• Heliwest's Tim Hand addresses the Chief Pilot forum at RotorTech 2024. (Steve Hitchen)
    Heliwest's Tim Hand addresses the Chief Pilot forum at RotorTech 2024. (Steve Hitchen)

Heliwest Manager of Special Projects Tim Hand this week delivered a speech at outlining the most challenging issues facing the rotary aviation industry in Australia today.

Speaking in a Chief Pilot's forum at RotorTech on the Gold Coast, Hand nominated regulatory burden, spiraling costs, workforce issues, apprentice attitudes and social responsibility among the many challenges Chief Pilots deal with.

Hand said that changes to CASA regulations was a time-consuming task that increased an already substantial burden.

"Many a chief pilot will tell you that keeping a crew safe and current is load enough without needing to research evolutions in regulatory change," Hand told the forum, "change that often isn’t clearly understood by the regulator or end-user, is open to a variety of interpretations, that you must self-administer into an Excel spreadsheet, provide advice to best practice or best guess and return only to be told the goalposts have moved.

"In some cases, the industry is left with voids we cannot fill. These are but examples, and many of your individual issues will be common to those gathered."

In recent years, costs of services and components have increased to a level that that maintenance organisations and operators can no longer absorb, meaning costs must be passed on to the end-user. According to Hand, the problem is one of a clogged supply pipeline.

"The combination of stretched supply chains, high inflation and exchange rates has seen significant price increases in aircraft operations, particularly in parts," he stressed. "Consider the aircraft sales market. Component times are now critical, and a stronger driver than ever before of price.

"Remember how we had it in 2011, when our dollar went over parity with the US? Since 2019, price increases of over 30% annually have been normalised. This normalisation is worsened by lead-times of over six months. For some components, 36-48 months or unknown lead-times.

"Some of you will recognise that AoG [Aircraft on Ground] no longer affords you priority on many parts; it won’t move you up the wait list with suppliers. Some aircraft are costly nearly double to maintain than what they did five years ago."

Hand believes the cost issue is exacerbated by a shortage of engineers, which is proving difficult to resolve, and is common to both the fixed-wing and rotary sectors of general aviation.

"We have a workforce problem, and it’s magnified in engineering. Parts are one element of maintenance; the other is qualified personnel. The greatest human resource restriction in aviation at the present is Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers. That’s exacerbated in rotary-wing aviation. There are simply not enough qualified personnel to service this industry.

"Qualifications and experience are not gained rapidly.

"How do we get engineers? We can’t keep buying them. Modular licences are a piece, but far from perfect; they are not a silver bullet. International is good, but we need options beyond New Zealand. Don’t get me wrong, we will take the qualified Kiwis … but the well is rapidly becoming dry.

"We need better pathways for foreign licences. At present, other countries and their qualifications are short-term solutions, but their effectiveness is limited for as long as they cannot sign for the work done. We need clear and expedited pathways."

With the general aviation industry looking for solutions to the engineer shortage, training and apprenticeships have become one of the pathways considered for overhaul, but Hand pointed out that apprentices come with their own set of challenges for operators.

"Apprentices ... take time, they need training and mentors," he pointed out. "They need a mind-set that has become increasingly generationally rare. The strain on manpower in the aviation industry has highlighted generational variations in attitudes to work and career.

"I say generational, as there are tangible indicators that are reflective of the average age … The social paradigm has shifted. Many don’t want full-time contracts, and if they can be secured they desire high rates of pay, regular triggers for wage increases, significant penalty rates, package benefits and hours that will guarantee weekends. Aviation is a 24/7 business, and this means that urgent operational requirements trigger financial benefits for these staff, but penalties to business.

"If you need support and it comes at that cost, that cost must be factored and passed through to the clients. Businesses can’t absorb costs endlessly."

Despite the challenges and an apparent lack of solutions in place, Hand noted that most Chief Pilots are time-poor thanks to healthy demand for helicopter services.

"The general consensus in the industry is that people are busy, and the market demand is strong.  Though I accept that 'busy' doesn’t always mean you are filling your core role or making pesos, for many what you are doing is filling critical gaps in staffing skills or qualifications, putting out fires for your business or, indeed, the wider industry.

"It does, however, provide indications toward increased demand or a return to pre-COVID demand. It may be seasonal for some, but it’s a good start."

Another pressure on operators Hand identified was the conflict between the expectation of social responsibility and the reality of the helicopter industry's requirements for reliable, stable fuels.

"A need for corporate social responsibility is increasing," he said. "We have few viable solutions at this time. Fossil fuels are still our reality and will be for some time to come. The transition from fossil fuels sits a few tiers down on our needs right now.

"Geopolitical indicators show that fuel security is a more significant issue; most of our aviation fuel is imported, our national fuel reserve is a fraction of that required or indeed agreed through our international commitments.

"Small disruptions have a significant effect, and this has been seen both in Australia and internationally over the past 18 months."

Jandakot-based Heliwest is one of the largest rotary aviation organisations in WA, operating and maintaining a fleet that includes Squirrels, Bell 206 and 427, Robinsons, BK117 and BO105 from bases in Perth and Newman.

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