When James Viola accepted the position of president and CEO at Helicopter Association International (HAI) in late 2019, he expected to have a long transition period as he paved the way for the association’s goals of extending its reach internationally and building on its well-established safety programs.
A year later, HAI has made strides towards those goals: initiatives are underway to strengthen the association’s presence before the International Civil Aviation Organization, establish new relationships throughout the globe, expand the membership beyond traditional rotorcraft, add new and revisit safety programs, and help consolidate safety and other initiatives under a newly rebranded Vertical Aviation Safety Team (VAST).
But getting there wasn’t quite the path that Viola expected.
Viola came into HAI with a strong pedigree in rotorcraft and safety expertise. A former U.S. Army special operations MH-6 and MH-47 helicopter pilot, he spent more than a decade with the FAA, most recently as director of General Aviation Safety Assurance, managing 78 Flight Standards District Offices. He also helped launch the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) as the initial government co-chair.
As such, he was pretty much looked at as the “helicopter guy” at the FAA. So, it was ironic that almost immediately after he had quietly applied for the HAI position, his colleagues came to him asking if he knew of anybody who might be qualified for the post. Viola thought there might have been a link—that someone had learned of his application—but his colleagues were just seeking his input because of his already strong ties to the industry. “I had to come clean and tell them I wanted the job,” Viola told AIN.
When he took the position, the plan was to introduce him to the industry as the successor of long-time chief Matt Zuccaro and that after about six months, Viola would fully take the reins. But Zuccaro’s contract actually was up in mid-January of 2020, so it made sense for Viola to step in much sooner.
He noted that took a bit of a turnaround in preparation for the January 2020 Heli-Expo, because instead of shadowing Zuccaro as the heir-apparent, he was now to step in the forefront as the association’s leader.
And then the accident happened. Two days before the Heli-Expo show floor was to open in Anaheim, California, a Sikorsky S-76B carrying basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others crashed in nearby Calabasas, California, killing all aboard. On the day prior to the convention, HAI had scheduled a briefing with National Transportation Safety Board officials discussing the March 11, 2018, fatal doors-off helitour photo flight that crashed into New York’s East River. However, those officials were all called to the Calabasas accident scene.
HAI went ahead with the briefing on its own, Viola recalled. That afternoon a press event had been scheduled to introduce Viola as president. However, unsurprisingly, the focus of the event immediately turned to the crash.
But Viola, already well versed in HAI’s safety programs after years of working closely with the association, said it actually helped to have the reporters come in and see all that the industry and the various safety organizations were doing on the rotorcraft front. “When the reporters came in and saw all of the safety items on the agenda, they understood that a big part of the association is the education piece and the safety piece,” he said.
Viola said reporters saw the poor weather during the time of the accident and it also became readily understood that “this was not something new” and this became another reminder of the importance of preparation for inadvertent VFR into IMC. It also underscored the association’s Land & Live efforts. “A precautionary landing doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong,” Viola said. “We are working to make people understand what a precautionary landing is.”
Also, during that time, Zuccaro had handed Viola a “box of hats” he was to wear in his new role, he said. This included involvement in organizations such as the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team and the International Helicopter Safety Foundation, among many others.
Zuccaro had planned to continue his role with the foundation. But he passed away on February 25, 2020.
Following the convention, Viola was tasked with sorting through these various roles and evaluating the association’s involvement in each these. He also faced tackling the pressing issue of pilot and mechanic shortages, an issue that was side-tracked for other sectors during the pandemic for some corners of the industry, but not rotorcraft. “Our members were still flying,” Viola said, stressing the need to continue those efforts. He also faced working through his first budget, which he conceded was a tough sell with the HAI board.
In March 2020, Viola attended a final session of the then-current board (he noted the board turns over mid-year). The final meeting is always held in the hometown of the chair, and in this case, it was Jan Becker, CEO of Becker Helicopters in Australia. During that meeting, he said, the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and then it became a scramble for everyone to get home before everything shut down.
Soon after, he had a meeting with the association’s attorneys to discuss how to handle the workplace during this time. HAI was an association where everyone typically worked in the office. But in Viola’s previous role, he had already adapted to having remote staff, so the solution was easy: everyone was to stay home. He was asked how he wanted that transition. His answer, he said: “We are going 100 percent remote right now.” The association worked with staff to facilitate the sudden change.
But at the same time, the association turned to work with its members, who were facing myriad struggles as a result of the wave of restrictions. This included working with the FAA to ensure HAI members could continue to operate despite the difficulties obtaining medicals and check rides, stepping up outreach with webinars, and deploying other methods of information dissemination. Also, the decision was made early on to cancel all in-person events for six months and present as much online as possible. He noted that he wanted to “lean in” and make it simpler for planning purposes.
HAI soon discovered a benefit to the move online. This opened the door to new attendees who otherwise would not be able to participate and brought in international interest. The first such event was HAI’s annual firefighting event that was usually held in Boise, Idaho. That event tends to draw between 300 and 400 registrations and 200 attendees. The online event drew 1,000 registrations and 508 attendees.
However, like many other associations and organizations, the pandemic took its toll, necessitating the layoff of 10 employees. Viola said he wanted to make just one set of cuts and move forward. But the association also was able to make two new hires, bringing people on board with strategic backgrounds, in areas such as the emerging eVTOL field.
Meanwhile, throughout most of the year, Viola was coordinating in various roles involving the International Helicopter Safety Foundation. There was turnover at the foundation, leading organization officials to ask Viola to take a deeper role. This turned into an opportunity for Viola to pursue his desire to broaden the scope. Viola believed the foundation should be more inclusive. “My vision was that we should be everything that flies below 3,000 feet, slower than 250 knots, and doesn’t need an airport for takeoff and landing.”
This view initially received some pushback. But by the beginning of this year, Viola had prevailed. And that culminated in the renaming of the organization to VAST, replacing the reference of helicopters with vertical aviation. HAI is helping to launch the newly branded VAST in early to mid-April.
At the same time, Viola was looking to step up the presence of the industry at ICAO, including having VAST as an advisor. This was important because, working with the ICAO regional team as well as regional organizations in the rotorcraft world, there are gaps, he said.
Standards varied by region and some countries aren’t participating in the industry at all. “Some countries are many years behind because they don’t take advantage of the rotorcraft capability because they think they are unsafe.” As an example, he said he had a number of discussions with officials in India who see a need to expand their law enforcement and air ambulance capabilities but are stymied by regulations. His goal is to develop a harmonized safety rating, which was a focus of a recent meeting of VAST.
In addition, he stressed the need to get in on the ground floor of the eVTOL sector to ensure it grows in a safe manner with all the necessary protocols found in the rest of the industry.
A number of other safety efforts were on the table for HAI, including facilitating the use of the FAA's Aviation Safety Action Program voluntary reporting program through a partnership with the Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF). Colorado Heli-Ops was the first of its members to participate in the HAI/ACSF joint effort that is anticipated to kick off this month.
Viola also began to question the HAI Safety Accreditation program because it had limited participation. Viola said his initial reaction was to consider whether it was necessary. But then he was having a discussion with NTSB officials, who suggested that HAI should adopt an accreditation program—not knowing that one was already in place. Now, Viola said, he is looking at ways where it could be more accessible and better serve the needs of HAI’s members.
While discussions were underway on the various safety programs, preparations continued for the 2021 Heli-Expo, which was to have been held in New Orleans this month. Viola noted that in December, he attended the National Agricultural Aviation Association’s Ag Aviation Expo in Savannah, Georgia. That event drew 800 people and it did not appear to have any Covid issues. That encouraged him about prospects for Heli-Expo, which had 370 exhibitors signed on.
Also in December, he visited New Orleans “and they showed us all the great things they were doing” to enable the convention. “I was pretty excited about rolling forward with Heli-Expo.”
But as January rolled in and the pandemic seemed to make another turn, “the writing was on the wall” for some of those exhibitors, particularly the major ones worried about the safety of their customer base.
While there was a mixed response, enough exhibitors pulled out that the convention was no longer doable. HAI opted against a full virtual convention but instead has decided to ensure the programming such as manufacturers' technical briefs and refresher courses would continue. HAI also pushed forward with its awards program but is rolling it out through a series of webinars instead of a single event.
Moving forward, Viola concedes he has a full plate as the safety programs continue to progress. He sees a large task ahead in his outreach to the various regional helicopter groups and building on those relationships. In addition, he is working with those groups to help a struggling international community. While the U.S. has provided some relief aid through various Covid bills, he said HAI needs to look at where the international community can get assistance. "We've got to get them through this year to make sure they are around when the pandemic is over."
He also recognizes the need to provide information to help small businesses build and strengthen, and particularly flight schools as the community needs a steady flow of student starts. In addition, Viola remains aware of the need to help the FAA work through its backlog in areas such as check rides.
In addition, Viola is stepping up efforts on the safety management system front to ensure his members are ready for looming requirements. Eyeing that rulemaking process, he said, “We need to make sure its adaptable” to even the smallest operator.
Community relations also is at the forefront and infrastructure, particularly in hotbed areas in New York, California, and Hawaii that want to take impose further restrictions on the industry. “When we get 50 states saying they all want to control some part of the intermodal transportation, that’s going to be a problem,” he said.
As far as growing its membership base, HAI is “trying to do our outreach a little differently.” On the international front, that means looking at what the industry needs in specific locations and how HAI might be able to assist. This also means looking at the new and emerging entrants to the market, such as in the eVTOL space.
This is an area “we absolutely want to be involved in,” he said, reiterating his view that vertical aviation must have a broader scope. While he conceded that there is a sentiment in this field that advanced air mobility may replace helicopters, Viola said he disagrees. “I tell them, no. My helicopter operators are going to fly your aircraft. We need to work together. There’s no replacing each other. It’s another segment,” he said. “I’m excited that there’s lots of room for growth and coordination.”