Brazil's offshore oil industry is expected over the next five years to draw 60-70 new helicopters into a fleet that now stands at about 120 aircraft, but operators are starting to feel the effects of a severe pilot shortage that is already curtailing services.
The impetus for this coming surge in fleet numbers is the opening of deepwater pre-salt oilfields, believed to contain some of the world's largest reserves. However, the expected oil boom is raising the spectre of a pilot shortage, especially for flyers rated in larger types such as the Sikorsky S-76.
Some operators are already reportedly struggling to hire qualified pilots as demand begins to outstrip supply. Indeed, local sources have indicated that some operators are already rejecting services because of the shortage.
Although high costs of training helicopter pilots play a role, the root cause is primarily regulatory, according to Rodrigo Duarte, director of Brazil's helicopter pilot association ABRAPHE.
Brazil's oil company Petrobrás requires that crews engaged in offshore work have a minimum 500h single- or twin-engined experience as pilots and a twin-engine instrument flight rules rating.
The latter requirement has become a major stumbling block since none of the local helicopter schools possess twin-engined helicopters. While Brazil's ANAC regulatory agency allows single-engine IFR training, it demands that the check-ride be performed on a twin-engined helicopter for aspiring offshore pilots.
"The ANAC's position is unreasonable in view of the current helicopter pilot shortage in Brazil," says Duarte, who adds that most aspiring pilots depend on the goodwill of some operators to log twin-engine IFR time and a subsequent check-ride.
And, there are fears that the offshore helicopter pilot shortage might overflow into other segments of Brazil's civilian rotary-wing market, which has 1,350 helicopters.
One interim solution may be to open the market to overseas crews. At the moment, Brazil's civil aviation regulations allow for contracting foreign instructor pilots for periods of up to six months. Approved changes to standing regulations will allow the hiring of foreign pilots for periods of up to 60 months. Yet these need to be voted into law, and that is unlikely before 2011, in light of this year's presidential elections.