In 1938, German medical student Hanna Reitsch became the first woman in the world to fly a helicopter, earning her status as Whirly Girl #1. She demonstrated the first functional helicopter design that could be flown precisely.
Igor Sikorsky took flight in 1939 in the first practical helicopter, which utilized a single main rotor and tail rotor, the most common helicopter design we see today.
In 1945, the Bell 47 first flew. I took my flight training in a Bell 47, and this iconic model—my all-time favorite—was the first aircraft I flew solo.
A handful of operators and Art Fornoff, a representative from Bell Helicopter, met in 1948 at the offices of AF Helicopters in Burbank, California, to form a helicopter association for the collective benefit of all operators in the new industry. This first meeting of helicopter operators was the birth of HAI.
On July 1 of this year, I became the first female chair of HAI from outside of the United States. (I’m not the first female chair to lead the association; Elynor Rudnick accomplished that milestone in 1955.) But just as in our industry, we are now seeing more and more women becoming active and taking leadership roles in our association. Helicopter pilot Stacy Sheard is the vice chair, meaning that half of the Executive Committee leading HAI this year is female.
This won’t make any difference in the way the HAI conducts itself, but it does represent another milestone in helicopter aviation, another way our industry is becoming more diverse and utilizing talent, best practices, and good ideas wherever they are found. This is what HAI represents, and this is what I am proud to be a part of.
Our industry is not done making firsts. The times, they are still a-changing. Today we are learning to work alongside the new emerging drone industry and trying to keep pace with the rapidly advancing technology that seems to be daily added to our machines.
On top of this is the change in community attitudes. Helicopters are no longer viewed as amazing devices that do good things for our communities. That torch seems to be passing to the drone industry. Instead, we are increasingly seen as noisy, dangerous things associated with disasters and destruction.
As we look to the future, HAI will continue its efforts to embrace helicopter operators and associations in other countries so that we are truly international. The problems of drone integration and concerns about noise and safety are not isolated to one country. Let’s work together to find collective solutions for these global issues.
Public attitudes have turned against us, so we have to look at ways to turn that around. Let’s get our communities back on board with our operations, so that when someone looks up and sees a helicopter, they again say, “Wow, I want to do that for a living.” Our industry needs to encourage more pilots and maintenance technicians into this addictive career.
We accomplish amazing things in our flying machines, and this needs to be championed. The world needs more people dominated by passion, enthusiasm, and the desire to be better, and I’ve got a very good idea of where they can be found—in helicopters.