US airlines tap army helicopter pilots to ease shortage

Military helicopter pilot Henery Jacobs uses a flight simulator at Coast Flight Training in San Diego, California, on Jan 15, 2019.
Military helicopter pilot Henery Jacobs uses a flight simulator at Coast Flight Training in San Diego, California, on Jan 15, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

CHICAGO (REUTERS) - US Army pilot Shaun Perez spent 10 hours flying an Apache helicopter over Afghanistan, providing gun cover for Special Forces soldiers on the ground as they hunted for high-value targets, guns and weapons.

Returning to his base at dawn, he donned a fresh uniform before shutting himself into a small room to secure the next stage of his career - as a commercial airline pilot.

He would win the job in a video interview that day in August 2017, joining hundreds of other US military helicopter pilots who have taken attractive offers from domestic airlines trying to ease a global pilot shortage.

Mr Perez took advantage of one of the tightest labour markets in the United States, created by years of slow hiring, a wave of pending retirements at major US airlines, and Federal Aviation Administration rules that in 2013 increased the number of required training hours from 250 to 1,500.

The industry's aggressive recruitment of military helicopter pilots is one of the most striking examples yet of the contortions required to quickly train new commercial aviators since the FAA increased the minimum flying requirement. The pilot shortage threatens the industry's growth just as travel demand booms.

Airlines have been forced to more than double starting salaries to US$54,000 (S$73,389), excluding bonuses, in 2018 from US$21,000 a decade ago, according to aviation consultant Kit Darby.

Mr Perez, 38, now flies under the banner of United Express, the regional branch of United Airlines, at a strong starting salary with his training costs covered.

Coast Flight Training president Bryan Simmons (right) with military helicopter pilots Dominic Cipolla (left) and Henery Jacobs in San Diego, California on Jan 15, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ten US regional carriers are offering helicopter pilots such as Mr Perez up to US$50,000 to pay for commercial airplane training, and in some cases additional signing bonuses, according to a survey by Reuters.

"This is the first time that the industry is committing direct funds, basically a subsidy, to get that training quickly," said Mr Bryan Simmons, president of Coast Flight Training, which pioneered the so-called rotor transition programme for helicopter pilots with American Airlines Group's regional subsidiary, Envoy, in San Diego.

Mr Perez was offered US$38,000 by Trans State Airlines for training that cost him US$20,000. He got to keep the difference, and within months of leaving Afghanistan, was flying a 50-seater regional passenger jet.

He said he is taking home about US$3,200 a month with the prospect of earning far more once he moves up to a large US carrier.

"Even if you had to pay US$100,000 for training, you're going into a field where you know you're going to make that money back and more," Mr Perez said.

Regional airlines' helicopter transition programmes offer flow-through agreements with mainline carriers, providing new pilots an interview - and in some cases, a job - with a major airline within a few years.

To fly a multi-engine passenger jet - which can travel about five times faster than helicopters and has more complex control panels - helicopter veterans need to complete fixed-wing FAA ratings and required flight time.

The transition feels natural to Mr Perez.

"We took multiple ground fire; we had hard missions," he said. "But once we step into that (airline) cockpit, we're humble and we work hard."

A key reason that airlines are chasing military pilots is because the new FAA training rules only require them to have 750 hours of additional training, half the 1,500 required of civilians seeking a commercial pilot licence.

Military helicopter pilots from the military only need additional training in flying fixed-wing aircraft, which takes about 90 days. For civilians, obtaining a commercial pilot licence can take years and cost more than US$100,000.

"We've stumbled upon the quickest solution to the pilot shortage," said Mr Erik Sabiston, an army veteran turned commercial pilot who founded Rotary to Airline Group in December 2017 to help helicopter, or rotor, pilots make the transition to passenger jets.

The not-for-profit group, with more than 7,000 pilots and mechanics, also assists airlines in designing rotor transition programmes.

American Airlines' regional carrier Envoy said more than a quarter of its 701 new pilots last year came from military helicopters, compared with 11 per cent in 2017 and 5 per cent in 2016. It plans to hire 626 pilots this year, with about a quarter of those expected to come through its rotor programme.

"It's an untapped pool of pilots that hadn't been brought to anyone's attention before," Envoy pilot recruiter Megan Liotta said.

Former military helicopter pilots generally adapt quickly to the differences in a jet's speed and controls and have a higher success rate in landing jobs than other aspiring aviators, recruiters said.

"They come from an environment that has trained them to think on their feet and be very adaptable," said Mr David Tatum, director of pilot recruitment for American Airlines.

For former military pilots, the surge in interest from airlines helps replace the shrinking number of jobs flying helicopters to offshore oil rigs.

A pilot hired by regional carrier Envoy today makes about US$60,000 or more in their first year as a first officer. They can expect to upgrade to captain, at a higher pay scale, within two years before moving on to No. 1 US carrier American Airlines within six years, the company said. Top-end salaries at American Airlines surpass US$300,000.

Aviation consultant Samuel Engel said a 50 per cent increase in pilot costs at the regional carriers would amount to a 7.7 per cent increase in overall costs per seat-mile on a 70-seater, erasing some of the cost advantage of regional aircraft on a per-seat-mile basis.

So far, airlines have succeeded in passing on rising costs to passengers, often through extra charges for luggage or preferred seating. But analysts have questioned their ability to continue raising fees.

Boeing estimates a need for 790,000 new pilots in the commercial aviation, business aviation, and civil helicopter industries over the next two decades.

"The problem is, we're still not creating enough pilots... to meet the need," said aviation consultant Mr Darby.