Francis Meyrick

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.2-B “Your job offer: Pay? How Much and When?

Posted on July 31, 2009

Chapter 2 -B Your Job Offer: PAY? HOW MUCH and WHEN?
(Will you be an employee or a sub-contractor?)

There are two different pay structures: 1) straight salary, and 2) pay per tonnage caught.
Or a combination of both.

1) Straight salary is exactly that: $3,500 per month. Or $7,000 per month.
If the ship breaks down: sad, but not really your problem. If the captain can’t fish to save his life, oh well, too bad, it doesn’t affect you.
2) Tonnage. This is usually combined with some basic pay. You might be offered, say, $4 per ton caught, or $8 per ton, plus basic pay.

Personally, given a choice, I’d go for straight salary every time. You know exactly where you stand. Tonnage is fraught with problems. In the old days, the eighties, tonnage was great. Catches were more plentiful, there were fewer ships, and helicopter pilots on tonnage could make a bomb. These days, it’s not so good. More ships, keen competition, reduced profit margins… Just not so good.
If you have a choice, go for straight salary. A pilot or mechanic in US Dollars in as far back as 1995 to 1997 was making $3,500 to $4,000 per month. The lowest in those days I heard was $3,000. Highest was $5,000. There was not a lot of variation across the board for pilots and mechanics. If anything, pilots were and are quite a bit easier to find than mechanics. Sorry, pilots, but it takes a lot longer to train a decent helicopter mechanic than it does to train a driver!
I always sorted the incoming mail into two piles: pilot resumes and mechanic resumes. The first was often a stack. The second pile was never a stack, and often enough consisted of one miserable letter. I soon learned to really appreciate experienced mechanics.
The situation was rather more varied for dual rated pilot-mechanics. As of January 1997, tops I knew of was $7,000 to $7,500 per month. Steve Hoffman paid his pilots the best. With a generous bonus if you stayed a year. One pilot-mechanic I knew was making $8,500 per month! And his machines were flawless. I understand Hansen Helicopters still work a bonus system as well.

Today, July 2009, when I look at various bulletin boards and websites, I’m rather surprised.
It seems to me the money has not changed. Despite inflation. Indeed, the pilot-mechanic pay appears to have gone down.
I see $5,600 per month being offered.
This trend probably reflects diminished profits. Or more competition for the available jobs?

Note that ‘cabin-fever’ has had a result that many of the captains much prefer having a pilot-mechanic. If you have two guys sharing a cabin on a foreign boat, for long months, and they just don’t get along, you can imagine the tension. Occasionally, this boils over into heated arguments, even the occasional fist fight…. Captains know this, and hence often will prefer a pilot-mechanic. This arrangement will also save one airfare. One hotel bill, etc.

I have never worked for tonnage. It follows that I am probably biased, and you should bear that fact in mind as I struggle to give you an accurate presentation below!
1. What happens if the ship fails to catch fish through no fault of the helicopter crew? Maybe something breaks down. Then what? You earn little or nothing? Is that fair? You’re still sitting out on the Big Pond scratching your… chin.
2. There often tends to be a delay in payment, whilst the tonnage is being ‘calculated’. Mostly, it seems to many, pure nonsense. Just an excuse to delay payment, maybe by several months.
3. If I have heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times: angry crews who discover much less in their pay packet than expected. Why? Because of so-called “Undersize Fish “…. Needless to say, this is only discovered many months later, when it gets hard to do much about it.
4. What really annoyed me a few times was this: the companies who make you a complex offer of salary plus tonnage, and then, when you politely say “Thanks but no thanks! “, they change the offer to straight salary!
This is exactly what happened to me. It was an American ship. I declined both offers. The impression I got was that when you have NO tuna flying experience, it’s real hard to get taken seriously. Once you are experienced, however, especially after a year at sea, then you went straight to the top of the list. Now they want to hire you, because you are much less of an unknown, much less of a liability. But first they will make you a dubious offer and see if you will take it! Like I said, I didn’t like them, and declined both offers. Many months later I visited a pilot on one of their ships. What an eye opener that was! The disgruntled pilot told me he was on ‘basic plus tonnage’, and not doing very well. (That was the offer I had refused!) What had subsequently really annoyed him was that he had discovered that other pilots working for the same company, on other boats, were being paid straight salary! That is simply not fair. That smacks of trying to pull the wool over a guy’s eyes. If you are mug enough to take a lousy deal, well, they’ll give you one! Real nice.
5. Some of these guys appeal straight to your greed. “Tonnage is great! It’s the way all our guys go! If the ship catches a thousand tons a month, you can earn x billion zillion dollars…..etc, etc. “
Bull. Manure. The only answer is: “Yes, and if we catch a mermaid I’ll marry her and go make lots of little mermaids. “

The most a ship I was on on ever made in one single month was 1250 tons. That was part of a really good year on the Hsieh Feng 707, during which we averaged 700 tons per month. Today, that is good going. More ships, less fish.
I have seen ships take three months to fill up. Nice, big, modern ships. That’s maybe 250 tons per month.
So if anybody starts giving you the 1,000 tons per month story, just laugh.
Don’t get me wrong. There may well be still some good ‘basic plus tonnage deals’ out there, and I’m not saying that everybody who offers you ‘basic plus tonnage’ is a lousy, stinking crook.
But… too many variables. I would suggest ‘forget it’ unless you are really desperate for work.Shop around. If you already have tuna flying and maintenance experience, you should have no problem finding work for straight salary.
If you are an experienced mechanic, boy!, there should be lots of openings.

As for the question “when’. When do you get paid. Promptly monthly please! Check it! Get your girlfriend or wife or mistress or mother to fax you or email if it’s overdue. You need to know. You need to be asking for it.
Perfectly respectable and honest companies can have cash flow problems.That’s okay. But tell me! Explain to me beforehand that my money will be two weeks late. That’s okay. But rest assured that i will start screaming merry hell otherwise!
Going back to the example I quoted above. My unhappy friend on ‘basic plus tonnage’ had already discovered that his pay was much later than that of the other pilots who were on straight pay! Surprise, surprise.

Remember how lucky you are when you find a decent employer who treats you well. Your only response is to work as hard as you can to satisfy the customer. Invariably that may mean putting up with some creature discomfort, and swallowing some ‘guff’. But for the money you can earn, maybe tax-free…
I’ve said it before: Love your boss! Baby that helicopter! Be nice to the captain!

One argument you might come across goes like this. They will tell you that you are not an employee, but a sub contractor. And that therefore you cannot be expected to be paid straight away, because in the real world, subcontractors everywhere are always waiting for their money! There is some truth in that, but I would answer that that is all fine and dandy, but I need my money. And I’m not staying if it’s going to be slow!

Finally, be sure you ask about trips home. Who pays the round trip airfare! Do you have to work a minimum time period? Not everybody automatically picks up the tab. If you get laid off after a few months, what will happen then?
How often will they let you go home? I liked to think of a minimum of six months out on the boat in one go, followed by three months off without pay. But that has stretched to nine months on the boat.
On one occasion, I was out straight for one year.
I met one pilot, working off an American boat out of Samoa, who worked a trip, maybe four to six weeks, and then got an airfare home. It sounded great, he said, but by the time he had recovered from the jet lag, mowed the lawn and paid the bills, it was time to urn around and fly back to the ship! He didn’t sound too impressed with his lot in life.
Personally, at the time I liked a minimum of six months on. After that, I worked a month at a time, until I got fed up and decided I needed a holiday. I don’t think employers are going to like it much if you stay less than six months. They don’t like the turnover. There is one exception to this: if you can find a good friend to team up with, and relieve each other. As long as you both hit it off with the captain!! In that manner, you could each work three or four months, and then take off the same amount of time. Not a bad life style.
I have also worked 28 days on and 28 days off, flying in Africa. That was fun for two years. Of course, by the time you fly from the USA over there, and back, you are actually working 31 days on for 25 off. Here in the Gulf of Mexico, in Oil and Gas, most people work 7 days on and 7 days off, or 14 days on and 14 days off.
To work tuna boats and do six months on and three months off falls into the peculiar (wonderful!) life style of the commercial helicopter pilot.

We are the modern equivalent of the ancient Nomads…

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on September 14, 2009, 11:20 am

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