The last Helicopter Pilots…

Are we the last helicopter pilots?

That might sound like a bit of a sensationalist headline but seriously, have you ever thought about how fast things are changing? Might this generation of pilots very well be the last to get into a cockpit every day and actually fly? 

 I go to work every day and I fly an aircraft that is undoubtedly more advanced than the generation before me, it’s got very advanced avionics and with the help of a 4-axis autopilot it leaves me with very little to do in cruise flight but I still have to show up to do it!
Medevac Scene Landing Zone
Medevac Scene Landing Zone

My job now is more of a flight manager. Radios, navigation, and autopilots are all taken care of by me, or my co-pilot. (yeah, there’s actually two of us in an aircraft that can almost fly itself). The biggest reason there’s still pilots at all is for the situational awareness and problem-solving abilities but with increasing technology, will a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) operator eventually do my job from a corner office at Aviation HQ?

 If you’re anything like me you probably don’t look forward to the prospect that you can’t get airborne to do your job and instead have to do it from a remote console with your feet planted firmly on the ground

Don’t get me wrong, this sounds like progress and I wouldn’t want to get in the way of progress. It’s through innovation that new opportunities arise, ones that we probably haven’t even thought of yet. Where would we be if the car hadn’t essentially replaced the horse-drawn carriage? No doubt though, that there were coachmen saddened to see their beloved way of life disappear. 

Let’s take a look at some of the things that are happening right now…

 I’m sure we are all familiar with hobby drones by now, every 12 yr old in the country has one but surprisingly it’s the adults that have them, that can be more reckless. Daily, there are reports of drones overflying airports, forest fires and Medevac LZ’s, more often than not, its adults that should know better that are at the controls 

It’s not uncommon now to see NOTAMS in your area for drone activity, a recent one near me was for a hospital apparently using it to transport organs, yeah I didn’t know they did that either. There is certainly an increasing number of Law Enforcement drones and there are even drones that can drop life-saving devices to victims at sea, not to mention the obvious, the movie you’re watching might not have used helicopters for the aerial footage either. And that’s just the small stuff…

According to Unmanned Systems news, Leonardo in 2018 completed test flights of a helicopter with no safety pilot on board. The SW-4 completed 45 mins in various phases of flight to include remote start-up and shut-down.

Aurora Flight Sciences in Manassas VA have developed what they call AACUS – Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System. Their website describes it as

“An autonomous helicopter program designed to give a Marine on the ground the ability to request a supply delivery via helicopter, which flies to their location with minimal human assistance and can autonomously land in an austere, possibly hostile landing zone. Upon delivery, the helicopter will autonomously return to its origin or proceed to another delivery point.” 

They go on to describe it as having applications in the Firefighting, Medevac, and Oil and Gas sectors which on the face of it leaves very little room for the traditionally “manned” version of the helicopter.

And, that flying car I mentioned? Well, it’s already a reality in the form of the Terrafugia but…

…there’s good news

It’s not all doom and gloom for us Helicopter Pilots. The big manufacturers are still designing and building manned aircraft, some of which we will see very soon, such as Sikorsky’s S97 Raider, Sikorsky’s redesigned S92, Airbus H160, Sikorsky-Boeing SB1, and the Bell V280 Valor. All of these aircraft are state of the art and require you and I to fly them.




Not only that, but probably the biggest obstacle that the UAS/Drone industry will face is public acceptance. Plenty of people will tell you they wouldn’t get into an aircraft without a pilot on board but unbeknownst to them, they probably get in driver-less trains every time they go to the airport. As driver-less cars become more and more prevalent, the public’s tolerance for such transport will increase, however I think the speed of the “unmanned” aircraft’s integration and acceptance will ultimately be decided by the user and I think that user will use the airport train and maybe the driver-less car, long before they decide they no longer need a pilot. 


A recent case of a man getting in some serious trouble with local law enforcement for flying his drone in a National Park has highlighted some big safety issues. The biggest of these is that a lot of casual or hobby drone operators have no idea what that new toy can do if flown in the same airspace as helicopter dropping water on a fire or picking up a patient from a scene. This particular man’s defense was that there weren’t any signs telling him not to, therefore taking no responsibility to know the rules of the air. 


For anyone else finding themselves in a similar situation, there’s a website (In lieu of signs I guess) and it’s got everything you need to know about drones in the National Airspace System. Check it out here, Know before you go.

I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that the Professional (UAS) Unmanned Aircraft Operator and Hobby Drone Operator are at the same level of expertise, However, that won’t matter to the public if a drone of any sort, hobby or professional, brings down an aircraft due to careless operation.

Case in point is the story here supported by video of a Hobby drone operator flying his drone above landing airplanes at Las Vegas McCarran airport. Had his drone collided with the airliner the results could have been catastrophic and could well spell the end of the unmanned vehicle industry.


Personally,  I’m confident that I’ll be flying helicopters for many years to come and I’m equally confident that I’ll be doing it from inside said aircraft.

For now, I’m more than happy to share the airspace with those that choose to fly UAV’s but I’d be interested in your opinion, how do you think your career will be affected?

The Rotor Break
Author: The Rotor Break

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