When I began my career as an offshore helicopter pilot in 1979, I was told that about ninety-eight percent of our pilots came from a military background. Well, things have changed a lot. First, it got harder to meet the flight time requirements for a civilian job after serving a few years in the military. As the helicopters used by the military got more expensive to operate, flight times went down. At about the same time, a visionary man by the name of Frank Robinson designed the Robinson R-22. The R-22 had lower operating costs then any other existing production helicopter, and it created a more feasible path for those who chose the civilian route to a helicopter rating. I think it's safe to say that had the R-22 not arrived on the scene, the helicopter pilot shortage the industry has endured in the last several years would have been more severe.
In 2000, the starting pay for a helicopter pilot in the Gulf of Mexico was about $24,000 a year, matching the starting pay for a bus driver in Indianapolis. There were two problems with that. One, the bulk of bus driver applicants weren't spending $60,000 or more to get a bus driver's license, and two, the cost of living in the Gulf Coast region was considerably higher.
In 2001, things changed. Pilots for the two largest Gulf Coast operators voted in a union. Also, supply and demand influenced the operators to sweeten the pot for new applicants. The synergy between those two factors saw starting pay go up significantly.
With better starting pay came a change in the typical offshore helicopter pilot applicant. The usual story was, "I went through military flight school, spent x years in the service, and got out to find a civilian job." We were, in a sense, a rather homogeneous bunch. With more civilian-trained pilots came folks who'd had prior careers before getting their helicopter ratings. Thus, we've seen folks who've been lawyers, truck drivers, business owners, nannies, CPA's, world-class mountain climbers, and chiropractors. For me, it's been fascinating to hear the stories of people who had lives before helicopters.
Despite the old joke, "Please don't tell my mom I'm a helicopter pilot; she thinks I'm a piano player in a brothel," I don't think we've had any former brothel employees. I'm not sure about that, though.
So, today marks the start of what I plan to offer now and then: stories from other people. Just within the ranks of PHI, there are loads of folks with more interesting lives than mine. That's one reason I decided to start a fiction blog: I can take stories about my life and do the embellish/exaggerate fandango without feeling like a damn liar. I think.
Meet Greg Neer. Greg is in his third month with PHI. He's flown helicopters since 2003, and has flown them for a living since 2006. Before that, he made his living as a musician.
Me: Greg, welcome to my blog, and please remember to watch your damned language in case children are reading.
Greg: I’ll do my best…
Me: So Greg, how long did you make your living as a musician before making the career change to flying helicopters?
Greg: I began performing professionally after leaving Indiana University in 1986. I’m fortunate to say that I enjoyed consistent employment in the music industry throughout my career before pursuing flying full time in August 2006.
Me: Which instrument did you play?
Greg: God’s instrument…the trumpet!
Me: Wow. I've heard it takes much more frequent practice to stay proficient on the trumpet than say, guitar or drums. True?
Greg: While I would never want to be accused of diminishing the effort and dedication needed to remain proficient on any instrument, playing the trumpet is very physically demanding, requiring a daily routine of exercises structured to improve tone quality, range, endurance, flexibility, etc. So to answer your question, I believe a trumpet player’s performance would suffer more from a lack of practice than some other instruments.
Me: Where did you work during your musical career?
Greg: The bulk of my career was spent in two places…aboard cruise ships on the high seas for eight years; and an eleven year stint on the famed strip in Las Vegas.
Me: Wow, not exactly an ordinary life. So Greg, I have to ask on behalf of my single dude coworkers: Did you meet lotsa chicks?
Greg: I gather this is the part where I have to watch my language. Well, everybody knows that the main reason people choose a career in music is to score chicks right? I mean, we love the music but let’s face it…the benefits aren’t bad. Seriously, there are some incredibly interesting people in the entertainment industry. I enjoyed single life on the cruise ships for quite awhile before eventually settling down with a British dancer. But as is the case in most shipboard romances, the marriage was short lived. However, the story has a happy ending, as I met a wonderful woman while in Vegas and we’ve been happily married for 5 years now.
Me: What lead you to a musical career? Was that your dream as a kid?
Greg: I guess it was my Mother who provided the inspiration and introduced me to music at an early age. She was a music educator for a short time and exposed us to many different styles of music growing up. My foundation began with piano lessons which proved to be a blessing as it developed an understanding of music theory I likely wouldn’t have achieved as quickly otherwise. Believe it or not, by the eighth grade I had already decided to pursue a career in music.
Me: Who are some of your favorite trumpet players?
Greg: I love Doc Severinson’s rich sound, the high note mastery of Maynard Ferguson, the genius of Miles Davis, and the perfection of Maurice Andre.
Me: How long has the trumpet been around?
Greg: The trumpet is a very old instrument dating back to ancient times (2000 B.C.). The development of the modern version we recognize today dates back to the 1300’s, and is still evolving as trumpet builders continue to modify its design in search of the perfect horn.
Me: Who are some notables you’ve played with?
Greg: I have had the good fortune to perform with Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, LeAnn Rimes, Elton John, Gloria Estefan, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Lee Greenwood, Frankie Vallie, Wayne Newton, Clint Holmes, and many other acts performing in the main showrooms of Las Vegas.
Me: Lots of folks dream of a career in music. What made you decide to make such a big change in your life, and switch to flying?
Greg: Flying has also always been a passion of mine since I was a young boy, begging my neighbor to give me a ride in his Cessna. Establishing myself in Vegas afforded me the time and resources to finally pursue the dream of flying. I wanted to avoid asking myself one day why I never chased down that dream, so I found a flight school and got to work.
Me: I've known other musicians with PHI who've kept up the occasional gigs while on time off. One mechanic who's a jazz pianist comes to mind. How about you?
Greg: I haven’t pursued playing professionally on my off time largely due to my own perfectionist behavior. I couldn’t possibly maintain the level of playing I once achieved with my current schedule, therefore I’ve chosen not to perform. I don’t feel that I’d get the same satisfaction and enjoyment out of the experience if I’m not playing my best. Someday I will find a balance and return to playing on some level.
Me: You've been flying helicopters since 2003, full time since 2006. So far, are you glad you made such a major change in your life?
Greg: I am very happy with my decision. I had a great career in music but always wanted to experience flying too. While still in Vegas, I was able to realize both dreams flying Grand Canyon tours by day, and performing music by night. Although music has taken a back seat for now, I truly enjoy the many exciting experiences and new friends I’ve gained through aviation. I would do it all over again.
Me: Greg, I don't know whether to be thankful or resentful. I could be thankful because you've given me something really interesting to write about, but I could be resentful because you make my background seem pretty dang boring. But hey, I'll take the high road and offer my thanks for sharing your story. Thanks very much, Greg.
Greg: Your background is anything but boring in my opinion. Compared to seasoned pilots like you, I will always feel like the “FNG” (Oops…I mean, “the new guy”). There’s so much to be gained from your experiences of which I hope to learn more about in the future. For now, thanks for allowing me to share some of mine.