The helicopter pilot shortage is coming


Whenever you hear the phrase “helicopter pilot shortage”, you probably roll your eyes. Dire warnings have been sounded across all aviation markets for a good 10 years.

But way back in 2008 any shortage of pilots was not obvious as that year’s 60% drop in oil cut demand for helicopter missions in oil and gas – a core business for many helicopter operators.

Prices did claw their way higher over the next five years, but they dropped again in 2016 and the subsequent recovery has been even slower than in the years immediately following 2008, with price per barrel now only settling around $60 in 2018.

Now that more people are talking about getting these grounded helicopters back in the air and with new opportunities in markets such as offshore wind, the demand for pilots is picking up just as more pilots are moving to other occupations.

A joint study by the University of North Dakota (UND) and Helicopter Association International has indicated that a helicopter pilot shortage in the US is inevitable over the next few years.

The results show a projected shortage of 7,649 helicopter pilots in the United States between 2018 and 2036. By 2020, the University expects a deficit of as many as 2,200 pilots.

Since 2009, the study points out, the number of new pilots coming into the market has tended to match those leaving. But in the 12 years from 2018, more pilots are expected to retire than become available.

The first big wave of helicopter pilots came after the Vietnam war. But, if you were drafted into the military in 1969 at 18 to be a helicopter pilot and have kept flying since, you have either already retired or are probably considering doing so in the next couple of years.

It’s not only that helicopter pilots are retiring, they are also moving into other markets. Airlines are now offering to pay for existing helicopter pilots’ training to become airplane pilots to help address the current pilot shortage commercial aviation is experiencing. The impact of this can be seen now, with more than 500 helicopter pilots having transferred to commercial aviation in 2017 alone.

It makes sense that helicopter pilots are moving to airlines because the airlines pay better. Whilst the US Bureau of Labor statistics does not specifically record helicopter pilot statistics, it makes the distinction between airline pilots and commercial pilots – which includes most non-military helicopter pilot roles. The Bureau shows a median pay of $127,820 for airline pilots in the US and $77,200 for commercial pilots.

It is not just pilots who will be in short supply — the study also suggests that the US is likely to see a substantial deficit in aviation mechanics from now until 2036. In 2018, there is a surplus of approximately 1,000 aviation mechanics, but that might well not last with UND forecasting a deficit by 2020.

The study predicts that the growth of the Chinese helicopter market will have a substantial impact on the numbers of mechanics available in the US. Whilst China only has a fleet of 1,000 helicopters right now, it is expected to source trained and certified US maintenance technicians to support a growing fleet.

Whilst this does not stop the US sourcing pilots from overseas, the pilot shortage is not just affecting America. Boeing estimates that more than 95,000 new airline pilots will be needed in the EU by 2034. As airlines obviously want experienced pilots to fly their planes, they will probably still turn to civilian and military helicopter pilots to help plug the gaps and keep up with the demand.

To help combat this upcoming shortage, the University suggests targeting potential Generation Z pilots by growing the industries digital presence. Analysis at the end of the report suggests that helicopter companies communicate more via social media to reach a younger generation of children.

Whilst the forecast does not take into account the emergence of unmanned aircraft, if the drone market matures, helicopters could lose small utility missions to drones. Missions typically operated by helicopters such as surveying and maintenance could be replaced by drones in the near future if the market becomes more regulated. This could be a win-win for operators as they would not need to source a decreasing number of helicopter pilots, instead employing drone pilots. Right now the US has approximately 60,000 registered commercial drone pilots.

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