The annual VAI Aerial Work Safety Conference brought together more than 360 members of the vertical aviation industry’s aerial firefighting and utility sectors Dec. 9–11, 2023, in Boise, Idaho. The event offered attendees safety-focused educational presentations, regulatory updates, group and one-on-one discussions with government agency representatives, vendor exhibits and product demonstrations, and several networking opportunities.

Two large ballrooms served as central gathering places for the conference. The first ballroom hosted presentations and panel discussions. The second offered a breakout room with tables for networking during meals and snack breaks. Spread throughout the second ballroom were 39 vendor booths, representing government organizations such as the US Forest Service (USFS) and the US Department of the Interior (DOI), aircraft manufacturers, product manufacturers and suppliers, software producers, and service providers.

“This has been a hugely valuable experience for me,” said attendee Jeremiah Powell, director of safety at Billings, Montana–based Billings Flying Service. “I’m new to utility, and the classes and briefings have been instrumental in my learning. And the networking—hearing about others’ challenges, learning that many of us face the same issues and how others have worked through them—has really been invaluable.”

The three-day event began with a breakfast meeting for VAI members and representatives of the USFS and the DOI, followed by meetings of the VAI Aerial Firefighting and Natural Resources Working Group and the VAI Restricted and Experimental Category Aircraft Working Group.

The next two days featured panel discussions with the FAA, USFS, and DOI; educational presentations; and regulatory updates. The conference included two sessions at which attendees could obtain FAA aviation maintenance technician (AMT) credits: “Aircraft Maintenance through a Legal Lens,” presented by aviation attorney Sarah MacLeod of Obadal, Filler, MacLeod & Klein, PLLC, and “Turbine Engine Hygiene,” presented by Mike Broderick of Rotordoc.

“This is my first HAI event, and one of the biggest takeaways I got was the educational presentations, such as Sarah MacLeod’s ‘Legal Lens’ talk,” said Josh Kammler, assistant director of safety at HLH Aviation of Calhoun, Georgia. “That really helped me establish a better understanding of everyone’s responsibility in maintenance.”

Courses that qualified for FAA WINGS credit included the importance and aspects of a family assistance plan from the National Transportation Safety Board’s Transportation Disaster Assistance Division, and an introductory look at the growth and use of uncrewed aircraft in the utility and public safety sectors from nonprofit educational organization Droneresponders.

“We’ve been expanding into UASs [uncrewed aerial systems], and I appreciated the presentation on their uses and growth,” said David Ames, assistant chief pilot at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). “We’ve really appreciated seeing people, and the networking opportunity. Some of our vendors are here …, and it’s helpful to talk with others who do the same work.”

Rich Knoth, WDNR chief pilot, added: “I really like the size of this event and that it includes peers in aerial work, utility, and firefighting. You get more one-on-one time with each other and vendors [than at larger conferences].”

Panel discussions and presentations from the FAA, USFS, and DOI, followed by Q&A sessions, were some of the most anticipated and highly attended parts of the conference. Several spirited conversations took place on restricted category aircraft operations, long wait times for government approvals, government inspections, and more.

VAI will host the Aerial Work Safety Conference again this year as a three-day event in mid-November. Stay tuned for more details in the coming months.

Share the Story