Thank you, Matt (Zuccaro) for that gracious introduction and thanks to HAI for inviting me to speak at tonight's Salute to Excellence.
Congratulations to all those we honor this evening, and a special thank-you to Chris Horton, recipient of this year's AgustaWestland Safety Award. As manager of flight operations at Guidance Aviation, Chris has put a lot of principles to work that we at NTSB are asking to see throughout the helicopter industry, especially with his focus on safety management systems.
I also want to recognize Clint Johnson and Kristi Dunks, who quarterbacked NTSB's "lessons learned" half-day. Can you stand up? Kristi has been a helicopter pilot for 10 years, and is an expert in helicopter maintenance. We are fortunate to have her at the Safety Board.
Clint made the personal sacrifice of flying to Anaheim from the comfort of Anchorage, Alaska. But Clint's been wintering at HeliExpos for a while.
Clint grew up in a "helicopter family." Like a snowbird, his stepfather started scheduling winter vacations around HeliExpo in 1967, when Clint was 7.
And one more recognition, to all of the current and former military personnel: Thank you for your service.
As a Federal employee, every day driving to work I get these remarkable views of Washington, DC: I see the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building. After 20 years, it still gives me a thrill to be in public service and I often think how lucky I am to have my job. But you must feel like that all the time, flying helicopters.
If any of you have visited Washington, you may have seen scaffolding around our landmarks for cleaning, repair or conservation work.... which takes me back to 1993, when a helicopter came to remove the Statue of Freedom from the top of the Capitol dome for restoration.
As a young congressional staffer, my colleagues and I planned a brunch around this once-in-a-lifetime activity. When the big day came, we watched for a half an hour as a Skycrane steadily and precisely lifted this 18-foot, 15,000-pound statue into the air, then gently lowered it to the ground.
Five months later, the same crew of pilots put the statue back. President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole spoke to a crowd of thousands. Liza Minnelli sang "America the Beautiful."
One of those pilots was quoted as saying, "Once we got in the crane, it was just like any other job. We dusted them pretty good when we landed."
Everybody from the President to Liza Minnelli was there. But it was a crew of helicopter pilots who got the job done.
That's what helicopters do: They get the job done.
I couldn't help but wonder how Freedom ever got to the top of the Capitol without the Skycrane in the first place. It turns out that former slaves first hoisted it into place in 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War.
It became a symbol of what the Civil War itself had become: not just a war for the Union, but also a war for freedom.
Since then I've flown in helicopters a number of times, and I've gotten a taste of the freedom you must feel up there, while you're getting the job done.
I've flown through the Grand Canyon on a sightseeing helicopter, seeing it as an eagle would, before descending past bands of multicolored terrain and finally setting down next to the Colorado River. And I remember flying over an oil spill with Coast Guard pilots – an eye in the sky surveying the direction and extent of the slick – the only way I could ever get that perspective, and the best way to know how to deploy resources. I've flown surveillance flights with Customs and Border Protection along the border, and with city and county law enforcement professionals over this very city.
Flying helicopters takes care, focus, and precision to do jobs that no other aircraft can do – but at the same time, you must get to feel a freedom that nobody else knows.
I've caught a little of that spirit here these last couple of days. We've talked about Job #1, safety: improving safety through realistic training scenarios, best practices for maintenance personnel, safety management in HEMS operations, and the importance of flight recorders in every helicopter. It's been remarkable to be among such a safety-minded group. At the same time it's been a pleasure to walk the floor and see all the advances that are coming. It's been a tremendous amount of fun, while at the same time very focused.
Tonight we salute excellence in getting the job done. Whether your award is for being a communicator, a mechanic, a law-enforcement official, a company executive, an instructor, a pilot – or a combination – you have excelled at helicopter aviation. And that's not easy. Helicopters have been called "a bundle of spare parts flying in close formation."
But you love them – and so do I, for a lot of reasons. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 reasons to love helicopters and helicopter people:
Number 10: Helicopters don't actually fly – they just beat the air into submission.
Number 9: You're the pride of the hearing-impaired world. I said, you're the pride of the hearing-impaired world!... as your spouses can attest. And it's not always selective.
Number 8: Helicopter pilots may dance on air like Fred Astaire, but helicopter mechanics are a lot like Ginger Rogers – they have the added difficulty of dancing backwards in steel-toed boots.
Number 7: Or maybe the mechanic's more like a nervous parent waiting for the kid to bring the car back after prom and shaking their head, wondering what really happened as they deal with all of the write-ups.
Number 6: Helicopter pilots will do anything to be helicopter pilots – instruct beginners, fly pipelines, ferry tourists or oil-workers, dust crops, you name it – as long as it's in a helicopter.
Number 5: They say "the helicopter symbolizes the victory of ingenuity over common sense." I can only imagine what compelled Igor Sikorsky to think "let's combine the propeller and the wings, put them on the top, and make them go in a circle. Now that bird is gonna fly!"
Number 4: People call helicopters ugly ducklings – until they need one. Then those search-and-rescue and HEMS aircraft turn into swans in a hurry.
Number 3: If there's a helicopter around, you can tell the helicopter people in any crowd. They're the ones looking up.
Number 2: Helicopters – and their pilots – are different. As Harry Reasoner said,
"There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter. This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different...helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know that if something bad has not happened, it is about to."
So let's give it up for HAI – that's the point of their land and live campaign!
And the number 1 reason I love Helicopters: They get the job done.
Matt, I know you flew in Vietnam – I know a lot of helicopter pilots here did. If anybody here flew Hueys, you or somebody like you made it possible for me to be here tonight: not just on this stage, but on this earth.
In 1966, my dad ejected from his F-100 when it was hit by Viet Cong ground fire over the Mekong Delta. Although his wingman was circling, strafing between him and the enemy, he was over 50 miles from the closest friendlies and there were no roads nearby. All he had was his service pistol and a survival pack – but it was clear he had no way out – he needed a miracle. But he had his radio and his wingman assured him help was on the way. Although he says it was probably 20 to 30 minutes, it must have seemed liked a long time hiding in the 10 foot reeds and water – bruised and not able to see what was around him. He did get a miracle... it came in the form of a Huey with 50 caliber machine guns on each side. The crew hovered over him, he crawled up on the skids, they pulled him in and got out of there with the gunners in the doorway returning fire. That helicopter did a job that nothing else could do!
So, my very personal thanks for getting that job done.
That made it possible for me to be here. But Salute to Excellence winners, make no mistake: tonight is your night.
So let's all raise our glasses to all the awardees, and to that flying contradiction we all love, the helicopter: that aerial workhorse, that victory of ingenuity over common sense, that bundle of spare parts flying in formation that gets the job done.
Here's to Freedom, blue skies, and keeping the shiny side up!