The Harsh Reality of Helicopters
A friend of mine rang me the other day for a catch up call. He is a lovely modest guy, younger than me by a good ten years, and doing very well in his career.
My mate is a competent and consistent pilot and truly deserves the dream job which he seems to enjoy immensely. He gets to fly excellent equipment, a good mix of modern twin and singles, is well paid and has fantastic variety in his work seeing many magnificent parts of the country. Arguably, he has one of the most sought after helicopter pilot jobs in our industry and he tours on good equal time rosters.
The point of this article though is that it didn’t surprise me when, after a good deal of general chatter, he confided to me that his next job will probably have to be outside of the flying game! You see, he’d reached that point in his life that I had already come to quite a while ago, and that I have watched so many other helicopter pilots before me, and around me, arrive at with deep frustration and alarming despair. His life is no longer just about him. He has a wife now, child number two has arrived and they’ve done the first house, made some money and moved to where they really want to live. So what is the problem? Well, where they have built and want to live their happy life together as a normal growing couple, there is absolutely no hope of gainful employment with his unique professional skill set. And all the family has grown tired of Dad being away all the time! Yes, this helicopter game, which so many of us fall passionately victim to, is a harsh mistress and a savage task master.
Now I’m not about to say that these observations are the hard and fast happenings for all and sundry, they are simply reflective of what I have witnessed first hand over twenty years in the commercial field. But they are certainly more the ‘norm’ than the exception. There are of course the flip-side stories too, of pilots I’ve seen who seem to have that Midas touch and roll through their careers with almost sickening success and ease. Ironically though, these pilots are not always the gifted ones who can out-fly the rest of us. Sometimes, as we know, that’s just the way life is.
There are two distinctly different types of pilots in the commercial world: the ex-military and the civilian trained. Whilst you could write a thesis on the differences between the two, I’ll focus on just a couple of the basics to frame some of my comments. The military pilot is ‘selected’ as having the right attitudes, skill sets and general ability suited to pilot training. They are then paid during their training and subsequent ongoing professional development. The civilian pilot however, decides they want to fly and coughs up roughly seventy to eighty thousand dollars of their own money to have someone train and graduate them. This single difference alone, makes a significant difference to the mind set of the developing professional in their pursuit of a meaningful and satisfying career.
I came across an interesting gentleman a while back who typifies the point of this discussion. He was doing his professional career development to sit left seat on fire operations as the air attack officer. As a ‘firery’ he struck me as a bit different to most and I was curious as to what made him tick. As we eventually got to know each other, I found out to my amazement that he used to be a helicopter pilot in the Australian Army, but now he was about to sit left seat and be happy just to direct the fire fight and drive the radios. You see, approaching his release date, he had looked very carefully at what the civilian helicopter world had to offer, and carefully weighed up his options. He had a wife and child, planning another, and they knew exactly where they wanted to live to be close to their extended families. He wanted a good structured life, with plenty of time off, reasonable pay and a respectful work place with a solid crew of supportive workmates around him. It didn’t take him long to realize that the civilian helicopter world could not provide what he wanted for his family, so he put flying behind him and joined the Fire Brigade. It took me a while to get my head around his decision, but I eventually realized that he is a very smart and considerate man, who now lives, (at least by pilot’s standards), a happy and stress free life.
When I first started out with my license I unwittingly followed a well trodden path. For months I sent out copious amount of letters, all of which went insultingly unanswered. In desperation, I frustratingly took car to road and went on the driving trip in search of that elusive break. Eventually I did land my first gainful employment as a helicopter pilot, then rolled and bumped along my ‘career’ from there. Twenty years latter though, I read through the internet chat sites and hear the exact same frustrations and laments from new pilots which plagued myself and hundreds others like me.
You see, helicopters are ridiculously expensive. To buy them, run them, insure and maintain them all costs dollars best categorized in the ludicrous figures. So, to derive a healthy return from these machines and still cover all of the normal costs of running a business, operators need to look to the big fat cheque books. Oil and gas, government contracts, mining operations and media make the most desired pastures in which to graze your helicopter. And these fields all too often require touring, spontaneous extended travel, relocating for the next big job or working through the nights. Helicopters, it seems, are not conducive to a ‘normal’ happy home life.
“I don’t care, I’m happy to travel anywhere so long as I get paid to fly.” I heard it again just the other day; the fearless war cry of the student pilot or recent commercial convert. And twenty years ago, I said it too! But you see I’ve watched many of my friends develop their own ‘normal’ careers along a parallel time line. And I’m sorry, but the helicopter career, (and remember please I’m not talking about you lucky few who are the exception to the rule), just doesn’t deliver the goods. My friends who earn the same sort of money in their career as I do in a line-pilot role have not had to shift towns and states ten times to try and improve their qualifications. They have enjoyed the stability of living where they want, developing supportive social networks and providing a structured environment in which their family can grow. Their overall wealth has grown by less obvious means like being able to buy homes and stay, not rent and shift time after time. Such things have a massive effect on long-term wealth and are almost always overlooked in the blurry haze of a helicopter career. Others who invested similar time and money on their own professional qualifications and then continued at it for twenty years are reaping financial rewards that I can only dream about. It is too embarrassing at dinner parties to reveal what a helicopter pilot actually earns! And then there is the mate who chose fixed wing after our basic flying training when I declared that I wanted all the fun and excitement of helicopters. His position within a huge international airline commands him respect, extended family benefits and financial rewards far beyond anything a rotary pilot could ever hope to achieve.
I’ve contemplated our woes for many years and the amateur psychologist in me has concluded that our basic problem lies in the fact that helicopters are just so much damn fun to fly. Anything that is this good, attracts too many enthusiasts. People will do just about anything to get paid to fly these machines. And that means that rich folk want to do it and normal folk will do it for nothing. And everywhere in between there are plenty of others exploiting every little angle.
You see, there are so many steps to struggle up to get to the top in this game. And it is a raw and much unspoken truth that many never progress even a little way up that ladder. The statistics from our governing bodies show that there are way too many commercial licenses out there compared to available jobs. Many people give up in frustration and never realize even a single paid position. Others will persist and play the game only to realize they can never support themselves, or their debts or their families on the money that is offered. For others, the type and/or places of lifestyle required, are just not acceptable. What other career could possible demand around $80,000 in tuition to gain a qualification, only to be deemed generally unemployable in your field? When a rare opportunity does present itself the candidate is then faced with overwhelming competition many times only to be ousted by the cruel hand of nepotism. Upon securing that crucial first job, the steps to be climbed just keep growing – 500 hours, have to get a thousand hours, must get into turbines, try for my night rating, got to get into twins, time for an instrument rating, waiting for my Captaincy, I need three renewals, have to get NVG experience. The list just goes on and on. And with each step, another shift, uproot the family, change schools, a new roster, hope the partner will fit in. Etc etc, ad nauseam.
I’m sorry, but the price is too high, and the reward too little. My plumber comes to my house and he does some filthy job that I wouldn’t dare attempt. He can’t believe that I get paid to fly helicopters. I can’t believe how much more money he earns than me! When I was at the ‘top’ of the game and flying S76’s offshore to the oil and gas rigs, it was a fact that once we landed our helicopter on that platform, we were officially the lowest paid people out there. Even the janitors were better paid than us pilots! So where does all that leave us?
The gentleman who was single handedly responsible for me getting into this wild ride, very graciously gave me his time one day and told me all about helicopters and his job as media pilot. I was hooked and plunged in head first. And do you know, he is still there at that same fantastic job, living where he wants, home each night with his family and flying great equipment in a well paid, respected role. The dream jobs do exist! But they are the rarity, that elusive jewel that always seems to beckon just beyond our reach. For the majority, it is a case of compromise or compensate. Many pilots put their career first at all turns and many of them have paid dearly in other aspects of their life. Some choose to accept less from their career to balance up different parts of their own ledger. Sideline businesses, stock market pursuits, investment properties or falling back on their original profession to top up their earnings, there are a multitude of ways that chopper pilots find to ‘get by’.
In an industry where one slight indiscretion can mean your job or worse your life, a person would do well to closely and rationally weigh up all sides of this equation before committing. Unfortunately passion is not tempered well at the sign-up stage in the flight school lounge. But when your future ability to earn hangs so delicately on a medical, when life-Insurance is almost un-attainable through normal channels and when progress is just so difficult and expensive, you really do reach a point when you can sit back and ask yourself, from a balanced and informed viewpoint; is it really all worth it?
WORDS: Brenton Davis