Photo above: Don Kelsen

VAI and SoCal Rotors hosted a town hall in Los Angeles, California, to help guide aspiring helicopter pilots toward careers in firefighting.

Addressing a critical workforce shortage in the industry, Vertical Aviation International (VAI) on Jun. 29 held the first in a series of town halls focusing on helping new and potential helicopter pilots prepare for their careers in vertical flight. Working in partnership with the Southern California Rotorcraft Association (SoCal Rotors), the inaugural event focused on how to become a firefighting pilot. Panelists included current industry pilots who explained their duties and the best way to follow in their footsteps.

From left: VAI Western US Regional Representative Chuck Street joins pilots Josh Murphy, Paul Gottwig, Mike Sagely, and Ethan Jensen at the inaugural VAI pilot career development town hall last month in Los Angeles, California. (Don Kelsen Photo)

VAI Western US Regional Representative and longtime Los Angeles radio personality Chuck Street developed, promoted, coordinated, and moderated the town hall.

“These are among the very best pilots,” Street stated in his introduction of the panel.

Each pilot offered insights and advice on their pathway to becoming a fire pilot. The panelists encouraged audience members to develop a variety of flight experiences, such as utility work, mountain flying, overwater operations, and longline and sling-load work. They also discussed the importance of building night-vision goggle (NVG) experience, which can be obtained through missions such as medical transport operations.

The panelists who shared their stories and guidance were Paul Gottwig, Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations (LACFDAO) and VAI board member; Mike Sagely, LACFDAO and 2024 VAI Salute to Excellence Pilot of the Year; Ethan Jensen, LACFDAO; and Josh Murphy, Orange County Fire Authority. Gottwig and Sagely discussed building their years of experience in the US Army. Murphy flew with the US Coast Guard, and Jensen came up through the private sector.

The panelists suggested that attendees be ready to move around the country to gather various experience to qualify for a career with the fire service. They also recommended keeping detailed logbooks and being easy to work with as a team member.

Most helicopter flights in Southern California are public-service missions, and these future town halls will serve as a resource for those interested in serving the public interest through the skies.

“We have identified over 40 missions performed by helicopters and other vertical flight aircraft,” says James Viola, president and CEO of VAI. “Besides building flight hours, most of these missions require special skills. These town halls will provide a pathway for pilots to work in the industry segments that most interest them.”

Workforce development remains a significant issue in the vertical flight industry. “Most people working in vertical flight understand we are still amid a pilot shortage, and workforce development programs like this town hall are wonderful methods of building interest in the industry,” Viola adds. “I offer my deepest appreciation to the panelists who gave their time to guide those who wish to follow them into the cockpit.”

VAI will continue to work in cooperation with SoCal Rotors in preparing future town halls, roughly every two months. The next town hall will focus on the pathway to working in air ambulance operations, and future mission topics include airborne law enforcement operations and flying for the television industry.

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