A contract pilots perspective

Some thoughts on flying from the perspective of a contract pilot.

Flight safety is a term we banter about in the helicopter industry. There isn’t much that I do that could be considered safe in most of my utility flying . What I really do ,more than just fly safely, is manage risk. Contract pilots have a slightly different set of risks based to some extent on their personality type. Thats what this blog is about. The blog is too long and it will probably be uninteresting to any non pilots or anybody perhaps . Sorry. My next blog will be about happy explorations of Belize.

I have heard lines like this too many times.”We get some very challenging weather around here.” Bad weather ,can make it challenging ,I like to respond.

I have flown in about 12 countries ,all 50 states and all 10 provinces. I believe that local knowledge of weather is an invaluable resource that I always make use of where ever my flight assignment lands me. What is strange to me is how many experienced aviators are convinced that the local weather they have been flying in for the past who knows how many years is the worst in the world !

The truth is that it is , or can be. Its also true that bad weather is a serious flight hazard no matter where you are in the world.
I have been a contract helicopter pilot for most of my 33 years flying helicopters. As a contract pilot you often find yourself at a place that you have not flown previously. You are the proverbial “new guy”and no matter what your prior experience or credentials you are generally regarded with anything from skepticism to something worse. I have flown about 46 types of helicopters and I doubt I could have had this variety of flight experience unless I had moved around as a contract pilot. Moving around comes with a price that most pilots are not prepared to pay. I’ll try and explain.

Most chief pilots and training pilots are good at imparting local weather information if it is useful. It is their job and professional responsibility to help you understand how the local weather can affect the flying they want you to perform. As an example, if you are flying in a mountainous area ,there are bad weather routes and passes that should be utilized depending on the type and direction of the weather system that could be making flight difficult. Given any set of bad weather circumstances the pilot with the most local weather knowledge has the obvious advantage. Knowing what is around the bend and up the canyon in front of you in deteriorating weather is a whole lot easier than taking your first look . Your knowledge of the developing situation may be limited to what is on the chart and what was behind you. Fear of the unknown versus the comfort of working in familiar surroundings is one of the reasons many pilots stay working for a particular company or in a particular type of flying. They are in their comfort zone.Its never easy learning new skills and facing challenges that may leave you looking less like the outstanding aviator that your ego has told your brain you are. That is one price you pay as a contractor, lack of familiarity. The possibility of being unsure of the flying situation when dealing with a customer who has previously had more knowledgeable pilots.

How you deal with the above circumstance could decide whether you live or die. Managing risk is a big part of helicopter flying and you as the “new guy”, whether you are a contractor or new hire of some other type must decide how to proceed. As pilots we are trained to identify risks and categorize certain attitudes and stop before we get ourselves into trouble. Much has been made of the bullying type customer or the customer who thinks he knows more about flying than the pilot who is currently on site. If you are the “new guy” pilot ,chances are an experienced customer has in fact seen more of the job than you have. You can benefit from the customers experience without abdicating your responsibility as pilot in command.

I could give a hundred examples of customers trying to coerce me into doing something I didn’t want to do . Here is just one.

” What do you mean you can’t lift that drill”? What I mean ,I tell the customer, is that on this day with this aircraft, these winds,wind direction,temperature,fuel load and drill weight I can not move this drill. I have an alternative way to get the drill moved and….

” I have seen this drill moved by better pilots than you in worst conditions than this. ” ” I have been working drills in these mountains for 15 years and I know what this helicopter can do “,the customer continues.

Yes sir, I respond and I have been riding in trains for over 50 years and I don’t know a damn thing about what it takes to operate one safely and I am certain I won’t be telling the engineer how to drive it either.

Pilot in command. It’s your call. If the worst thing they have to say about you at your retirement party is that you were a cautious pilot who knew his limitations ,you can certainly live with that.

The last price to pay . Nobody knows you. The employer,your fellow pilots or the customer. You know yourself and you have not made it this far by letting anyone force you into a flying situation you are not comfortable with. Its all good right? Mr. Cautious, Mr. Consistent ?

Nope.There is a price you must pay for being an unknown entity .

Its a given that the chief pilot has accepted your initial flight performance as good enough but he or she has also made it obvious that you are being watched. Your fellow pilots think what ever it is they think about you but chances are they are watching, waiting and wondering. We all crave acceptance. From our peers.boss,acquaintances and customers.You notice I left out friends? You have not been on the job long enough to have any friends yet. The mechanic tolerates you and that is as good as it is going to get.

How great it is, that the customer thinks you are the best pilot to show up in a while. You are happy. You want to please the customer. The weather is getting a little bad, its starting to get dark but you have seen this type of weather before. Your customer needs just one more flight and you’ll have set a record for the the most bags slung or drills moved or you just want to see that same look on the customer’s face at the end of the day. Stop ! If you have flown beyond your normal limits or are about to ,you may have put yourself in a position to pay the highest price of all.

Great customers can get you killed faster than the difficult customers , any day. The contract pilot, new hire and the pilot with the ” pleaser personality” are most susceptible to this risk. Manage it.


About Heligypsy

Has it really been forty-seven years flying helicopters all over the world? I guess it's time to share some stories, I hope you enjoy my adventures.
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3 Responses to A contract pilots perspective

  1. Trever says:

    How true!!

  2. Excellent post !

    I have that “pleaser” personality, so you’ve given me a moment of realisation – thank you for that !!


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