HAI Convention News

HAI Announces 2023 Salute to Excellence Award Winners

 - March 1, 2023, 12:01 AM
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

The Helicopter Association International (HAI) has announced the recipients of its 2023 Salute to Excellence Awards, which it plans to present on March 6 during a ceremony at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta.

Mike Iven, Rainbow Helicopters v-p of maintenance
Mike Iven, Rainbow Helicopters v-p of maintenance won the 2023 Salute to Excellence Maintenance Award. (Photo: HAI)

Maintenance Award

Rainbow Helicopters v-p of maintenance Mike Iven has won the 2023 Salute to Excellence Maintenance Award. According to HAI, the award “recognizes an individual for long-standing excellence in rotorcraft maintenance, maintenance instruction or supervision, or a single significant contribution to rotorcraft maintenance.” 

After immigrating to the U.S. from Germany in 1998, Iven became a shop hand and then a full-time maintenance technician at Helicopter Adventures in Concord, California, where he completed his helicopter training. He then became director of maintenance and a tour pilot at Rainbow Pacific Helicopters in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he earned his FAA inspection authorization certificate at age 28. Iven then opened his own general aviation maintenance shop before joining Makani Kai Helicopter Tours as director of maintenance. 

After spending more than a decade in Hawaii, Iven returned to the continental U.S. to gain customer service and project management experience working at Safran and later Schweizer. However, he returned to Hawaii during the Covid-19 pandemic to accept his current position at Rainbow Helicopters. When he’s not working in the hangar, Iven spends his time helping to mentor the next generation of aviation maintenance technicians.

CE “Skip” Robinson, Vertical magazine photographer and writer
CE “Skip” Robinson, Vertical magazine photographer and writer posthumously received the 2023 Salute to Excellence Award for communications. (Photo: HAI)

Communications Award

Vertical magazine photographer and writer Lawrence “Skip” Robinson will posthumously receive the 2023 Salute to Excellence Award for communications. The communications award recognizes Robinson for “creative distinction in disseminating information about the helicopter industry.” 

Robinson, who passed away in March 2022 at the age of 56, was an aviation photographer with a passion for helicopters. He photographed helicopters since he was a teenager and later became a regular contributor to Vertical and Valor magazines as both a photographer and a writer. His images have appeared in almost every issue of those magazines and featured on nearly 40 magazine covers. 

Robinson liked to share his passion for helicopters with others in his community. He volunteered at the Classic Rotors museum in Ramona, California, and helped the facility build its model collection. A family member of Robinson will accept the award on his behalf.

Penny Ritter, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) Criminalist
Penny Ritter, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office criminalist will receive the 2023 Salute to Excellence Law Enforcement Award. (Photo: HAI)

Law Enforcement Award

Penny Ritter, a criminalist with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) in California, will receive the 2023 Salute to Excellence Law Enforcement Award. The award goes to individuals and organizations that have contributed to the promotion and advancement of rotorcraft in support of law enforcement activities. 

In her 14 years with ACSO, Ritter has helped the agency’s small uncrewed aerial system program grow into a nationally recognized initiative that supports other agencies across the nation. In her work as a criminalist, she has used laser scanners and drone mapping software to create 2D and 3D maps of crime scenes and disaster zones, including the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. 

In her work with the sheriff's office, Ritter helped locate countless dangerous criminals. She also documented and reconstructed many dangerous crime scenes, including the infamous Hart family murders in Mendocino County in 2018.

“Penny is an exceptional asset to ACSO because of her leadership and her willingness to assist public safety agencies around the nation,” said ACSO captain Paul Liskey. “Penny not only knows how to safely operate each aircraft ACSO deploys, but she continually offers her time and support to train other team members and local agencies.”

Karl Cotton, Flight instructor and mentor
Karl Cotton, Flight instructor and mentor is the 2023 Salute to Excellence W.A. “Dub” Blessing Flight Instructor of the Year. (Photo: HAI)

Flight Instruction Award

The 2023 Salute to Excellence W.A. “Dub” Blessing Flight Instructor of the Year Award goes to Karl Cotton, a flight instructor and mentor with nearly 50 years of experience with helicopters. 

Cotton developed an interest in helicopters in the 1970s, when he took up heli-skiing in Utah. Before long, he started learning how to fly, and he became an instructor as soon as he received his flight instructor rating.

He landed his first turbine helicopter job as a tour pilot at Grand Canyon Helicopters. In the 1980s, he began working a utility flying job doing seismic exploration in the Rocky Mountains. He later joined the Arizona Department of Public Safety as an officer pilot and flight instructor, after which he worked with the Los Angeles County Fire Department teaching various flight techniques to firefighters.

Cotton has since worked as a short-haul pilot for three U.S. national parks and as a chief flight instructor for Leading Edge Aviation in Bend, Oregon, where he runs the night-vision goggles program. He also works as a senior flight instructor and field pilot at the Helicopter Institute.

“Karl comes to the table with thousands of hours having flown many different profiles and missions,” said Deputy Josh Sweeney of Washington state’s King County Sheriff’s Office. “He is a great communicator and makes sure to constantly pass on this knowledge and experience to those he is instructing.”

Eric Bechhoefer , GPMS International CEO and chief engineer
Eric Bechhoefer , GPMS International CEO and chief engineer is the recipient of the 2023 Salute to Excellence Safety Award. (Photo: HAI)

Safety Award

GPMS International CEO and chief engineer Eric Bechhoefer will receive the 2023 Salute to Excellence Safety Award for his “outstanding contributions in promoting rotorcraft safety and safety awareness,” according to HAI.

After he retired from his job as a naval flight officer, Bechhoefer earned his PhD in systems engineering from George Mason University, specializing in aviation safety. While working at Goodrich Sensor Systems in the 2000s, he helped pioneer the first-generation helicopter health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) for single-engine helicopters and new condition-based maintenance systems, which Goodrich designed for the UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook, and S-92. 

In 2010, he left Goodrich to work for a wind turbine company, where he developed a system similar to HUMS for wind turbines. Then in 2013, he co-founded Green Power Monitoring Systems (GPMS) International, where he applied his wind turbine invention to the light-helicopter market. Since then, he has overseen the design and certification of HUMSs for several helicopter models, including the Airbus AS350; Bell 212, 407, 412, and 429; Mil Mi-8, Mi-17, and Mi-171; and MD 530F. He holds 34 patents and has authored more than 150 papers on condition-based maintenance, diagnostics, and prognostics of rotating equipment.

“Dr. Bechhoefer’s contribution to rotorcraft operational and maintenance safety simply stands above all others,” said Garmin International senior systems engineer Brent Butterworth. “Through his research and development, he has taken a system only large helicopters and fleet operators could utilize to one where all sizes and budgets of Part 27 or Part 29 aircraft can reap the benefits of health monitoring. This has had a radical impact on the knowledge, awareness, and understanding of how the operation of an aircraft affects the health of the aircraft.”

David Ellis, Haiti Air Ambulance, executive director
David Ellis, Haiti Air Ambulance, executive director is the recipient of the 2023 Salute to Excellence Golden Hour Award. (Photo: HAI)

Golden Hour Award

David Ellis, executive director of Haiti Air Ambulance (HAA), is the 2023 recipient of the Salute to Excellence Golden Hour Award, which recognizes individuals for their work to advance the use of helicopters or uncrewed aerial systems in medical transport services. 

Ellis served as one of the first flight paramedics to volunteer with charity air medical transport service HAA upon its founding in 2014. He took over as HAA’s executive director in 2020 and made significant changes in the ways HAA chooses which patients it can transport via helicopter. Instead of relying on traditional U.S. helicopter emergency medical services guidelines for severe and life-threatening injuries, Ellis thought HAA should make those decisions for reasons that are more relevant to Haiti and the country’s transportation challenges. For example, Haiti has limited ground ambulance services and frequent gas shortages, and roads are often impassable, sometimes due to gang activity. 

“The U.S.’s stringent patient-carrying criteria just don’t work here,” said Ellis. “Sometimes, people cannot get to medical services. Their injuries can become life-threatening if not treated. Our service is for a funded charity, so we look at how we can affect as many lives as possible with that funding. Sometimes it’s bringing patients to medical services. Sometimes it’s bringing vital medical supplies and professionals to the people.”

His work at HAA has led to an exponential increase in the number of flights it operates and has significantly reduced transport times. HAA has transported more than 1,500 patients, and 53 percent of those missions took place in the last two years. HAA’s transport times average 26 minutes, compared with the national average ground transport time of 205 minutes.  

 Ananda “Andy” Thapa, Altitude Air Operations director
Ananda “Andy” Thapa, Altitude Air Operations director is the recipient of the Salute to Excellence Humanitarian Service Award. (Photo: HAI)

Humanitarian Service Award

Ananda “Andy” Thapa, director of Altitude Air Operations, is the 2023 recipient of the Salute to Excellence Humanitarian Service Award, which recognizes those “who best demonstrate the value of rotorcraft to the communities in which they operate by providing aid to those in need.”

Born in Nepal, Thapa attended a Nepali army education program in Kathmandu before enlisting in the army’s officer program. When civil war broke out in Nepal, the army needed more pilots, and Thapa learned how to fly helicopters. He flew in the Nepali army for eight years before taking a job as a civilian helicopter pilot performing rescue missions. He has rescued hundreds of people throughout Nepal, including multiple climbers on Mount Everest. 

Thapa says his most successful rescue came during a mission he performed in June 2021, when more than 100 foragers went missing during a heavy snowstorm in the mountains near the border with Tibet. He led the search and located the group after five days, and everyone survived. He transported 70 of the most critical patients off of the mountain in just 2 hours and 20 minutes. When the weather began to deteriorate and he was low on fuel, Thapa brought the remaining 30 foragers a supply drop of food and other survival gear.  

Joäo “John” Vinagre, Capital Air Founder and director
Joäo “John” Vinagre, Capital Air founder and director the 2023 Salute to Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award winner. (Photo: HAI)

Lifetime Achievement Award

HAI has bestowed Capital Air founder and director Joäo “John” Vinagre with the 2023 Salute to Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award. The award “salutes excellence in management and leadership and is granted to an individual for long and significant service to the international rotorcraft community,” according to HAI.

Originally from Portugal, Vinagre and his family moved to Mozambique when he was just six months old to flee post-World War II poverty in his homeland. He earned his private pilot’s license for fixed-wing airplanes at the age of 19 and began flying helicopters after joining the army. As a fourth-generation pilot, he planned to take over his family’s helicopter business, but when the 1974 Carnation Revolution forced Portuguese citizens to leave Mozambique, the new ruling political party seized his family’s company and their 13 aircraft. Vinagre and his family then moved to South Africa, where he founded Capital Air in 1979. 

As the private helicopter charter company grew, Capital Air eventually added an authorized maintenance organization certificate from the South African Civil Aviation Authority. The company then expanded into the private security sector and began tracking hijacked and stolen vehicles in Sub-Saharan Africa. While searching for a stolen truck in 1994, Vinagre’s helicopter came under fire and suffered an engine failure before crashing, and he was able to safely evacuate all four passengers. While protecting those passengers from the robbers, Vinagre was stabbed in the back, but he survived the attack.