AIN Announces 2021 Top Flight Award Nominees

 - November 1, 2021, 6:00 AM

The winners of AIN’s second annual Top Flight Awards will be announced on December 1. The Top Flight Awards recognize individuals, organizations, and technologies for excellence, innovation, and service in business aviation and its related disciplines. This year, lifetime awards for individuals have been added. 

Here are the finalists for this year’s awards.

Charitable Hero 

This category recognizes lifetime philanthropic contributions by members of the aviation community. 

The Duncan Aviation Family

The owners of Duncan Aviation established the Duncan Family Trust in 2004 to support mainly community organizations where it has substantial operations—in Nebraska, Michigan, and Utah. Donations focus on youth, art, education, and the environment.

Randall Greene (posthumous)

Randall Greene, who died in September, was a former chairman and a driving force behind the Corporate Angel Network, which arranges transportation aboard business jets for cancer patients to and from hospitals. He was also the past president and CEO of Safe Flight Instrument Corp.

James Raisbeck (posthumous)

The noted aerodynamicist and founder of aircraft performance modification company Raisbeck Engineering died in September. Raisbeck made a considerable fortune developing performance-enhancing kits for Learjets and King Airs and devoted a good portion of it to philanthropy, making grants in support of education, the arts, medical research, Seattle’s Museum of Flight, and the Raisbeck Aviation High School.

Kenn Ricci

The chairman of Directional Aviation Capital made national news in 2017 when it was announced that his family foundation would donate $100 million to his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. Ricci’s companies provide a $5,000 payment to managers who adopt a child. His family foundation substantially underwrote Purdue Polytechnic Institute’s Able Flight program, which uses specially modified aircraft to provide flight training to people with disabilities, including disabled veterans. It also supports cystic fibrosis research.

Safety Hero 

This lifetime award recognizes individuals who have made a substantial contribution to advancing aviation safety. 

Don Baldwin

Since he formed Baldwin Aviation in 2004, his company has helped flight departments meet regulatory requirements and establish safety-oriented operating standards and mentoring programs. He has also worked to popularize the implementation of safety management systems and the FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) program.

Robert Sumwalt

Robert Sumwalt retired as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30. During his time as chairman, Sumwalt brought a focus on business aviation professionalism. He also pushed to elevate Part 135 standards to incorporate elements that have been successful with commercial airlines. This included stressing the need for greater implementation of safety management systems and flight data monitoring.

Tim Tucker

Tucker is a 20,000-hour helicopter pilot who spent 27 years in U.S. Army aviation, including a tour of Vietnam. He later joined Robinson Helicopter where he served as a test pilot and chief instructor and started the company’s initial pilot safety course. Along with the monthly Robinson factory safety course, Tucker has conducted more than 120 safety courses in 31 countries, added 17 foreign pilot licenses, served as an FAA-designated pilot examiner in helicopters since 1984, and conducted over 8,000 private pilot through ATP practical tests.

Excellence In Innovation Or Design

The award recognizes excellence in business or technical innovation and design. 

Jay Beever

Embraer Executive Jets’ vice president of interior design Jay Beever and his team have overseen a rejuvenation of the brand with a series of innovative new interiors since he joined the company in 2012, after a career with Gulfstream and Ford. Recently, Beever led the effort to breathe new life into Embraer’s midsize bizjets with the Bossa Nova interiors and worked on the company’s eVTOL concept vehicles.

Kenny Dichter

A consummate salesman, Dichter founded the Marquis Jet card company in 2001, sold it to NetJets/Berkshire Hathaway in 2010, and launched the Wheels Up charter/membership company in 2013. Less than a decade later, Wheels Up has become the largest Part 135 operator in the U.S. with 170 leased or owned aircraft, 170 managed aircraft, and 1,200 more controlled by partner operators thanks to a series of recent and rapid acquisitions, including TMC Jets, Delta Private Jets, Gama Aviation Signature, and Mountain Aviation.

Rob Weisenthal

Former music industry executive Weisenthal founded Blade Air Mobility, the shared helicopter and seaplane ride-booking service, in 2014 and has built it into a publicly-traded company with a recent market capitalization of $700 million. In 2019, Blade had more than 200,000 users and 40,000 annual fliers.

Contribution to Safety 

The award recognizes companies whose technology and programs have made significant contributions to aviation safety over the last year. 

Air Charter Safety Alliance

The Air Charter Safety Alliance (ACSA) was formed last year to combat gray market/illegal charters. It works to raise awareness of illegal charters for potential customers, charter brokers, ministries of transport, and national aviation organizations.

Argus SafetyLinQ

Argus International has launched a flight-risk assessment tool called SafetyLinQ that is part of a line of safety products being developed for looming safety management system (SMS) mandates. SafetyLinQ can be tailored to fixed-wing, rotor-wing, unmanned, or flight school operators.

MicroShield 360

Covid has placed an increased emphasis on aircraft cabin sanitation and disinfection. MicroShield 360 is a “one and done” anti-microbial application that has been successfully used by leading Part 135 operators to safely and efficiently protect passengers from viral transmission on surfaces.

NATA Anti-human-trafficking Campaign

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) has teamed with the U.S. government on its Blue Lightning air carrier awareness and training initiative and has now trained several thousand pilots and hundreds of air carriers on preventative measures to combat human trafficking. Congress has mandated this training requirement for both Part 121 and Part 135 operators. NATA is also helping to extend this training to fixed-base operators.

U.S. Helicopter Safety Team

In 2020, the United States Helicopter Safety Team produced a safety video that graphically portrays the dangers associated with inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) called 56 Seconds To Live. The 56-second time period is based on a USHST study of 221 fatal helicopter accidents that occurred from 2009 to 2019, and the video offers a graphic depiction of how those 56 seconds feel to a desperate helicopter pilot. Inadvertent flight into IMC was one of the top causes in 38 of the accidents. Concurrent with the video release, the USHST announced a “56 Seconds to Live” course, available for free on the USHST website.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The award recognizes aviation companies whose culture and programs foster diversity and inclusion in the workforce. 

Duncan Aviation Refugee Hire Program

Duncan Aviation’s Lincoln, Nebraska location is recruiting workers in partnership with local organizations that help prepare refugees for employment. “Our goal has been to provide additional tools, resources, and support within our current hiring process to address the unique needs of the refugee applicants who pursue careers here,” said Leon Holloway, Duncan’s human resources manager. “Hiring refugees not only assists them on their return to self-sufficiency but also adds richness and diversity to the workforce and ultimately to the community at large.”


The Employers Resource Council (ERC) has consistently ranked Flexjet as one of the 99 best places to work in northeast Ohio, with special recognition for the company’s efforts to achieve diversity and inclusion. The company is headquartered in Richmond Heights, Ohio, and employs 1,550 private jet travel professionals worldwide.

GE Foundation Next Engineers Program

In April the GE Foundation announced that it was committing $100 million to create a Next Engineers program aimed at readying a more diverse universe of young people for college and a career in engineering. The program is focused on reaching 85,000 students in grades eight to 12 in 25 cities worldwide. The foundation announced that it would invest $5 million in the Cincinnati area, home of GE Aviation, and that the University of Cincinnati is working with GE Aviation to help launch the program.


The award recognizes recent programs and technology that advance environmental sustainability in aviation. 

AvFuel Book-and-Claim

With Avfuel’s book-and-claim program, customers can buy a full load of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and receive credit for the emissions reductions benefit it provides no matter where they are in relation to where the fuel is delivered. The system is conducted in a compliant manner so that the benefit of the SAF molecules can’t be double-counted. Only the SAF purchaser receives credit for its emissions reductions.


The Council on Sustainable Aviation Fuels Accountability (CoSAFA) was formed in 2021 to provide clarity, transparency, and accuracy to the accounting practices documenting the use of sustainable aviation fuel in multi-party transactions. Initial group members include NATA, NBAA, EBAA, IBAC, GAMA, and Airlines for America. The council’s mission is to ensure that the scale-up of SAF production will be enabled by well--designed protocols for its chain of custody through the supply chain life cycle, allowing for product and transaction tracing, a means of verifying relevant data, and proper accounting or claiming of environmental benefits.

Clay Lacy Aviation

Clay Lacy Aviation’s sustainability program has enlisted the assistance of World Fuel Services’ World Kinect Energy Services and 4Air. World Kinect gave Clay Lacy managers a three-month workshop to help them develop a sustainability plan and tactics for implementation. Then 4Air helped with auditing the new processes after implementation. The FBO, charter, and aircraft services company’s sustainability program has three main focuses: complying with future related regulations, competitive gains from sustainability, and environmental stewardship for future generations.


In July 2021, General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI) received FAA STC approval for use of its high-octane unleaded avgas, initially in all models of the Cessna 172. The STC will be expanded using the approved model list process to cover additional aircraft and engine combinations for GAMI’s G100UL avgas. G100UL avgas is a drop-in replacement for the current 100LL avgas, which uses tetraethyl lead to boost octane so engines with high compression ratios can avoid damaging detonation.


Neste is a leading supplier of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to the U.S. and European markets and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in related refining capacity. The recently announced expansion at its Rotterdam refinery represents a $231 million investment that will add another 500,000 tons of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) a year to the plant’s capacity.

Rolls-Royce SAFinity

Rolls-Royce’s SAFinity initiative is designed to make it easier for operators to meet their commitments to boost the use of sustainable aviation fuel. The service is based on an app that allows customers to verify the fuel burn for each engine time and then buy the amount of SAF required for the planned trip. While the fuel doesn’t necessarily get pumped into that specific aircraft, Rolls-Royce and partners will ensure that it does get used, issuing a certificate independently verifying the transaction.


The award recognizes recent advances in flight training. 

APS Virtual Recovery Upset Training

Aviation Performance Solutions (APS) is now using virtual-reality technologies for the maximum transference of upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) skills to a customer’s specific aircraft type. Loss of control in-flight (LOC-I) is responsible for nearly 50 percent of all fatalities in aviation worldwide, and UPRT is the most effective mitigation. Virtual reality allows pilots to consolidate knowledge on their own aircraft type following APS’s integrated academic, on-aircraft, and advanced simulator training.

VRM Switzerland

In April EASA granted the first certificate for a rotorcraft virtual reality-based flight simulation training device to VRM Switzerland. Depending on the training concept, EASA will provide users of the device with up to five hours of training credit for a private pilot license, 10 to 20 hours of training credit for a commercial certificate, and five hours of nighttime credit.


The award recognizes recent major advances in general aviation technology. 

MyGoFlight HUD

MyGoFlight’s SkyDisplay head-up display (HUD) was approved first for the Cirrus SR piston singles and is available as part of an approved model list STC for other Part 23 aircraft operating under Part 91 regulations. While HUDs have long been available in midsize and larger business jets and commercial aircraft, the SkyDisplay brings the safety benefits of HUD to four-seat piston-powered airplanes through piston twins, single-engine turboprops, and light jets.

Garmin Smart Glide and Smart Rudder Bias

Garmin Smart Glide helps pilots deal with engine failures by recommending a suitable nearby airport and engaging the autopilot to fly to it at the appropriate airspeed. According to Garmin, the key benefit of Smart Glide is to free up the pilot to focus on dealing with the emergency situation—for example, running the engine-failure checklist. Smart Glide is being provided as a free software upgrade for compatible avionics.

Garmin’s Smart Rudder Bias autopilot enhancement adjusts rudder force to help control sideslip after engine failure, but it also works with Garmin’s Electronic Stability and Protection (ESP) autopilot feature to help the pilot control bank and avoid flying too slowly in an engine-out situation.

Mid-Continent Flex

Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics’ Flex MD23 Custom Function Display is a series of forward-fit and retrofit displays that can be customized to fit hundreds of applications. The Flex display is a blank slate on which avionics and systems engineers and designers can create almost any kind of instrumentation display and control output. Mid-Continent has already obtained FAA certification for the hardware and the software that runs inside the instrument. All that remains is for the customer to work with Mid-Continent on the design of what shows up on the Flex’s display and how it interacts with the aircraft, and the result is a much quicker method of adding display functionality and system control into many aircraft types.

New FBO Facility

The award recognizes facilities that have recently opened for excellence in design and convenience. 

ACI Jet, San Luis Obispo

ACI Jet, the lone FBO at California’s San Luis Obispo County Airport, began operating its newly built, $20 million facility in 2021. The 28,000-sq-ft, two-story terminal features an expansive lobby; mezzanine seating overlooking the ramp; a pilot suite with two large snooze rooms, shower facilities, and a flight-planning area; a trio of conference rooms seating four, eight, and 18, respectively; and a refreshment bar.

Jet Aviation, Scottsdale

Jet Aviation’s FBO and hangar complex at Arizona’s Scottsdale Airport consists of an 8,500-sq-ft terminal and a 30,000-sq-ft hangar, which can accommodate aircraft up to the size of a G650. The new FBO is the third at the airport.

Million Air, El Paso

The FBO boasts 10,000 sq ft of VIP lobby space, 20,000 sq ft of total hangar space, a dramatic aircraft porte-cochere, and expansive ramp space capable of supporting any aircraft type. Inside the general aviation terminal, guests will find a refreshment bar, café, pilot lounge, snooze rooms, a state-of-the-art flight planning room, and a multimedia conference room.

WACO Aircraft, Battle Creek

WACO Aircraft’s new FBO at Battle Creek Executive Airport at Kellogg Field in Michigan is part of an overall expansion of the airframer’s facility. On the first floor are an open passenger seating area, business center, pilot lounge with a snooze room, shower facilities, four private offices, and café bar. Upstairs is the WACO Kitchen restaurant, featuring locally sourced farm-to-table ingredients.

StanCraft, Coeur d’Alene

StanCraft Jet Center at Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Airport-Pappy Boyington Field is a new $15 million complex. The 15,000-sq-ft, two-story atrium lobby displays one of the company’s mahogany boats. Amenities include a golf simulator; a “crew club” with private communication pods, bathroom with showers, and a pair of snooze rooms; business center; concierge; coffee shop; tenant offices; and even a dog park for those traveling with their pets.

Charter/Jet Card/Fractional 

The award recognizes recent innovation and excellence in this industry segment. 

Wheels Up

Thanks to an aggressive acquisition program in 2020 and 2021 and a recent public stock offering, Wheels Up is now the second--largest Part 135 charter provider in the U.S., trailing only NetJets.

Sentient Jet

Directional Aviation Capital’s jet card division had $450 million in sales in pandemic-ravaged 2020 and is looking to expand its programs for international travelers on charter business jets. The company’s 2021 summer flight volume was expected to exceed pre-pandemic seasonal volumes by 30 to 50 percent, reflecting growing demand for charter.

Jet It/Jet Club

North Carolina-based Jet It is a fractional-ownership program that flies HondaJets and recently expanded to Europe with a sister brand called Jet Club. The European launch comes after Jet It recorded 400 percent year-over-year growth in the U.S. Jet It utilizes a hybrid-fractional-ownership model based on days, not hours, which provides owners with the freedom to use the fleet freely and is ideal for customers making multiple stops in a single day.


Atlanta-based Volato operates a share program with HondaJets. The company will also have a jet card product and offer specially curated, all-inclusive “jet experience” travel packages. Volato manages all aircraft maintenance, fees, and flight operations, while owners simply schedule flights through the company’s app.

New Aircraft

These categories recognize innovative new aircraft or derivatives. 

New Jets

Cirrus SF50 G2+

The single turbofan Cirrus SF50 G2+ Vision Jet adds features including optimized engine performance, Gogo Wi-Fi, and new color configurations. Modifications to the Williams International FJ33-5A engine provide customers with a 20 percent improvement in takeoff performance in hot-and-high conditions, allowing for access to more airports, including Aspen, Colorado, in the summertime.

Textron Aviation
Cessna Citation CJ4 Gen 2

Textron Aviation has begun deliveries of the $10.75 million Cessna Citation CJ4 Gen2, which is equipped with enhanced features including new folding airstairs with a lower step to the ground, step lighting, and a handrail; added seating options; new ambient lighting; and a galley with improved storage.

HondaJet Elite S

The $5.4-million HondaJet Elite S features an increase in maximum takeoff weight (mtow), flight deck improvements, a nosewheel steering system enhancement, and new paint colors. The Elite S mtow is 200 pounds heavier, which allows carriage of an extra passenger or flying an additional 120 nm with one pilot and five passengers.

New Turboprops

Epic E1000 GX

Epic Aircraft’s latest version of its $3.85-million, all-composite turboprop single, the E1000 GX, features improved performance and safety, thanks to the addition of the Garmin GFC 700 automatic flight control system and Hartzell five-blade composite propeller.

Textron Aviation King Air 260

The King Air 260’s flight deck is equipped with Innovative Solutions & Support’s ThrustSense autothrottle, a digital pressurization controller, and Collins Aerospace’s MultiScan RTA-4112 weather radar. The 260 also features newly designed seats to provide greater passenger comfort on longer flights.

Textron Aviation King Air 360

The upgrade of the King Air 350/350ER, badged the 360/360ER, includes autothrottles, a digital pressurization system, and a redesigned cabin. The cabin has been completely redesigned for better aesthetics and comfort, with new seats; more refined cabinetry, partitions, and side ledges; higher work tables; LED lighting; lower-profile air and light components; new switches; and power outlets and USB charging stations.

New Helicopters

NASA Mars Ingenuity

The first helicopter to fly on another planet, Ingenuity has successfully been flying on Mars since April 2021. The coaxial rotor Ingenuity is equipped with four carbon-fiber main rotor blades that spin at up to 2,800 rpm, and it is powered by solar cells and batteries.

Airbus H125 with enhanced power

New Airbus Helicopters H125s now feature a 10 percent power upgrade from its Safran Arriel 2D engine. While the helicopter’s maximum takeoff weight remains unchanged, the extra power will increase internal and external load capability by up to 309 pounds and the hover ceiling out of ground effect at mtow by more than 1,500 feet, to 12,600 feet.

Maintenance Innovation


Digitized business aircraft records provider Bluetail raised more than $2.1 million in its Series A investment round. Brookstone Venture Capital (formerly Canal Partners) led the funding round for Bluetail, which provides digitized records such as maintenance and logbooks on business aircraft, with a total value of more than $1 billion.

FlightSafety VR Training

FlightSafety International has begun offering virtual reality training on Pratt & Whitney Canada engines. The training includes “X-ray” vision, dynamic engine cutaways, and borescope practice, all of which can meet regulatory requirements.