I’m sure you have noticed the large Helicopter Association International (HAI) headquarters near the flightline, and also several helicopters of all sizes and types spread around the Oshkosh AirVenture grounds. That’s new. Helicopters have been fairly rare here over the years. But the future looks very bright for rotary-wing flying.
Just a few years ago helicopters were in the dumper along with all other segments of aviation after the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008. But helicopters have made a strong, and to many of us, surprising recovery. Helicopter sales are booming, and flight hours are soaring.
The reasons for increasing helicopter demand are many and include a growing oil and gas industry, construction, patrol and surveillance, firefighting, and so on. It’s really pretty easy to sum up the demand for helicopters—they do what no other aircraft can do because they can hover, and take off and land vertically.
Another factor in helicopter growth is that, compared to fixed-wings, the helicopter is truly a global machine. According to a survey by Honeywell only about half of all helicopters, and those on order, fly in the Western Hemisphere. The other half of the helicopter fleet is spread across the rest of the world.
In fixed-wing aircraft North America alone accounts for well more than half of all aircraft, and the developed world accounts for the huge majority. Most of us expect the airplane fleet to grow over the coming years in the developing world, but helicopters are already there.
Helicopters are also different from airplanes in their mission. Most rotary-wing machines work for a living performing all sorts of utility or military missions. Very few helicopters spend their lives carrying passengers the way the majority of fixed-wing airplanes do. That means helicopter flying and growth in the fleet responds very directly to economic factors.
The growth in helicopter flying is good for all of us in aviation because it creates jobs building and maintaining the aircraft. And cockpit seats need to be filled. And this is a fact, not myth. There is a helicopter pilot shortage right now, not next year or some point in the future. Matt Zuccaro, president of HAI, told me that he personally knows of several helicopter operators that are not growing and adding helicopters to their fleets as fast as they could because they can’t find enough pilots.
During the Vietnam War years the U.S. Army trained many thousands of helicopter pilots. The Vietnam glut of helicopter pilots soaked up the flying jobs for decades. But people from the Vietnam era are now in their 60s, or even 70s, and are timing out quickly. That generation is now moving on, creating many opportunities for younger pilots.
We welcome the HAI to Oshkosh and the many helicopter companies who have brought aircraft here. The helicopter presence at Oshkosh can only grow along with expansion of the fleet. Rotary-wing is truly a bright spot in all of aviation, and a career path any aspiring young pilot should examine.