I was talking to my current boss the other day about our early days flying helicopters. We were comparing notes on our first commercial flying jobs. We are about the same age and started our careers in similar aircraft like the Bell 47 and Hiller 12E. He flew in the Mountains of Guatemala and I flew in the Arctic and Rockies of Canada. We also both spent time flying in the relative flat lands doing agricultural spraying and both had our share of scares flying the equipment of the day with the attitudes that prevailed in those times.
We agreed that flying helicopters was a more hazardous occupation back then for two primary reasons. Ignorance and reliability. As pilots and mechanics we were ignorant to the hazards or accepted our high risk behavior as normal or standard operating procedure. The second reason that flying was more hazardous was that the equipment was not as reliable and our maintenance practices were not as sound.
Note:Statistics may show something slightly different from say 1978 to 2008 in that the accident rate spiked up in the 1990’s.
I still believe flying in the 70’s was definitely more hazardous. I have had 7 single engine ,engine failures and except for one they all occurred back in those bad old days. Four were piston engines and three were turbines and of the turbines two of them were the worst turbine engine ever placed in a helicopter, no, not the original LTS 101, but the Garret TSE331-3U-303. That engine only flew in the Sikorsky S-55T, thankfully. Another pilot friend of mine had eight engine failures in that model. I would have and did stop flying that model of 55T before my numbers got that high or my number came up.
When I think back to the old days I recall my first four Chief Pilots. Sadly, three of the four died in helicopter crashes and the fourth suffered a crash that left him alive but without a medical to continue his career.The fifth Chief Pilot I had drank his career and life away and was unfortunately not that uncommon a story for aviators in the far North at that time.
All things considered ,a career flying helicopters is a safer occupation than in past years. The equipment is a lot better,the maintenance is better and the pilots are trained with a greater respect for safe operating practices. The problem now is attrition and replacement. The old guard is retiring away, the military is hanging on to their people and there are not enough fresh faces coming to the helicopter world. I won’t go into all the reasons for the lack of new recruits. That is a whole other blog . What I do see coming is another upwards spike in the accident rate if action is not taken.
I was perusing one of the helicopter job websites. It is obvious that the E.M.S. industry is experiencing a critical shortage of pilots. One ad caught got my attention. The company was looking for instrument rated pilots for their E.M.S. operation. The minimum qualifications were 1500 hours in helicopters and 100 hours of night flight. I noticed an asterisk after three of the seven positions listed. The asterisk denoted that at least 1000 hours of the helicopter flight time must be turbine engine experience.Did this mean that a 1500 hour Robinson CFI with instrument rating and no turbine time could be flying a single pilot IFR EMS helicopter in bad weather at night to the scene of an accident? For a pilots first commercial flying job it suddenly reminded me a lot of the bad old days.
I hope the pilot hired with those qualifications gets transitioned slowly and with some extensive training prior to and during their probationary period at that flight operation. If not,it may be safer to wait for the ambulance with the six wheels.