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features How Synergy Aviation is tackling the pilot shortage

In launching Synergy Flight School, Villeneuve, Alberta-based Synergy Aviation is taking a proactive approach to the industry’s pilot shortage.
Avatar for Oliver Johnson By Oliver Johnson | January 8, 2020

Estimated reading time 18 minutes, 6 seconds.

In the helicopter industry, talk of a pilot shortage is nothing new. But over the last few years, it has grown from a quiet thrum in the background to become the industry’s predominant concern — the subject of an ever-increasing number of articles and panel discussions at conventions. There is clearly no silver bullet, but one forward-looking company, with roots in the Canadian utility sector, has sought to tackle the issue head-on by launching its own flight school. Though still in its early days, Synergy Aviation’s flight training school has already proven a remarkable success in not only providing its parent company with a steady stream of highly-capable pilots, but also in developing a feeder system to enable its graduates to establish careers in an industry that remains largely inaccessible to freshly-minted, low-time pilots.

Two Hélicoptères Guimbal Cabri G2s, operated by Synergy Flight School, fly over downtown Edmonton, Alberta. The company is based on the edge of the Alberta capital, in the small settlement of Villeneuve. Heath Moffatt Photo

Today, Synergy Aviation and Synergy Flight School share adjoining modern hangars that span 35,000 square feet at Villeneuve airport, which is about 10 minutes’ drive from the edge of Edmonton, Alberta. The companies have a combined staff of about 40 and a fleet of 15 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, with a flexible flow of aircraft and personnel between the two to balance the variations in workload.

Synergy Aviation was launched at the end of 2014 by industry veterans Todd Tkach and Marc Hanatschek, along with a couple of investor partners. The company’s focus then, and now, is on environmental surveillance within the oil-and-gas sector, largely utilizing Robinson R44s due to the aircraft’s low acquisition cost and its ability to perform multiple starts a day without impacting the lifecycle of its piston engine.

Developing a flight school was always part of the team’s plan in helping Synergy grow. “We’ve known for many, many years that there’s a pilot shortage,” said Hanatschek. “We knew the work we were going to do was not going to be super attractive to the 8,000-hour pilot, so we knew [having a flight school] was going to be a component [of building Synergy].”

The opportunity to do so arrived earlier than the management team anticipated, with the chance to purchase E-Z Air Helicopter Services, a small training company that had been in operation for a couple of decades, in 2016. Following the acquisition, Synergy essentially restarted the school with an entirely new structure, new location, and new aircraft. The decision was also taken to offer the training on a full-time, Monday-to-Friday basis, over a concentrated period of four months, with two intakes a year (September and February).

“We want to ensure that there’s a certain standard of graduate that leaves our school,” said Hanatschek. “To reach that standard, you need to be serious about becoming a pilot. You can’t do that part-time. If they’re not going to treat it like a job from the beginning of the school, to all the way until they have enough hours to be employable, it’s not the career for them.”

Synergy now has three Cabri G2s in its fleet. Two have already recorded over 1,000 flight hours, while the third has more than 500. Heath Moffatt Photo

Watching the students progress through the flight school gives a better indication than any resume could ever do as to the quality of a pilot, said Tkach.

“There’s no short cuts — we can watch each class for four months,” he said. “They’re in the same building, and we see the people that show up on time, that put in the extra mile, that take it seriously, that stay and help clean the machines. It’s like a four-month job interview.”

Putting in the hours

In Synergy’s ground school, its helicopter-specific curriculum includes lessons/lectures, assignments, and periodic online-based tests, which allow instructors to objectively check students’ progress. Topics covered during ground school include meteorology, helicopter aerodynamics and theory of flight, Canadian Aviation Regulations, human performance and decision making, and airport operations.

The students complete a written exam after the first 50 hours of flight time, and generally take their flight tests after having completed about 95 percent of their flight hours.

In addition to classroom work, a typical day for the students includes an inspection of the helicopters, a discussion and interpretation of the weather forecast, and a preflight and postflight briefing.

In the air, training includes flight control exercises completed during circuits of Villeneuve airport, as well as emergency exercises, navigation, and confined area work away from the airport. Students are encouraged to take part in all the typical work required to operate a helicopter, such as refueling the aircraft from fuel caches out in the bush.

Staff from Synergy Aviation, Synergy Flight School and students stand in front of the companies’ hangars and a selection of the aircraft shared by the two organizations. Heath Moffatt Photo

The area around Villeneuve airport provides a variety of training environments for students, such as landing and taking off from oilfield and forestry logging sites, and operating in confined areas in dense forest. The nearby Canadian Rockies provide opportunities to practice mountain flying (Synergy also offers a mountain flying certification for those interested in pursuing work in that environment).

As part of the student’s training, Synergy tries to give as much exposure to different types of operations as possible — such as an introduction to long line work.

“We want to give them all the solid basics of, ‘Here’s what you’re going to encounter in the rest of the industry,’ ” said Hanatschek. “It’s not a risk-free business, but you can mitigate the risks a lot with solid training.”

Synergy Aviation’s fleet includes eight Robinson R44s, three Hélicoptères Guimbal Cabri G2s, one Airbus AS355 TwinStar, two Cessna 172s and a Beechcraft King Air.

The TwinStar is used across both companies. In the school, several students are using it to get twin-engine and instrument flight rules (IFR) training and endorsements. At Synergy Aviation, it’s a popular choice among oil-and-gas customers, and it’s also a good fit for the growing amount of tourism work the company is finding in the area.

The latter is a key part of Synergy’s process for helping students launch their careers.

Students have a choice between the Cabri G2 and the Robinson R44 for their training, but the majority of student flight hours are recorded on the Cabri. Heath Moffatt Photo

“Students come out of school with 100 hours, and it’s not that people don’t want to hire them at that stage, or that they’re unskilled, but the industry has no work for them,” said Hanatschek. “So what we’re focusing on is building the tourism part of our business, so that we can hire them up right out of flight school, get them 300 to 500 hours, and then they become employable. That’s the key with the whole thing here: The goal of the school is not to get a license; the goal of the school is to get everybody over there employed.”

As the flight school expands, so will the company’s fleet, with aircraft that can fulfill a dual role as both a good trainer and a useful utility machine preferred.

Students currently have a choice between the R44 and the Cabri (and the TwinStar for twin time), but the majority of the school’s training is completed in the Cabri.

Tkach said the Cabri has been an “ideal machine” for training, praising the aircraft’s autorotation characteristics in particular.

Class expansion

Synergy’s class sizes have quickly grown, from a couple of students at a time to 10 per semester. The company has added new instructors along the way, including industry veteran Steve Smith (one of only a handful of instructors in Canada who can issue Class I instructor certificates); Justin Cruse; and Illona Inman. They have a range of backgrounds, with experience in operations ranging from firefighting to medevac, military operations, and heli-skiing.

James Pantel is the school’s chief flight instructor, and has been an instructor at the company for 13 years — back to its days as E-Z Air. He said the biggest challenge of his job is in finding the best approach to working with various types of student personalities.

“Some students make my job really easy, and we’ve got a really great group right now– you just give them the material, present it, train them and in no time they’re doing what you showed them,” he said.  “Other times, you can hit a metaphorical wall with a student and you got to find ways to chip away at it.”

Synergy Aviation and Synergy Flight School share the same maintenance team. Nine AMEs are able to service the fleet, working a variety of shift patterns to ensure coverage when needed. Heath Moffatt Photo

Despite the flight school’s location in central Alberta, the weather doesn’t impact day-to-day operations too greatly, even in the winter, he added.

“The weather here is pretty good — we do get a lot of good days, but there are the cold snaps, and at -20 C [-4 F], we shut the Cabri down,” said Pantel. “When it comes time for solo navigation and things like that, you want that perfect day. You’re not going to send a guy out hoping for the best.”

The immediate surroundings are largely flat, but there are mountains nearby that the instructors try to take all students to at least once during a course, as well as a deep valley that provides a useful location to practice emergency landings and work in crosswinds.

Inman joined Synergy from the military, completing her instructor training at the flight school.

“I was flying the [Bell] 412 in the military and I expected that it would be quite an interesting step [to the Cabri],” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed the Cabri — it’s a very agile machine, and it’s great for students because you can fly it very smoothly and it handles very nicely. It gives them no excuses!”

Ray Gervais is the flight school’s manager, and is also one of the school’s graduates. The reputation of the school has grown quickly, he said, with potential students reaching out from around the world to enquire about joining the school.

“Most people contact us through the website,” he said. “I get in touch with them right away and we have an hour-long discussion about what it is to be a helicopter pilot, what the training entails, what the future is, and what their career could potentially look like.”

In addition to his responsibilities in terms of administration at the school, he is working on his instructor rating, and will soon become the company’s fifth instructor.

Chief flight instructor James Pantel makes a point during a ground school class. Heath Moffatt Photo

Cruse was one of the first students at the flight school, then joined Synergy Aviation to work as a general utility pilot, where he built up his hours. When he had reached about 1,000 hours, he completed his instructor training to allow him to join the teaching ranks at the flight school. “The training of the students isn’t too difficult, it’s the training of the instructors that just takes more time,” said Hanatschek. “We’re building the program as efficiently as we can.”

However, like the other instructors, Cruse still flies for Synergy Aviation when needed. And having the flight school work so closely with the parent company provides benefits to both.

“There was a lot of good that came to Synergy Aviation from Synergy Flight Training — thinking about building out the content to teach students something, training people on how they should be doing things,” said Hanatschek. “It ends up making Synergy a better place as well, and when the instructors come and work here during the busy summer season, they’re so much better as pilots from the instruction they’ve been giving.”

Colter Engelman is among the current cohort of student pilots who began training in September. Seven weeks into the course, he had already reached 33 flight hours.

“I wanted to commit myself to it and live and breathe helicopter flight school for a few months and just really drill it into my memory,” he said. “For me, that works better than doing it part time.”

He said the potential to work with Synergy Aviation following graduation was also an appealing factor in choosing the school.

The TwinStar (left) is used across the two companies. If students want to do so, they can use it for twin-engine and instrument flight rules (IFR) training and endorsements. Heath Moffatt Photo

“We’ll have to see what comes in the next 90 [flight] hours, but fingers crossed I can get on with them after I graduate,” he said.

Finding work

The former students hired by Synergy typically begin their work with the company performing tourism flights or as techs in the surveillance program. “They fly with an experienced pilot to see how the work is done and what they’re looking for,” said Tkach. “In the meantime, we use them for ferry flights or rides at festivals and different events.”

Many of Synergy’s customers have historically had requirements for pilots on their contracts to have a minimum of 1,500 or 1,000 hours, so part of the operator’s work in enabling clearly capable low-hour pilots to take on this work is in educating clients.

“We’re telling them: ‘If you don’t work with us, there won’t be any 1,500-hour or 1,000-hour pilots, because how do you get them from 100 to 1,500 hours if they can’t fly for anyone?’ ” said Tkach. The solution has been to present the company’s mentorship program, in which a senior pilot is used in the left seat, and a lower-time pilot is in the right seat to build their pilot in command (PIC) time. In addition, Synergy guarantees regular extensive training and other “extras” to mitigate the risk and make customers more comfortable with the idea of using lower time pilots. “As a result, some of them we’ve been able to convince to reduce their minimums to 750 or 500 hours,” said Tkach.

Synergy also works hard to find employment opportunities for its students outside the company by utilizing the management team’s extensive network of industry contacts. But while this has the potential to open new doors for students, Hanatschek said they only recommend students if they know they would be a good fit for a given operation.

“We know everybody in the industry, and we’ve worked alongside them for over 25 years,” he said. “We’re not going to send students to these guys if we don’t think they are a good fit. When we recommend somebody, it’s: ‘You should hire this person because they’re good.’ And we actually believe they’ll fit into their organization.”

Instructor Ilona Inman (right) joins a student for a training session in Synergy’s flight training device. Heath Moffatt Photo

However, the quality of the students Synergy has already produced has even taken the management by surprise.

“I thought we were going to have a steady supply of decent pilots, but what’s happened is we have got rockstars coming out of that school and into Synergy Aviation,” said Hanatschek. “We have people working here that you would bend over backwards to employ anywhere else.”

Keeping the fleet flying

The company’s director of maintenance (DOM) is Terry Edwards, who joined the company in April 2018 having worked with Hanatschek at the start of his career. The department has nine AMEs, including Edwards and Hanatschek (who previously served as DOM himself), and the team works across the Synergy Aviation/Synergy Flight School fleet.

The shift pattern for the maintenance team is flexible, with some on a three-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule, and others working a Monday-to-Friday shift every week.

“The Cabris are pretty new to us, so we’re definitely learning as we go, like anybody with something like that,” said Edwards. “But they’ve been pretty good so far. It’s all scheduled maintenance, and we know ahead of time when things need to be done.”

Peter McDonald is a recent addition to the team, bringing 38 years of experience to the company.

“This is an interesting company because there’s so many young people who are really motivated, and they bring that enthusiastic spirit to the work,” said McDonald.

Two of Synergy’s Cabris have now flown over 1,000 hours, while the third has flown over 500. The maintenance required on the type so far has been very light, with all items replaced on condition apart from the main transmission, tail gearbox, and the engine.

Synergy tries to give its students the opportunity to experience as wide a variety of operations as possible during their training, and also hopes to provide an increasing amount of data to potential employers about their students’ capabilities to enhance their chance of finding work. Heath Moffatt Photo

“Guimbal cares about their aircraft, and they designed it properly,” said Hanatschek, adding that he has been impressed with the support Synergy has received from the manufacturer thus far.

Early in the school’s development, one of its Cabris suffered a hard landing, resulting in the aircraft being used for parts. However, the incident served to prove the durability of the aircraft, with its two occupants walking away from the incident entirely unscathed. The company has also used it as a learning opportunity.

“It reminded us that flight training is high risk,” said Hanatschek. “But we got out of it completely unscathed. Any other aircraft would’ve been completely destroyed, but with the Cabri, it’s all carbon fiber and it’s built like a little tank. You can barely tell it crashed. So we decided to double down on them.”

Apprentice aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs) will be the next area of focus for the company, with Hanatschek planning to launch co-op programs to bring in students from local high schools, and then send them to college for maintenance training.

Synergy’s in-house technical capabilities spread far beyond servicing their aircraft, with Jim Bauer, manager of the development department, and Jeremy Unger, manager of the IT and GIS department, providing the company the ability to develop a custom-made flight data monitoring (FDM) system, flight training devices, and tools to enhance data collection, analysis and presentation across both companies.

The FDM system created by Bauer uses a camera in the cockpit to read the various gauges and uses machine learning to interpret the images into data form, noting any exceedances.

So far, the system has been field tested in the R44 and TwinStar, but it is being designed to be aircraft agnostic. Synergy is aiming to have it installed across its fleet by March.

The data the system provides has more use than simply noting how an aircraft was flown on any given day — Synergy can use it to help reduce customer minimum hour requirements.

“We’re recording all of that data, not to say, ‘Oh, you screwed up,’ but it’s to prove to the rest of the world that our guys are more than qualified to do the work being asked of them,” said Hanatschek. “We can provide the data for the last however many hundreds of hours that a pilot has flown with us and show that this is how he or she flies, they’ve done this many autorotations, and this is what happened in each one. It’s proof of what we’re telling them, and it should be changing how people are hired.”

The data will also prove extremely useful during a student’s path through the flight school itself, helping them highlight areas they need to focus on during their training.

Looking ahead, Synergy is in the process of developing and launching a fixed-wing school, using the Cessna 172 as the main training aircraft, with a first intake scheduled for April 2020. The first cohort will likely be a smaller one of four or five students, which will ultimately be ramped up to around 20 per intake.

Despite the challenges and headwinds presented by a career in aviation, Tkach said he still believed it holds the same appeal as it always has.

“It’s still a romantic career, to get in an aircraft, go fly and explore the world,” he said. “There are a lot of road blocks in the way for new pilots, but if you work hard, are persistent, and you take it seriously, then it’s like anything — you’ll succeed.”

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