Posted 12 years 311 days ago ago by Admin
In the previous two articles and video supplements I covered the required qualifications and training involved for pilots who wish to work in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). In this installment, my intent is to explore a few issues that impact the lifestyle of a pilot working in the GOM and some tips for adjusting to this unique work environment.
Generally speaking the work schedule can come in several forms. The most common schedules are 7-7 or 14-14. That is to say, one day off for every day on duty. The days working are typically called “on hitch” and the days off are called “on break”. This type of schedule is an interesting one and very specific to the offshore oil and support industry. Many years ago, helicopter operators in the GOM had come to a hard reality. The realization was that many of the small Gulf Coast towns might not be the most attractive places to live year round and raise a family (at least to non-locals). In order to attract pilots from a larger more “National” pool, they created a schedule that would enable pilots to live in various parts of the country, thus allowing them to commute to work. For those who find it viable to move to the Gulf Coast and live full-time, there are other work schedules available that might represent a more normal work schedule, such as a 5 on and 2 off.
FYI – Jim Palmer, Bristow Group Human Resources Partner, cautions new hires by painting a realistic picture by adding this information into the equation: Commuters should expect to add a travel day onto each end of their work hitch. So for example, depending on how far you must commute, a 7 on - 7 off may become a 9 on – 5 off.
A couple helicopter operators in the GOM, Bristow being one of them, has a pilot work force that works under a Collective Bargain Agreement also known as a CBA or Union Contract. The CBA defines very clearly how much a pilot gets paid and can be affected by such factors as seniority within the company, type of helicopter flown, and a variety of other possible incentives. Generally speaking a new pilot in the GOM can expect to earn a salary that ranges between $50k – $60k during their first year. Pilots will also have available traditional benefits that can include medical/dental insurance, vacation/sick leave, and retirement savings programs that can include a company match.
Pay scales can have steps ranging from 1 – 25 years with a senior pilot who is an IFR Captain and 25 years on the job earning $118+k per year. To learn more about helicopter operator pay scales and benefit packages, please visit www.helicoptersalaries.com.
FYI – Mr. Palmer also cautions new pilots to understand that commuters are responsible for all travel expenses incurred while getting to and from work. This could include such items as airfare, driving, hotels, or the expense of having a spare vehicle (a.k.a. airport junker), which can be used to get back and forth between the local airport and work base. This is important information to know so that one can factor in how commuting might impact net take home pay.
One of the shocks to a new pilot’s sensibilities when heading to the GOM is the change in lifestyle that is required. Virtually everything about the transition will turn your whole world upside down. Think about it, from a flying perspective, you will go from flying mostly over land to nearly always being over water. But at least the work involves a helicopter, which can make that part of the transition more exciting.
But what about the time spent when not working? Remember, you are at work 24 hours a day, for seven to fourteen days straight, and physically removed from family, friends, and the familiar comforts of home. Most often pilot bases are established in fairly remote and somewhat austere locations. In other words, there are rarely major towns nearby with shopping malls, movie theaters, and restaurants.
Pile onto the remote locations the fact that you will not only be living in a mobile home, but also sharing it during your hitch with other pilots. I visited Bristow’s Galiano base, which is considered to be a “super base”. The base is basically a large bustling patch of ground with a few hangars, a passenger terminal, a massive dirt parking lot, a bunch of helicopters and dozens of mobile homes in neat rows which house the people on hitch.
Once you get over the fact that you are now living in a mobile home, one finds that the accommodations (at least at this base) were very clean, fairly new, and quite sufficient for habitation. Not only does each trailer have a common full kitchen and living room area, but several other creature comforts are provided such as flat screen TV’s and wireless internet. Most importantly, pilots at this base are provided with their own private bedroom and bathroom while living there on hitch. It should also be mentioned that not every base uses mobile homes. There are some GOM bases that utilize apartments for housing as well.
Another major area of adjustment for most commuters is embracing the local culture. I carefully selected the word “embrace” to describe what a pilot must be able to do if he or she wishes to excel in the GOM environment and truly enjoy the work experience.
Specific to Southern Louisiana is a sub-culture of people called Cajuns. Cajuns are an ethnic group mainly living in Louisiana, consisting of the descendants of Acadian exiles (French-speaking settlers from Acadia in what are now the Maritime provinces of Canada). Today, the Cajuns make up a significant portion of southern Louisiana’s population and have exerted an enormous impact on the state’s culture. *(Source Wikipedia)
Back to the word “embrace” as it relates to the culture, as I feel like I cannot stress this point enough. One must understand that a large part of your interaction will be working closely with clients and co-workers who have deep roots in the local culture. Generally speaking, Cajun people are a tough people who seem to be “set in their ways”. Understanding and embracing the culture is a much healthier option than to disregard or fight it, as you will not be changing this culture any time soon. To put it simply, if you are a high speed, low drag city boy or girl, who likes to move everything around you at the speed of light, this slower paced culture and way of life may be a very tough adjustment for you.
When I interviewed pilots and managers for this story, I asked what the hardest adjustment is for the pilots transitioning to the GOM? Without a doubt, the number one answer is being away from family, especially for those who are married with children. Everyone emphasizes over and over how important it is to have “buy in” and understanding from the entire family unit of what commuting will be like and how it might impact the family.
Here are some tips given to me by long time GOMER’s that may help a new pilot better adjust to this unique work-life environment, but also excel:
1. Learn about the local culture and try and embrace the differences.
2. Make productive use of your non-flying time while on hitch by physically working out or taking online courses toward some goal such as a college degree or learning a language.
3. Set yourself up to be able to communicate with family in a meaningful way. For example, Skype video conferencing is a way that your children can see you daily which might reduce anxiety among children when mom or dad are away from home on hitch.
4. Make good use of your time away from work while on break to fulfill personal or family obligations. If you run a business or work somewhere else on your time off, you may run the risk of work burn out.
To Jim Palmer’s credit, his decade’s experience in the GOM have helped him to understand the common areas in which new hires struggle when coming to the GOM. He tells us that lifestyle issues surrounding family, commuting and local culture are the most common “shockers”. He believes that communication and education is key to helping a new hire prepare to begin his or her career in the GOM, hence his participation in this ongoing series.
Joe Wilmeth, a long time employee of Bristow Group and 30+ year veteran of the GOM said, “Yes, it is a very different culture and lifestyle down here in southern Louisiana. That is not to say if is a bad lifestyle, it’s actually a very easy, laid back, and comfortable lifestyle if you can accept it.”
WATCH THE VIDEO on Justhelicopters.TV – For more images and detailed interview comments about working in the GOM.
STAY TUNED FOR MORE – Every month we will be adding to this series with continuing articles, pictures and video.
MORE TO COME – Maintenance, Flight Following, and Quotes from the Field.