So, you want to be a mustering pilot…

Host: Fortescue Helicopters
Written by Weldon Percy – Operations Manager, Fortescue Helicopters.

As mustering pilots we often get asked a lot of questions about how to get a job, so I’ve written a few of them down with some answers that might help anyone out there who wants to become a mustering pilot learn more about the industry.

Blog 5.1 Opthalmia Dam on the Fortescue River (Photo: Weldon Percy).

My first advice would be to take becoming a mustering pilot seriously, as a career move, and because you’re committed to making a career out of it. If you take it seriously as a career, your future employers and customers will respect you for that and you will be successful.

Some people seem to want to be a mustering pilot because they have see one once and thought they “looked cool”! The truth is about 95% of the time you’re mustering no one in the world can see you unless you’re close to the crew and the mob. So while you may think that you’re going to be going out flying around looking good, no one can actually see you! Basically make sure you want to be mustering pilot for the right reasons, it’s a big commitment and cost to bear to decide later it’s not for you.

Where would I begin if I wanted to be a mustering pilot?

Be patient and stubborn, it takes time (years) to learn and it’s a fickle industry to get a start in but if your patient and stubborn eventually you will get there and it is worth the wait.

I believe a good mustering pilot must first be a good cattleman or woman. In seeing people with differing levels of cattle and flying knowledge through my career I think it’s much easier to teach a cattleman/woman to fly than it is to teach a pilot with no cattle experience to work cattle.

That’s not to say that someone must be born and raised on the land such as myself or Clint to have cattle knowledge. For someone coming from the city I would suggest working for 4-5 full seasons as a ringer to have enough knowledge to be able to learn to muster from the air. I’d also suggest spending one or two of those years working in a contract mustering team, as this is the closest thing you can get to be a mustering pilot minus the helicopter. As contractors move between stations you would get to see how different people do things in different ways and learn to accept that and work in with the team your with on the day, which is vital knowledge when it comes to be a mustering pilot. Once you have a good understanding of cattle and the lifestyle of contract mustering then you can look at learning to fly.

 Blog 5.2Yarding up at Mt Welcome Station (Photo: Unknown).

How hard is it to fly a helicopter?

Helicopters are complex bits of machinery but you definitely don’t have to be a rocket scientist to fly one. If it wasn’t so expensive and everyone was interested in it I think a lot of people would have their license.

How much does it cost to get a helicopter license?

This is a little bit like asking how long a piece of string is! By far the most expensive component is flying hours. There is a minimum requirement to complete 105 hours of training in Australia, some of this is flying yourself or “solo” and some of it “dual” (with an instructor). Due to recent law changes some schools now have to complete 150 hours of training with students, but I won’t go into that here. The cost to hire an R22 (the most common training helicopter) with an instructor and fuel for one hour is approximately $500.00 (probably more in some locations). So straight away you have a minimum of 105 hours @ $500 equals $52,500! Other components of learning to fly are the theory exams and testing and the cost of these will vary greatly depending on whether you study at home or at a “theory school” and associated accommodation and or travelling. So really aside from the flying the cost varies greatly depending on your personal circumstances.

 Blog 5.3Ashburton Downs (Photo Weldon Percy).

How hard are the exams?

There are seven exams to gain a commercial pilot’s license (what is required to become a mustering pilot). I’ve often heard experienced instructors say that they are no harder than high school level, and I must say I found that to be my experience too. Depending on if you study at home or go to school will make it easier for you depending on how you like to learn new things.

What extra licenses do you need to be a mustering pilot?

You need to hold a “mustering endorsement” to be able to work as a mustering pilot. The training for this is legally a minimum of ten hours instruction with an Approved Mustering Training Pilot of which there are only a few across Australia. However in most cases it will most likely take longer than the prescribed ten hours. A few pilots I know of have had to pay for this endorsement but most generally get a job as junior pilot with a company first then this company or station will assist them to become qualified.

How hard is it to get a job as a mustering pilot?

There aren’t a huge number of positions in the mustering industry, to my knowledge there isn’t any publicly available figures on how many helicopters mustering pilots there are operating in Australia by I’d reckon it would be well below 1000. Like all industries though there are always people moving around and positions do come up every year. Generally everyone works out what they’re doing and how many pilots they need through the wet season for the upcoming year, and if pilots move on or are promoted it’s usually also through the wet so generally this is the best time of year to find a position for the upcoming season. Throughout the mustering season there may be pilots who’s services are discontinued or aren’t able to fly for medical reasons and jobs do come up then too, but usually not many. If you know the right people, have the right experience and are prepared to work hard most people get first job somewhere relatively simply.

What do you look for when employing a pilot?

Depending on our requirements at the time we may need a pilot with minimum number of hours experience and years flying. That aside in general the first things we look for are professionalism and personality. To our customers our services are necessary but very expensive. They want to know that they are getting their maximum value for dollar they spend with us and to do that we need to have the very best people working for us we can find. We believe if someone looks after themselves they will look after our equipment and in turn our customers. So when someone turns up to work here if they have their shirt untucked, they’re unshaven, smelly, and their vehicles a mess we take that as sign that they will also present like that to our customers and not look after our helicopters. That is if they were given the opportunity, which they are not, so they are asked to leave.

If someone presents clean, tidy, and professional they are off to a great start. This is something that any prospective pilot and or employee is capable of doing and it’s an equally important aspect to us that they have a professional attitude and outlook as well as relevant technical skills.

What do you dislike about being a mustering pilot?

Long periods away from home make it difficult to have a normal personal life, but I think that’s something you need to accept before you begin your career. The nature of the job dictates that you might be planning to go away for two days and not come home for two weeks or you might be planning to go away for three weeks and be back in four days and then you might only be home for one night! It does put strain on personal relationships, and makes it hard to organise things. But the nature of the industry won’t change to suit you so you have to learn to change to suit it. The positive side is that through the summer or “wet season” months there’s quite a lot of time to be home with family or away on holiday without it effecting your work.

What’s the best thing about being a mustering pilot?

Being a mustering pilot allows me to combine both my passion for cattle and flying so for me there’s nothing I would rather do!

Blog 5.4Steadying the lead of a mob of Droughtmaster heifers at Kirknie Nth Qld (Photo: Weldon Percy).

And that brings us to the end of our week as hosts. Thank you to Steph, Jane, and the team at Central Station for the opportunity to be a host at Central Station this year. Fortescue Helicopters wishes everyone a good wet season and strong cattle markets for the New Year!