“Screw Plan B!” exclaims HAA pilot Markus Siebert.
Those are not words commonly uttered by a pilot who must have backup contingencies in mind for the unexpected. But Siebert is no common pilot. In addition to being an HAA pilot in Berlin, he’s also the managing director and founder of HeliEFB, a 21st century technology startup that helps helicopter pilots and operators cut through 20th century paperwork, by using an intuitive iPad app as an electronic flight bag.
First, let’s quickly put his ‘screwy’ quote in context before one gets the mistaken impression that the thoughtful German entrepreneur is an aggressive “Red Baron” von Richthofen. Siebert wasn’t referring to flying, but rather giving sound advice. “If I was going to give someone career advice, it would be that you should find your passion and try to work in that area. Your chance of succeeding will be much greater if you’re doing something that you’re passionate about. It should be your sole focus. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said that when you start developing a Plan B for when you don’t succeed, you’re losing focus on your first priority. You should not do that. It’s costing you time and energy. Screw Plan B! Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a Plan B, if something goes wrong in the cockpit, but when you’re trying to find a career, then go for it! Don’t say, “Well, I can also become this or that. No, you can’t; you’ll lose focus. If you want to become a pilot, then focus on being a pilot.”
Siebert lived his own advice to become a pilot, when the then student in his late teens serendipitously saw a yellow ADAC Luftrettung (air rescue) helicopter landing at a scene call which was in view of his school library in the Berlin suburbs. “I went to the library to study. Outside the building was a helicopter landing. An ADAC yellow rescue helicopter landed near the library and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. After seeing it, I was so happy all day! So, I made it a life mission to get into that cockpit. I asked the pilot how I could become a pilot to fly that ADAC helicopter and he told me it would be tough because there was only one rescue helicopter in the Berlin area and only three pilot positions. I thought: that’s great because I don’t need three positions, just one! So, I focused all my attention on how to become a helicopter pilot.”
Most pilots in Germany hone their skills in the military, so Siebert joined the German air force academy in 1993. “I thought: if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right by first becoming an officer. That turned out to be a mistake. No one told me when I signed up to fly, that officers spend a lot of time flying desks instead of aircraft.” Nevertheless, the aspiring German military pilot learned to fly under the tutelage of Uncle Sam. Huh?? As a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, Germany sent prospective pilots to Arizona for aviation screening. “I did well enough to where they gave me a choice, so I chose the helicopter hands down! Then I was sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama, when I was 22 years old, for rotorcraft flight school.” Siebert spent 18 months in the Southeastern state called “The Heart of Dixie.” Yes, the young man was far from his native land, but made the best of it. “I was paired up with a U.S. cadet, Steve Woodburn, at Fort Rucker for my entire time there. He was a really nice guy. I actually spent Christmas at his house on the base; it made a really good holiday,” he says. “In essence, I was trained by the U.S. Army for the German air force.”
After his four-year commitment, Siebert was discharged from the German air force. He landed in civilian life when information technology was really taking off. “I got interested in software interface design. I thought that there must be an easier way to read all the instruments in an aircraft. I got interested in how the human mind interacts with a lot of information coming at it. Colleges began offering courses in human interface design, so I signed up for that and got a rather unique skill set that became in demand.” Siebert began freelancing his new skills and founded a software company, named Move3D, with friends. Its payroll quickly shot up to 40 employees—and then the dot-com crash occurred. “Our company crashed with the industry, so I turned back to flying civilian helicopters,” he said.
Fleeing dot-com carnage, Siebert returned to his aviation roots in the U.S. with his U.S. Army pilot license, took a checkride, and converted it to an FAA commercial license. “I became a CFI and loved being an instructor at Air Orlando for around a year, then I went to Lance Aviation where I performed a variety of different types of flying; it was great fun!” Following Lance aviation, Siebert went on to fly air ambulance at Careflite in Dallas, TX where he gained experience flying the Agusta AW109. During his time at Careflite, another operator, Era Helicopters, was introducing the newer, larger Agusta AW139 into their fleet which Siebert really wanted to fly. “So, I stressed my experience in the Agusta 109 aircraft and moved over to Era in 2005 and had good fun with them becoming a captain on the 139. That was really awesome.” Now he was back in the black.
Do you see a pattern here? Whether in good or challenging circumstances, Siebert consistently lands on his skids (or wheels). He partially attributes this to a saying he’s adopted as his life motto: “Whether you think you can or whether you think you cannot—you’re right.” It’s all about having a positive and focused mindset that serves him well, whether he’s doing his daily one-hour hard workout that alternates between CrossFit and running, whether he’s doggedly pursuing a goal to get in the pilot seat, or whether he’s birthing a new company to life. That last scenario was Siebert’s next goal—he set out to replace his former business blemish with a win. “A buddy in Germany called to talk me into setting up another software company as the Internet stuff had really recovered. I decided that since I had accumulated over 5,000 flight hours, I could leave flying for a while and go back to technology.”
Actually, when he returned to Berlin, Siebert didn’t entirely leave flying. Instead he achieved what he deems his greatest professional accomplishment—He finally climbed into that ADAC pilot seat he coveted as a teen three decades earlier. Then, for his new software startup, Siebert began calling people he knew in the rotorcraft industry and asked them how the newly introduced iPad could help them. Most wanted to get rid of all the paperwork they dealt with: daily logs/journals/weight and balance/performance calculations and stop hauling all that tree pulp from the cockpit to the office and then do more paperwork there. Siebert and his team got to work and came up with a solution. “We created one streamlined technology process that works all the way from the aircraft to the back office and vice versa. We started prototyping app and had the first production version ready around 2013.” They first fielded it in Germany with ADAC, for whom Siebert stresses appreciation, “ADAC Luftrettung has been very supportive throughout my career, allowing me to work part time and focus on my company. They are a fantastic company to fly for. They are a major player in Europe, and they are extremely safety-oriented.” Not many people have their employer as their customer, but Siebert’s career is a rare one. “I’m very lucky that I was able to combine my two career passions, aviation and interface design,” Siebert says. “Not many people can say that they pursue two passions in their work. I think that passion shows in our app.”
Siebert sees his setup as not only benefitting product design, but also HeliEFB’s credibility. “It makes all the difference, owning a company that caters to the industry that I still fly in. When I talk to the director of operations of a sales prospect and they have a question, I can answer them from my being in the field flying. I know what I’m talking about from experience in the industry and I don’t come across like a typical used car salesman.”
While it sounds like Siebert might be a challenging customer for a used car lot, he’d actually be a pushover for a special recreational vehicle. ““One of my dreams is to get an expedition truck (like the EarthRoamer) that’s capable of going anywhere with solar power and water desalinization. I could roam the world for a few years and still be able to work from a laptop as long as I had an Internet link.”
The wanderlust wannabe craves adventure. In addition to his love for SCUBA diving (the Red Sea is a favorite spot), he gets his Terra-firma-fix canyoneering. “It’s awesome. You climb up the mountain then rope down along waterfalls and navigate the natural terrain. It’s the most beautiful scenery.”
Yet, it’s not all risky action and adventure for Siebert. He also likes to travel between the covers of a good book. He just finished the bestselling novel The Kite Runner and recommends Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs, and the bio Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Siebert feeds off the unwavering commitment of these past and present entrepreneurs as he plots a fantastic future for his own company. “What our products do is needed by the market. I see our technology lasting for the next 10 years or so, until the next big shift comes around. Yes, drones may take over one or two functions currently performed by manned flight, but I don’t see a drone in the foreseeable future safely doing every day, what I fly in the Berlin air ambulance market. There’s just no way a drone replaces that type of manned flight. I’m not too concerned about drones taking over, but from a pilot’s point of view, drones are getting more dangerous. The near misses are not good.” In response, he sees the increased situational awareness his company’s app enable as a semi-solution. It’s part of a one-two punch that HeliEFB has: “One, we are making flying safer by increasing situational awareness of the flight crews. Two, we help operators enhance their flight operations and business processes through automation.” For a large operator, if you just shave off 10% to 20% of the daily workload of 300 helicopter crews, that makes a big difference.”
Siebert is making a difference because he is different. With teen dreams and adult work, he climbed to reach his goal of becoming an ADAC air ambulance pilot in Berlin. But he wasn’t content to stay at career cruising altitude. In midflight, with teamwork, he launched a company that lifted him to a greater view so he could serve those cruising at average altitude. The Red Baron garnered his medals, and another German airman proved his mettle.