Canadian helicopter industry debates major challenges it faces

Article published by Vertical Magazine and written by Oliver Johnson

Around 600 of the leading figures in the Canadian helicopter industry gathered at the Helicopter Association of Canada’s (HAC’s) annual convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, in early November, to discuss the major challenges facing the rotary-wing sector in the country.

Among the biggest topics discussed were the difficulties operators are having with fatigue risk management systems (FRMS) in response to Canada’s new flight and duty regulations, the use of foreign ex-military restricted category aircraft in the country, and the ongoing personnel shortage.

HAC is calling for helipads to have 5G exclusion zones around them, to protect aircraft from possible radar altimeter interference. Mike Reyno Photo

In a session on hot topic issues, HAC president and CEO Trevor Mitchell focused on the FRMS challenges operators are facing. An FRMS allows operators to propose their own plan for tracking and managing flight crew fatigue, rather than adhering to the prescriptive regulations adopted in December 2022. These FRMS submissions are made after operators send off a notice of intent (NOI).

Mitchell said operators have been having their NOIs returned in droves, with Transport Canada responding that the proposals are too complicated and pose a risk to aviation safety.

“It’s a template [rejection letter] now — that’s how efficient they’ve become in rejecting these things,” said Mitchell.

He said the regulator had made it clear there would be no return to the situation prior to the implementation of the new flight and duty regulations — which, Mitchell said, means “creative solutions” will be necessary.

Responding to the industry’s complaints in a separate session, Jamie Johnson, regional director of Civil Aviation at Transport Canada, said “there is an acknowledgement” that something written for fixed-wing airline operators “cannot be particularly good for helicopters” in Canada.

Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) president Trevor Mitchell speaks to industry members during a presentation on hot topics at the HAC Convention and Trade Show in Vancouver, B.C. Cassana Multimedia Photo

“Where we sit today is: rules are rules,” he said. “If you don’t like it, you can make an [NOI and FRMS] application, but at the moment I’ve not seen any approved. And I think the reason they’ve not been approved is no one knows quite what to do with it.”

He said he believes the topic will be revisited by the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council — the group responsible for updating the Canadian Aviation Regulations. He advised helicopter operators to “make the most of that” opportunity, and said working through HAC was the best way to do so.

The arrival of a new fleet

Regarding the arrival of ex-military foreign aircraft in Canada — largely over the summer — Mitchell said HAC and its members were not happy with the “implementation of several processes, or maybe lack of processes” by the federal government.

The aircraft in question — Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks, Boeing CH-47 Chinooks and Sikorsky CH-54s — flew in Canada through a variety of mechanisms, he said. Some arrived through foreign air operator certificates (FAOCs), some are operating as Canadian-registered aircraft under pre-existing exemptions, and others, he claimed, simply “came into town, landed, and got to work.”

Mitchell said he had reached out to Transport Canada and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding the latter group. “Canada claimed they didn’t actually know they were in the country . . . [and] the FAA didn’t know they’d left the [U.S.],” he said.

In terms of helicopters flying under an FAOC, Mitchell said regulations state ex-military aircraft are not eligible to be included under free trade agreements.

The Black Hawks are operating in Canada under a variety of mechanisms. HAC has asked the regulator for more consistency and clarity going forward. Lloyd Horgan Photo

“These aircraft are restricted,” he added. “In the U.S., it’s very clear what they can and can’t do. But when they come across the border, [Transport Canada] doesn’t bring those restrictions with it. You can fly into commuter airports, you can fly over built-up areas — you can do all the things that they can’t do in the States.”

Finally, Canadian-registered Black Hawks are running through an exemption that was originally created to allow air show warbirds — such as Spitfires — to fly in Canada, Mitchell said.

“There is some frustration here from a lot of us because it falls back into regional disparity — certain regions [of Canada] say ‘no’ [to using this exemption for this purpose], and certain regions say ‘yes.’ ”

When approved under this exemption, the aircraft have to display a decal above the door that says you fly in it at your own risk.

“I’d like to think it’s a temporary situation — I’d like to think that this is a set of rules that has been interpreted to the ‘nth’ degree,” said Transport Canada’s Johnson. “If we don’t have a change of tack, there will be more next year. My opinion would be we might see 20 to 30 medium helicopters come through this route if there is no change in the position from [Transport Canada].”

This year’s fire season was unprecedented in scale in recent Canadian history. Marty Wolin Photo

Mitchell expressed frustration that there is no clear process to bring the ex-military types into Canada. “I think it’s very unfair to everyone in our marketplace… [because] whether you want to see them here or not, you shouldn’t have to look at four different processes,” he said. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.”

He also touched upon the potential for an upcoming notice of proposed amendment regarding flying at night and the possible requirement for an autopilot to do so, and warned about the potential dangers of 5G as new cellphone towers in the 3,600 to 3,900 MHz range are built. Communications in this range could possibly lead to interference with radar altimeters.

“The problem is, we do not know where these 5G towers will be,” said Mitchell. “I think it will be a problem — a fairly significant problem.”

He said helipads should be treated the same as airports, with 5G exclusion zones in place around them, and said operators should talk to helipad owners about getting an Airport Zoning Regulation set up.

Two Gemini Helicopters EC135 P2s fly near the operator’s facility in Grande Prairie, Alberta. William Vavrek Photo

A wildfire season like no other

In a meeting of the air taxi and aerial work committee, much of the discussion was focused on the recent wildfire season in Canada, which was one of the busiest in memory.

According to Bryce Moreira, aviation preparedness officer with B.C. Wildfire Service, 2.8 million hectares of land was burned in British Columbia alone in 2023, with helicopters recording 48,000 flight hours fighting fires in the province.

Moreira highlighted the scale of the fire season this year, both in terms of its length and the fact that fires were spread across the country. He noted that while he was working on a fire on Vancouver Island in June — unheard of in itself — there was a wildfire on the other side of the country in Nova Scotia.

The result in B.C. has been a greater use of heavy helicopter carriers “because of what fire seasons look like with the drought we’re experiencing,” said Moreira. “We’re having to do what we can to make things work out in the field, and protect the resources as best we can.”

The issue of fatigue risk managament remains front and center for many Canadian operators, with the new regulations exacerbating the challenges many operators are facing with the pilot shortage. Heath Moffatt Photo

He said B.C. Wildfire Service is “continuing to explore what expanding our long-term contract aircraft fleet can look like,” which includes looking at how drones or remotely piloted aircraft could be integrated into daytime operations.

Bob Spracklin, provincial aviation services coordinator at the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said the difficulty the sector faces is the unpredictability of the season.

“In the last six or seven years in Saskatchewan, we’ve had the earliest fire season on record, the latest fire season on record, two of the largest fire seasons on record, and two of the quietest fire seasons on record,” he said. “We talk about things being more extreme — they’re more unpredictable and there’s more extremes. And because of that, it’s becoming really difficult to analyze things even on a year-to-year basis.”

The personnel shortage is another major issue.

The helicopter industry faces an ongoing challenge to attract new entrants, with many exciting jobs now available in new technology for those starting their careers. Heath Moffatt Photo

During a flight training and personnel licensing committee meeting, co-chair Lyle Watts said the number of instrument flight rules ratings that were issued had dropped from 60 in 2015 to just 17 or 18 in 2022 — a fall of over 60 percent.

A less severe decline has been seen in the number of commercial pilot licenses in Canada, he said. Typically, between 270 and 300 of these are issued each year, but while that number has been falling, this year saw as many issued by September as there were in the entirety of 2022. Watts said he hoped this was a sign of a resurgence throughout the industry.

However, he acknowledged that there is an ongoing challenge for the industry to attract new pilots. Not only are there more choices than ever before in terms of exciting careers in new technology, prospective students often have different expectations of their work/life balance compared with older generations, Watts said.

Flight schools should talk to prospective students to manage their expectations of the career before they begin their training, he advised.

A VIH Sikorsky S-61 trains with the company’s new advanced power fill bucket for aerial firefighting operations. Heath Moffatt Photo

“We have to work on showing [students] how great of an industry it is, without scaring them away with the reality of some of the [work],” he said. “Because of the [personnel] shortages, I think companies are starting to take a more practical look at what they have to do to attract new employees.”

During the flight training session, Serge Cote, a flight training and examination specialist at Transport Canada, said the regulator was looking at changes to commercial pilot licensing — in terms of increasing the number of flight hours required — to bring Canada more in line with ICAO standards. Currently, Transport Canada requires at least 100 flight hours to be completed for a pilot to gain a commercial license, while ICAO calls for 150 flight hours.

In addition to “adjusting” the requirements for flight hours for a license, Cote also said he was looking at developing an integrated training course for helicopters, and is working on a new flight training manual. The latter should be complete within the next two years.

The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk has arrived in Canada, but a grey area exists over its use in the country. Brent Bundy Photo

A further regulatory change being considered is a requirement for private pilots to have a review every two years with an instructor in order to keep their license valid — a system currently used by the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. Currently, as long as a Canadian private pilot continues to fly, their license remains valid. Cote said Transport Canada was looking at this as one way to help reduce the private pilot accident rate.

Regarding the ability of the regulator to keep pace with the level of change in the industry — with urban air mobility, unmanned aviation, battery power, and hydrogen propulsion technology all in various stages of readiness — Johnson said Transport Canada isn’t “the long pole in the tent right now” in preventing their implementation.

However, Johnson acknowledged that Canadian regulations can’t be written at the same pace as the world is changing, and suggested the benefits of a new approach. “We’ve got this idea that you must comply with everything or you comply with nothing,” said Johnson. “You have this risk that we, as the regulator, are doing the opposite of what we want to do. . . . What we probably need is this much more graduated scale, where anything that makes safety better is good.”

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