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Norwegian helicopter school warns pilot shortage threatens preparedness

Norwegian helicopter school warns pilot shortage threatens preparedness

| Text: Line Scheistrøen, photo: European Helicopter Center

Helicopters come to the rescue when extreme weather stops cars and trains. But who will pilot the helicopters in the future? Now several helicopter pilot trainers are warning of poor recruitment figures.

When extreme weather “Hans” hit Norway in August, roads and railways were closed by mudslides and flooding. Cars, buses and trains were stuck on the ground, but in the air, helicopters moved freely. A lot of private helicopters were used to carry people and equipment. 

This time there were enough pilots to fly the helicopters, but it is far from certain that this will be the case in the future, according to Anette Kruhaug Haldorsen, business manager at the European Helicopter Center (EHC) in Norway.

Daglig leder Anette Kruhaug Haldorsen, Peter Blom

Business manager Anette Kruhaug Haldorsen and head of training Peter Blom at European Helicopter Center would like to see more students. Photo: Line Scheistrøen

She is worried on behalf of the trade, but also on behalf of Norway as a nation.

“We worry there will be a shortage of pilots who can fly the helicopters that are so important for civil preparedness,” says Kruhaug Haldorsen. 

Voluntary social responsibility

EHC has been training helicopter pilots for 30 years at Torp in Sandefjord, and more than 800 pilots have graduated from here to work in civil aviation. 

EHC is the largest school in Europe to offer civil helicopter pilot training. The armed forces have their own pilot programme. Each year EHC trains 25 students, and often around 10 of them come from other Nordic and European countries. When the foreign students graduate, they return home to work.


EHC is a private school and receives no state support. The school has struggled economically over the past two years. Kruhaug Haldorsen believes that running a helicopter school in Norway at best can be seen as taking social responsibility on a voluntary basis. 

More pilots needed

There are 266 private helicopters in Norway and 57 operate in the oil and gas industry on the Norwegian continental shelf. 250 pilots work in the North Sea alone, contributing to an annual turnover of around four billion Norwegian kroner (€350m). Norway has a bigger private helicopter fleet than Sweden.

According to Haldorsen, there is a big backlog in recruitment. Moreover, it takes several years for new pilots to take further training and gain enough flight hours in order to work in sectors like search and rescue or offshore.

“It is worrying when we now have a situation where we cannot guarantee that we will manage to train as many pilots as Norway will need in the coming years,” says Haldorsen.

1 million kroner shortfall

EHC has the capacity to train more pupils a year than they do now. Young boys and girls are keen to become helicopter pilots. So what is the problem? Money, according to the school leadership.

The training is expensive. Students have to pay at least one million kroner during one and a half to two years of education. They can borrow around half of the cost from the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund.

Helicopter chassis

The sector also needs more people who want to fix helicopters. The lack of technical personnel is serious. Photo: Line Scheistrøen

The rest must come from elsewhere, and this can be difficult for many. Several players are now working to put in place a more comprehensive loan solution for the students.

“It’s urgent!”

The leader of the Norwegian Pilots’ Union, Carl Gilbert Rego, shares Haldorsen’s worry. He works on a civil search and rescue helicopter in Hammerfest. 

“Right now, it is difficult to find qualified pilots. At the same time, private helicopter operators must be prepared to carry out important tasks for civil society more often than before,” says Rego.

“We see an increasing need for emergency action. Extreme weather “Hans” was a good example of this. The conflict in Ukraine has also put preparedness on the agenda.”

The pilots’ union leader believes the first thing that needs fixing is a proper loan system for those who want to attend EHC, to make the training more affordable.

“This needs to happen very soon. It’s urgent,” says Rego.

Long-term planning is important

The Federation of Norwegian Aviation Industries also says it is urgent to improve student loan opportunities for helicopter pilots. 

“We see a good student loan solutions as an important step to secure the recruitment to this sector. When the authorities increased the sum that pilot students could borrow a few years back, the immediate effect was an increase in people applying for private flight schools,” says Erik Lahnstein, CEO of the Federation of Norwegian Aviation Industries. 

“It is also important that the sector is ready to offer newly qualified pilots jobs which allow them to gain the necessary operational experience – so that these people in the longer term can contribute to national and civil preparedness. This takes time and that is why long-term planning is important,” says Lahnstein.

The Cockpit Association of Norway has proposed an education programme with guaranteed flight time straight after graduation.

Global pilot shortage 

The Federation of Norwegian Aviation Industries points out that the pilot shortage is a global problem.

“This is not typical to Norway, and we do not have a monopoly on any solution. We want a dialogue with the authorities and believe the government should do something, for instance as part of its follow-up to the Total Preparedness Commission,” says Lahnstein.

The Federation of Norwegian Aviation Industries shares Anette Kruhaug Haldorsen’s worries over social preparedness. It considers private helicopters to be crucial to Norway’s preparedness, as they carry out important tasks like fire fighting, search and rescue, ambulance transport, securing the power grid and jobs during extreme weather events.

“That is why it is so important to secure recruitment. Having enough qualified helicopter pilots is particularly important to our society’s overall preparedness,” says Lahnstein.

Necessary preparedness training 

Airlift AS is a large Northern European provider of domestic helicopter services, based in Førde. CEO Stian Hårklau says they have so far not had any problems recruiting pilots. The biggest challenge is to recruit enough technical ground crew.

The company had no helicopters flying to help out during extreme weather “Hans”. But they were ready to provide helicopters if required to do so by the Norwegian Defence Logistics Organisation (FLO), with whom they have a preparedness agreement.  

Helicopter cockpit view

A helicopter flies near  Kristiansand. During extreme weather "Hans", Norway's capacity was strengthened when the Swedish JRCC rescue service took over responsibility for the coastal area Kristiansand – Outer Oslo fjord – Østfold.

“The challenge is that no money has been set aside to train preparedness. We just trust things will work out when the crisis is upon us,” says Hårklau. 

Preparedness – a given?

He thinks we as a society take too much for granted when it comes to social preparedness.

“In order for preparedness to work you need to train. For that to happen there needs to be a willingness to pay for that training, and we don't have that today. We are a commercial operator. We cannot train and run preparedness without getting paid for it,” says Hårklau. 

He says things are different in other countries. Some of Airlift’s helicopters spent this summer in France, for instance, where they were part of firefighting preparedness on behalf of the EU.

“There is a will among French authorities and in the EU to pay for preparedness, which we do not see here at home,” says Hårklau. The fact that Norwegian companies move preparedness out of the country should make Norwegian authorities and politicians think, he argues.

Helicopters are important in a crisis

The Nordic Labour Journal has been in touch with the Ministry of Justice and Public Security to get some thoughts on helicopter preparedness and the recruitment of helicopter pilots. They passed us on to the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection, DSB. 

“”Hans” showed us that there are available helicopters in different parts of society. This time, helicopters that are not part of the rescue services were also used, for instance DSB’s forest fire helicopter.  

“In situations like this, having helicopters available can be crucial for the end result. Not all helicopters took part in rescue operations during “Hans”, but transport of equipment and personnel is also important in a crisis.” 

The question of whether there is sufficient helicopter preparedness in Norway will be discussed during the evaluation of extreme weather “Hans”, says the DSB press officer. 

They do not wish to comment on the recruitment issue.

European Helicopter Center (EHC)
  • Europe’s largest provider of helicopter training for civil aviation
  • Situated at Torp, Sandefjort, Norway
  • Trains around 25 pilots a year for the Norwegian and international market
  • Has trained more than 800 pilots over 30 years

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