The helicopter industry has changed in recent years for the worse in regard to low time pilot opportunities. A ferry pilot position, once a paid spot for the low time pilot to build much needed hours, has been replaced with operators that now expect pilots to pay for the flight time when an aircraft needs to be moved cross country.
If you have spent any time in helicopter forums or on social media in helicopter groups, you will be familiar with seeing posts that for lack of better terms or catchy titles are “Pay-To-Ferry” flights. These frequently pop up as “Cross-Country Hour Building Opportunities.” My view on these flights, well, I believe these flights are detrimental to the helicopter industry as a whole.
Allow me to explain.
While some of these flights are for maintenance or leasing reasons to return the ship to a maintenance facility or back to a leasing agency, more typically, the operator has contracted the use of their helicopter somewhere in the country away from the aircraft base of operations.
If the operator of a helicopter relies on contract work, that operator often must ferry the helicopter to the contract location. In the instances I am referring to; these same ferry flights are offered to private pilots that are looking to build cross-country hours at a reduced rate. This practice is now common to see pitched in the industry by operators around the country.
These flights are being offered for one of two reasons; the business owner bid the contract without the cost of ferrying the aircraft factored in, trying to make his bid the one selected for the job. They are then hoping to offset that cost by charging another pilot to ferry their aircraft. If we look at it from an angle of greed or “double dipping” the operator could also bid the contract with the cost of ferrying the aircraft included yet, can essentially, double charge for the ferry flight to maximize profits by making the profit twice.
The first reason is a flawed business model that will likely fail; the latter is opportunistic dishonesty. Neither are to be exemplified. Unfortunately, there is nothing illegal in the practice even if it is self-destructive to the industry. However, for our industry to survive, opportunities must exist for people to develop the experience necessary for higher level careers. This is where the helicopter industry is failing.
In the current state of our industry, there are very few employment opportunities available to pilots immediately after achieving their commercial certificate. Until a pilot reaches a thousand or so hours, he or she is not considered marketable in the eyes of the industry. For some rationale beyond comprehension to me, the helicopter, and insurance industries have determined that a low-time pilot incurs too much liability when flying in just about any market niche other than the ones most likely to result in an accident or incident. This reasoning is almost paradoxical.
Of the employment opportunities that do exist, they primarily consist of teaching at a flight school the low-time-pilot-turned-flight-instructor attended to receive their certificates. [I will discuss at a later date the drawbacks of having the industry’s primary trainers being the least experienced pilots.] This results in a compounding problem.
For a low-time commercial pilot to be widely marketable, he/she must build hours by, most commonly, becoming a flight instructor and training others to be commercial pilots. Rarely is this done at a 1:1 ratio. For every flight instructor, there are scores of students aspiring to become helitack pilots, emergency medical service pilots, law enforcement pilots, electronic news gathering pilots, corporate pilots, or pilots in other similar roles. Those students then become flight instructors in their own right. More low-time commercial pilots beget an exponentially increasing number of low-time commercial pilots.
This glut of low time commercial pilots has wide-ranging effects on the helicopter industry. The supply of low-time pilots grossly outweighs the industry’s demand for those same pilots. Many low-time pilots find it near impossible to find employment as a pilot leaving them with a virtually useless commercial certificate and sometimes greater than $100k in student loans. As students, these impressionable and sometimes desperate pilots jump at “Pay-To-Ferry” opportunities to reduce the cost of obtaining their licenses or the required hours to hit the next hour milestone that will open up more job opportunities. Few realize how detrimental it is to their careers in the long run. Many see the path ahead of them as being immutable and fail to comprehend the complexities involved in the helicopter industry; the industry is as it has been, is, and always will be.
Operators offering “Pay-To-Ferry” flights further exacerbate the situation by making it easier for student pilots to meet commercial requirements while simultaneously eliminating the commercial helicopter ferrying market. Ferrying aircraft is an ideal opportunity for low-time commercial pilots to broaden their respective experience bases by flying diverse aircraft types in various flight environments. While the experience can be valuable for pilots of all skill levels, the employment of low-time pilots in a market niche not involving passengers, mission complexities, or other distractions, like ferrying an aircraft is especially valuable.
For the most part, the operators offering “Pay-To-Ferry” flights are smaller operations that are struggling to make ends meet and are flying aircraft similar to those used in flight schools. They see these flights as opportunities to increase their bottom line and pay the bills while “helping” student pilots. Often they are sold as a win-win situation; the operator is making money, and the student is spending less.
Unfortunately, an industry that allows this to continue is akin to irresponsible parents that let their children, the student pilots, eat all their Halloween candy in one sitting. The resulting analogous upset stomach is a product of our own doing. Those low-time pilots that do find employment do so at low wages because of the laws of supply and demand.
How do we fix it?
Refraining from accepting the status quo, will result in a smaller supply and a higher demand for helicopter pilots. More low-time jobs outside the instructional forum will lead to an increased demand for pilots overall while decreasing the demand for flight instructors. With less demand for instructors, students will incur fewer student loans on average since they will not need to spend as much to become CFIs or CFIIs. Additionally, schools will produce fewer pilots who may not be good in a flight instruction role but are better for the industry.
We, as an industry, need to inform our potential students of a more realistic assessment of the helicopter job market. We, as pilots, business owners, and industry professionals, need to avoid creating shortcuts to meeting minimum requirements.This does no one any favors, except the guy trying to make a buck while getting his aircraft where it needs to be. We, as an industry, need to look at ourselves under a macroeconomic light, not a microeconomic light. The effect of this will be wages that are aligned with other experts in the aviation industry and commensurate with a helicopter pilot’s levels of responsibility and risk.
Without accepting this responsibility and committing to changing “the way it has always been” the helicopter industry will continue to be a life full of struggles with low wages, too many pilots with too little experience, high student loan debts, and too few jobs. Stopping “Pay-To-Ferry” flights and creating a commercial helicopter ferrying market will not fix all of this but it is a necessary step in the right direction.
This op-ed originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Collective Magazine. You can read it by clicking the magazine cover below.
Peter Higgs-Coulthard is an EMS helicopter pilot in the Pacific Northwest and retired Army Kiowa pilot having earned multiple industry and military awards during his career, including the Bell Helicopter Safety Award, and Bell Helicopter Combat Hour Award. Higgs-Coulthard has a BS in Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is a permanent member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda National Honor Society. You can read more about Peter in the May 2016 issue of Collective Magazine or contact Peter by emailing him here.