For the hundreds of helicopter pilots that have trained or flown with Dr. Gordon Jiroux in a Robinson R22 over his 30-plus, accident-free years as a flight instructor and the countless others in the industry who know him, the announcement that he would receive the W.A. “Dub” Blessing Award (Flight Instructor of the Year) here at Heli-Expo 2014 was probably met with the thought, “Well, it’s about time!”
Just last year, Dr. Jiroux, 57, founder and president of Universal Helicopters, received an honorary doctorate in aviation science from Dodge City Community College (DCCC), Kan., “in appreciation of his outstanding contributions to the college, his vast aviation knowledge and his commitment and dedication to the global aviation industry.”
Universal Helicopters exclusively provides flight training for DCCC, Kansas State University in Salina and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (at its Prescott, Ariz. campus). Founded in 2000, Universal has six training locations in four states, 35 helicopters and more than 40 flight instructors. Over the last 10 years, the company has flown some 25,000 hours of accident-free flying, most all of it in training.
Hello Mr. Robinson
A native of New Jersey, Dr. Jiroux–who uses the honorary title formally at the request of DCCC, but continues to be “Gordon” to just about everyone–got the aviation bug from his father, whose best friend was an Allegheny Airlines pilot. “Those were the days when airline pilots were celebrities. He was like a superhero to me,” he told AIN. “I decided I wanted to a pilot or a baseball player.” But at age 16, when he had a chance to join the Air Force ROTC in high school, he couldn’t get his mother to sign the permission form. “So there went my idea of going straight from high school into a military program,” he said. “I got a job and saved as much money as I could.”
In 1979, now living in Arizona, he became fed up with landscaping and one day went to Scottsdale Airport, found a chief pilot of a small company and told him, “I want to be an airline pilot. He told me that was going to be difficult with the economy and the ranks of airline pilots being flooded with Vietnam War vets.” The pilot gave him an issue of Rotor & Wing International magazine, showed him an ad for Robinson Helicopter and suggested that he “check out this new low-cost helicopter, the R22, that had just come out on the market.”
The 23-year-old Jiroux called the number in the ad. Frank Robinson answered the phone. “I told him I wanted to come to California to learn how to fly his helicopter,” said Dr. Jiroux. Robinson told him his company was the manufacturer, but that he had just delivered two R22s to a company in Long Beach, just a few miles away, and that he could get training there. “Frank gave me Tim Tucker’s number at Pacific Wing and Rotor and suggested that I visit him [Frank] if I came to California.”
Dr. Jiroux did take training at Pacific Wing and Rotor and did visit Frank Robinson. “Over time, Frank and I became friends and he arranged for me to purchase ship number four,” Jiroux said. “He didn’t have a dealer on the East Coast yet, and knowing that I was from the East Coast, he asked me to go to Morristown, New Jersey, to set up there. But before I picked up ship number four, he asked me to go to Arizona, because he wanted this ship to fly in one of the hottest parts of the country. So I moved back to the West.”
Luck Turns to Passion
In 1982, Dr. Jiroux started his first flight school in Arizona with Robinson’s help. In 1983, he became a Robinson dealer, as well as a pilot examiner in the R22. “So I had a very storybook start to my career,” he said. “I was in the right place at the right time and with the right attitude. Can you imagine having Mr. Robinson and Tim Tucker as your two mentors starting in the aviation business? How could you be any luckier than that?”
To help her son finance his flight training business and buy his first R22, which cost about $42,000 then, Mrs. Jiroux lent him the $25,000 she had in the bank. He put $20,000 down on ship four and paid $775 a month until it was paid off. He told AIN he recently paid $301,000 each for three new R22s from the factory.
Dr. Jiroux said his original goal as a helicopter pilot was to fly offshore over the Gulf of Mexico. But he knew he needed turbine time to get a job there, and more important, he found he enjoyed working with Frank Robinson and that he really loved flight training. “I realized that training was, and still is, my passion,” he said.
As his operation grew, however, he added other work to the business, including air tours in the Grand Canyon with Bell JetRangers, photo flights, movies and herding cattle. After some 20 years in the business, Dr. Jiroux decided to focus strictly on flight training. “In the last nine or ten years, I stopped doing everything but flight training, and mostly with college-degree programs,” he explained. And he considered the lessons he had learned over those years.
“When we had one of the biggest flight schools in the world in the ’80s and early ’90s, we were having a crash about once a year,” Dr. Jiroux said. “Compare that to now, when we have twice as many helicopters and we’re in our tenth year without any accidents.
“The biggest thing I learned about flight training in helicopters,” he continued, “is what I’m really creating is a flight instructor, because a commercial pilot’s first job is usually instructing. So instead of gearing most of my training on developing a commercial pilot, today we gear it toward developing a commercial pilot with the knowledge that that person needs to be a teacher. We have to incorporate this right from day one. I think that this realization has given me the company I have today.”
The second lesson is “micromanaging each instructor in an apprenticeship-style program, where one instructor is overseeing another instructor,” Dr. Jiroux explained. There are various signoffs to teach different maneuvers as the new instructor progresses. This means that a new flight instructor gets an instrument student, not a brand-new student. Our instructors are mentored through the first 1,000 hours of their careers. I feel our job is not done until our students have 1,000 hours and we have helped them secure a job outside of flight training.”
He said that Universal Helicopters has zero unemployed graduates when they get their CFII (because it offers jobs to all its graduates who reach this milestone) and zero unemployed graduates when they reach 1,000 hours and start flying in the industry, because the company helps them find jobs. The company hires only instructors who have gone through its training program, because “we know them.”
The third most important lesson Dr. Jiroux said he has learned is “you can’t make any decision based on economics or convenience.” For example, “I know I could bring in more students, if I hired some additional instructors whom I didn’t train. That would be convenient. That’s a red flag to me.”
“Here’s the economic part,” he continued. “There’s not one person who works for me–and gets anywhere near an aircraft–that I hired from a resume. As soon as we realize that an individual is not someone we’re going to hire, we ask that individual to leave our program and go somewhere else. We mold our students in our company image. We see them for two years as a student, so we know them when they become our instructors. The flight instructors leaving our company with 1,000 hours are basically the ambassadors for our company. If they’re great, we’re great. If they stink, we stink.”
For the past 10 years, Dr. Jiroux has conducted an annual two-day safety seminar for certified flight instructors, which is now approved as a Flight Instructor Refresher Course. He pays all expenses for Universal Helicopters instructors to attend.
Wrote Anthony Lyons, vice president of community and industry relations at Dodge City Community College, in his nomination letter for the Flight Instructor of the Year award, “Dr. Gordon J. Jiroux is the most intuitive educator I have ever met.”