So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 11: Don’t Bite the Hand that Feeds You

The helicopter pilot community is very small.

[Note: It’s been a little more than two years since I wrote the previous post in this series. But this one is important and I hope readers learn from it.]

As you make your way up the ladder in your flying career, you may be fortunate enough to be taken under another pilot’s wing (so to speak) for additional training or assistance. Or maybe someone has given you the opportunity to get some valuable experience for free or a really low cost. The people who give you the benefit of their knowledge and experience or offer you opportunities that’ll help you move forward are the people you should remember and value throughout your career. In many instances, they can make the difference between success or failure or can help you understand the direction you want to take to have the most fulfilling career.

The other day I was reminded that not everyone understands the value of opportunities and the people that make them possible. I thought I’d tell the story of what happened to some friends of mine to teach a valuable lesson.

The Opportunity

As some of the low-time pilots who read this blog might know, I occasionally make long cross-country flights to reposition my helicopter for seasonal work. In most cases, I am not compensated for this flight time so I’m eager to have someone on board willing to share the cost. Although I prefer non-pilot passengers — I actually like to fly — I’m not opposed to taking low-time pilots interested in building R44 stick time. I make this time available at about half of what they might pay a flight school. It’s a good deal for both of us: they get cheap flight time in an R44 and I get part of my repositioning costs covered.

I find pilots interested in making these flights through the use of a mailing list. Pilots sign up and I periodically send out offer information. It’s a small list and I don’t spam it. They might get one or two opportunities a year. List members can opt out at any time. (If you’re interested in getting on this list, read about it here.)

I’d been doing quite a few long flights with friends or solo so I hadn’t posted anything for a while. I was going to post a trip from Sacramento to Wenatchee back in April but I wound up doing it with a friend. But when some flight school owner friends of mine were looking for someone to help them cover the cost of getting their R44 instrument ship from Mesa, AZ to Wenatchee, WA in early June, I offered to put out a notice on my list, referring interested pilots to call them. They offered a lot more value than I ever could; with a CFII on board, it could be a training flight, an R44 endorsement flight, or even an instrument training flight.

It seemed to work. Only three hours after sending out the offer, my friends were contacted by a pilot who was not only interested in doing the flight, but also interested in some instrument training before and after it. My flight school friends were thrilled and said they owed me a favor for helping them out. I was just glad to have helped them and whoever was taking advantage of the offer.

I didn’t know the person who had signed up for this opportunity. All I knew was that it was a woman. I didn’t personally know any of the pilots on my list.

Time went by. Coincidentally, on Thursday, the day before the flight, I happened to be chatting with another pilot friend of mine from Los Angeles who had come up to Washington to pick up a piece of equipment he bought from me. One of his pilots, who had come along for the ride, would be working with me on a cherry drying contract later in the month. We talked about the cost of repositioning helicopters and how we often let low-time pilots fly for a discount. Somehow or another the conversation got around to bad experiences and my friend mentioned a woman pilot who had “flaked out” on him a few times, saying she’d do a flight but then calling with crazy excuses right before the scheduled flight time and not showing up. He said that although he had actually flown with her a few times, she’d also stood up one of his other pilot friends. I asked for her name and he told me. I texted it to my flight school friend’s CFII, who would be flying to Washington. It was the same woman.

I started to get a bad feeling.

Screwed Over, in Slow Motion

At this point, you can probably guess what happened next. The short version is, she didn’t show up for the flight. But there is a long version, too, and it’s worth telling because it makes the situation even worse.

On Thursday evening, the night she was supposed to arrive in Phoenix, she texted to say that she was at the airport but she had screwed up on the flight date and was a day early for the flight.

Okay, my friends thought. Things happen.

She promised to be on a flight Friday morning — the morning they were supposed to leave. Keep in mind that although the Mesa to Wenatchee flight can be done in one day — I’ve done it twice with a second pilot — you need an early start to make it. The flight time is 9-11 hours, depending on wind and fuel stops. That’s a long day at the stick for one pilot but very doable for two,especially on a June day that seems to last forever. But not if you can’t get off the ground until afternoon. Her flight was supposed to get into Phoenix at 11 AM.

The CFII texted me that she’d been delayed and would arrive the next morning. They’d probably arrive late Saturday in Wenatchee. I mentioned what my LA friend had told me about the pilot.

She didn’t arrive at 11 AM Friday. On Friday afternoon, she texted to tell them she’d be arriving on an 11 PM flight. That pushed back the departure date to Saturday.

On Saturday morning, when she didn’t arrive, my friends contacted her again. She told them a story about the bank freezing her account and not being able to pay for her plane ticket. But she could get on a flight later in the day. Would they wait for her?

By this time, they could see the writing on the wall. The answer was no. Even if she did show up, they wouldn’t let her get on the helicopter.

At about this time, I got a text from my flight school owner friends:

Text from Tiff

(Yes, this text came from a woman.)

I called them. She was seething. Her husband, who was also on the phone, was just annoyed. I got the story I recounted above.

In an effort to make them feel better, I told them about the guy who’d backed out of one of my flights two days before the departure date. I obviously hadn’t been able to fill his spot for the 12-hour flight on such short notice. “So you see,” I told them, “I’ve been screwed over, too. But you got screwed over in slow motion.”

An hour later, the helicopter was in the air, northbound, with the CFII who’d been scheduled to come along with another of the school’s employees. (At least he’d get a chance to build some time.) It would arrive in Wenatchee around 5 PM Sunday evening.

The Fallout

There’s a lot of fallout from this pilot jerking around my friends over the course of three days last week.

First, this pilot has been removed from my list. She’ll never get any notifications from me again, period. I’m not going to set myself up as the victim for another flake out performance.

Second, the word is out about this pilot. My LA friend and his friend already knew about her and will never work with her again. Now my friends and I know about her, too. If she ever approaches any of us for work or anything else, if she’s lucky we’ll just say no and send her on her way. If anyone asks any of us about her — for example, a potential employer or someone else looking to fill a seat with a paying pilot — we’ll be sure to tell this story. And, as word spreads, she’ll find that it’s more and more difficult to get opportunities of any kind — including job opportunities — as a helicopter pilot. There may not be a formal blacklist, but the informal graylist exists and is very effective. I alluded to this in the previous post of this series, which was about networking.

Third, my friends’ helicopter arrived in Wenatchee a day later than it was supposed to. Although that didn’t turn out to be a problem in the grand scheme of things, it did cause minor issues with various reservations that had to be changed.

Fourth, my friends were unable to get any revenue at all for the flight. That added significantly to the cost of the job they have to do in Wenatchee, thus cutting deeply into their bottom line.

Fifth, I will now require a non-refundable deposit for any time-building flights in my helicopter. I did this for a while after I was screwed over by an inconsiderate pilot years ago, but dropped the requirement when all subsequent pilots honored their part of the deal. Now it goes into full force again. I refuse to let someone break a promise to me that’ll cost me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Yes, it’s another example of one person ruining it for the rest of us.

What’s Even Worse

What pisses me off to no end about this is that the pilot who screwed over my friends is a woman. And if there’s one thing female pilots don’t need is other female pilots who “flake out” and otherwise act irresponsibly.

Female pilots are already under a microscope. We’re already dealing with sexist crap from various employers or coworkers or clients. They treat us differently because they see us differently. And that doesn’t help any of us

Other responsible female pilots — including me! — work hard to prove that we’re just as good as the men in our jobs. And then a dimwit like this comes along and flakes out with a proven pattern of unreliable behavior and bullshit excuses. She makes all of us look bad. She brings all of us down a notch. She makes it just a little bit harder for the rest of us to be taken seriously.

Maybe that’s why my friend’s text was so angry. Maybe she saw as well as I did how this dingbat made the rest of us look in this male dominated industry.

The Takeaway

Once again, I’ve managed to tell a long story to make a point. Did the point get lost somewhere? Sometimes it does.

The point is this: when someone in the industry is doing you a favor, treat them with the respect they deserve. If you cross them, remember that the helicopter pilot community is very small and word travels very fast.

One Wrong Way to Look for a Pilot Job

Be prepared — and then don’t act outraged when you get an unexpected response.

TelephoneYesterday afternoon, I got a call from a number I didn’t know and answered as I usually do: “Flying M, Maria speaking.”

The caller seemed almost surprised that someone had answered the phone. Maybe I’d answered more quickly than he expected. He stumbled over his words a bit and I recall thinking that he might be someone looking for information about a charter flight. Lots of people who call who have no idea how to ask for what they want get off to a rough start.

But no, eventually he asked for “the boss.” Yes. In those words.

“That’s me.” I replied. Now my brain was wondering what he was selling. Anyone who asks for the owner or the person in charge of parts/maintenance/accounts payable/fill-in-the-blank is trying to sell me some product or service I don’t want. My phone is a cell phone and the number is on the FCC’s Do Not Call list, but that apparently doesn’t stop telemarketers from bothering me multiple times a week.

But no, after some more stumbling over words, I learned that he was a pilot looking for a job.

And that’s when I got annoyed. Here’s a guy who can barely communicate what he wants and obviously did no preparation for his call asking me for a pilot job?

I replied that there were no job openings at my company and that even if I had a job to offer, I wouldn’t offer it to him since he obviously couldn’t be bothered to find out who he was calling before he made a call to ask for a job. I told him he needed to work on his technique.

And then I hung up.

After the initial “I can’t believe how inept job seekers are these days” thought, I got back to what I was doing. I had pilot friends coming for dinner and was prepping for their arrival.

This morning, I got an angry email from the person who’d called. Apparently, he was in the U.S. from his home country (which I don’t think I need to share here), had trained in the U.S., and was outraged that I’d been so rude to him. He said:

I was going to let you know that my approach to you asking for a job was not good at all, I just wasn’t prepared before I called and of all the places I call the owner is never taking the phone.

Interesting that he admitted he wasn’t prepared. And odd that I hadn’t noticed his accent, which really comes through in the wording of his written communication.

He went on to say:

My point with this message is that the way you talked to me was just really disrespectfull [sic], rude and unmotivating for a new pilot.

Apparently, he believed that I should drop everything and give him the polite attention he thought he deserved as he interrupted my day to stumble through his job request. A request made without any advance preparation.

Yes, if he’d bothered to do any research at all on my company before calling to ask for a job, he would have learned that the company is a single pilot Part 135 operator with only one helicopter and one pilot. That should have told him how unlikely it was that I’d be hiring. But at the very least, he would have learned my name and could have used that instead of asking for “the boss.”

Or if he’d read the Help Wanted page on my company’s website, which is linked to the Contact page where he may have gotten my phone number and definitely accessed the contact form he used to email me, he would have seen that I was not hiring.

Yes, I was rude. I’ll admit it. (It’s already been established here and elsewhere that I can be a real bitch sometimes.) But when someone acts like an idiot, how should I respond? By gently coddling him so he makes the same mistake again with the next person he bothers?

Don’t you think this guy will think twice before he makes his next call? That maybe — just maybe — he’ll do a little homework first and learn more about the company he’s calling and whether they’re hiring? Or possibly find out who he should be speaking to to ask for a job?

And am I wrong, but do cold calls ever work when looking for a job? Any job?

The other day, I blogged about the importance of networking for career advancement. Networking can help job seekers make valuable contacts they can use when looking for work. It makes time-wasting cold calls unnecessary.

Am I sorry I was so rude to this guy? Maybe a little. He was probably slightly handicapped by a language issue.

But to me, he wasn’t different from any telemarketer who disrupts my day by trying to sell me something I don’t need or want.

And if he thinks I was rude to him, he should hear me when I’m annoyed at one of them.

So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 10: Network

Who you meet, how you meet them, and what they think of you can impact your flying career.

[Note: Hard to believe that nearly four years have gone by since I wrote most of this series, but I find that the older I get, the faster time flies. I’d planned on writing additional parts, but life got in the way. I’m ready to continue now and, with four years to think about it, I’m pretty sure I’ve got some good content to add.]

Networking is an important part of building any career, including flying helicopters. The people you meet can help — or hinder — your career advancement.

How Networking has Helped My Flying Career

I’ve been flying helicopters for about 15 years now and have accumulated a modest 3,200 hours of flight time, mostly in my R44 and the R22 I owned before it. I’ve been networking with other pilots, owners, and operators since I realized I wanted to build a career as a pilot and it has paid off.

It’s networking that got me an interview with Papillon at the Grand Canyon back in 2004. What I said at the interview got the job.

It’s networking that got me started as a cherry drying pilot back in 2008. I met a pilot doing this kind of work and when he needed a pilot, he remembered and called me.

It’s networking that got me started doing frost control work back in 2013. I spoke to another pilot doing that kind of work and asked him if he knew of any jobs. He gave me the phone number of an almond grower and gave me the information I needed to write a mutually beneficial contract with a new client.

It’s networking that gets me just about all of my new business. Other than maintaining a website for my business, I don’t advertise anymore. I get new clients through word-of-mouth. When I want to explore the possibility of a rides gig, I look through my address book for friends and acquaintances who might have the connections I need to get a toe in the door.

And it’s networking that makes it relatively easy to find new pilots to work with me for cherry drying. I start my search by asking around. I remember the pilots I like — and the ones who rubbed me the wrong way — and make offers — or ignore requests — accordingly.

How to Network

Networking is actually kind of easy. Just meet and talk to new people involved in the industry. Need some ideas to get started? Try these:

  • Get to know other pilots at your flight school or job. Don’t be shy. Socialize. The guy you see in the pilot lounge at your flight school today might be someone working at the Gulf when you’re looking for work — and give you the contact you need to get an interview there. The CFI leaving to work at Papillon next week could be the chief pilot at a charter operation in a few years.
  • Join a helicopter organization. HAI and Whirly Girls comes to mind — although I admit that I don’t belong to either one of them for reasons I’d rather address in a separate blog post. These organizations are full of helicopter pilots and others in helicopter-related jobs. You can meet other members at events.
  • Attend helicopter aviation conferences and seminars. HeliExpo is an obvious suggestion, but other helicopter organizations and publications (such as Vertical Magazine) also sponsor events. And don’t forget the FAA! The Wings program occasionally has lectures for helicopter pilots; try attending one.
  • Aircrane
    I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with the pilot of one of these. Don’t you think it might be interesting to learn more about his work?

    Attend helicopter-related events. I’m thinking of helicopter fly-ins and other airport events. Although relatively rare, they do exist and they’re often full of helicopter pilots who are friendly and enthusiastic. I can think of three pilots I’m still very good friends with who I met at a helicopter event at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, AZ years ago. One of them has worked for me drying cherries here in Washington.

  • Visit pilots at work. Years ago, on a road trip in Idaho, I passed a field filled with helicopters — a fire base. A Boeing Vertol 107 was parked there and I, a new pilot at the time, wanted to see it close up. I drove into the base, parked, and tracked down the pilot. Because he wasn’t busy, he very graciously took me aboard his ship, showed me how the snorkel pump worked, and let me sit in the co-pilot seat while he sat next to me and explained the mind-boggling array of switches, circuit breakers, and gauges. Although my goal that day was not to network with other pilots, I could easily have done so — there were a dozen or so waiting around for a fire call. Of course, if the base had been active, I would have stayed away. But there’s no reason you can’t visit pilots on duty but not actively working. Think of EMT and ENG bases, too. Often, the pilot is just sitting around, waiting for a call and wouldn’t mind a visitor. Just make sure you’re welcome before you barge in.

The Role of Social Networking

Social networking takes all kinds of networking to a new level. You can network 24/7 with pilots all over the world through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and online forums. Helicopter-specific groups on Facebook, for example, is a good way to share stories, photos, and questions with other pilots.

I’ve met more than a few helicopter pilots on Twitter and Facebook; while my social networking hasn’t advanced my career — or theirs — yet, who’s to say it won’t? In the meantime, I’ve gotten a ton of solid advice from pilots with far more experience than I’ll ever have. That, and the real-life friendship with some of these people, is worth the time and effort I put into online social networking.

Don’t Be a Dick

But be careful! Your activities — both online and in the real world — can come back to haunt you. It all depends on how you approach networking, how you treat your fellow pilots, and what your attitude is or seems to be.

I blogged about a pilot who proved what an inconsiderate and dangerous asshole he could be back in 2009. I’d flown into Sedona, AZ with my brother and his wife and a helicopter pilot didn’t like where I parked. He retaliated by hover-taxiing right past my family, within 15 feet of where they were standing, when he had several other safer departure routes. I reported his action to the airport management. When I reported him to my POI at the Scottsdale FSDO, I was told that he’d caught by an Inspector being rude to the receptionist. The Inspector had attempted an attitude adjustment, but I doubt he got anywhere with this particular jerk.

As regular readers of my blog know, I absolutely abhor online forums. The reason: every single discussion turns into a nasty exchange of inane comments, normally prompted by the comments of a troll who has to prove how smart he is by saying something that gets under the skin of someone else. The replies are fired out fast and furiously and inevitably turn mean. Why people put up with that crap is beyond me. I seldom find any content worth reading in an online forum. But that’s likely because I lack the patience necessary to wade through the bullshit for the gems hiding underneath. Unlike the trolls that haunt these forums, I have a life.

I remember the names of the assholes I meet in this industry. I remember the trolls in the forums, too. And I have a lot of friends in the industry. And we talk.

And what we share affects hiring decisions. Just saying.

I wrote a bit more about attitude in Part 5 of this series.

Networking Works — But It Can’t Work Miracles

I’ve had a good amount of success with networking to further my career, but I have to admit that career advancement isn’t the main reason I network with other pilots. I’m a relatively friendly person and I really like talking to people with similar interests. I’m also interested in learning new things from people who know, through experience, things I don’t know. I guess you can say I’m a natural at networking.

But I do admit that I’m frustrated annoyed by people who contact me directly, by email or phone or even blog comments, obviously trying to use me as an “in” for a job. News flash: contacting a stranger to ask for a favor is not a good networking strategy. I admit that I’m more likely to delete these incoming emails than answer them. Maybe it’s because I’m getting curmudgeony in my old age.

You can’t expect networking to work miracles, especially if you use a heavy handed approach. Just because you had a nice conversation with the Chief Pilot of a charter company while the two of you waited out a thunderstorm in the pilot lounge of an FBO doesn’t mean he’s going to hire you for the next position that opens. Especially if you come across as someone who’s only talking to him because you think that job offer is possible.

But if you make networking a natural part of your professional life, things will happen — normally, when you least expect it.