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When I went through Volo Mission’s 20-hour long line course four years ago, my experience wasn’t unique. I passed through all of the predictable stages of learning this supremely challenging skill: Shock. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. And finally elation, once everything started to click. I know from speaking with my classmates and others who have been through the course that we were all feeling pretty much the same things.
Here’s another way in which my experience wasn’t unique: I did it with two X chromosomes. While there were no other women in my three-person class, I wasn’t the first female helicopter pilot to complete the course, nor was I close to the last. According to Volo Mission CEO Kim Hutchings, she’s seeing more and more women at the Volo “ranch” in Campbell, Texas — mirroring a growing number of women in the utility helicopter industry generally.
“The last few years, I’ve seen a significant increase in women in all parts of the industry . . . and it’s the same thing at Volo Mission,” Hutchings told me. When she and her husband Andre began offering long line training well over a decade ago, they saw one female student every two to three years. Now, she said, “we’re getting at least two a year, hopefully three — I just want to keep seeing the increase in women attending.”
While those numbers might still seem tiny, they’re enough to make a difference in a niche sector of the already small helicopter industry. To make even more of an impact, Volo Mission has partnered with Erickson for the past three years to offer a Whirly-Girls scholarship for female helicopter pilots. The winner receives tuition valued at $18,000 for the full Volo Mission course, including 20 hours of flight time in a Robinson R44, 10 hours of classroom instruction, and three hours of field operations training, all designed to take students from zero vertical reference experience to basic proficiency in long lining.
“The Whirly-Girls mission to promote women in the helicopter industry, exchange information, and increase awareness in the industry resonate strongly with the Erickson family,” an Erickson spokesperson told me. In addition to exposing more women to opportunities in the utility helicopter world, the scholarship can open new career paths for women who might not be able to pay for the course themselves.
“The long line course is an investment,” Hutchings said. “Providing a scholarship to women who may be early in their career can be extremely beneficial and provide opportunities that otherwise may take years to reach.”
Formal courses like Volo Mission’s aren’t the only way into the utility helicopter industry. Indeed, they’re more the exception than the rule, as most long line pilots still receive their initial training from their employer. However, the quality of that training varies widely, down to pilots being told to go out with a line and figure it out for themselves. Whether the training comes from a third-party course or an in-house instructor, receiving a solid grounding in the fundamentals of vertical reference can make all the difference to a pilot’s success.
Fallon Blattner is a former U.S. Army Black Hawk pilot now flying Chinooks for Coulson Aviation. When she left the military in 2017, she knew she wanted to keep flying helicopters, and took it for granted that her experience as an Army medevac pilot would lead her to a civilian career in helicopter emergency medical services. It wasn’t until she attended a Heli Success career development seminar that she began exploring a wider range of options. “Fire really struck hold with me because I felt as though it was making a meaningful difference for people and for our protected lands,” she recalled.
Blattner flew helicopter tours in South Dakota to build more flight time, then took a position with Columbia Helicopters flying the tandem-rotor 107 II Vertol in Afghanistan, delivering troops and supplies to forward operating bases and combat outposts. After she got her type rating in the model, Columbia sent her to Volo Mission for her initial long line training.
“I thought they really did a great job of laying a foundation of techniques and what to look for,” she said. “And they were very helpful in saying: ‘You know, this is a skill that just takes time and you’re not going to be perfect at it right out of the gate and even then . . . it’s going to be a constant work in progress.”
Back in Afghanistan, Columbia continued the training process. Like other new Volo Mission graduates, Blattner was paired with an experienced captain as she practiced her new skill in the 107, starting with lighter, more forgiving loads like mattresses and tires before working her way up to ammunition and heavy containers. She said the kind of structured training and mentoring she received at Columbia is invaluable for new long line pilots, regardless of gender.
“I feel incredibly lucky,” Blattner said. “I’ve worked in the civilian side for three different operators now, and all of them have been incredibly supportive. They have the means and the resources to be able to train you for what they need you to do. And as long as you have the right attitude, you study, you work hard, you show up on time . . . they do not hesitate to support you and give you the training that you need in order to be a better pilot, a safer pilot for that organization.”
Breaking into the sector
Why are there still relatively few women in the long line industry? I spoke with several of them for this article, and they offered various possible explanations. One is that there still aren’t a lot of women in the helicopter industry generally, and long lining is a particularly tough sector for anyone, male or female, to break into. Operators tend to prefer pilots who already have long line experience — creating the problem of how to get that experience in the first place.
“I think it’s been frustrating for a lot of people,” Hutchings said. “Male, female, however many hours they have, it’s just very difficult for people to try and break their way into the long line industry [when] they don’t have any experience.”
Compounding the problem is that many small helicopter operators in particular tend to hire on the basis of personal recommendations, which disadvantages anyone who is not already part of those networks. Studies in other industries have suggested that a tendency for men to socialize more frequently with other men can perpetuate “old boys’ clubs” even when there’s no overt intention to discriminate.
Then there’s the question of exposure. Just as Blatton never considered firefighting as an option until she was exposed to it at a career seminar, long lining probably isn’t top of mind for most women. Natalie Jones, who worked for Columbia and Erickson and is now flying a Sikorsky S-61 for Coulson, never even contemplated flying helicopters until her sister got her comped on a TEMSCO tour flight in Alaska. “It wasn’t anything that was ever on my radar, anything that I ever thought about when I was little, like, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ ” she said. It wasn’t until she was stuck in a miserable desk job after college that she decided to give it a shot.
“Male, female, however many hours they have, it’s just very difficult for people to try and break their way into the long line industry [when] they don’t have any experience.”
For my friend Annie Paya, another Coulson pilot, her exposure to the industry came when she was working as a wildland firefighter on the ground. “My first season on that hand crew, I saw a helicopter drop and I was instantly like, ‘That was really cool.’ And then my second season I got a helicopter ride out to a wilderness fire . . . and I just loved it.” She started working on her pilot ratings while still employed seasonally as a firefighter, then jumped in with both feet, working as a flight instructor, tour pilot, and in the Gulf of Mexico before finding her way back to firefighting.
None of the women I spoke with felt that they had been significantly disadvantaged in their careers because of their gender. “Everybody has such varied experiences and you totally have to believe them because it’s just not the same for all of us,” Paya said. “But I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky in the sense that I haven’t had a lot of bad experiences.”
Gallery: Winners of the Erickson-Volo Mission scholarship for Whirly-Girls get a comprehensive course valued at $18,000, encompassing 20 hours of flight time in a Robinson R44, 10 hours of classroom, and three hours of field operations training. Billy Hardiman Photos
However, these comparatively fortunate women also take for granted many things that most male pilots never have to experience. Tori Wild is a recent winner of the Erickson-Volo Mission scholarship who currently flies lidar surveys for Chesapeake Bay Helicopters while she continues to build flight time. The observer she flies on these jobs is usually male, and when she lands at fixed-base operators (FBOs) most people assume that he’s the pilot. At one FBO, Wild recalled, a woman remarked that in all the years she had worked there, she had never seen a female helicopter pilot. “I was like, ‘Well, how long have you worked here?’” The answer: seven years. “Crazy,” Wild said.
Jones and Paya both mentioned “thick skin” as a prerequisite for getting along in the utility helicopter sector. “I would definitely say right now it’s a man’s world,” Paya said. “You have to be able to let certain things roll off your back.” Paya noted that many of the things that would make the industry more welcoming to women — such as schedules conducive to work-life balance — are positives for men, too, and a younger generation of pilots is starting to insist upon them. “I think we are starting to see the beginning of some of those changes, but it takes a while and we have to respect the process,” she said.
While external factors may discourage some women from entering the business, others may doubt their own ability to succeed at it, due to social conditioning or other reasons. “Sometimes I think we as women and we as people are our own worst enemy, because we eliminate ourselves before the job or the industry even does,” Blattner observed. Long lining may seem intimidating, she said, but in the end “it’s just a human task. It’s something that everyone is perfectly capable of learning with practice and a good attitude.”
Kim Hutchings experienced some of that self-doubt recently when going through the Volo Mission course herself — her first time, despite her years of involvement in managing the business. “I’ve seen countless people come out, and the first couple of days especially people have said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ You’re talking pilots who have thousands of hours,” she said. “So I guess that’s always been in the back of my mind: ‘Well, I don’t know if I can do this,’ especially because I have minimal hours.”
Of course, like everyone else who has stuck with the course, she learned that she could. Now, Hutchings is planning to start a woman-owned part 133 external load company, Volo Lift, with a focus on construction work in the local area. While she won’t be flying missions herself, at least at first, “I’m well and truly open to hiring female pilots to do this kind of work,” she said.
Just as Hutchings has noticed more women entering the long line industry in recent years, Jones has, too. For a long time, she said, it was rare for her to see another female pilot assigned to the same wildfire. That’s no longer the case. “There are definitely more and more female aviators that are coming up through the ranks,” Jones agreed. She suggested that part of that may be due to broader societal changes, and part of it to increased exposure for women in these roles — which is why she’s usually happy to share her story with others.
“When you go out and do some of these [media] events, people see you on YouTube, on the TV, or whatever,” she said. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, I can do that, too.’ ”