Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fleet Week feature: In the air - Helicopter pilot talks job prospects in the era of unmanned aircraft

Nine hundred hours in the air. That’s the life of a Navy helicopter pilot less than halfway through his career.

Lt. Kasey Scheel flys the MH-60S helicopter, a search-and-rescue aircraft that also delivers people and cargo to Navy ships.

After a deployment on the aircraft carrier Nimitz and a one-year tour in Qatar, Scheel is back at North Island Naval Air Station as an instructor pilot.

His favorite thing about the job?

“I don’t want this to sound like the cookie-cutter answer, but I do honestly feel we are trained to do something fairly unique. Something that matters,” said Scheel, 31, who has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Missouri.

It he had to do a desk job, like his buddy who sells paper products … well, he can’t even complete that thought.

Scheel, commissioned in 2005, has seen just the barest glimpse of the changes that are coming for his profession.

The Navy in the past 10 years has largely narrowed its helicopter fleet to two versions of the MH-60, the Romeo and Sierra models. Helicopters are doing more jobs, some of which were formerly performed by airplanes.

They have more parking spaces on the aircraft carrier deck. And, someday, a helicopter pilot will probably get one of the most prestigious jobs in Navy flying: head of an aircraft carrier air wing.

But, on the horizon, there’s a helicopter-shaped drone scheduled to receive a slot on the newest Navy ships in the near future.

The Navy is buying Fire Scout unmanned vehicles. Instead of two manned helicopters, littoral combat ships will deploy with one manned MH-60 and two smaller Fire Scouts. Navy helicopter pilots will “fly” the drones from a computer keyboard, in addition to their usual piloting duties.

Scheel said there’s probably a 50-50 chance that he will pilot a drone during his career.

“I’d try to go into it with an open mind. I can’t say I want to do it,” he said.

“I don’t know that I’m a fan of it. Because if those things get too good at what they do, it’s a risk to my job security.”

Still the pragmatist in him understands the less expensive unmanned aircraft will become a large part of naval aviation.

“One way or another, it’s going to be exciting to see how that develops,” Scheel said.

It’s actually not his job that the Fire Scout is likely to take in the next 12 or 15 years.

“I’m not worried about it. For me, I’m not losing sleep over it,” Scheel said.

But if he had a child who wanted to be a helicopter pilot?

“That’s an interesting question,” he said. "I probably would."

Original Article and Photo: