Fleeing flight instructors and loads of red tape challenge trainers’ efforts to help stanch the growing pilot shortage.

Training organizations serving international students face strong demand from aspiring and advanced pilots as well as operators worldwide, according to leaders of several schools.

“Prospects are great for the international training segment,” says Capt. Jan Becker, cofounder and CEO of Becker Helicopters Pilot Academy in Marcoola, Queensland, Australia, and a former chair of the HAI Board of Directors. “A lot of training needs to be done.”

Numerous challenges lie between those prospects and their realization, however, Becker and others say. One such hurdle is the persistent shortage of flight instructors.

“Throughout the industry, there is just a pull” of pilots into other jobs, says Candise Tu, chief flight instructor at Carlsbad, California–based Civic Helicopters. “You’re seeing cycles of people working in flight instruction shorten” as they move into air ambulance, law enforcement, ­sightseeing, and other jobs to replace pilots hired by airlines.

“Pre-COVID, instructors [stayed] around two-and-a-half years after getting their [certificates],” she continues. “Now, I’m requiring a one-year commitment.”

Another obstacle affecting international training is countries disagreeing on standards for clearing new pilots to fly at home after training abroad. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), for instance, doesn’t allow a new pilot returning from US training to convert FAA certificates to European ones, according to Jared Friend, helicopter operations director at Hillsboro Heli Academy in Troutdale, Oregon.

“You can use your flight training hours” after you return home, Friend says. “But you basically have to retake all of your written exams there.”

Also, US training doesn’t satisfy EASA requirements for an instrument rating, Friend notes, even if it’s done at an EASA-approved US school.

In some nations, unpredictable bureaucratic red tape makes it difficult and overly expensive to start a flight school and bring students in-country. “The single-most pressing issue for helicopter pilots is regulatory reform in individual countries,” says Capt. Mike Becker, founder and executive director of Becker Helicopter Services, parent company of Becker Helicopters Pilot Academy.

Such factors squeeze the helicopter pilot pipeline—particularly the supply of experienced junior pilots—at a time when operations are starving for them. “A lot of operators report difficulty in finding qualified pilots,” says Cade Clark, HAI’s chief government affairs officer.

Pilot Demand to Exceed Supply

Analysts dissect the pilot shortage, which plagues most of aviation, differently. But reports by organizations such as Boeing, international training services and technology company CAE, the FAA, and business consultancy Oliver Wyman concur that the industry will soon be thousands of people short of the numbers needed to replace retiring pilots and support fleet growth.

Some fleet growth may be dramatic. Boeing sees the global airliner fleet increasing 98.2% by 2042, to 48,575 aircraft from just over 24,500 last year. The FAA projects the US commercial aircraft fleet will grow to 10,286 in 2043 from 6,852 in 2022, a 50.1% jump. For the more tempered helicopter market, Airbus expects in-service fleet growth of 16.1%, to 30,568 rotorcraft in 2042 from 26,331 in 2022.

Recent workforce forecasts by CAE and Oliver Wyman reflect those numbers. Last June, CAE projected the world will need 284,000 new pilots of all types through 2031—204,000 to replace retirees and 80,000 for growth. Oliver Wyman’s October 2023 analysis, which focused on the North American supply, offered good news. In July 2022, the company forecast a shortage of 30,000 pilots by 2032 (part of an 80,000-pilot gap worldwide). But it now expects the 2032 shortage to be 17,000.

That outlook improved, Oliver Wyman says, because of airlines’ responses to the shortage, which more than doubled to 17,000 last year from 8,000 in 2022. Airlines trained more pilots, raised pay, and enticed more existing aviators up the food chain from regional airlines, business aviation units, and helicopter operators.

One big driver of the shortage is the wave of older pilots retiring, which pandemic-provoked employee buyout offers and deteriorating work conditions accelerated. Helicopter pilots generally don’t face a mandatory retirement age (Civic Helicopters founder and CEO Chin Tu turned 75 last year and flies several days a week as assistant chief flight instructor for the company), but retirement considerations nonetheless hover over helicopter pilots’ career decisions. And the airlines have lured helicopter pilots with higher flight crew pay, signing bonuses, and other attractive benefits.

Civic Helicopters recently trained Dohee Mun (left, with Candise Tu), who planned afterward to work as South Korea’s first female helicopter CFI. (Civic Helicopters Photo)

Teaming Up to Aid Students

The promise of quick entry into an aviation career is one element driving helicopter flight training demand. Other factors include the worldwide growth of air ambulance services, aerial firefighting, and remote tourism and the growing need for greater border-control capabilities.

In the United States, however, tight financing and applicant backlogs have stifled domestic demand, forcing financially assisted students such as GI Bill recipients to wait for training slots.

“One of the biggest hurdles right now for domestic students” is the difficulty in financing training, says Hillsboro Heli Academy’s Jared Friend. There are options. But, says Candise Tu, “Most of what we’re encountering is people paying out of pocket themselves.”

These are among the reasons flight schools pursue international students.

Based at Carlsbad’s McClellan–Palomar Airport (KCRQ), Civic Helicopters has been training students since Chin Tu bought a flight school there in 1986. Civic is an FAA Part 145 repair station, a Robinson and Schweizer dealer and service center, and a Part 135 operator of aerial photography, local transportation, and tour flights. “The vast majority of our business, however, is flight training” under Civic’s Part 141 flight school certificate, Candise Tu says.

Civic has a fleet of five Robinson R22 Beta IIs, two R44 Raven IIs, two R44 Cadet “glass” IFR trainers, two Schweizer 300Cs, a Bell 206B-3, a Bell 505, and an FAA-approved FLYIT helicopter simulator. Over 37-plus years, the company has trained local students; pilots from local, state, and federal agencies; and a variety of international students.

International students make up a third of Civic’s business, with the focus on a contract with South Korea’s Hanseo University. Under the agreement, Civic trains that nation’s prospective military helicopter pilots.

“The Korean contract is pretty substantial,” Candise Tu notes. “We’re doing anywhere from 25 to 30 students a year.”
International training became a concern for Hillsboro Heli Academy toward the end of the last decade. The company had been training international students almost since its founding in 1980.

Part of Hillsboro Aero Academy based just outside Portland, Oregon, Hillsboro Heli Academy has trained students from more than 55 countries on its fleet of Robinson R22s and R44s. “Our goal has always been to set up our graduates for their future,” Friend says. “We’re not really in the business of ‘get ’em in, get ’em out’ and wish them luck on their way.”

But the school began to hear from alumni who had trouble getting approved to fly upon their return to Europe after building flight time and experience through US jobs. “Every single one going home to Europe had to try to figure out themselves how to get their licenses converted,” Friend recalls. “What school do they go to when they get back [home]? Who do they talk to?”
Friend and his colleagues flew to meet with European companies about how to help. One was RotorSky, whose operations include a training academy near Linz, Austria. Its 30 aircraft include Airbus BK 117s, H120s, and H125s; Bell 206s; Leonardo AW139s and AW169s; and Sikorsky (Schweizer) S300s and S-76Bs.

They asked RotorSky founder and CEO Christian Gruber if the companies could partner to help returning students with a plan for converting their certificates and entering the European industry. Gruber said they should team up to train European students in Oregon under RotorSky’s EASA Approved Training Organization certificate so they could satisfy most FAA and EASA requirements. They did just that, jointly developing FAA–EASA training and launching the approved program in late 2020. Hillsboro Heli Academy says its combined syllabus can shorten a student’s training timeline, and reduce costs by more than 50% per flight hour.

Hillsboro has other initiatives to smooth international students’ entry into non-US operations too. Its Career Pathway Program has established agreements with German nonprofit air rescue operator ADAC Luftrettung and North Sea offshore operator Bristow Norway. Under the agreements, both operators use combined EASA and FAA training syllabuses to fulfill requirements for certificates issued by each regulator ranging from private pilot to airline transport pilot.

As part of the operators’ participation in the Career Pathway Program, Bristow and ADAC require students to pass an aptitude test. Bristow requires students to do so before they’re admitted to the program. Each operator offers the accepted student access to one of its pilots as a mentor throughout the program. Students who complete the program and pass the aptitude test are also guaranteed job interviews and preferential hiring.

“That’s a really neat thing for these students,” Friend says, “to have this finish line and mentorship along the way.”

The Career Pathway Program agreements with Bristow and ADAC also allow students to obtain an F-1 visa that grants them access after training to work in the United States for up to 23.5 months as a CFI or a commercial helicopter pilot. After that work, students may return home with up to 1,500 flight hours.

Hillsboro Heli Academy has also recently added aerial firefighting, air ambulance, and search-and-rescue operator Avincis Spain (formerly Babcock) to the Career Pathway Program. The Avincis program is in its infancy, Friend says.

A substantial amount of Civic Helicopters’ flight training business involves instructing prospective helicopter pilots, like the group shown here with Chin Tu (in blue jacket) and Candise Tu (in puffer jacket), for South Korea’s military services. (Civic Helicopters Photo)

Adaptation Breeds Sustained Success

Becker Helicopters, which is considered to be the largest flight school in the Southern Hemisphere, is well-versed in the vagaries of operating a helicopter training business at an international level.

Mike and Jan Becker launched the flight school in 1996 with the goal of making it an international destination for rotary-wing flight training. Six years later—after epidemics, terrorist attacks, and Middle East war squelched global interest in air travel—the couple retooled to focus on flight training for Australian allies’ military and paramilitary services and law enforcement/public safety providers. That led them to focus on technology, incorporating night-vision goggles and IFR capabilities in their helicopters and eventually developing their own flight simulators. Glass cockpits and turbine aircraft became standard in their operations.

Becker Helicopters maintains a civil training program, too, offering initial to advanced rotorcraft instruction, including multi-engine transitions and aircrew and multicrew cooperation.

The company’s business plan included drawing most of their students from outside Australia to reduce their reliance on a single nation’s economic health. That forced the Beckers to deal with individual countries’ changing visa criteria and the associated interactions with immigration and education departments. They’ve also had to confront the complications of converting pilot licenses amid changing rules and regulations, as well as attitudes toward the legitimacy and recognition of different countries’ licenses.

COVID-19 prompted another business-plan retooling: the company now draws more on contract pilots and maintenance technicians, uses a smaller Bell 206B-3 fleet, and trains corporate clients within their home countries (due to Australian entry and exit restrictions).

Becker Helicopters has succeeded in building its international business despite the regulatory and red-tape quirks. “This question has to be asked,” Mike Becker says: If every International Civil Aviation Organization–compliant country trains to an ICAO standard, “why are the licenses not recognized in each of these countries without unnecessary conversion? For me, this is the crux of international training. Not individual companies in individual countries advertising and offering a product, but the ability to actually train legitimately.”

Hillsboro Heli Academy has partnered with European operators on training and mentorship programs to ease the transition of students from flight school to industry jobs in that region. (Hillsboro Heli Academy Photo)

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James T. McKenna

James T. McKenna

James T. McKenna has written about aviation since penning a 1978 article on the Wright brothers display at John F. Kennedy International Airport (KJFK) for New York City’s Aviation High School newspaper. An award-winning journalist, he has covered airlines, military aviation, spaceflight, and helicopters for Aviation Week. Twice editor in chief of Rotor & Wing, he has written for the Flight Safety Foundation, The New York Times, USA Today, Vertical, and Vertiflite. He specializes in covering accident investigations and safety issues.