Aberdeen is the busy hub of the UK's North Sea oil and gas industry. That much is clear within about 30s of landing at the airport when you become immediately aware of the enormous amount of rotorcraft traffic ferrying workers to and from the rigs. It is, as the late author Iain Banks says of the place, "very helicoptery".
Bond Offshore Helicopters, Bristow Helicopters and CHC Scotia make up the trinity of offshore operators working from the Scottish site. Governed partly by their relative size and corporate parentage, each has adopted a slightly different means of recruiting and training pilots.
The largest of the trio is Bristow, part of Texas-headquartered Bristow Group, but with operations across the globe. Due to its scale, it has taken a more in-house approach to its recruitment and training needs. A key part of this is its own training operation, Bristow Academy, based in Titusville, Florida. Acquired in the early part of the last decade, the division provides ab initio training for self-funded would-be pilots.
These fall into two categories, explains Matt Rhodes, the company's offshore flight operations manager; those seeking a career change, and those who obtain private financing to bankroll the new training. Although that clearly can exclude those without deep pockets, as Rhodes notes, the financial commitment can indicate a certain strength of character. "Anyone willing to put that into a career has got to be worth looking at," he says.
Whereas Bristow previously had a training facility at Redhill in southern England dedicated to producing helicopter pilots for its North Sea operations, Titusville simply turns out qualified pilots, although relevant training can be provided for those seeking a career in offshore work. And the highest performing graduates are asked to stay on as instructors, Bristow looks to recruit them into the offshore business, first ensuring they are instrument rules qualified. In all, Academy recruits make up some 30% of the intake in Aberdeen, says Rhodes, with that figure varying between 50% in Norway and 25% in its Nigerian business.
"The Academy is our first port of call for new pilots," says Rhodes. The main advantage, of course, is that although the academy is a separate business from the offshore operations, the latter knows exactly the content of the courses, therefore any Titusville graduate has an automatic advantage over anyone who has been instructed elsewhere when applying for a post at Bristow.
Courses do not come cheap, however, with Rhodes putting the total cost at around £100,000 ($157,300) for the full course and accommodation. As such, Bristow may look in future to introduce a sponsorship scheme which would additionally cover their instrument rating. "We can contribute to their further development and build a strong foundation for the future," says Rhodes.
Bristow has had to be aggressive in its recruitment and training over the last 18 months, however, having seen the oil industry recover from a flat period at the turn of the decade. Rhodes says this was based on conversations it had with its customers, Bristow could see a spike in offshore activity looming and so "got the ball rolling" around 2011 in order to prepare.
This surge in oil exploration - driven by both the high price of crude and technological advances that have enabled access to previously uneconomical reserves - has meant that the offshore workforce has hit record levels. And that could rise further as oil companies undertake previously postponed remedial work on rigs, expansion of existing fields and new exploration. Bristow's pool of Aberdeen-based pilots has seen similar expansion, rising from 70 to 150 over the last 18 months.
Simulator work has become an essential part of a trainee's road to the flightdeck
Once recruited into the company, pilots undergo approximately two weeks of ground school to "get up to speed with the aircraft", followed by a further two weeks of type conversion using simulators. A number of further modules such as emergency procedures, aircraft familiarisation, operational procedures come next, before non-revenue flights in one of the four aircraft types flown from Aberdeen. These are performed alongside a training captain in order to practise some of the basics of offshore operations such as helideck landings. "It teaches them the crux of the job they'll be doing for the rest of their career," says Rhodes.
Shortly after, the candidate should receive their type rating his or her commercial pilot's licence and will be able to start line training on revenue flights. Great emphasis is placed on aircraft familiarisation before line training begins. "They need to feel confident with the aircraft they are flying so they can take anything the North Sea can throw at them," says Rhodes.
Equally, he stresses, it is important that trainees aren't rushed. "Most people who have come through the Academy will have qualified for their licence on a two-seat piston single and moving from that to a much more complex aircraft with multiple engines can be a challenge."
"You have to give them the right amount of time to get up to speed so they don't feel forced or pushed," he says.
Simulator training is, for the most part, handled on site as Bristow is the only one of the three Aberdeen operators to posses its own flight-simulation training devices (FTSD). "It gives us more flexibility in our training programme," notes Rhodes and also allows Bristow to work on new operating procedures mandated by customers in order to deliver best practice for both parties.
Meanwhile, just up the road, CHC Scotia, part of Vancouver-based CHC Helicopters, has taken a different approach. In 2011, it partnered globally with fellow Canadian company CAE for the provision of all ground- and simulator-based training under a 15-year deal. However, CHC continues to conduct its own flight training.
Although the transfer specific type training is yet to be completed, manager of worldwide training quality assurance Steve Fincken is pleased with the process so far. "It is very easy to outsource training. You send them pilots and they send you a bill. We have not taken that view and CAE came in and was embedded in our training process. They deliver the people to our standards and are part of our business."
"To some extent, we have embedded our own culture and processes within CAE," he says.
Although CHC previously owned a number of its own FTSDs, over time, it realised that it could not justify the continued investment required to maintain their standards. "They brought certain restrictions with them and for us as a company to get well and truly into the [simulator] business wasn't appropriate."
"We needed to focus on our core activities and purchasing and operating simulators wasn't one of them. By coming up with a partnership, we manage the costs and still come up with a good product at the end of it," says Fincken.
CHC, like Bristow, has been dealing with the "unprecedented" expansion of the offshore industry over the last 12 to 18 months. However, unlike the US firm, it does not have its own academy producing raw recruits to fall back on.
In addition, it has seen the flow of ex-military pilots beginning to slow, describing the market as "a lot thinner than it used to be." It is also where the partnership with the training provider has proved invaluable, says Fincken. "The benefit of having CAE as a partner is that we can share the load when the burden becomes as big as it has been.
"The demand we have faced over the last 12-18 months would not have been met had the partnership with CAE not been in place," he says.
It has also meant access to a global network of level-D simulators, which is a valuable resource for a globalised company like CHC which would lack the resources to create similar coverage, he adds.
The last of the three Aberdeen operators is Bond Offshore Helicopters. Steve Godfrey, its head of crew training and recruitment, looks relaxed, despite the pressures of recent months. "When we started looking at the recruitment side at the end of last year, it seemed a bit worrying. But when all three [operators] started to recruit, there were plenty coming out of the woodwork - we were getting 20 CVs per week at one stage," he says. Over nine years, the Aberdeen operation has swelled from four aircraft and 25 pilots, to 17 helicopters backed by 130 pilots "with more growth to come".
However, he is acutely aware that the pool of would-be aviators looking to pay their way through training cannot last forever. "It's fairly obvious that the pool of people paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to put themselves through pilot training is going to dry up at some point."
Having previously had an apprentice scheme - Godfrey is himself a product of that system - it may look to reintroduce a similar initiative or some sort of sponsorship for trainees to enable a more stable flow of recruits, he says.
"And from a company point of view it's nice to put something back into the industry through picking up additional people and sponsoring them," he adds.
The majority of pilot training is carried out in house, although Bond relies on external simulator providers, for example HeliSim and RotorSim - the Eurocopter and AgustaWestland offshoots - for FTSD provision.
Customer requirements can introduce their own complications, of course. For instance one oil major insists that pilots perform three night take-offs and landings every 90 days. Bond begins working towards that target in August with non-revenue night flights followed by a block of simulator training in September with a follow-up session in January.
The typical scenario a few years ago, he explains, was that pilots would be signed off for night competency and then not perform a single landing in darkness all summer. "It's one of the most beneficial bits of training we do with the guys," he says.
Ultimately, Godfrey hopes that the helicopter training industry will develop a competency-based training package similar to that taking root in the fixed-wing sector which is "three to four years ahead of us in terms of training," he says.