Tens of thousands of helicopter pilots learned to fly during the war in Vietnam, and many of them brought their skills and love of flying back to the States, where they searched for flying jobs in what soon became a saturated market. Gary Wiltrout, the 2020 recipient of the HAI Salute to Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award, is one U.S. Army helicopter pilot who was able to parlay his Vietnam flight experience from 1968 to 1969 and later as a flight instructor at Fort Rucker, Alabama, into a half-century-long flying career.
Besides amassing 26,500 flight hours in many parts of the world (more than 20,000 of these hours doing longline, external-load missions), he flew numerous helicopter models: the Bell 47; Bell UH-1A/B/C/F/H; Bell 206A/B; Bell 204, 212, and 214B; Fairchild Hiller FH-1100; Aérospatiale Alouette III and Lama; Hiller Soloy UH12-E; and Sikorsky S-61 and S-64E/F.
In 1971, after being honorably discharged from the Army, Wiltrout moved to Alaska and began flying firefighting missions. He also assisted with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and conducted search-and-rescue missions, aircraft accident investigations, seismographic work, and power-line construction. In 1999, he became chief pilot of Salmon River Helicopters, where he worked for 20 years before recently retiring.
Cindy Carlson, president of Salmon River Helicopters, said: “Gary’s contributions to this industry are endless, and many who have worked with him will miss his extreme professionalism, positive attitude, integrity, humble spirit, and wealth of helicopter knowledge. He’s given back to our industry many times over.”
Besides assisting with the aforementioned Trans-Alaska pipeline construction, Wiltrout has contributed to such projects as the Lewiston-grade powerline crossing (Idaho, 1972); Terror Lake Hydroelectric Project (Alaska, 1984–85); cranberry bog sanding (Oregon, 1980s); training New Zealand pilots to log (Malaysia, 1993); Rocky Mountain National Park rehabilitation (Colorado, 1993); New Carissa wreck disaster assistance (Oregon, 1999); powerline work (Costa Rica, 2001); ferry flights across Brazil, the Amazon rain forest, and the Caribbean to the U.S. (2008); ferry flights across Asia from Afghanistan to Australia (2011); night-vision google training and preparation (Port Alberni, British Columbia, 2012); and offshore flare-tip replacement projects (Australia, 2013, 2014, 2016).
Wiltrout also survived three aircraft accidents—including two catastrophic engine failures—and the death of his pilot brother, Timothy Wiltrout, in 1990. In each case, with his family’s support, he persevered and continued working in the industry.