Posted 34 days ago ago by jhadmin
HeliTrak President Chris Nehls starts our interview with words that no writer wants to hear. “I’m afraid this is going to be a hard profile for you, as I’m a boring person.” Fortunately, the former farm boy from the Illinois corn belt was just letting his small-town Midwest modesty get the best of him. Nehls is a compelling risk-taker who leads a startup that is at the heart of bringing cutting-edge aviation autonomous technology to underserved aviators. After all, many pilots fly Robinson helicopters in the same airspace as those in avionic-laden aircraft. Shouldn’t Robinson pilots, and those who fly other smaller ‘common’ aircraft, also have access to collective pull down and autopilot technology?
Nehls is leading the company that answers that question with a resounding “Yes!” Their mission is to take paradigm-shifting technology to the masses. Dress Nehls in blue jeans and a black shirt and he might pass for a rotor-head version of Steve Jobs. After all, HeliTrak’s website says Nehls “walks the line between nerd and businessman.” Although, by comparison, Jobs might be thought the bore, as he didn’t fly precision aerobatics in International Aerobatic Club (IAC) competitions. Nehls does.
Planted Seed Grows
Nehls wasn’t completely underselling his life’s story; it began with quaint beginnings. But more than corn seeds were planted in the young boy’s formative spring days. A vision also took root, a vision that grew into a life’s passion. Nehls remembers, “My dad had his fixed-wing pilot’s license when I was very young. I was around 5 years old when we happened to fly out of a small grass strip when a Hughes 269 flew in. I was just absolutely captivated by this helicopter. My dad passed away a few years ago, but he used to tell me that I just wouldn’t stop talking about this helicopter. I think it terrified him and my mom that I was going to want to become a helicopter pilot, but since then I’ve been fascinated with helicopters. Growing up, I decided that if I didn’t become a helicopter pilot, then I would become an engineer who was involved with helicopters.”
That fascination took flight and navigated Nehls collegiate studies through a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Valparaiso University, which led to a job with a reconnaissance camera company in Chicago, where he also studied towards a master’s degree in electrical engineering. He was closer, but still not touching his aviation dream job that fascinated his inner boy. Then Nehls learned about a research professor at Syracuse University who specialized in rotorcraft, so he bundled up and moved to a city with even more lake-effect snowfall than Chicago and braved the blizzards to earn his master’s in aerospace engineering.
That degree was the ticket that gained the graduate’s entrance into the aviation industry. He landed a job in 1988 at McDonnell-Douglas Helicopter Company (now Boeing) in Arizona and experimented a lot with fly-by-wire there. Then Honeywell recruited the engineer from MD in 1991. “My 18 years at Honeywell was an influential part of my career,” he recalls. “We did a lot of avionics development for many aircraft there: business jets, regional jets, and helicopters. I started out in the flight controls group as an engineer, but moved throughout the company into other areas like strategic marketing roles and government-industry relationships, but finished up again with flight controls. During that time I was fortunate enough to work on some of the most complex and successful avionics systems for aircraft and rotorcraft. It was a very busy, but extremely rewarding time.”
He circled back to the new MD Helicopters, after Lynn Tilton acquired it from Boeing, as a director of systems engineering and ended up as VP of engineering and chief engineer. “It was a privilege to go back to MD because I was a fan of the MD500 series and MD900. It was a real treat for me to work on those products again, and with the seasoned team of very dedicated professionals.” he fondly recalls.
While he was having fun at MD Helicopters, Nehls was pursued to participate as president in the birth of a new company—HeliTrak. To start up a new aerospace company is a rare opportunity. “I took advantage of it,” says Nehls who shares his time with his wife, Heidi, between Arizona and Washington state. “I resigned from MD on May 6 and I started here at HeliTrak on May 9, so I got a weekend off,” he says with dry humor. Less parched is his humor when asked about what he considers his greatest accomplishment. “Personally, it’s my marriage to my wife. (“We always have to say that,” he jokes.) We’ve been married for over 30 years now, and she’s my best friend and supporter. And 30 years is a big accomplishment in this day and age.”
In regards to his greatest professional accomplishment, Nehls says serving as HeliTrak’s president is it. And it seems he isn’t having less fun than when he was at MD Helicopters. “The owners, John Mercer and Peter Hambling and their families, are great. We’ve got a really good team here and I’ve been having a blast,” he says.
Nehls seems to get along and enjoy his career, no matter what setting or role he is in, whether he’s working for a behemoth corporation or a small startup, whether he is an underling staff engineer or an executive leader. A clue to his contentment is found when he is asked to name a special career mentor. “It’s really hard to name only one,” he replies. “I’ve learned something from just about everyone I’ve had contact with, superiors—and subordinates. That’s the nature of the aerospace engineering business; it’s collaborative. When you have an open organization that shares information, you combine your talent and accomplish more.” The man seems to appreciate all coworkers and finds that almost everyone has something to contribute. “Over my career, when I worked in environments that shared ideas and gave feedback, we got much better results. In a nutshell, that’s my leadership style. I don’t have much tyranny at all to my style,” he says lightheartedly. Hmm…maybe my earlier Steve Jobs comparison was not apropos as Jobs was not exactly known for a non-tyrannical style. (I’m ignoring the rising twinge of guilt as I type these words on my beloved Mac.)
Another key to Nehls’ contentment is that he lets the game come to him when he’s good and ready. “I have tended not to force things in my career. Most of the opportunities I followed were offered to me. I probably could have advanced more quickly early in my career, if I had gone after positions, but I knew I needed to learn and grow, so I gave myself time to do that.”
He didn’t need more time when he was offered to take the reins to guide HeliTrak through its innovative startup. When asked if he was hesitant to seize the opportunity, he confidently and succinctly answers, “No.” But then that Midwestern modesty kicks in. “Honestly, I can’t take much credit for our innovations. Most of those ideas were already in place when I got here. A lot of hard work happened before I arrived. What I contributed was bringing some structure and focus to the development and production process and helped us get over some regulatory hurdles.”
He's contributed a lot of effort and time too. “I’m up early and stay at work until late. A typical workday is nonstop; I’m a true workaholic because I think I don’t work hard enough.” Any recreational exercise is left for weekends or he might take a walk if he gets home early enough to enjoy it.
Another pastime Nehls used to enjoy, as he’s been too busy the last couple of years, is being an IAC aerobatic competitor. “I didn’t have time to participate, so I sold my competition Yak-55M a couple of years ago. It appeared at the Oshkosh airshow this year as a converted twin with a jet engine, rebranded the Yak-110, which is interesting. I really like flying precision aerobatics and plan to get back into it once we get a little further with HeliTrak.”
Still, the fixed-wing pilot tries to get in non-acrobatic stick-time whenever he can, although not as much time as he’d like to, and hopes to do a future rotorcraft transition, probably in HeliTrak’s R44 that is used for autopilot and collective pull down (CPD) system development. The CPD has now been certified by the FAA, both for the R44 and R22. It initiates the lowering of collective in the event of an engine or drive system failure, buying the pilot critical time. “Now the challenge is marketing and getting the market to realize the product and embrace the technology,” says Nehls. “For our autopilot, we’re in the midst of our certification efforts and have a little bit of development to do. We’re anticipating that we’ll have that out next spring.”
Those are short-term challenges being met and overcome by HeliTrak. However, Nehls and company also have longer and larger aspirations. Nehls says, “We plan to develop autopilots for much larger aircraft and go into autonomous aircraft as well. There is a lot of disruptive technology in the rotorcraft market happening in the form of advance flight controls and autonomous navigation. This technology is going to impact the rotorcraft industry. How our company adapts and fits into this new technology is one of our bigger challenges and opportunities for the long term.”
Nehls is candid that rapid technological advances cause him concern. “The rapid advance of technology is outpacing our industry’s ability to keep up with it from an operational safety perspective. I worry about our industry using technology to cut corners. There are a lot of experienced pilots out there with thousands and thousands of hours. Will the technology be used to replaced them with less experienced pilots? A pilot is much more than a cockpit manager; there’s airmanship involved.” It seems a contradiction, to what he just said, but Nehls believes that autopilot technology can help solve those concerns. “Autopilots reduce workload in the cockpit and allow the pilot to focus on high priority tasks at the time,” he explains. “That said, pilots need to be trained how and when to use autopilot.”
This candor about technology’s shortcomings is refreshing coming from someone who is now staking his career on bringing new technology to new markets, but his honesty reveals his affection for the rotorcraft industry, an affection that began way back when at a grass airstrip when that Hughes 269 captivated a little boy. “What I like about the rotorcraft industry is the people and its purpose. Helicopters are a diverse work-horse that do a pretty daunting job every day, protecting and serving the public. Most people associated with rotorcraft have a strong desire to serve,” he says as a now mature man who looks beyond the machine itself and sees the people with it. “Everybody knows everybody in the industry. There’s a lot less than six degrees of separation between the people in it. Everyone in the rotorcraft industry is Kevin Bacon,” concludes the rising rotorcraft startup star.