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Helicopter Pilots in Short Supply for EMS and Other Needs

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- As the Vietnam War was winding to a close, the United States was flooded with experienced helicopter pilots returning home and looking for work.

In Vietnam, with its swampy, mountainous terrain and dense jungles, helicopters provided a more viable means of evacuation than traversing the country's dangerous, barely serviceable roads. Military pilots received optimal training in extreme terrain.

More than three decades later, those skilled professionals are starting to retire, creating a demand for pilots in emergency medical transport, law enforcement, tourism, traffic safety and other fields.

"The helicopter industry is just going crazy right now," said Sebastian Carter, a certified flight instructor at Carlsbad-based Civic Helicopters. "There's more helicopters being built and used in more places, (but) there's just not enough pilots to fill those positions."

According to Marty Pociask, communications director for Helicopter Association International, increased usage of helicopters to conduct seismic survey work and disaster relief also have contributed to the demand. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, helicopters were an important part of the disaster response, flying in supplies and dropping sandbags to plug breached levees.

"Every one of our members was down there rolling up their sleeves ... for free," Pociask said.

The chopper void is a boon for those considering the field, such as Vista resident Tim Hass, who began taking lessons at Civic Helicopters in July. Though he has a degree in electrical engineering, Hass said he wasn't happy with the opportunities in that field.

"I'm looking at changing careers completely," said Hass, 30. "There are going to be a lot of people retiring and not nearly as many people to replace them, so this really looks like a great opportunity to do something I've always wanted to."

Hass recalled his first flight.

"We got up ... and Sebastian said, `Do you want to take the controls?' I was really caught off guard. I didn't think I'd be under control of the aircraft that soon, but I was ready to go. I was a little unsteady, but I kept it in the air and I'm like, `Wow, this is really cool.'

"It's amazing how quickly I progressed," Hass said. "It's kind of similar to riding in a car, except now you've got the up and down sensation that you're controlling."

Though employers require helicopter pilots to log a specific number of flight hours before they are considered for a position, those "hour requirements are going down," Carter said.

"The employer that used to say, 'I want a pilot with 3,000 hours; who wants the job?' is now having to say, `I need a pilot with 1,500 hours.'

A thousand hours is considered the "golden mark," for many positions, Carter said.

"Once you've reached 1,000 hours, a lot of jobs open up to you."

Last week at Civic Helicopters' training facility on the grounds of McClellan-Palomar Airport, Hass walked around a two-seat Robinson R22 helicopter, checking off items on a preflight inspection list.

"There's a lot of little nuts and bolts that we have to make sure are nice and tight," Carter said.

The training helicopter runs on the same unleaded fuel used in Cessna airplanes and other piston-powered craft. Helicopters with turbine engines take jet fuel.

"We have our own fuel trucks, so it's real reliable as far as fuel quality," Carter said. "A quarter of a tank is good for about a 30-minute flight."

To get to Ramona, Hass had the main tank and a reserve tank topped off.

Hass hopes to land a job as an Emergency Medical Technician pilot. Salaries range from around $70,000 to $120,000, Carter said.

"They work seven days on, seven days off," Carter said. "They work half a year and they get paid for a year."

Hass said his ideal job would be working for a local hospital.

"You're much more grounded as far as where you're family would be based ... that, and just satisfaction of helping people," he said.

The first step to becoming a pilot is for students to earn their private license. The cost for 40 hours of flight time, fuel, class instruction and books comes to $9,600 when training on an R22. Training on the Schweizer 300, a larger helicopter with controls closer to those used in commercial jobs, is $11,500. New helicopters start out at around $200,000.

After students have earned their private license, they may obtain their commercial license or train in a variety of industry-specific applications. A designated pilot examiner who is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration administers the test.

"It takes most people typically about 60 hours of flight time just to get proficient enough to where you'd really be comfortable with an FAA examiner checking you out," Hass said.

To get a commercial license, it takes about 300 hours, he said.

Hass has logged close to 40 hours of flight time, nearly enough to receive his private license, though a far cry from the golden 1,000 hours required for most entry level jobs, and at least 2,000 short of what is required for EMT pilots.

"We get people of all ages looking for their private license, (but) usually it's the people that have a little bit more money," Carter said. "It's not cheap to fly rotor craft."

A cost-efficient way for pilots to rack up hours is to become an instructor.

"It's a fantastic way to build hours and your experience," Carter said. "As an instructor, you're constantly going through emergency procedures."

Instructors also get practice doing autorotations, an emergency landing procedure used during an engine failure.

"A lot of people think it's kind of like the movies, it starts spinning around and falls to the ground, but it's nothing like that," Carter said. "A lot of people don't realize that a helicopter can glide."

Hass said the most important skill he has learned is to relax and move the craft smoothly.

"It takes a lot of practice before you can relax," Hass said. "There's so much that your mind has to process at the same time."

Carter, 34, has logged about three hours of flight time in an airplane, or fixed-wing craft, though he prefers the challenge of a helicopter.

"It just didn't really interest me," the Oceanside resident said. "The workload for the pilot is very low. A helicopter is a dynamically unstable vehicle, so it takes constant input from the pilot just to keep it flying, whereas an airplane you can do what's called trimming it out, and it'll pretty much fly itself."

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