This is the first article in a three-part series on the impending helicopter pilot shortage:
Part I | Part II | Part III

For years, we've heard much about the coming helicopter pilot shortage, brought on in no small part by the unwinding of the U.S. military to its smallest size since before World War II. Evidence now suggests that this shortage is now upon us and that it will hit the helicopter EMS industry disproportionately. Consider the following:

The United States Army, the largest minter of helicopter pilots in the world, is about to transition to the UH-72 twin, the military variant of the Airbus H-145, as its primary trainer. The move is not without controversy, given the cost of the ships ($5.5 million each plus) and the higher hourly operating costs compared to the fleet of single-engine Bell TH-67s, the military variant of the venerable Model 206, they are replacing.

The Army points out that it is transitioning to a fleet of all twin-engine helicopters, including the UH-72, UH-60 Black Hawk, and AH-64 Apache. Ergo, training pilots in a single-engine aircraft is a waste of time and money.

Myriad critics disagree, but one thing is certain: Doing primary training in a more complex machine is going to result in a higher wash-out rate and, at the end of the day, produce fewer pilots.

The Army has always been a reliable source of helicopter pilots for the helicopter EMS industry. But these twin-trained pilots will be overqualified for most HEMS operations when they hit the civilian market 90 percent of HEMS helicopters are light single-engine models. And this new crop of military twin-trained pilots will be ending their military service right about the time the deepwater energy market — both in the Gulf of Mexico and internationally, with its better-paying jobs — is about to surge.

So if you are an ex-Army pilot hitting the job market what looks better to you: Iowa hospital hopping in an ancient Long Ranger or flying a brand-new, super-medium Airbus, AgustaWestland or Bell for top pay and better benefits? Like you really need to ask.

There are two more ingredients to throw into this stew. Wage-cost pressure on the HEMS industry is mounting in the face of growing negative publicity about the high cost of HEMS transports, market saturation and, in some cases, oversaturation of HEMS assets, increasing resistance of private insurers to foot the bill, and chronic under-reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid.

The dollar-menu mentality is about to take hold in an industry that traditionally has been price inelastic with a collective, captive audience strapped to the gurney. Nobody is talking about putting patients to the skids of Robinson R-44s quite yet, but it's going to be a nasty culture shock. And with a dwindling military pilot pipeline, the HEMS industry will need to recruit more purely civilian pilots. We'll talk about the problems with that next time.