the industry also contributed to the overall decline in flight training activities.
The October 2021 report from FlightLogger, says that flight training activities still remain 15% below pre-Covid levels.
Will this even out now that the pandemic is basically over? How many potential helicopter pilots have we lost? How many pilots gave up mid studies? How many can afford the high cost of training?
We will only really know the real impact that the Covid pandemic had on the helicopter industry in the near future, but we know the extend will be great.
The helicopter industry has a big people problem. The question remain, how will we solve it?
More training, better remuneration, greater benefits, subsidized training and campaigns to encourage the youth to become helicopter pilots are only a few ways.
One fact remains, there has never been a better time in history to become a helicopter pilot!