Honoring the best in vertical aviation.

For more than 80 years, vertical lift aircraft have made considerable differences in lives, communities, and businesses worldwide. Our industry’s achievements are the result of an exceptional level of dedication to professionalism and safety by aviation professionals.

Every year, through its Salute to Excellence Awards, HAI recognizes a number of these outstanding members of the vertical flight community for going above and beyond in their work. Whether in a single instance or throughout a career, these pilots, maintenance technicians, flight instructors, safety professionals, operators, and industry leaders from around the globe remind us to always aim for excellence.

On the following pages, HAI recognizes our 2023 honorees’ remarkable achievements across the rotorcraft industry. We congratulate them and celebrate their extraordinary contributions to aviation and the example they set for the entire vertical flight community.

Nominations for the 2024 Salute to Excellence Awards, to be celebrated at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2024 in Anaheim, California, will be accepted beginning in June 2023. Visit rotor.org/salute for more information.

Lawrence “Skip” Robinson

Photographer and Writer, Vertical Magazine | Los Angeles, California, USA

Communications Award, sponsored by ROTOR Media, for creative distinction in disseminating information about the helicopter industry

Lawrence “Skip” Robinson was a fixture in the helicopter industry, known for his fabulous photography, infectious passion for helicopters, and ability to capture jaw-dropping shots.

Lawrence “Skip” Robinson

Robinson, who died unexpectedly in March 2022 of natural causes at the age of 56, loved helicopters from very early on, studying them and their missions and amassing an impressive collection of helicopter memorabilia. Having photographed rotorcraft since his teens, he spent countless hours chasing them with his camera. In 2005, he submitted one of those photos, of a Los Angeles (California) Fire Department Bell 412 working a fire, to Vertical magazine. It was published, forming a partnership with the magazine that continued for the next 17 years.

With his first published image in hand, Robinson took his passion door-to-door. He had a particular interest in parapublic and military operations—not the easiest operators with which to secure permission to fly and photograph. Yet his tenacity, credentials, and charm opened doors. Robinson shared his published Vertical photo with other public agencies and offered to shoot their aircraft for publication as well.

Vertical publisher Mike Reyno says the phone never stopped ringing after the day that first photo was published. Robinson often called several times a day himself with story tips, and he was willing to go anywhere to produce breathtaking images of helicopters.

“Everyone has a calling in life, and Skip’s was as a photojournalist in the helicopter industry,” Reyno says. “At HAI HELI-EXPO, many people would tell us how Skip’s photos or stories inspired them to enter the industry. They all wanted to thank him.”

One photo shoot led to another as more and more public agencies saw Robinson’s work and agreed to a photo shoot of their own. Word was out about Robinson’s skill, and it wasn’t long before his clientele went well beyond Vertical. Law enforcement agencies, air ambulance providers, flight schools, helicopter operators, and even manufacturers started calling him to photograph their helicopters and operations.

When not spending time with or shooting helicopters, Robinson loved to share his passion with others. He was like an uncle to a neighbor’s children, even taking one of them on photo shoots that eventually inspired the child to pursue flight training. Robinson was also an avid volunteer at the Classic Rotors museum in Ramona, California.

From the local Los Angeles helicopter community to operators across the globe, people know about Robinson, through contact with him or his beautiful photography. With his words and through his camera lens, he brought readers with him on countless visits with operators in the field. His photos have appeared in almost every issue of Vertical and Valor magazines and graced nearly 40 of the publications’ covers.

Robinson’s passing leaves a hole not only in the hearts of his friends and family, but also throughout his beloved industry.

Ananda “Andy” Thapa

Operations Director, Altitude Air | Kathmandu, Nepal

Humanitarian Service Award, sponsored by Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company, for outstanding service in using helicopters to provide aid to those in need

Ananda “Andy” Thapa

A hero to countless individuals, Ananda “Andy” Thapa is humble by nature. Born in the remote area of Dhading District in Nepal, Thapa grew up in extreme poverty. As a child, he averaged one meal a day and had no electricity, telephone, or even a nearby medical facility. He did, however, have a dream: he wanted to fly. So he worked hard in his studies, earning a spot in a Nepali Army education program in Kathmandu.

Because his family couldn’t afford higher education, Thapa enlisted in the Nepali Arm

y’s officer program, hoping to be selected for pilot training despite it being exceptionally rare in the army. Timing was on Thapa’s side, however. Civil war broke out in Nepal during his second year of cadet officer training, creating a need for helicopter and fighter pilots. Amid fierce competition, Thapa was chosen and learned to fly helicopters.

After eight years flying in the army, Thapa accepted a civilian helicopter pilot position where he could apply his experience and understanding of the small villages, remote regions, fast-changing weather, and terrain of Nepal to perform rescues and extractions.

Thapa has since been credited with hundreds of, if not well over 1,000, technical rescues throughout Nepal and surrounding regions. He is one of the elite skilled pilots who have extracted multiple climbers from Mount Everest, landing as high as Camp 2 above 21,000 ft. (6,401 m). He participated in the much-publicized search for Bulgarian mountaineer Boyan Petrov in 2018, which unfortunately ended with no sign of Petrov.

In 2022 alone, Thapa participated in three large rescues: he airlifted several climbers from Mount Everest’s Camp 1 and Camp 2, evacuated two people at 22,349 ft. (6,812 m) from Ama Dablam using a human longline technique, and, together with another company rescue pilot, rescued 72 Nepalese and foreign visitors stranded in a remote region of Nepal by extremely bad weather.

Thapa has also helped families achieve closure. In 2018, famed mountaineer Kim Chang-ho, the first Korean to summit the world’s 14 tallest mountains without supplemental oxygen, died with eight others at the base camp of Gurja Himal in Nepal. After searchers discovered their bodies, Thapa transported them down the mountain via longline.

The one rescue that stands out the most in Thapa’s mind took place on Jun. 18, 2021. Five days before, more than 100 people had trekked to areas bordering Tibet from the Nepalese town of Manang to collect Yarsagumba, a medicinal fungus, and hadn’t returned. Thapa took the lead in the search, flying their route up the mountains. While most were feared dead, Thapa found them all alive between 14,000 ft. (4,267 m) and 17,200 ft. (5,243 m), stranded after heavy snowfall. He transported the most critical, about 70 in all, back to a lower-altitude safe zone within an incredible two hours and 20 minutes.

He also delivered a supply drop of food and other survival goods to the remaining 30 foragers as the weather deteriorated and fuel ran low. Thapa says this rescue was the most successful and also the fastest he has conducted in his career, but it is only one of countless rescues that have made the helicopter the real hero to the people of and visitors to Nepal.

Karl Cotton

Senior Flight Instructor, Helicopter Institute | Fort Worth, Texas, USA

W.A. “Dub” Blessing Flight Instructor of the Year Award, sponsored by Hill Air, for upholding high standards of excellence in flight instruction

Karl Cotton

Karl Cotton has a simple philosophy: if a student isn’t successful, it’s a reflection on the instructor.

“There’s usually a way to get through to somebody if they’re struggling,” Cotton explains. “I’m a really big believer in bringing a kind of [excitement] to flight training. There’s nothing about training that should cause the students to suffer. It should be challenging but should be an overall pleasant experience. That’s really what I try to bring out, a challenging but fun experience.”

Cotton’s journey to flight instructor and mentor for countless students started on the ski slopes of Utah. He began heli-skiing in the late 1970s, quickly became hooked on helicopters, and soon started learning to fly.

Cotton began instructing as soon as he received his flight instructor rating and, a little over 700 hours later, landed his first turbine helicopter job as a tour pilot at Grand Canyon Helicopters. From there, he took a utility flying job performing seismic exploration throughout the Rocky Mountains during the 1980s oil boom before landing at the Arizona Department of Public Safety as an officer pilot and flight instructor.

Cotton’s law enforcement experience in Arizona opened the door for a position with the Los Angeles County (California) Fire Department, where he taught various flight techniques, from swift- and blue-water rescue to aerial firefighting, high-rise fire rescue, and hoist training.

Since then, Cotton has worked as a short-haul pilot for three US national parks and has served as a chief instructor at flight schools, including Leading Edge Aviation in Bend, Oregon, where he runs the night-vision goggles (NVG) program. He also holds a designated pilot examiner certification and has administered more than 1,000 pilot exams.

Today, Cotton is the senior instructor at Helicopter Institute, an OEM-level training facility that offers initial and advanced instruction in Bell aircraft to customers around the country. Cotton serves as the field pilot, traveling to customers and providing customized training in their aircraft. With his vast and varied background in mountain flying, law enforcement, NVG, fire-and-rescue, instrument instruction, and more, he provides just about any kind of training a customer needs.

Yet, while his impressive breadth of skills and experience speaks volumes, it’s how Cotton approaches his work that really stands out to his customers. He’s easygoing and puts his students at ease, even earning the impressive accolade of making checkrides fun.

“Karl comes to the table with thousands of hours having flown many different profiles and missions,” says Deputy Josh Sweeney of Washington state’s King County Sheriff’s Office. “He’s a great communicator and makes sure to constantly pass on his knowledge and experience to those he’s instructing. What’s even more amazing, Karl is never satisfied with the knowledge he’s gained and always shows up with new and refined techniques to accomplish a task. Karl has inspired me to be a better pilot and a better instructor.”

Penny Ritter

Criminalist, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office | Oakland, California, USA

Law Enforcement Award, sponsored by MD Helicopters, for contributions to the promotion and advancement of helicopters in support of law enforcement activities

Penny Ritter

A 14-year criminalist at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO), Penny Ritter helped turn the agency’s fledgling small uncrewed aerial system (sUAS) program into an award-winning, nationally recognized initiative that supports not only the county’s work but also that of agencies across California and around the nation.

Traditionally, as part of her crime-lab work, Ritter employed laser scanners to map scenes. Five years ago, the lab commander approached her with a challenge: the sUAS team of eight aircraft and five pilots had received a free trial license to Pix4D, a photogrammetry and drone mapping software. He asked if she’d be interested in learning how to register the Pix4D data the drones captured to provide scene mapping.

“I said, ‘Sure. Not a problem,’ ” Ritter recalls with a laugh. “I had no idea how to use the software and didn’t even know what a drone looked like. He gave me some of the data, and I went to YouTube to watch training videos and took a class. Then, I started modeling crime scenes and making 2D and 3D maps.”

The maps proved extremely valuable and led to approvals to expand the team with more equipment and operators. Again, the commander tapped Ritter, this time to help lead the program. She learned to fly and maintain the county’s drones and earned her FAA Part 107 certificate to operate them. She built spreadsheets to track equipment, maintenance, pilot licenses and training, operations, and more.

While ACSO is responsible for unincorporated areas of the county, its team often supports incorporated cities within Alameda County and beyond. Starting with the Tubbs Fire in October 2017, ACSO began using its sUAS assets annually to assist with mapping disaster zones. Ritter’s team also mapped the deadly Camp Fire. For that job, Ritter helped lead a task force of 16 agencies that conducted 518 sUAS flights to collect 70,000 images over 17,000 acres to map the town of Paradise after the tragedy.

ACSO credits Ritter with helping locate and arrest countless dangerous individuals and document many crime scenes. Ritter also assists with crime scene reconstruction, such as for the Hart family murders in Mendocino County in 2018. Ritter led the team that helped search for the victims of the murder–suicide, in which the family vehicle was driven off a 100-ft. cliff. The team produced an orthomosaic map and 3D model used in the coroner’s inquest.

Today, the ACSO sUAS team includes 110 aircraft and 25 pilots. Ritter ensures that all aircraft are up and running, assisting with updates and repairs 24/7. She’s also instrumental in helping several other agencies launch and expand their sUAS programs by offering her expertise and support.

“Penny is an exceptional asset to ACSO because of her leadership and her willingness to assist public safety agencies around the nation,” says ACSO captain Paul Liskey. “She not only knows how to safely operate each aircraft ACSO deploys, but she continually offers her time and support to train other team members and local agencies.”

David Ellis

Executive Director, Haiti Air Ambulance | Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Golden Hour Award, sponsored by ROTOR Media, for distinguished and outstanding service utilizing helicopters in air medical transport

David Ellis

When charity air medical transport service Haiti Air Ambulance (HAA) was founded in 2014 as Haiti’s only helicopter air ambulance provider, David Ellis was one of the first flight paramedics to volunteer. Volunteering for 10 to 14 days at a time, he supported the HAA team’s tireless work with various hospitals and medical teams to improve both the quality of and access to lifesaving and life-changing care.

In 2020, Ellis took over the helm of the service as executive director, ushering in a significant change in the way HAA approaches which patients are transported by helicopter. He shifted away from the traditional US helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) guidelines related to injury severity or threat to life. Instead, he focused on reasons specific to Haiti’s land-transport challenges: a grossly underequipped and understaffed national ambulance service, gas shortages, impassable roads, and rampant gang violence and roadblocks.

“The US’s stringent patient-carrying criteria just don’t work here,” Ellis says. “People can’t [always] get to medical services, and their injuries can become life-threatening if not treated. Our service is for a funded charity, so we look at how we can affect as many lives as possible with that funding. Sometimes, it’s bringing patients to medical services; sometimes, it’s bringing vital medical supplies and professionals to the people.”

Ellis’s philosophy has led to two significant results: an exponential increase in the number of flights for the service and a monumental improvement in transport times. Since its inception, HAA has transported more than 1,500 patients, all during daylight VFR conditions. An impressive 53% of those were transported in the past two years since Ellis took the helm. HAA transported more than 500 patients in 2022 alone.

Ellis has also been instrumental in developing relationships with local doctors, hospitals, charities, and service providers. Most of HAA’s staff are Haitian, including several doctors he hired who provide vital direction and insight to HAA for operations in the country, helping Ellis direct a service that meets the extended needs of Haiti’s population.

For instance, many medical facilities in the country lack several basics. Some don’t have a permanent roof, others have only a doctor or two with no nursing support, and virtually none have cafeterias or prepared food for patients. With the understanding that a patient will need a support person in the hospital to care for and feed them, Ellis arranged for HAA to transport a family member or friend with every patient.

Haiti is also experiencing a steep increase in gang activity and unrest. In addition to arranging for HAA to carry more patients to avoid the violence, Ellis has taken steps to protect his team, hiring armored cars and security services to ensure that vital airlift work isn’t interrupted.

Under Ellis’s leadership, HAA is growing. A second Bell 407 was scheduled to arrive in-country in early 2023, potentially doubling HAA’s impact in the impoverished nation.

Eric Bechhoefer

CEO and Chief Engineer, GPMS International | Waterbury, Vermont, USA

Safety Award, sponsored by BLR Aerospace, for outstanding contributions to the promotion of helicopter safety and safety awareness

Eric Bechhoefer

Eric Bechhoefer changed the playing field for aircraft safety with the helicopter health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) for single-engine helicopters.

After retiring from his career as a naval flight officer, Bechhoefer pursued a doctorate in engineering with an interest in advancing aviation safety. He saw his dream come true at Goodrich Sensor Systems, where, in the 2000s, he helped pioneer the first-generation HUMS and condition-based maintenance systems, which the company designed for the UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook, and S-92.

“It was great work, but I really felt if anyone needs these systems, it’s the smaller operators with light aircraft and single engines,” he explains. “I wanted to design a lighter, much less expensive solution for smaller operators with those aircraft that don’t have the assets and finances for the current HUMS programs. I wanted to give them the same level of safety and protection the big guys get and be able to easily add functions as users identify their needs.”

Bechhoefer began to work through an idea, leaving Goodrich in 2010 to work at a wind turbine company to develop a sort of HUMS for wind turbines. After three years of development, he had a product design that could work with light helicopters. In 2012, he copublished and presented a white paper arguing for improving HUMS for the light-helicopter market and went to work on the application.

In 2013, Bechhoefer cofounded Green Power Monitoring Systems (GPMS) International to bring his vision to reality. In 2018, the company launched its first product, a lightweight, affordable, next-gen HUMS solution applicable to all helicopters regardless of make, model, or mission. He has since overseen the design, certification, and sale of HUMSs for many helicopter models, including the Airbus AS350; Bell 212, 407, 412, and 429; Mil Mi-8, Mi-17, and Mi-171; and MD 530F.

An active industry champion for HUMS, Bechhoefer continues to promote the benefits of today’s advanced HUMS and condition-based monitoring and maintenance. He is a founder and fellow at the Prognostics and Health Management Society, a fellow of the Society for Machinery Failure Prevention Technology, and a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He also sits on the Vertical Flight Society’s HUMS Committee and the SAE Aerospace HM-1 Committee covering integrated vehicle health management.

“Dr. Bechhoefer’s contribution to rotorcraft operational and maintenance safety simply stands above all others,” says Garmin International Senior Systems Engineer Brent Butterworth. “Through his research and development, he has taken a system only large helicopters and fleet operators could utilize to one where all sizes and budgets of Part 27 or 29 aircraft can reap the benefits of health monitoring. This has had a radical impact on the knowledge, awareness, and understanding of how the operation of an aircraft affects the health of the aircraft.”

Mike Iven

VP of Maintenance, Rainbow Helicopters | Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

Maintenance Award, sponsored by Rolls-Royce, for significant and distinct contributions to helicopter maintenance

Mike Iven

As a young child in Germany, Mike Iven knew he wanted to be a pilot. But while flying was always his main goal, Iven also wanted to ensure he would be marketable and could control his own safety by obtaining his maintenance certificate.

“I’ve always been very mechanical, so it was a very easy education receiving my maintenance certificate,” Iven recalls. “It really did increase my opportunities and my ability to ensure safety.”

In 1995, Iven began work toward his EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) aircraft maintenance license in Germany while working as an early morning bread-truck delivery driver and a flea market manager. During breaks from maintenance training, he flew to the United States, where he earned his private pilot airplane and private pilot helicopter certificates.

Iven acquired a green card in 1998 through the US State Department’s Diversity Visa Program, whereupon he flew to Helicopter Adventures in Concord, California, to complete his helicopter training. Recognizing Iven’s potential, Helicopter Adventures founder and CEO Patrick Corr hired him as a shop hand, later promoting him to full-time aviation maintenance technician once Iven converted his German license to an FAA A&P.

Iven earned his helicopter ratings and added flight instructor to his duties at Helicopter Adventures before moving to Hawaii to take both director of maintenance and tour pilot positions for Rainbow Pacific Helicopters. While there, he earned his FAA inspection authorization certificate at the age of 28.

An exceptionally skilled, knowledgeable, generous professional with an unwavering dedication to safety, Iven opened his own general aviation maintenance shop before joining Makani Kai Helicopter Tours as director of maintenance. There, he sought and obtained an FAA Part 145 repair station certificate for the company.

Throughout his career, Iven has continued to add to his skills and expertise. He returned to the mainland to gain customer service and project management experience in the manufacturing side of the helicopter industry at Safran and, later, Schweizer.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Iven returned to Hawaii to accept his current position as VP of maintenance at Rainbow Helicopters. He has helped the company expand its turbine fleet and integrate into Rainbow’s tour business its first Airbus AS350 helicopter.

When not working in the hangar, Iven helps mentor the next generation of maintenance technicians. He talks to students about the benefits and rewards of being an A&P, using his own rich career as an example of all that an aviation mechanic/engineer can achieve with passion and dedication.

“After a lifetime of extraordinary achievement, you can find Mike in a maintenance hangar in Hawaii putting people first,” says Rainbow Helicopters founder Nicole Battjes. “He serves others, which is the highest compliment we can pay him, and through his example he is inspiring the next generation of great helicopter mechanics, making the industry a better place.”

João “John” Vinagre

Director and Founder, Capital Air | Johannesburg, South Africa

Lifetime Achievement Award, sponsored by Bell, for long and significant service to the international helicopter community

Joao “John” Vinagre

João “John” Vinagre moved to Mozambique from Portugal with his family when he was just 6 months old, fleeing the post–World War II damage and poverty in his homeland. A fourth-generation pilot, he earned his private license in airplanes at 19 years of age and soon added his helicopter ratings after joining the army.

Vinagre was on a course to take over the family helicopter business when the 1974 Carnation Revolution forced Portuguese citizens to leave Mozambique in 1975. The new ruling political party seized his family’s company, including 13 aircraft.

Vinagre and his family left Mozambique for South Africa with little more than $10 in today’s currency, but he was eventually able to find a flying job with a local company in his new country. When the company’s owner passed away eight years later, Vinagre purchased its Bell 206 with a business partner. Not long after, he secured the name and license of a South African company in liquidation, Capital Air.

Operating out of a wooden-plank zozo hut at Rand Airport (FAGM) in Johannesburg, Vinagre rebuilt his family’s legacy with Capital Air, seeking new opportunities anywhere they could be found, from nature conservation, weddings, and television broadcasting to schools and trade shows. No job was too small, and his tenacity paid off. In the late 1980s, Capital Air obtained exclusive rights as the transportation operator for the Rand Show, the largest annual consumer exhibition in southern Africa. Drawing tens of thousands of visitors annually, the show helped put Capital Air on the map.

As Capital Air grew in size and reputation, it added an authorized maintenance organization certification from the South African Civil Aviation Authority, the country’s second such certificate at the time. The company expanded its capabilities to the private security sector, gaining a firm footing in hijacked- and stolen-vehicle tracking and recovery throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The work in the region had its dangers. While searching for a hijacked truck in 1994, Vinagre’s helicopter came under fire. The aircraft suffered an engine failure and crashed when its rotors hit structures in the crowded area after an autorotation. Vinagre evacuated his four passengers, even protecting one from an approaching mob by getting between the attackers and the passenger. Vinagre was stabbed in the back for his effort, but all were saved by Good Samaritans on the scene.

Vinagre has come full circle in his career. He opened an affiliate operation in 1999, Helicopteros Capital, in Mozambique, returning the family business to the country more than two decades after it was lost. Now, more than 40 years since Vinagre took over the name, Capital Air has grown to 1,000 employees and 17 helicopters, the largest fleet in South Africa. It remains a family business, with three of Vinagre’s children helping run the company with a commitment to his philosophy of exceptional customer service.

“Flying was in my bones,” Vinagre says. “I was very lucky I found a flying job and could start over in South Africa. I am proud of the company we’ve built and hope to share it with many future generations.”