When the Boeing forecast released last month gave a hint of the number of pilots and mechanics needed in the next two decades, it included some bare-bones figures, 43,000, for the helicopter industry worldwide. Within the U.S., however, the number of active helicopter pilots sits at about 15,000 according to Robbie Paul, assistant chief flight instructor at Southern Utah State University in Cedar City, Utah. SUU offers both fixed wing and a rotary wing flight training.
Paul told Flying that the need for helicopter pilots is actually greater than for the fixed wing marketplace. “We’re going to be about 7,500 pilots short over the next 18 years and in an industry that only has about 15,000 active pilots, that represents a huge, huge shortage.” He said one of the problems the university faces are that, “It’s easier to grow the fixed wing flight training side because people know there’s a shortage there, but there hasn’t been much talk about the helicopter side. A recent HAI study delves into the specifics of the actual helicopter pilot shortage that should prove eye opening to perspective rotary pilots.
When it comes to solutions to the pilot shortage and to finding jobs for the university’s new helicopter pilot graduates, Paul said, “We’re trying to get pilots into the emergency medical service (EMS) world by working with one of the largest EMS operators in the U.S. We’ve been working on getting the hour requirement down for that first job, but it still takes about 1,000 total time to make that leap to the first helicopter flying job.”
While training costs are a big problem on the fixed wing side, Paul admitted the costs are even larger for helicopter training. SUU operates a fleet of Robinsons as well as two Bell Long Rangers. To help shave some of the financial burden from students, he said “what we need are more scholarships. Here at EAA we just announced an agreement with Whirly Girls, a group that’s been around for 63 years promoting women flying helicopters and SUU to provide three $20,000 scholarships to come learn to fly helicopters.” SUU is working on agreements with other organizations as well.
Because SUU is based at Cedar City Utah, field elevation 5,600 Msl, the location provides the perfect training location for new helicopter pilots with longline and bucket flight training in the Bells and hi-altitude training in all helicopters. On a hot day when the density altitude climbs close to 9,000 feet, Paul said, “We’re often operating near the helicopter’s limits which make it perfect to teach students power management.”
In order to earn the associate degree at SUU, the curriculum requires pilots to earn a rotary flight instructor certificate that makes those students perfect candidates to remain after graduation and teach new students until they’re ready for their own job outside of the training industry.
Paul added that, “Some big helicopter companies have reduced their flight time requirements considerably due to the shortage. Pilots also don’t need an ATP to fly helicopters commercially like they do on the Part 121 airline side of the industry.”