Helicopter Association International

2024 Salute to Excellence Awards:

Pilot of the Year: Michael Sagely


Michael Sagely
Senior Pilot, Los Angeles County Fire Department
Santa Rosa Valley, California, USA

Michael Sagely

Michael Sagely, who in 1984 learned to fly helicopters in the US Army, has expressed extraordinary professionalism, leadership, and skill throughout his career.

Sagely’s story differs from that of most other former army aviators. He joined the service in his mid-20s after having been a Division I All-American athlete in men’s volleyball at San Diego State University and having played on the Olympic team. After enlisting in the military, he was accepted into flight school, aced Warrant Officer Candidate School as a distinguished graduate, and was an honor graduate from primary flight school, flying the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Upon assignment to the army’s 82nd Airborne Division, Sagely progressed rapidly and was selected for the instructor pilot course before becoming a CW2. During his 22 years in the army, Sagely served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and later was accepted into the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), where he flew elite special combat missions in multiple aircraft types. During his service, he received seven Air Medals and a Bronze Star for his actions in multiple combat operations and earned a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics with an aviation safety minor.

Upon retirement from the army, Sagely worked as a contract fire pilot for the Angeles National Forest Rappel/Helitack crew before being hired by the Santa Barbara County (California) Fire Department. In Santa Barbara, he became the first pilot in the unit’s history to conduct night-vision goggles (NVG) snorkel operations.

Sagely credits his success during his first three years of aerial firefighting to his army flying experience. Managing multiple radios for air and ground assets, flying in combat situations, using NVG, and performing precision operations transferred well to wildland firefighting.

Sagely joined the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD) in 2009 as a pilot. His leadership skills and aviator talents led to his promotion to senior pilot in less than two years. He has since earned two valor awards from the department and three awards for heroism from Sikorsky for his part in multiple rescues and other lifesaving missions.

Sagely attributes his success as a pilot and leader to significant mentors he has learned from throughout his career. Unsurprisingly, he has become a mentor himself, choosing people to guide who are willing to step outside their comfort zones and grow. Indeed, his leadership and mentorship within the LACFD have helped strengthen the department.

When reflecting upon his career at the LACFD, Sagely says it isn’t the awards and heroic missions that define his experience. Rather, his particular passion has been making LACFD Air Operations better.

“In the military, we had a saying: Leave the foxhole better than you found it,” Sagely shares. “If I were to highlight one piece of my career, it is my focus on the overall health of the organizations where I work, from adjusting attitudes and approaches to work to creating processes and procedures that help everything run more efficiently and safely.”