RPMN: What is your current position?
I’m senior pilot and company owner at Helivision LLC.
RPMN: Tell me about your first flight.
My first flight in a helicopter was 1969 in a U.S. Army TH-55 trainer at Fort Wolters, Texas.
RPMN: How did you get your start in helicopters?
It began when I joined the Army in 1968. I qualified for the Warrant Officer Helicopter Pilot program. It was the first time I knew what I wanted to do: Fly. My parents were supportive as any good parents would be. Up to then, my schooling was preparing me to become a pharmacist, like my father. With their support and blessing, my path to becoming a pilot began. After basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, I traveled to the U.S. Army’s primary helicopter pilot training facility at Fort Wolters.
RPMN: When and how did you choose to fly helicopters? Or did they choose you?
I loved any television show or movie that had aviation in it. My favorites growing up were Sky King and my very favorite, Whirlybirds. The real star of Whirlybirds was a then modern Bell 47. I discovered my passion was flying helicopters. I like to believe that helicopters chose me and once that decision was made, I never looked back.
RPMN: Where did you get your start flying commercially?
My first job after leaving the Army in 1970 was with Barfly Corporation, a small ag. operation outside Charlotte, North Carolina. We specialized in aerial fertilization of timber and pasturelands as well as power line right-of-way defoliation utilizing the Bell 47.
RPMN: If you were not in the helicopter industry, what else would you see yourself doing?
I never considered doing anything else. It’s hard for non pilots to understand how flying becomes your passion. I haven’t found anything that creates the self confidence of being in control of an aircraft. What would I do if I didn’t fly? I truly don’t have an answer. Would I become a pharmacist, like my dad? It would have made him proud but before I became a pilot, he sat me down and calmed my guilt for not following in his footsteps saying, “Buddy, I am so proud of you. What matters to me is you do something that you really love and you can wake up and look forward to going to work.”
RPMN: What do you enjoy doing on your days off?
I have more hobbies than time to enjoy them. I enjoy camping, woodworking, metal work and building ride on 7.5-inch gauge model trains. This year is my 50th year as a commercially rated helicopter pilot and I still enjoy going to work everyday. I would like to take more time to enjoy hobbies but as those in this business know, there are few days off.
RPMN: What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?
That is hard to pinpoint. I have been blessed to be in the helicopter business for better than half of my life. As I gained more flying experience, I became involved with aerial production work flying photographers chasing boats for print publications, then moving up to Tyler Camera Systems mounts, then to stabilized camera systems such as Wescams, FLIR, and Cineflex. I’ve been fortunate to have flown for films, television, documentaries, and sporting events. So what is my greatest accomplishments, maybe it’s the four Emmy Awards or being blessed to go to work every day with my son, Kevin. As a side note, I failed as a father in my efforts for him to become a brain surgeon to support me in retirement. Instead, he wanted to fly helicopters since he was little, having grown up around them. Go figure. Back to the question, I think more than the Emmys is building a helicopter company and working with the very best team in the business. None of it would have happened without them.
RPMN: Have you ever had an “Oh, crap” moment in a helicopter? Can you summarize what happened?
If you have been in the business for as long as I have, there have been a number of “Oh, Crap” moments. The most notable was in the ‘80’s while at Suncoast Helicopters in Tampa. I was asked to fly over the Gulf of Mexico to meet a Seismic Ship 100 miles off Sarasota to pick up some tapes. I was alone, navigating with the state-of-the-art Loran C in a Jet Ranger with pop-out floats, to a set of coordinates in open water. I had enough fuel to meet the ship and then return with about 30 minutes of reserve fuel. The further I flew offshore, the hazier the sky became. Fortunately there were some waves below me to aid in knowing which way was up. I was fighting spatial disorientation and began to struggle to keep my cool. I kept saying remember the basics: airspeed, heading, and altitude. To make things worse, when I arrived at the time and coordinates all I saw was open ocean. I had 15 minutes to search before
returning home. I was approaching head-on to a long and narrow ship which made them difficult to see. As I decided to head for Sarasota, it appeared a mile off my nose. Wow, was I one happy guy! The captain turned the ship into the wind for my approach. After landing I was told to shut down and join them for lunch but I didn’t have much of an appetite. All I wanted to do was get the heck back to shore.
RPMN: If you could give only one piece of advice to a new helicopter pilot, what would it be?
To learn how to just say “no” and stick with it. As pilots, we are sometimes asked to do something like push the weather because the boss or client said they absolutely had to get to their destination when we know we need to turn around or land. Sometimes a pilot fears losing their job if they don’t keep going. In the aircraft, no one outranks you and believe me, nothing is worse than going against what you know to be the right thing to do and disregarding the hair standing up on the back of your neck. You are the pilot in command so be a commander and make good decisions. You can always get another job but you and your passengers only have one life.
RPMN: In your view, what is the greatest challenge for the helicopter industry at this moment in time?
I still see a bright future in the helicopter business. There is new technology and aircraft coming out every year that are safer and reduce pilot workload. There are still challenges facing operators today. Aircraft insurance is a huge factor in costs and clients are demanding increased liability limits. While cost goes up, rates charged struggle to keep pace. Manufacturers are increasing parts costs and decreasing customer service. They only seem to listen to the engineers and the board that governs their purse strings. They should remember who brought them to the dance. Manufacturers need to start listening to consumers and be proactive about solutions.