Salute to Excellence Awards

Helicopter Association International (HAI) has encouraged and celebrated the highest standards of professionalism within the helicopter industry for more than 50 years through its Salute to Excellence Awards.

The nine award categories reflect the diverse range of people who work in the rotorcraft industry, from pilots and safety practitioners, to flight instructors and those who use helicopters to serve their communities and save lives.

Despite their varied roles, award honorees have one thing in common: a demonstrated commitment to excellence that has enriched the international helicopter community.

At the 2014 Salute to Excellence Awards on February 26 during HAI HELI-EXPO 2014 in Anaheim, California, the following honorees were recognized. HAI congratulates them and celebrates their contributions to our industry.


Élan Head is that rarest of creatures — a pilot who can write and a writer who can fly. She has been an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor and holds commercial helicopter and commercial helicopter instrument ratings. Until recently, she was editor in chief of Vertical; she is now that magazine’s special projects editor.

For an article about a seemingly senseless accident, it was not enough just to report the National Transportation Safety Board’s findings. Head began by speaking to the chief pilot for the accident aircraft’s maker. Then she spoke with the chief pilot at another company. Then she went back to the manufacturer to test some of the prevailing theories in a simulator.

When she researches and writes, Head knows her subject and has a thoughtful, forceful way of making her points.

Head has made three separate trips to Afghanistan to examine the roles of helicopters in that war, culminating in a special edition of Vertical’s sister publication, Vertical 911, to mark the 10th anniversary of operations there.

For another article, Head hired on as a copilot with a heavy-lift operator and flew as second-in-command aboard a civilian version of the Boeing Chinook, Columbia Helicopters’ 234 UT.

Head has been a reporter and editor for both general-news media outlets and aviation and helicopter trade publications. She has worked as both a flight instructor and as a contract pilot.

Head is the recipient of an Arizona Press Club Award and two New Mexico Associated Press Managing Editors Awards.
For Dr. Gordon Jiroux, president and chief executive officer of Universal Helicopters, a flight school in Scottsdale, Arizona, flight training and safety are inextricably mixed. Maintaining a safe environment is his first priority, and his record bears that out. He has been instructing for more than 30 years and is accident-free in that time.

Jiroux’s dedication to safety is evident at the school as well, which has not suffered an accident in more than 10 years, despite operating 35 helicopters in six locations and flying a total of 23,000 hours in 2013 alone.

Jiroux holds every student— whether planning a career in the helicopter industry or just wishing to fly recreationally — to the same high safety and performance standards, and insists on weekly progress reports on all students at all six locations.

He also ensures that his instructors receive continuing education and monthly tests, and holds an annual standardization and safety seminar, bringing all instructors to one location. The seminar counts as a biennial flight instructor refresher course for those needing to renew their certificates.

Jiroux says he realized that because most commercial pilots spend time as an instructor first, what he was really doing was teaching a student to be a teacher. "I became committed to education and flight training as a combination, putting education and knowledge first," he says. "Teaching helicopter pilots to become teachers is really what I have done for 33 years."

Universal provides only one service: helicopter flight training. That service has been Dr. Jiroux’s life work and is sure to be his legacy.
On July 6, 2013, an AAR Airlift S-61 helicopter was flying a resupply mission in support of the U.S. military in Afghanistan when it suffered a power loss in its No. 2 engine. Pilot Stephen Fiduk and Second in Command Robert Layne Murphy landed safely at a forward operating base (FOB), but were now stranded, with the FOB under attack by enemy forces.

Upon receiving news of the incident, the operations team at the crew’s home base put together an emergency response plan. Alan Nowak, Joshua Ricciardi, Gabriel Meza, and Nathan Raught took a replacement engine to the stricken helicopter.

Meza and Raught had already worked a full day as flying-crew chiefs on other AAR jobs before being sent on this emergency repair mission. Nowak, the maintenance manager, and Ricciardi, the maintenance supervisor, were responsible for overseeing the engine swap. But these leaders, with assistance from Murphy, also “got their hands dirty," helping to unload the new engine and set up the lift-crane, as well as assisting with the engine swap.

With the assistance of the flight crew and without benefit of a hangar or advanced tooling, the AAR team replaced the blown engine and performed the necessary testing — all while under indirect fire.

Time elapsed from the time they left home base until the S-61 departed the FOB: three hours, 55 minutes.

All personnel returned safely to base. The team ultimately saved an aircraft from destruction, keeping a valuable transport in service and setting a maintenance standard of which AAR is justifiably very proud.
Shinnamon has a long history of law enforcement service, much of it working with aviation units. He began his career with the Baltimore County (Md.) Police Department, where he led efforts to start an aviation unit that he then commanded for more than 10 years. In that time, the unit grew from two piston-powered helicopters to three turbine helicopters that fly a combined 1,500 hours a year.

In the early 1990s, recognizing the growth of law enforcement aviation and the need for police departments to coordinate and share information, he convinced the International Association of Chiefs of Police to create an international aviation committee, which he chaired for more than 15 years.

Shinnamon is a longtime member of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) and has served on HAI’s Government Service Committee. He is a founding member of the Airborne Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission, which established standards for law enforcement aviation units seeking to become accredited.

In 2004, Shinnamon received ALEA’s Robert L. Cormier Award for Leadership in the Advancement of Aircraft in Public Service. And in 2008, he was named to the FAA’s first rulemaking committee convened to draft new regulations allowing unmanned aerial vehicles to operate in the U.S. national airspace.

Having retired in 2010 from active police work as chief of police for Port St. Lucie, Florida, Shinnamon remains on the cutting edge of law enforcement aviation and now works with a manufacturer of unmanned aerial systems, producing remotely piloted surveillance vehicles.
Following service as a U.S. Army aviator during the Vietnam War, Howard Ragsdale flew as a corporate pilot before moving into helicopter air ambulance (HAA) services with Omniflight Helicopters, eventually rising to vice president of operations.

He then moved to Rocky Mountain Helicopters as director of Lifenet Services, an experiment in HAA provisioning that eventually came to be known as the community-based model.

With his skills in program management and his knowledge of helicopter aviation, Ragsdale would build the world’s largest system of HAA services. His community-based model for deploying air ambulances helped the HAA industry grow from approximately 300 helicopters in 1995 to more than 900 helicopters today.

Ragsdale later served as director of the PHI Air Medical Group, where he developed and implemented PHI’s Enhanced Operational Control Center. He recruited pilots on medical leave to staff the center, giving pilots in the field someone to talk to with direct knowledge of their issues and concerns.

Under his leadership, PHI Air Medical reached 100 percent utilization of night-vision goggles for night operations. Ragsdale was instrumental in the creation of the Air Medical Operators Association, a group dedicated solely to safety in the HAA industry.

After leaving PHI, Ragsdale rejoined many of his former Lifenet colleagues at Air Methods, which had acquired Rocky Mountain Helicopters.

Over the course of his career, Ragsdale has directly developed or managed HAA operations that have benefited more than 750,000 critically ill or injured patients.
Chris Horton caught the safety bug early, while studying accident mitigation and safety program management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott campus.

Following his studies, Horton in 2010 joined Guidance Aviation in Prescott, Arizona, and quickly rose to manager of flight operations. He is responsible for the daily operations of more than 100 full-time students, 20 flight instructors, and more than 300 weekly flight operations.

Horton established the Guidance Aviation Safety Board, which draws together personnel from each facet of the company, including flight training, operations, maintenance, and administration. The safety board provides trend and root-cause analysis of accident and incident data and makes recommendations to senior management.

He developed the safety management system (SMS) currently in use at Guidance and incorporated it into the flight-training curriculum. At the beginning of each semester, students attend a presentation outlining the SMS program and emphasizing student participation as an important part of the safety system.

Horton has instituted three safety stand-down days per year for all 50 of Guidance’s employees and all of its 16 helicopters.

"Flight training is more than learning to fly the aircraft; it is professionalism training, understanding of SMS, and learning safe habit patterns,"

Horton says. Horton serves on both the HAI Safety Committee and the FAA Safety Team, where he has addressed flying in high-density altitude, human factors as they relate to heat and fatigue, operating in high-training and -traffic areas, and pilot complacency.
Donald On the night of February 9, 2013, the crew of Rescue 912 of 103 Search and Rescue Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, launched into challenging weather conditions to search for three hunters whose small open boat had become trapped by ice. The three men had by then been out in the storm for 20 hours.

After reaching the hunters’ approximate location, the crew began their search, with high winds and reduced visibility testing the skills of both the flight crew and the rescue team.

The challenging weather conditions required the crew to think on their feet and adapt standard search-and-rescue protocols. During the lengthy search, aircraft commander Capt. Aaron Noble and first officer Capt. Jonathon Groten monitored fuel requirements, deciding that, if necessary, they would land on shore and ride out the storm.

Upon locating the hunters, the team began hoist maneuvers. Battling tremendous swing on the hoist, flight engineer Sgt. Bradley Hiscock precisely lowered search-and-rescue tech team member M.Cpl. Mark Vokey to the hunters’ boat.

As Vokey was hoisted down, he fought through fierce rotor wash and static electric shocks from the aircraft. Once in the boat, he quickly triaged the three survivors and readied to hoist them in proper order.

Once the hunters were safely on board, they were cared for by searchand- rescue tech team leader Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Warden.

With improving conditions at their base, the crew returned to Gander Airport in Newfoundland. All three hunters made a full recovery.

Few do more to raise public awareness of helicopters than Chuck Aaron, chief helicopter pilot and director of maintenance for Red Bull Air Force, and the first and only civilian pilot authorized by the FAA to fly helicopter aerobatic routines in the United States.

Aaron is a lifelong helicopter safety advocate and evangelist for the industry. His “intelligent risk taking" has made possible helicopter dynamic demonstrations that were previously thought unattainable. As a result, he has become an ambassador to the world for the potential of helicopter aviation.

Aaron is also an accomplished test pilot. He has test-flown a new tracking system for the U.S. military’s Boeing AH-64 Apache, as well as a new infrared vision system, becoming the first pilot to intentionally fly into brownout conditions.

Although undoubtedly best known for his heart-pumping helicopter aerobatic shows, Aaron has led a varied career as a pilot, flying as a crop duster, traffic reporter, television electronic news gathering pilot, sling pilot, flight instructor, and even as a banner-tower. “Even now," Aaron says, “I get into the cockpit and it’s like slipping my hand into a glove."

He is also an FAA certificated airframe and powerplant mechanic, and has rebuilt from surplus parts three TAH-1F Cobras.

Aaron was inducted into the Society of Experimental Test Pilots in 2011 and into the Living Legends of Aviation in 2013. While putting safety first, Aaron’s stated goal for his aerobatic routines is to excite young people about aviation, and show them that they, too, can do things they did not think possible.

W.M. “Archie Gray is senior vice president of aviation services for Air Methods Corporation, responsible for operations and maintenance at the largest U.S. helicopter air ambulance operator.

Gray has direct oversight of the company’s Part 135 operations certificate and its Part 145 repair station certificate; engineering, aircraft records, pilot and mechanic records and training; material management; quality assurance; maintenance planning; and fleet sales and acquisitions. And he brings nearly 40 years of experience to these tasks.

Gray’s passion for ensuring the reliability and safety of the helicopters at Air Methods has benefited the entire industry. A regular participant in customer advisory forums for two OEMs, an engine manufacturer, and numerous parts suppliers, Gray has pressed for improvement in both products and processes.

Keeping one eye on the future, Gray has adopted an airframe and powerplant mentoring program in response to the challenge of mechanic shortages. The program is designed to accelerate the development of newly minted airframe and powerplant mechanics into capable field mechanics. It brings them into the Part 145 environment and tailors their training to the challenges of fieldbased maintenance.

Aaron Todd, chief executive officer of Air Methods, sums up Gray’s years of devoted service: “Archie’s leadership qualities and management style embrace accountability with fairness and equity. He is always available to teach and mentor those around him. Despite nearly 40 years of service, his enthusiasm for his work is always present and is contagious to all who associate with him."