HAI Heli Expo: A Family Affair

By Clint Johnson

Johnson_AKNearly 100 years ago, in March 1914, a boy who would grow up to be described as the cornerstone of the commercial helicopter industry was born in Monticello, Iowa.  Known to his family and friends as “Rick,” Jim Ricklefs’ interest in aviation began at a young age.  He completed pilot training while in his teens, and in 1933, at 19, he soloed for the first time from an airport on the campus of Stanford in a Fleet Model Two biplane with a tailskid and no brakes!  Rick’s interest in helicopters began in the early 1940s when he first saw the Landgraf machine, an aircraft created in one of many backyard helicopter projects in the Los Angeles area.  He was so impressed by this machine that he went to work for and later became the Vice-President for Landgraf Helicopter Company.  In 1948, he started his own helicopter company, Rick Helicopters in San Francisco, and then purchased Alaska Helicopter, in Anchorage, whose main business was surveying land in Alaska.

Also in 1948, on December 13, Rick and a handful of other helicopter operators met in Burbank, California to form a helicopter association for collective benefit. It’s been said that the group was so small that they could have held their first meeting in a Sikorsky S-55 or a Piasecki HRP-1. The group initially chose the name of Helicopter Council, but changed the name the following year to California Helicopter Association.  The purpose of the association was to disseminate helicopter information, organize promotion of the helicopter, provide mutual assistance, and facilitate the exchange of technical information.  In 1981, the name was changed to the Helicopter Association International, or HAI.  Today, nearly 70 years later, HAI fulfills its mission to provide its members with services that benefit their operations and to advance the international helicopter community by providing programs that enhance safety, encourage professionalism and economic viability while promoting the unique contributions vertical flight offers society.

I’ve known Rick almost my entire life.  In 1966 he sold Alaska Helicopter, to my stepfather, Rex Bishopp, and soon after the family moved to Alaska. I grew up around helicopters and eventually went to work for the family business.  I served as a pilot and in management positions for Alaska Helicopters until the company was sold in 1995. Growing up in the helicopter community meant yearly trips to the HAI annual meeting, now known as Heli Expo.  My family attended every year, beginning in 1967 when I was just a kid.  Forty-seven years later, I’m still attending Heli Expo, though now it’s part of my role as the Chief of the Aviation Safety Anchorage Office for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Tomorrow I’ll be presenting a session called “NTSB:  Lessons Learned from Helicopter Accidents.”  Along with my fellow NTSB investigators Kristi Dunks, Aaron Sauer, and Jim Silliman, we’ll talk about recent NTSB investigations into helicopter accidents, as well as NTSB recommendations related to helicopter maintenance, pilot training, and flight recorders.  These issues aren’t just important to me, as someone with a long history in the helicopter community; they are a priority for the NTSB.  In fact, the issue of helicopter safety is one of ten issues on the 2014 NTSB Most Wanted List of transportation safety priorities.

I’m looking forward to another Heli Expo, where this year we’ll help Jim Ricklefs celebrate his upcoming centennial.  Rick has seen a lot of changes in the aviation world since he first climbed into a cockpit.  Aircraft are safer and pilots are better trained, but there is still room for improvement.  I hope that when I’m celebrating my 100th birthday (and attending my 83rd Heli Expo) in 2060, that I can look back on a legacy of even greater safety for all types of helicopter operations.

Happy Birthday, Rick!

Clint Johnson is an Aviation Safety Investigator and Chief of the Aviation Safety Anchorage Office

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