The Next Generation

I was reading a post on Facebook the other day by one of our newer pilots. He was going to celebrate his Mother’s birthday. She was turning 56. What? A few of our other pilots are about the same age as my sons! So, I am finally one of the old guard. My job title is, Training Captain, for firefighting.

Besides my normal duties as a firefighting pilot I am also called upon to assist other pilots in transitioning from copilot to Captain. I’ve seen quite a number of really good capable pilots come to our company in the last few years and the majority of them arrive with the background and skills that allow them to smoothly transition to the Captain’s position.

The work is not for entry level, low time helicopter pilots and if you know anything about helicopters and what we do with this aircraft you would surely agree. Sometimes because of hiring practices in foreign countries we are, shall we say, encouraged, to hire pilots from that country who may be short of the type of experience, we as a company would prefer. These pilots while generally capable and in some cases excellent aviators just don’t have the background and experience in the work we do. You may think that this is where I come in and you would be partially correct. I often fly with foreign pilots and some of them are really very good pilots. When you are flying in a country where your knowledge of the language, procedures, local weather and other regional aviation knowledge is almost nil it is very beneficial to have a pilot from that country on the flight crew.

The challenge is training these pilots and let me add, that this challenge is not just limited to foreign nationals anymore. You can only go so far with training on the ground. A pilot needs and surely this is obvious, to fly! I had this confirmed the other day in a couple of flights I was on as P.I.C.. The first flight was a yearly check flight and the second an actual fire. I performed safely but with some difficulties on both flights. A lack of flight currency gave the expected result. Minor miscues and some awkwardness in performing routine flight duties including practice emergencies left me feeling a bit frustrated with myself. If I had been the one assessing my performance I would have concluded as the other pilots on the flights with me did, that my inability to perform as desired was expected.

If you don’t fly much for a while you get rusty. Its like any skill. OK, no problem,you will fly again, you will get busy and your skills will return and you shall pass those skills on to trainees and they will learn and succeed.

Its not happening, or it isn’t happening as it should, would be better way to phrase it.Our company is certainly not the only company with this problem. Our operation has circumvented the shortage of flight hours in previous years by hiring high time large type helicopter pilots who can transition with a minimum of instruction and flight time and safely operate the aircraft. So, where is the young blood? If all us gray hairs bail out in the next five to ten years where will our experienced pilots come from? How do you train when there isn’t enough flying to get the training done?

When I began flying with my current employer it was a company that flew a lot of hours every year primarily on helicopter logging. Logging isn’t for everyone but it will place demands on your abilities that get you up to speed in the aircraft quickly. You can fly an average of a 100 hours a month or more and your motor skills,confidence and feel for the aircraft improve rapidly.

We still log. We still fight fire,we still do construction and we even do a few things we have never done before but we don’t do enough of any of it with the people at the controls who need the experience the most. In logging we used to put pilots of varying experience and abilities in the command pilots seat and away we went. We don’t do that now. We let people who know better or should, tell us that we can only put top producers in the command pilots seat, effectively closing the door on bringing along new pilots. Short sighted and in a few years perhaps fatal, although I hope not literally.

We had a busy fire season in the U.S.A. last year but our primary customer the U.S.F.S. has decided to handicap our ability to train as well. When I first flew fires in Type I helicopters you could fly in the command pilots seat as long as you were flying with an approved Captain. Now you can only fly with a limited number of approved U.S.F.S. training Captains. The result being that we have more trainees than we have Captains to train them. The”new”pilots end up sitting over in the copilots seat and their experience is limited because of that. The reasons for this limited training Captain scenario may be the fault of of both the government and our industry, but putting an arbitrary number on trainers that could meet the requirement and pass on their knowledge is counterproductive.

I can’t speak to what is happening in other areas of our flight department, but I do see some new faces and I can only hope they are getting enough flight time to improve and excel.

So here is my problem or challenge. If I don’t fly enough to maintain my proficiency to a level that would allow me to demonstrate a flight maneuver I am forced to fly more as the sole manipulator of the controls and therefore ” steal” flight time from the trainee.I get back up to speed and can demonstrate the flying but the trainee doesn’t get enough time to improve at a rate that is good for them and my employer.

A simple solution would be to fly more and everyone wants that but it has to come in the form of a revenue flight. Train more by setting aside a larger budget for more flight training of the non revenue type. That has to happen and it really needs to, soon. A flight simulator; that would be great and if we can get a customer to pay for one along with the purchase of multiple aircraft then it remains a possibility.

For now, I suppose I’ll have to hope for a busy fire season where both I and the other pilot do enough flying to allow us both, to be all that we can be. That would be good.

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About Heligypsy

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” - Henry Miller
This entry was posted in Flying Stories, helicopter firefighting, Helicopter Pilot. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Next Generation

  1. Maria says:

    First: glad to see you blogging again. I really enjoy reading about your experiences and your take on things.

    I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to maintain proficiency when you have very few opportunities to fly. Not only are you flying a complex aircraft, but you’re usually flying a dangerous mission. The cost of operation of your aircraft must be huge; I can’t imagine your company wanting to spend a lot of money on recurrency training.

    It’s funny, but before I read this post I assumed that currency was not an issue. I don’t know why I made that assumption. Obviously it takes time in the seat, flying actual missions, to stay proficient.

    Are simulators a possible solution? Are there realistic simulators for your aircraft? Without spending a lot of money on flight time, I can’t imagine any other solution.

    Fly safe.

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