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

The declining number of retired military pilots entering civil aviation, coupled with the potentially-crippling proposed limits on the use of Veterans Administration educational benefits for civil flight training, promises to place more pressure than ever on civilian-track students to fill an emerging pilot shortage, including for helicopter EMS.

But given the high cost of helicopter training — up to $300,000 and a lack of affordable student loans to finance it, will enough young men and women choose helicopter flying as a career?

We're already seeing a demonstrable shortage of commercial fixed-wing pilots in the marketplace, and that training typically costs half of what is required in helicopters. The fixed-wing pilot shortage was Topic A at the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association conference this past spring.

The regionals are where young pilots go to build turbine time before graduating to corporate aviation or the airlines. These are the denuded commuter planes that pick up freight in small towns across the country and deliver it to/from major airport hubs for the likes of UPS and FedEx.

When there is a glitch in the pilot supply chain, this is where it shows up first. Despite double-digit pay increases last year, the regionals can't find enough pilots to fill hiring quotas. The reason for the shortage is basic Economics 101.

Even with the recent hefty pay increases, wages paid do not justify the enormous training debt pilots typically accrue to enter the profession. The only realistic way to turn this around is to find effective, but safe ways to lower the cost of flight training for all aircraft types.

That starts with smarter regulation. The new and draconian requirements recently imposed by Congress ostensibly to toughen pilot training standards were reactionary, substantially increased training costs and imposed higher experience minima for both pilots and their instructors. The FAA is working with industry to bring some rationality to this through the rule-making process, but don't count on that translating into meaningful cost reduction — at least not right away.

Most student pilots will still need to go into debt, but both the amount and terms of that debt can be, and should be, substantially reduced. Right now flight-training loans — if and when available are considered unsecured consumer debt by most lenders and carry interest rates that are three to four times higher than federally-backed student loans.

Congress should move immediately to include flight training for federally-backed student loans and end this discrimination in the national interest. Allowing students who train at schools that instruct under the less-costly Part 61 FAA rules to qualify for these loans would also go a long way to making flight training more affordable.

All HEMS operations have staffing issues from time-to-time. Making civilian helicopter training more affordable will prevent these anomalies from becoming a chronic condition, and ultimately costing patient lives.