Read More: In the Spotlight: Randall Rochon, Vice Chair, Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals
August 14, 2020

When black students see people like them succeeding in aviation, then they know they can do it too.

In 1976, 38 black US airline pilots—roughly half of all black pilots then employed by US carriers—met for two days in Chicago to discuss how they might increase the number of minority young people seeking to enter the field of aviation; the group ended up founding the Organization of Black Airline Pilots.

In the 44 years since, the group has renamed itself the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) and embraced a broader focus: to increase minority participation in aerospace through exposure, training, mentoring, and scholarships. OBAP’s staff, volunteers, and mentors have touched hundreds of thousands of lives through the organization’s outreach and education programs. Still, less than 3% of US commercial pilots are black, and the number of black executives and engineers in aviation barely registers on the percentage scales. So much more work remains to be done.

Randall Rochon, a United Airlines 757/767 first officer and OBAP’s vice chairman, is the best kind of ambassador for the group: someone who has directly benefited from its work. Rochon had fallen in love with flying as a kid, choosing a career as a pilot over the FBI. He attended OBAP’s Aerospace Career Education Academy and benefited from OBAP mentoring and networking during college. Thanks to that support, Rochon received a Diversity in Aviation Scholarship from Western Michigan University in conjunction with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, earning a bachelor’s degree in flight.

ROTOR: How involved is OBAP in promoting rotorcraft careers?
Rochon: A number of minority pilots enter the helicopter side of the business from the military. That’s the primary source of black and minority pilots in the commercial helicopter world.

But one of the things we’ve identified is the need to promote helicopter flying as an option to minority students. We don’t have numbers yet, but it’s pretty obvious that minorities are a very small percentage of the employment base there.

At OBAP Aerospace Professionals in School (APIS) events at elementary schools, students get to talk to the pilots and other rotary aviation people we bring out, and to check out the helicopters. For most of our kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a helicopter up close or thought about possibly flying or working with helicopters.

Have you seen any positive results?
Yes, a little. And it’s growing. Just this year we were able, with the support of Airbus Helicopters, to provide two full scholarships for students to go to Airbus’s facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, and get their type ratings there in an Airbus helicopter. That was generous of Airbus.

Those two scholarship slots were filled within a week of our first announcing their availability, so demand was surprisingly high. There are lots of opportunities in the rotary world between the military, police, medical, and offshore operators. And I now have more and more students coming to me who are interested in helicopters.

Are there still barriers for minority kids trying to get into aviation?
Definitely. Aviation is something minority kids usually don’t think much about. And even if they do, they don’t know how to be involved in it.

That’s why we started the APIS program: to introduce elementary kids to the idea that there’s this whole big field that they’ve never thought about before in which they can, if they put their minds to it, build a very nice career.

But getting that career isn’t easy, and it’s not cheap.
Once students get serious about it and discover that becoming a pilot is going to cost $150,000, OBAP is here to help them think through the options. Are there ways to help them pay for it? Do they want to start looking at working in management instead of flying? Things like that.

And that’s really our No. 2 focus: mentor­ship. We talk with them about their options: going into the military sector, the cargo sector, aerial survey work, flying for police departments or medical operators, or engineering or management. OBAP is here to open their eyes to all the possibilities and opportunities available to them in the aviation world.

At the end of the day, it’s important to black students—especially those who don’t see others like them doing this, who begin thinking that maybe there’s not a place for them in this world—to see that there are people who do look and speak like them who are doing it. That communicates that they can do it too.

Not long ago, 80% of our students who entered college aviation programs wanted to be pilots. Now the split is about 60/40, with about 40% of them looking to become engineers, executives, or air traffic controllers or to get some other challenging and good-paying jobs in aviation. 

Read More: NFL Star Helps Kids Pursue Aviation Careers
June 08, 2020

Jimmy Graham: Chicago Bears tight end and instrument-rated pilot.

NFL tight end Jimmy Graham—newly signed to a lucrative free-agent contract by the Chicago Bears—didn’t get much attention or encouragement at home, growing up in what can best be described as a highly dysfunctional military family. Things got so bad that his mother effectively abandoned him as an 11-year-old when she placed him in a group home in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where the older and bigger boys beat him regularly.

So it makes sense now that, after his improbable rise to stardom and wealth in the NFL, Graham is committed to encouraging youngsters—especially those from similarly tough and impoverished backgrounds—to aim for futures that seemingly are beyond their reach.

What’s surprising, though, is that the 6-foot 7-inch, 270-lb All Pro pass-catching machine isn’t using his athletic prowess and fame to help kids excel in athletics. Rather, Graham depends on his personal Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter—plus his Extra 330 LX aerobatic plane (it’s a really tight fit) and his 1957 de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver seaplane (with retractable skis)—to point kids toward potential careers in aviation.

Though he’d only been a licensed pilot for a little less than eight years at the time, Graham jumped at the chance in 2018 to follow in the footsteps of Gen. Chuck Yeager, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and actors Harrison Ford and Cliff Robertson as chairman of the Young Eagles. The organization, founded in 1992 by the US Experimental Aircraft Association, gives children ages 8 to 17 opportunities to experience flight in a general aviation aircraft and to learn about aviation. 

Because he can take only one kid at a time up with him in his Extra 330, and only two or three in his Beaver, Graham’s Young Eagles ride of choice is his Huey. The aircraft, along with his charitable organization, The Jimmy Graham Foundation, is based at Miami Executive Airport (KTMB), outside of Miami, Florida. 

The iconic model is fully restored to the way it looked when it flew with the US Army’s 170th Assault Helicopter Co. during 21 months from 1968 through 1969. The helicopter operated in the Vietnamese Central Highlands, ferry­ing soldiers into and out of battle zones. It also flew into and out of Cambodia and Laos in support of the 5th Special Forces Group. These days, the Huey mostly carries children via the Young Eagles program, along with Vietnam veterans taking brief trips down memory lane.

ROTOR: Given your challenged childhood and the huge amount of time you’ve committed to becoming a top athlete, how did you get so involved in flying?
Graham: The first movie I remember watching was Top Gun. My dream was to be a fighter pilot, but then I grew to a freakish six-seven and there went that dream. We lived around military bases—my original parents were in the military. I randomly loitered around airports, talking a lot about aviation and asking a lot of questions. I met a guy named John. He said if I ever wanted to go up [in an aircraft], he’d give me a ride. So I flew with him and loved it.

When did you get your pilot’s license?
I played basketball at the University of Miami for four years, then played one year of football there before being drafted by the New Orleans Saints. I’d never had the time or money to learn to fly. But after my first NFL season, I had some money and, for the first time, some [spare] time in the offseason, so I started lessons. I took my checkride before the end of that year. Except in years when I had off-season surgeries, I’ve learned new ways of flying or gotten new licenses every off-season since.

What licenses do you have?
Beyond my private pilot’s license, I’ve got my airplane single-engine sea and land, airplane multi-engine land, tailwheel, rotorcraft, instrument (airplane and helicopter), and commercial helicopter licenses. I’ll probably add my sea and land commercial license, and after I retire from football I want to move into gliders. I’ve kept this under wraps until now, but I’m also a licensed skydiver.

During the season, I may only have time to fly two or three days. But the rest of the year, I fly on average five days a week. I just love it; I love everything about flying.

Where does that passion and commitment come from?
To be honest, I don’t just half-ass anything. Whether it’s football, or athletics, or flying, or investing my money, I want to do it to the very best of my ability and keep learning more and more about it. I’m kinda’ weird that way, I guess. But even if I’m doing a charity event, I guarantee you … it’s going to be excellent.

Have your coaches or teams ever raised concerns about your flying?
They don’t want to go there with me. One time when I was with the Saints, [Head Coach] Sean Payton and [General Manager] Mickey Loomis, before I signed my big deal, actually mentioned that they didn’t want me to be in a private plane if it wasn’t a jet with two engines and had a copilot. I told them I wouldn’t sign that contract and that there were 31 other teams that would give me the same contract AND let me fly. No organization has ever mentioned it again.

How did you get involved in the Young Eagles?
A good friend of mine, Sean D. Tucker, flies airshows. He’s been doing it about 30 years solo. And this last year, he wanted to go to a two-plane operation. So I got involved with him with my aerobatic plane. He also got me involved with the Young Eagles program, and I quickly saw the benefits of their mission. [Editor’s note: Tucker followed Sullenberger as the Young Eagles’ chairman in 2013 and continues to serve as co-chair alongside Graham.]

You could champion any cause you wanted, or just spend all your time flying. Why get deeply involved in the Young Eagles?
I’m a gutter kid. I came from the gutter. I always tell kids that, as a boy, I had my PhD—poor, hungry, and driven. And that’s a gift.

I’m thankful for every hardship I had. It made me grow up fast and [gave me drive]. The Young Eagles program gives me a chance to talk to kids—especially kids from tough backgrounds like mine who probably never dreamed they could do something like this—and get them thinking about aviation as a career. It gives me a chance to motivate them and encourage them not to be held back by whatever negative circumstances they’ve had to deal with

Read More: HeliOffshore Brings Safety Innovation to Offshore Operators
January 17, 2020

Competitors share data to target improved safety. 

Gretchen Haskins knows best safety practices when she sees them. The CEO of HeliOffshore Ltd. in London, UK, is an aviation industry leader in safety performance improvement and an internationally recognized expert in human factors. She has served on the board of the UK Civil Aviation Authority as group director of safety, guiding aviation safety in the United Kingdom, including airlines, aerodromes, air traffic, airworthiness, and personnel. Haskins’s aviation background includes having flown jet and piston aircraft in the US Air Force.

Haskins has led HeliOffshore since its founding in 2014 by five major helicopter operators. The organization now has 118 members that work collaboratively to improve offshore helicopter safety around the world.

ROTOR MAGAZINE: HeliOffshore is known for its ­dedication to global offshore helicopter safety. Your organization has become an example of companies—competitors—coming together to cooperate on safety issues. How hard has it been to create the necessary trust and cooperation around the idea of managing safety issues as an industrywide cooperative endeavor?

HASKINS: We were fortunate right from the start to get the CEOs of five major helicopter operators to come together and say, effectively, “We’re not going to compete on safety.” Thanks to that early, strong support for the concept, HeliOffshore has been able to create almost a safety management system for the entire industry, not just individual companies.

We started our work based on one primary question: “How would you form a collaboration to ensure that NO lives will be lost in helicopters, or certainly in offshore helicopter operations?”

It’s not a question of how this or that operator eliminates deaths in offshore operations but how the entire group does so.

ROTOR: But that sounds easier said than done.

HASKINS: Right. Well, we had to get our arms around what the broad threats facing the industry are, not just the threats individual operators see, because none of the individual operators are big enough, really, to have large enough data sets to allow them to see the full picture.

But we had a good example to follow from the fixed-wing world, which has several organizations, like the Flight Safety Foundation, ICAO, and the various airline trade groups, which all use broad data from across the industry to detect trends that may not be—and probably aren’t—visible at the single-operator level. So we borrowed from those established approaches. That had never really be done in the vertical flight world.

ROTOR: Any examples from the fixed-wing world that were especially helpful?

HASKINS: The FAA, with its CAST [Commercial Aviation Safety Team] program, set a goal years ago of reducing fatalities among US airlines by 80%, and they achieved that goal. They did it through collaboration, data sharing, and really getting the whole supply chain—from little parts suppliers to big component manufacturers to the aircraft makers, plus the FAA and other national and regional regulators—involved in sharing all their data. For the first time, we could do a good analysis of a data set large enough to detect trends that might not be noticeable by, or understandable to, one operator analyzing just their own data.

Read More: Helisim Opens Grand Prairie, Texas, Training Center
December 10, 2019

New center expands US-based simulation training offerings for Airbus customers.

When veteran French helicopter pilot and training expert Jean-Charles de Troy informed his wife in 2018 that he was being sent to Texas to manage the launch of Helisim’s new training center at Airbus Helicopters’ North American headquarters, she laid down only one condition. “‘OK,’ she said, ‘but when we move to Texas, I want one thing: I want to drive a big red pickup truck,’” de Troy says, chuckling at the thought of his wife behind the wheel of the big red Ram truck she now drives like a home-grown Texas cowgirl.

Helisim (pronounced HEL-e-sim) was formed 19 years ago as a partnership between Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters), Thales (the European aerospace and defense system maker that makes, among other things, helicopter simulators), and Défense Conseil International, a company that provides technical training to the special forces of France and other nations.

Helisim already trains around 3,000 pilots of Airbus-made helicopters a year at its training center in Marignane, France. Now it’s taking over Airbus’s own in-house pilot training at the company’s North American headquarters and engineering and service centers in Grand Prairie, Texas. The facility also serves Airbus’s primary helicopter support center in the western hemisphere.

De Troy recently visited with ROTOR and shared his thoughts on the new venture.

Read More: The Mars Helicopter: First Extraterrestrial Vertical Flight
September 03, 2019

In July of next year, NASA will launch Mars 2020, a new mission to explore the red planet. Strapped under the belly of a rover that will be deployed upon landing in February 2021 will be a small—1.8 kilogram, 1.2 meter diameter—rotorcraft. In April 2021, if all goes to plan, that tiny aircraft, essentially handmade by a small team of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will make the first vertical flight on another planet. ROTOR spoke with Bob Balaram, JPL’s chief engineer for the Mars Helicopter. (This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.)

Read More: Tom Prevot of Uber Elevate
November 13, 2018

Tom Prevot of Uber Elevate talks about his company’s ambitious plans to reconfigure urban air traffic.

Uber Elevate is developing a vertical-lift low-altitude passenger shuttle system that it hopes will do in the air what its popular shared-ride service, Uber, has done on the ground in cities around the world. It’s aiming for a 2023 launch in two U.S. metro areas (Los Angeles and Dallas–Fort Worth) and one yet-to-be-named international city. But a lot has to happen first. So ROTOR asked Dr. Tom Prevot, director of engineering/airspace systems for Uber Elevate, about the, um “road” ahead.

What are biggest challenges that must be overcome for Elevate to hit its target launch date of 2023?

Prevot: We are creating an all-electric transportation system, so rapid advancement of battery technology—which is making great strides already—is critical.

Another is airspace integration. What will it take to make sure these aircraft can operate safely in the low-altitude airspace over cities that over time will become full of such vehicles?

And the third is public acceptance, which will very much be tied to the noise issue and also to people accepting these airplanes flying relatively low over people’s heads, even if they do so very quietly.

What about the partners you’ll need to finance, build, and operate this system?

We believe this is kind of the next “Big Thing,” if you’ll allow me to use that term: a new mode of transportation that presents different options to the congestion on the streets in big cities. There’s lots of growth and profit potential for our partners operating these aircraft or building and operating the infrastructure. We’ve already got five well-respected partners who want very much to be a part of this future: Bell, Embraer, Pipistrel, Aurora, and Karem.

How do you plan to guarantee the safety of the system?

We envision there eventually being many thousands of eVTOL [electric vertical take-off and landing] aircraft in the system. The existing traffic management system can’t handle that for a lot of technical reasons. And a single controller today can safely handle only about 18 aircraft at once.

You can’t just keep on adding more controllers because the existing system is not designed to grow that way. So we are looking at new ways of managing this low-altitude urban air traffic that would be much more reliable than the existing technology that was created in the ’50s and ’60s.

How far along is the FAA and industry in creating such a control and licensing regime?

Even within the current situation, we could operate by 2023 using a human pilot and in visual flight rule conditions. Longer term, we see this system migrating to unmanned flight operations. But we don’t really require any rule changes to start operating in 2023.

How much will you charge for a ride?

When we start operating, we think we can operate at sort of a comparable price to our BLACK (luxury car) service. Very quickly thereafter, we think we can get the price down to something comparable to Uber X. We also believe the batteries are something that over time the price point will come down on.

Eventually we think we’ll be able to offer an economy (Elevate) service, certainly below what the price of a helicopter ride is today, and comparable to the cost of owning and operating a car. We are talking about eventually getting the cost of this transportation down to less than a dollar per mile.