The once steady stream of trained crew, drawn from former military personnel, has “all but dried up”, forcing operators to look for people willing to pay £100,000-plus to fund their own pilot training.
Flying helicopters in the North Sea remains an “aspiration career”, according to Captain Colin Milne, chairman of the helicopter affairs committee of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, but unless fresh recruits can be found the industry will face a shortage of skilled pilots.
“The Central and Northern North Sea, operating out of Aberdeen and Shetland, is the helicopter equivalent of long-haul Boeing 747 flights for fixed-wing pilots. It is highly demanding and we need people of the top calibre,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “But I’d say we have mopped up everybody at all suitable for that very top layer of the industry. Where are the next lot of pilots going to come from?”
Significant new investment in the North Sea is expected to increase the pressure on operators to have a healthy supply of qualified pilots. Milne said the industry should be braced for a “huge ramp-up” of demand for their services.
The pilot shortage has arisen because fewer armed forces-trained pilots are available. “The traditional sources of supplies – the armed forces – have pretty well dried up, although clearly when the civilianisation of Search and Rescue starts in two years’ time, there will be guaranteed places for quite a large proportion of military SAR pilots,” said Milne.
Up to 80 per cent of applicants for a pilot’s post in the UK oil and gas sector fail to make the grade, an industry source said. Recent helicopter crashes, including the Clutha tragedy in which a police helicopter crashed into a Glasgow pub and the Super Puma disaster in which four oil workers lost their lives, highlight the dangers involved.
For those who can afford it, pilot training is available at an initial cost of £100,000 but loans are difficult to come by. “The only way this is going to be financed in the future is the bank of mum and dad. Flying becomes a career reserved to only the few men and women who can afford to fund the training,” warned Milne.
Three operators employ most of the pilots in the North Sea: Bristow, CHC and Bond Offshore Helicopters. Bristow sponsors four through training each year and runs an academy in Titusville, Florida. A spokeswoman said: “Academy recruits make up some 30 per cent of the Aberdeen intake.”
A CHC spokesman said: “The market is competitive and may become more so. We are employing new ways to bring highly trained people in, including a unique partnership with Wings for Warriors.”
The charity assists former soldiers and marines injured in Iraq and Afghanistan to get civilian jobs. The spokesman added: “We have already employed one pilot and hope to employ more Wings for Warriors candidates.”
A Bond spokesman said: “We continue to employ pilots from military and civilian backgrounds. In 2013 we recruited an additional 35.”
Tragedies highlight the risks
DURING the past decades, there have been a number of helicopter crashes in Scotland and its surrounding waters, resulting in multiple fatalities.
The most recent and perhaps most high profile was on 29 November last year, when a police helicopter lost power and hit the busy Clutha Bar in the centre of Glasgow around 10pm, resulting in ten deaths, including the three-person crew. As yet investigators have found no single cause for the crash.
Four months earlier, on 23 August, a SuperPuma L2 helicopter ditched into the North Sea after experiencing an unexplained loss of air speed while on a low approach two miles west of Sumburgh Airport. Overturning on impact, the aircraft’s flotation system was triggered.
Four passengers were killed, but both crew and a further 12 passengers were rescued.
In April 2009, a Bond Offshore Helicopters AS332L2 crashed into the North Sea 13 miles off Crimond on the Aberdeenshire coast, killing all 16 on board.
The Air Accident Investigation Branch’s initial report found that the crash was caused by a “catastrophic failure” in the aircraft’s main rotor gearbox.
In the same year, on 18 February, while on approach to the ETAP oil platform located 125 miles east of Aberdeen at night, a SuperPuma helicopter ditched in poor visibility, 500 metres from the rig. Workers of board the platform, who witnessed the crash, raised the alarm.
All 18 on board survived and were rescued by Coastguard boats.