Helicopter engineering skills shortage looms

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While local training solutions will meet local shortages of aviation maintenance technicians, experts say a larger issue is looming - a worldwide slip in appeal for aviation maintenance against careers in high technology.

"I don't know anywhere where there is a surplus of qualified and experienced helicopter engineers or mechanics," says Patrick Corr, chairman of the Helicopter Association International.

Complicating the picture is a large variance in training time - as little as 18 months in an apprenticeship programme in the USA, but up to seven years elsewhere - and that academies cannot take a person off the street and graduate a qualified engineer, but rather employers must risk straining the instructional capacity of their teams' experienced engineers to complete the novice's training.

Ian Wilson, quality manager of UK helicopter operator and training company Bond Air Services, and chairman of the technical committee of the British Helicopter Advisory Board, laments government financial aid's preference toward degree-granting academies, exaggerating a migration toward the highest salaries. "Chances are, once we train them and qualify them, they start looking around the world," he says.

Despite a generous benefits package, Bond is in need of B2 avionics engineers. There are three today, Wilson says. They need five and could use eight, "But we'll probably never get there."

Looking at their 50 engineers, he sees a dip starting in 2010 from retirement and sinking very low from 2018 to 2025. Military-experience applicants are fewer worldwide.

There are scant hard numbers, says Peter Norton, chief executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board. Layoffs in the slow economy are certainly not a problem in the UK, he says. "If they were, due to a company closure or something, they'll soon be snapped up by another company," Norton says.

So far productivity is not affected, Corr says, but it could soon be. As senior vice-president, global safety, training and standards for Bristow Group, he knows his company's aggressive acquisition of flight schools cannot be mimicked in the UK.

"We're finding the choke point is not the schools. The problem is our ability to absorb apprentices. To provide adequate supervision in the numbers we'd like to hire."

A new FlightSafety training centre in Lafayette, Louisiana is now finished in the centre of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas operations. Rather than training mainly supervisors at West Palm Peach, Florida, the company will directly instruct line mechanics at the new facility, many in a new programme for Sikorsky aircraft.

Markus Steinke, managing director of Eurocopter UK, intends to hire future engineers from a new 1,394m2 (15,000ft2) helicopter service centre in Aberdeen, Scotland, at the world's busiest civil heliport. "The issue of a shortage of engineers is still in its kindershoes," he says.

Steinke says maintaining engineers is easier among the 11,000 workers in France and Germany than elsewhere. "It's not only about money and fascination with the job. It's about family," he contends.