Photo Credit: Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services Limited

Harassment of Bhutanese pilots by expat senior, inadequate training time and safety issues alleged at former RBHSL

On 6 November 2022, three Bhutanese helicopter pilots, Ugyen Dorji, Garab Wangchuk and Kuenga Wangmo, of the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services Limited or RBHSL (now named Drukair Helicopter Services), wrote a complaint letter to the management asking for ‘urgent safety intervention for the Bhutanese Low Time Pilots’.

The letter alleged that the expat pilot and instructor Anton Sydney Hart is harassing and ill-treating the Bhutanese pilots.

Apart from the letter, according to several reliable sources, there are concerns among the Bhutanese pilots that they are deliberately not being given enough flight and training time. 

The issues were pertaining to before RBHSL had merged under Drukair Corporation.

Bad behavior and harassment of Bhutanese pilots and staff

The three Bhutanese pilots wrote saying that the company had heavily invested on developing local skills, and so expat pilots were remunerated higher than most of the other countries in the region, and extra allowances are given which is also comparatively the highest in the region.

RBHSL had hired four expat pilots of which three are currently in the country working.

“We expected fair treatment, unbiased and un racial professionalism. However, with a heavy heart we have to officially bring this to your notice. Over the years we have highlighted and verbally shared with you and other concerned regarding the mistreatment and unsafe conduct by Mr. Anton Sydney Hart who is currently working as a Pilot and Instructor for the Company. It has now come to a point where his daily infuriating behavior during various phases of flight and ground with us has become unsafe and has breached every tolerance and fundamental rights,” wrote the Bhutanese pilots.

The pilots said that ‘infinite pages’ will be consumed if every specific incident is mentioned with every individual so they would just give a summary.

“Mr. Anton has further mistreated us with unethical behavior and professionalism by constantly using abusive, slang words and at times speaking out of the training context. Such treatment by law is adequately harassment,” said the letter.

It said his SOP during trainings is very inconsistent and ad hoc eventually derived by his personal mood. The pilots said they have been greatly affected in performance, emotionally and are demotivated, and added that the management is well aware this is not Anton’s first offence as he has already had numerous disciplinary issues with government security personnel at the airport and other supporting staff.

“Therefore, the undersigned Low Time Pilots have decided not to fly with him until this safety issue is mitigated at the highest level,” wrote the Bhutanese pilots.

Bad behavior with airport security and Lunaps

The Bhutanese talked to sources in the airport and they confirmed that there were three instances where Anton had behaved badly with security people as he was being arrogant while being checked in, and after the third instance he was given a final warning and a letter was sent to his CEO.

The paper also talked to the Lunana Gup Kaka who confirmed that several people in Lunana had brought forward complaints to the Gup on the rude behavior of Anton.

Samdrup Tshering from Lunana said that in one instance Anton even got physical by shoving a person and refusing to take a group of people and leaving them behind by flying the helicopter empty.

He said, at the time, one of passengers who was supposed to go and was left behind was a mother of a ten-year-old boy who had been sent in a previous chopper to Punakha. They boy’s father had died just around a month ago and the mother was really worried when she could not join her son on the same day.

A source in RBHSL said, “We felt like they treat Bhutanese as being stupid and looked down upon us.”

Not enough training time

However, abuse and harassment by the expat pilot as highlighted in the above letter is not the only issue.

A bigger issue at play is that the Bhutanese pilots are not being given enough flying time to get enough training, and the numbers of hours required to eventually become solo and full-fledged pilots.

Multiple sources within the former RBHSL said that Bhutanese pilots regularly raised the issue of needing more flying and training time in meetings with the Head Pilot Abraham Karel Harmse and Pilot Anton and others, but it was not heeded to.

The same sources said the Bhutanese pilots felt that they were deliberately not being given enough time, and one source aware of the pilots’ feelings said Abraham and Anton almost treated the Bhutanese pilots like future replacements or rivals instead of trainees they had to train.

The sources said pilots hardly got enough flight time in 2019, 2020, 2021 and even in 2022 the flights were not much.

A source in RBHSL said that once when the company wanted more training hours for the Bhutanese pilots, one of the expat pilots said, ‘Apparently the company wants to train you guys and kick us out.’ The source said the two pilots worried they will be taken out.

Another source in RBHSL said that the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority mandates two pilots for patient flights, but here too the two expat pilots make an excuse and hardly take them along and instead fly single. The source said Bhutanese pilots are not sent on long distance trips and hardly get high altitude flights.

A third expat pilot Alexandre Murta Collares (Alex) who was frustrated with Head Pilot Abraham and Pilot Anton for not giving enough flying hours to Bhutanese, and recently resigned after being grounded for allowing a Bhutanese pilot to fly from Punakha to Paro talked to The Bhutanese.

Pilot Alex alleged that the two expat pilots who are both from South Africa and very close are deliberately not giving adequate flying time to the Bhutanese pilots.

“They make these guys look bad and not capable so they can perpetuate themselves here,” said Alex.

Alex said Abraham has been here for five years and Anton for three and they have been renewing the contracts which are for two years and so the pay only goes higher for them.

The salaries of the expat pilots are the highest in the region, and comparable to the top ten percent of helicopter pilot salaries in the world.

Alex explained that even though he just joined in May 2022 with the RBHSL, he was getting USD 8,000 a month and since Anton has been here for three years he is getting more and Abraham who has been here for five years and is the head pilot is getting the highest pay. The Bhutanese pilots only get less than USD 500 per month.

RBHSL started in 2015, and the first Chief Pilot Dave Peel from New Zealand in 2016 selected the Bhutanese pilots and sent them for training to Canada. They came back with a flying license. Dave’s plan was to to have the Bhutanese pilots flying and running the operations within 5 years with only one expat as a trainer advisor.

Dave told the paper that the Bhutanese pilots should be flying solo by now. Dave said his first stumbling block was the CEO of RBHSL Chewang Gyeltshen who did not want the then trainees to progress in line with the plan he had written for them.Dave left in 2017 after differences with the CEO.

Dave said that in his view after 150 hours of flying, the Bhutanese pilots should be allowed to take passengers with an experienced pilot flying along and after 12 months should be taking passengers in solo trips and after two years should be authorizing flights to different locations.

However, cut to 2023, Bhutanese pilots are still in trainee mode and not allowed to fly medical missions and high altitude missions by themselves, but only two of the senior Bhutanese pilots are occasionally allowed to do fly scenic tours within Paro.

Another former expat pilot who flew in RBHSL Brett Wright agreed that the Bhutanese pilots are not getting enough flying hours. He said that he learnt that it took Bhutanese pilots more than five years to get 400 hours of flights in Bhutan, but this could be achieved in Australia within six months.

Multiple sources in RBHSL familiar with the situation of the four Bhutanese pilots said that Abraham and Anton always comes up with reasons to not take Bhutanese pilots, like tourists not wanting them to fly, giving weight excuses, and others. The sources said that Alex proved them wrong by taking Bhutanese pilots on flights.

Alex alleged the two foreign pilots from South Africa who are in charge are sabotaging the Bhutanese pilots by not giving enough flights and training, but the management from RBHSL backs them up.

Alex said he has an instructor license from Brazil, and when he was being hired he was asked to update his license which he did as the expectation was he would get an instructor license in Bhutan too.

However, Alex said that once the two expat pilots noticed that he was trying to help Bhutanese pilots and give them more air time, he was never given the instructor license and Abraham started auditing him regularly and calling out every mistake as a means of harassment.

A source in RBHSL said pilots need to get emergency training where emergency situations are stimulated like something going wrong with the engine, and they take action; circuit training where accuracy is the key; and also high altitude landing and take off, but these are rarely given.

Bhutanese pilots almost ready if given chance

Alex said that of the four Bhutanese pilots, the two senior pilots Sangay and Ugyen just need some high altitude landing and takeoff training which can be given for a month and then they can fly solo, and the two who joined later which are Kuenga and Garab need some flights but are capable.

All four Bhutanese pilots actually have trained abroad and got their licenses to fly, but the idea was to get used to the chopper in Bhutan and flying in Bhutan, which is what is being delayed for them.

Alex, giving an example, said the two senior pilots Sangay and Ugyen are allowed to do scenic flights but in Bumthang, Abraham was with Ugyen and he did six  flights and gave only two to Ugyen.

“The flights were a good opportunity to log hours and fly solo, but Abraham stole it from him. They are making sure these guys do not get enough flights to take over,” said Alex.

Weight manipulation

Alex said that another way in which Bhutanese pilots do not get a chance is due to the lowered weight the helicopter can carry determined in part by altitude, temperature and other factors.

“They have reduced the weight that previous foreign pilots used to take just to not let the Bhutanese pilots fly,” alleged Alex.

Alex said, “I have seen so many times, these pilots going on flights and making excuses to not take the Bhutanese pilots, and the excuse usually is the weight. But it’s a lie most of the time, and only sometimes true for high altitudes as they can take them but they refuse to take them.”

Alex said Abraham’s excuse is that if we take two pilots, the Lunaps will complain that we are reducing the payload for them by bringing our weight, but he said that is not true because the Lunaps have never complained about that.

The Lunana Gup Kaka said that in the current set up, the payload had reduced a lot over time. He said in the beginning for one year, the helicopter carried around 400 kg but from mid 2017 it was reduced to 350 kg with no explanation to 320 kg.

Alex said even if an expat pilot is lighter like him and can take a Bhutanese pilot he is not allowed to take the Bhutanese pilot.

Unhappy Bhutanese Pilots planning to leave

Alex said that in his interactions with the Bhutanese pilots while he was there, he learnt that after their bonds or contracts are done, most of the four Bhutanese pilots plan to leave, even after so much investment from the country.

Alex said, “They will leave for other countries because they have been humiliated for so long. The country’s helicopters will be in the hands of these foreigners.”

He said if things stay as they are, the Bhutanese pilots will leave the country and Bhutan will not have local pilots.

“They have been humiliated and mistreated for so long that they do not want to stay. They are just waiting for their contract to end,” said Alex.

Alex accused Abraham of being very dictatorial and authoritarian and Anton of being very aggressive to people. He accused them of destroying the self esteem and confidence of the Bhutanese pilots.

“There treat them like they are bad and not doing what they are doing and need many years of training. I have flown with the Bhutanese pilots, and they are good and perfectly capable and they are very disciplined. That is why I disagree with them,” said Alex.

“They do a lot of moral harassment, and they like to humiliate people and expose them in public, but they only do that in front of subordinates, and not when higher people are around. There are a lot of episodes like this,” added Alex.

The reporter called up again multiple sources in RBHSL and they too confirmed that the Bhutanese pilots had made it clear that if things do not improve for them, and they get continued to be treated like this, then they plan to leave once their bond is over.

The bonds of Sangay and Ugyen are getting over in 1.5 years and by then even at the slow pace of training, they are expected to be ready to be accepted by other companies in the region or across the world.

It is not just pilots planning to leave, but RBHSL has also lost some technical staff who have left in the past or are leaving.

Alex said, “We have engineers who are also leaving. One is leaving to Turkey soon and another one is also not happy. They get a pay under USD 1,000 and are certified. They brought an Indian and he deserves what he gets, but he gets five times more than them. When they went to complain, the management asked them to bring a foreign passport to get that kind of salary.”

Alex said that even the Bhutanese pilots when they take over will not get USD 8,000 and will probably get USD 4,000, but why should they not get paid as much as foreign pilots.

Qualification, safety and emergency training

Dave said that the current head pilot Abraham, while being recruited, had failed to clear the assessment tests done by him as he was not up to the standard he had set for all previous pilots recruited by him. He added that the management had asked him to do an emergency test and he had to stop it as he could not clear him. He said he had to fail Abraham in the test sheet.

However, Dave said he was again asked to do a test the next day, and there too Abraham failed in the auto rotations and emergency. The paper has a copy of the competency check document of 2017.

However, Dave said that two weeks later Abraham’s friend, also from South Africa, JB cleared him as an instructor.

Dave said that in his time, he gave emergency trainings and tests every four months for everyone including the expats. He said that it is not enough that pilots know who to fly, but they should be able to respond to situations. He said two of the main reasons why there are crashes in Nepal is that, firstly, it is very competitive and there are a lot of flights, and secondly, pilots there do not not get enough practical emergency training and so crash when emergencies come up.

Dave said in one instance in Bhutan, a pilot managed to do an emergency landing safely after all the oil came out of the helicopter as somebody had not replaced the washer properly.

“If he had followed the manual, he would have lost the helicopter that day as the engine was about to seize, but he did what was right for the situation and using autorotation did an emergency landing at Thimphu,” said Dave.

He said this point is important as in a mountainous country like Bhutan, the Bhutanese pilots should be getting a lot of training including emergency training and they should know the safety even backwards.

Former RBHSL pilot Brett Wright said that in one high altitude flight, a Telecom company had put up towers and put high wires which were not there before and were not informed to RBHSL. He said he was carrying a minister with him, and it could have ended badly if he did not spot the wire in time.

He said he filed a safety report to RBHSL, but he did not see any action being taken.  He said if things are not improved then a crash cannot be ruled out some day.

Lack of management support

Another major issue at the RBHSL is the lack of management support for the Bhutanese pilots and staff and the rather strong support for the two South African pilots.

The Bhutanese pilots had written the letter hoping for some action, but Alex said it backfired as the CEO Chewang said Garab instigated them and made them write separately and even then they wrote the same thing.

“They said they don’t want to fly with Anton and now they are forced to fly with him again and are afraid of complaining,” said Alex.

A source in RBHSL said the CEO told the Bhutanese pilots that “the letter is very wrong.”

The source said there has been no support from management for the Bhutanese pilots. The source said it was made clear to the pilots by the CEO that the pilots had to dissolve the letter or it can impact their career.

The pilots had filed it as an official complaint, and was expecting proper action from the management. The letter was addressed to the Acting Head Pilot, at the time, who was an expat pilot called Stefan as Abraham was on holiday leave. Stefan who was also fed up by Anton’s antics forwarded it to the Human Resource Office.

However, Abraham returned from vacation and immediately started supporting Anton saying the pilots have given personal reports.

The CEO called the pilots to the office, and instead of supporting the Bhutanese pilots, he told them Abraham and Anton are professional captains they have to learn from them.

The CEO told the Bhutanese pilots they have just started their career and they shouldn’t be complaining, and have to be flexible and learn to adjust with different people.

The source said that CEO even said the writing of the letter is a “form of crime.”

The source said CEO did not want to take it up further as he did not want to look bad, and instead asked the pilots to leave the matter and they have to get back to normal.

Abraham responds

Head Pilot Abraham said that the various allegations against him are not true. He said that Alex does not have insight into flight hours, and it is all nonsense and not true. He said that they have all the records on Bhutanese pilots being given flight time.

He said Alex broke the rules (allowing pilot Garab to fly from Punakha to Paro) and when confronted was making all kinds of allegations of moral harassment and others.

On allegations of discouraging the pilots and the potential conflict of interest in his and Anton’s contracts being renewed the longer the Bhutanese pilots took to train, he said it is not true.

He also said that the letter from the Bhutanese pilots complaining about Anton is not true.

He threatened legal action if such “false allegations were put out publicly.”

The head pilot said that issues have been resolved internally by RBHSL. He also denied allegations of payload manipulation to not take Bhutanese pilots saying that payloads are determined by the performance graph of the helicopter.

Abraham also contested that he had not cleared the assessment by Dave, and said he was only assessed by JB.

The paper contacted the RBHSL CEO and Anton, but they both declined to comment.

With RBHSL, now in the process of being merged with Drukair, all these past issues will now be for the Drukair management to resolve. Drukair has already appointed a Technical Committee to look into these various issues and come up with solutions.

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