Civilian or Military — We Need You All
Many of you reading this have been through the process of finding a place in the civilian helicopter industry, either straight from flight school or airframe and powerplant training, or as a transitioning military-trained service member. There we were ... new applicants, our FAA or other agency certificate in hand along with our résumé, sitting face-to-face with the director of operations or maintenance, chief pilot, or even the company owner.
That was me, back in the late 1960s, when I entered the civilian helicopter world via the military. At the time, there were an estimated 10 helicopter pilots and mechanics for each job opening in the commercial industry. This was because of the large numbers of trained personnel returning from Vietnam, coupled with the limited number of helicopter operations at that time.
The company I had targeted was located in my hometown, New York City, and operated a helicopter charter and flight school operation. One way to get hired was to complete your helicopter certificated flight instructor ticket at their flight school as they hired the best of their graduates to join them.
It became obvious that the real hiring decision makers were the flight-school instructors. They made the hiring recommendations to the chief pilot.
I soon realized that getting a job was in fact a job in itself, and I needed to treat it as such. So I always dressed professionally and made the instructors my new best friends, helping out around the flight school whenever I could. I scheduled my flight lessons in a concentrated time frame and aggressively pursued the curriculum. I wanted to establish from the start a reputation as a disciplined, dedicated, and capable professional. Happily, the instructors recommended me to the chief pilot and I was hired, entering the exciting world of civilian helicopter operations.
A conversation that was frequently heard at that time — and one that remains with our industry to this day — asks: which are better, military- or civilian-trained pilots and mechanics? In my humble opinion, each brings certain advantages to the table and would be good additions to any organization. Both groups contain excellent, qualified individuals.
When looking for the right person to fill an opening, we need to stop assuming that an applicant will meet our needs because the appropriate boxes are checked on a form. I do not believe some arbitrary number of flight hours for pilots is a guarantee of ability, attitude, or safety culture. And the fact that a mechanic has worked on a particular aircraft does not guarantee a certain performance level.
A person’s maturity, safety culture, professionalism, decision making, and risk assessment are better measurements to consider during the hiring process. I have flown with 500-hour pilots whom I would entrust with my family’s safety, and I have flown with 10,000-hour pilots who I thought were accidents waiting to happen. Instead of lumping applicants together — civilian-trained technicians are like this, low-time pilots are like that — we should approach each person as a separate individual, with unique talents, training, and experience.
This approach will become even more important as the Vietnam veterans and baby boomers begin to retire. That event, coupled with a reduction in the number of people entering our industry, means that aggregate industry experience levels are decreasing. To meet future mission requirements, we will need to better utilize individuals who do not have the experience standards we have previously enjoyed.
The good news is this can safely be done if we change the way we do business. The required minimum flight hours for most pilot applicants among commercial operators is between 1,000 and 1,500 hours, with some turbine experience and an instrument rating. And many operators are struggling to find qualified candidates.
It’s time to end the one-size-fits-all method of measuring pilot and maintenance technician candidates. And we can do this smartly and safely. For example, a strength of our industry is the diversity of its sectors, some of which offer routine, highly structured mission profiles. By focusing on each applicant’s skills and abilities rather than industry norms, we could place pilots with a minimum of 750 flight hours in the more predictable and stable mission profiles, such as air tourism. The same reasoning applies to maintenance personnel.
The needs of our industry will remain varied and diversified, just like the work we do each day. That is why a combination of civilian and military applicants with diverse backgrounds, training, and experiences are required to meet the needs of operators and ultimately their customers.
We also need to ensure that our industry offers an attractive proposition to prospective entrants. We are competing for the hearts and minds of the next generation when they consider future careers. Their options are varied and many. We must remain competitive in compensation, benefits, work environment, job stability, career advancement, safety culture, and prestige.
To those of you looking to enter the helicopter industry, I offer the following advice: make your search for a job your primary job. If you are serving in the military, start your efforts before your transition from the service. Get your FAA civilian certificates, either pilot or maintenance, prior to leaving the military.
On HAI’s website, you’ll find 91 HAI-affiliated member organizations that represent mission-specific or geographic industry segments. Join one and become active by attending meetings, serving on a committee, or offering your general support.
Your participation in these organizations is an opportunity for you to network with those who might be interviewing you in the future. At the same time, local industry leaders will have the chance to get to know you and your capabilities. Many jobs that become available are never posted but are filled based on existing relationships — some estimate that 80 percent of all positions are filled through networking.
HAI is actively promoting the helicopter industry as a rewarding, viable career path to the next generation while assisting our operator members in their search for new staff. In addition to our job listings at rotor.org/jobs, we host a number of opportunities for those interested in joining our industry. Several of these will occur in the next few months, at HAI HELI-EXPO 2015 in Orlando and at Quad-A in Nashville.
At both events, HAI will conduct a Helicopter Industry Career Fair, which matches up job seekers and employers, and seminars and workshops for transitioning service members. Our sister organization, Helicopter Foundation International, will also host a program of mentoring panels for prospective pilots and maintenance technicians in Orlando. All of these career-oriented events are free.
In closing, I say to those operators and organizations looking for new team members, we have a significant pool of those who want to join our community: passionate, mature, professional, safety-oriented individuals who are committing their time, resources, and future to the helicopter industry. Let us work together to offer them the best path forward to make their dreams happen.
To those seeking entry into this great industry, I say: Stay focused and remain optimistic. Bring your passion, work ethic, enthusiasm, and commitment to safety. Working in the civilian helicopter industry is even more exciting and rewarding than you think. You will not regret joining us.
As I approach my 50th year in the helicopter industry, both military and civilian, I would note it has been a hell of ride. I would not change a thing.
That’s my story and I am sticking to it. Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, fly safe and fly neighborly.