First female, international chair in decades sees new opportunity for HAI.
Jan Becker is a dizzying mix of practical skills and boundary-pushing innovator, a combination not always seen together. Consider her various positions: registered nurse and midwife; commercial helicopter pilot; CEO of Becker Helicopters, an Australian helicopter operator and flight school; founder of Midwife Vision, a charity supporting child and maternal health in Tanzania; and PhD candidate studying the role of midwives in sub-Saharan Africa.
On July 1 of this year, Jan added yet another role to the mix: she is the 2019–20 chair of HAI. Jan is not the first woman or first non-US citizen to lead the association, but she is the first to do so in decades. And if Jan has anything to do with it, she won’t be the last.
Jan’s appreciation for the global nature of the helicopter industry isn’t just because she’s Australian. Although she was born there, her parents moved Jan, her older brother, and younger sister to Singapore when Jan was three years old.
“Growing up in Singapore was probably one of the single most impactful things in my life,” Jan says. “I had such a beautiful kaleidoscope of friends from all over the world—all languages, the way they looked, the way they spoke, what they ate, their religion, the cultural nuances. I loved it.”
In Australia, Jan’s father, Eric Andrews, was a fixed-wing crop-dusting pilot. In Singapore and Indonesia, he worked for, and was later an investor in, Airfast, a company that provided aviation services to Southeast Asia’s booming oil industry. “They had S-58Ts, Skycranes, 205s, and beautiful old DC-3s.” says Jan. “We’d go down to the hangar and play, and Dad would give us a piece of sandpaper and say, ‘When you’ve finished sanding that DC-3, then we’ll go home.’”
When she was 15, the family moved to New Zealand, where both of Jan’s parents had grown up. Coming from multicultural Singapore, New Zealand was a shock. “They had no idea where Singapore was. And I spoke differently. I really struggled when I first went back to New Zealand.”
Jan was an A student at an international school in Singapore, the United World College of Southeast Asia, so she was advanced a year and a half in her New Zealand classes. While in the short term, that meant Jan had less in common with her older classmates, it also meant that she graduated from high school at 16.
However, her ambition to go to medical school had to wait. She couldn’t be accepted until she turned 18. After working at odd jobs, picking grapes, waiting tables, Jan decided to go to nursing school instead, thinking that she could always go to medical school later.
Jan was in her second year of nursing school when Mike Becker, a friend from high school, came back into town. And the rest, as Jan says, is history. The couple have been together ever since, although Jan points out that in the early days, “together” was sometimes more figurative than literal.
The 1980s was a tough time to be a low-time helicopter pilot looking for work—the market was saturated with highly experienced Vietnam veteran pilots. Mike was living and working on a separate island in New Zealand. “We saw each other once, I think, in the year we were engaged, and he arrived the night before the wedding,” says Jan.
After they were married, the young couple moved often, pursuing jobs for Mike in New Zealand, Australia, and eventually Papua New Guinea. As a nurse, Jan easily found work wherever they went.
Falling in Love with Flying
“In New Guinea, I flew with Mike all the time, and I just loved it,” says Jan. She often accompanied Mike on flights, offering medical care to residents of remote villages while he worked various missions. “I should have been more nervous, knowing what I know now. Kiwi pilots are really adaptable because they’re used to high mountain work and high winds. When you go Papua New Guinea, it’s high mountain work, but it’s hot. So it’s high, hot, and heavy—and you’re dealing with bush pads and security issues.
“Limited power was Mike’s world. Everything was limited power, weight, and fuel. You’re flying very close to the edge. So I learnt good skills and good, good SMS,” says Jan, praising her husband as a pilot who stays several steps ahead of his aircraft and follows procedures. “I saw how careful he was about his work, preflighting his aircraft with a torch in the New Guinea bush. There’s lots of pilots in that situation who would just come out and start it up, because no one’s watching.
“Safety must be predictive, just like medicine. A young midwife’s thinking, ‘We’ve just got to get the baby out,’ just like an inexperienced pilot is thinking, ‘We just have to get home.’ Then they take chances and get into a situation and think, ‘What am I going to do now?’” says Jan. “When I’m in a labor ward with four mothers, I have a situational awareness of what is going on. I have also formed a predictive sense of what issues I expect to arise and how I’m going to deal with them.”
As much as Jan and Mike loved their life in New Guinea, they also knew that it was not where they wanted to raise children. In 1994, they returned to Australia, moving to the Sunshine Coast in southern Queensland, on the western coast of Australia, just before their daughter, Micheala, was born in 1996. Mike did some flight instruction, but he was also a stay-at-home dad. Jan was working as a registered nurse and midwife educator.
Starting the Business
The Beckers had been planning to open an aviation business since 1995. “We had a dream, and that dream is still our tagline: we train the next generation of helicopter pilots. We knew that Mike, besides being a highly experienced pilot with 5,500 hours, also had the ability to break down complex things without making you feel like a nit,” says Jan.
Jan and Mike started Becker Helicopters as a flight school in 1996—the same day that Jan delivered their second daughter, Chase. They had saved some money in New Guinea (“there was nothing to spend it on”), and they invested everything they had into the business. “We sold our house to pay for our first helicopter,” says Jan. “We bought a 1961 Bell 47G-2A, called Oscar. We bought him for $80,000, and we borrowed another $37,000. And we just started doing flight training in a really small field in Queensland.” The company also did photography missions and tours.
“Our first commercial student was Fergus Ponder, who’s now our chief pilot,” says Jan. Ponder and Mike were Jan’s principal flight instructors, although she has logged time with many Becker instructors over the years. “At the time, it wasn’t for a career but just because I loved it,” she says. “But the flying that I did and the learning over the years really shaped our business. I flew with so many instructors, and I got to know those who were there to pass on their love for aviation and their passion for doing it right vs. those for whom it is just a job.”
While Jan was training for her commercial license, she was also studying for a master’s in aviation management, all while running Becker Helicopters. “I’d get up in 3:00 in the morning, I’d do all my CEO work. Then I’d take the kids to school and be off to grad school all day or I’d go flying.” After a busy day at work, both Mike and Jan would spend the evenings on the phone, prospecting for customers.
The Beckers’ target market was to become an international destination for helicopter flight training. This required the company to go through a series of steps to obtain the necessary international approvals and to pass the required audits. “Our goal was that by five years, we would get these approvals, and we did,” says Jan. “We signed a contract in our fifth year with Heli Hong Kong and East Asia Airlines. That was a changing point for our company because we got the first taste of almost guaranteed income that year.”
However, the company then experienced a series of setbacks. The Australian airline group Ansett collapsed, putting hundreds of pilots on the market. Next came the 2002 Bali bombings, killing 202 people, including 88 Australians, followed by an outbreak of bird flu and the Iraq War. “People didn’t want to travel, they didn’t want to do anything,” says Jan.
Jan and Mike came close to losing everything. So they sat down and wrote an ambitious new business plan for five, 10, and 20 years down the road. Then the couple went on the road to sell their new vision. “If there was a contract, we went for it. If there was a conference to tell our story, we did.” The way forward came when they least expected it. A 12-minute presentation in Brisbane—which Jan remembers as being last-minute and lackluster—led to a $30 million contract to teach 108 flight students from an allied military force.
“At that point, everything changed. And we changed our organization as well,” says Jan. The Beckers made the decision to focus on flight training for allied military and paramilitary services, law enforcement, and public safety providers. This decision in turn led them to retool their fleet. Becker Helicopters students would train on a standardized fleet of modern, glass-cockpit turbine-engine aircraft. Night-vision goggle (NVG) and IFR training would be standard.
“We were the first civilian operator in Australia to operate a full-on flight school with NVG goggles,” says Jan.
Today, Becker Helicopters is the largest flight school in the Southern Hemisphere, employing a staff of 70. With a fleet of 15 Bell 206B-3s, two Bell 427s, and four flight simulators, students can receive the entire gamut of rotorcraft training, from initial to advanced, including multi-engine conversions. The company also operates a Beechcraft Duchess and offers a range of commercial aviation services, including aerial photography, firefighting, search and rescue, and emergency response.
By design, the majority of Becker Helicopter students are from outside of Australia. “We didn’t want to rely on one economy, we wanted to rely on many economies,” says Jan. “So if one economy tanked, another one might help you through.”
Running a flight school, Jan is very aware of the workforce challenge facing the industry. “We are currently missing the mark in attracting new people to the industry. We need to rethink our training principles, as we are not training airline pilots but practical, close-to-the-ground machine operators.”
Jan and Mike split duties across the company, with Mike as executive director in charge of flight operations. As CEO, Jan takes the lead on finance, strategy, and the development of new products, such as online learning or a drone division.
Becker Helicopters emphasizes using the latest technology. “The students are 19 to 23. They put on NVG goggles like it’s nothing. We drive everything from the electronic flight bag on the iPad,” she says. “Although, as Mike said the other day, ‘We’ve got to change the way we teach now because it’s not just time and distance on a map. These pilots have got to learn to manage systems.’”
That tech-centric approach extends to Becker employees too. “We have a virtual office for our finance and a virtual office for our compliance. Now, it’s just pilots, engineers, and refuelers at our flight school, and we’ve seen our efficiency improve by 20–30%,” says Jan.
“Yes, our team members have to work harder to collaborate in a virtual environment, but the payoff is incredible freedom and energy for them,” Jan says. “For Mike and I, it’s knowing that we can run our business from anywhere in the world.
“We are very grateful to the Becker Helicopters staff who make it all possible. Bev Austen, our compliance and resources manager, is just one example of the engaged, motivated team members who have helped our business to grow and lead.”
As CEO, her principal mission is visualizing the future for the company. “A pilot or an engineer, they’ve got to get through that flight or that 100-hour inspection. That’s their mission, and it’s not their job to worry about the future of the company. But while I’m overseeing our financials or compliance, as CEO, I’ve got to think about how to take the company to the next level.”
Jan has created systems that help her stay on top of her busy schedule. “There’s checklists that we have in the helicopter, and if you follow it, you won’t miss anything. There are checklists that we use in midwifery in Tanzania. And then there’s the checklists that I use as CEO of Becker Helicopters. It’s how I do things. If we buy a helicopter, I have a checklist. If we do the insurance renewal, I have a checklist. End of the month, there’s a checklist,” Jan says. “I like the discipline of flying and medicine.”
Structure is required when juggling so many roles. “I’m a really compartmentalized person, and I’m very organized,” says Jan. “I’d be absolutely stuck without Microsoft Teams and Outlook and Trello. I have certain days when it’s just PhD days. That is all I do.
“I’m also very selfish with my family life,” she says. Daughter Micheala is a pilot for Jetstar, the low-cost subsidiary of Qantas Airlines. Chase is a registered nurse and midwife who will soon start medical school in Cyprus. Jan and Mike divide their time between their farm in Queensland and Adelaide, where Micheala lives. But the family stays in touch daily, via Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Facetime, no matter where they are in the world.
“We are in different time zones but there’s an energy every day as a family,” says Jan. “The world is a magnificent, beautiful place. But to me, my family—it’s just my soul and I think without that, I’d be quite empty.
Working for the One
Jan had been active in women’s health in Australia, sitting on various boards of hospitals and charities. But it was her daughter, Chase, who motivated her to begin working in maternal health in Tanzania. “Chase wanted to volunteer somewhere, and so we looked for a country where we could make a difference. In Tanzania, maternal deaths represent 18% of all deaths in women ages 15–49. Having a skilled health worker at the delivery can prevent the majority of those deaths.”
After making several trips to Tanzania as volunteers, Jan and Chase realized that to make significant change, they would need to create a nonprofit that could fundraise and operate sustainable programs. Through their charity, Midwife Vision (www.midwifevision.org), they provide education, professional support, and resources to midwives at Amana Referral Hospital in Dar es Salaam, including building a training clinic. The two also make three to four trips each year to Tanzania, where they volunteer as midwives and educators in the hospital’s maternity ward, which delivers up to 100 babies a day.
“Mike and I, we just felt that business had been good to us, and we wanted to give something back. I have a skill set, but it’s not needed in Australia. In Tanzania, the need is overwhelming, but we go for the one—helping each individual mother or baby, one by one. It’s a bit like when you’re in a helicopter, you have to be focused on that flight, no matter what else is going on in the company or at home. When I’m resuscitating or delivering a baby, that is my focus.”
Jan’s leadership in both business and philanthropy has received numerous awards: the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Innovation Export Award, the 2013 Telstra National Medium Business Award, and the 2014 Telstra Queensland Business Women’s Owner Award. In 2017, she was named Alumnus of the Year by the University of Sunshine Coast, where she had received her nursing degree.
In 2019, Jan was named a Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia, an honor awarded each year to 365 of the country’s 25.4 million residents. Jan was recognized for her service to community health through neonatal organizations and her service to aviation.
The Community of HAI
The Beckers first started coming to HAI HELI-EXPO in the early days of Becker Helicopters, back when the team consisted of Jan, Mike, and Oscar, the Bell 47. It was a real eye-opener, says Jan.
“Everybody wants to belong to something that is part of their passion. With HAI, there’s an additional focus on safety, education, training, and raising the professionalism in the helicopter industry. It’s a way of bringing everybody together who has a common passion but then giving them a common vision and a place to belong. We’re in a day and age when community is being lost. HAI is a place where there is a commonality of purpose.
“Without HAI, the Expo would just be an air show and tire kickers. We are doing something different here. By its very nature, we are uniting the world,” Jan says.
As the first HAI chair in some time to come from outside the United States, Jan wants to see the association pay more attention to the international helicopter industry. “America has 300 million people and more helicopters than half the nations put together, but there are ways in which we can give the international community more attention,” Jan says. “I would like to see at least a 25%, even 40% membership base from the international community.”
Jan welcomes change, including the advent of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. “It’s a disruptive time in the helicopter industry, and that’s exciting,” says Jan. “It’s irrelevant whether you like drones or not, they’re coming. In a country like Australia, drones will change the face of medicine because they’ll bring stuff out for one-tenth of the price to an aboriginal community.”
She believes that more operators should take advantage of this opportunity to provide aviation services at a drastically lower operating cost. “Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer. Learn about drones, set up your own division, stop whingeing about it, and get on board,” she says.
“Drones and helicopters have more similarities than differences, so we should be working together,” says Jan, adding that drones provide yet another example of how technology is advancing faster than aviation regulations. “We need to have a new look at how our regulators work with aviation sections that are not attached to the airline business. Perhaps the helicopter industry should get grouped with the drones, and a fresh regulatory approach should be created.”
Her other initiative is to keep the HAI committees focused on meaningful work. “Some of them have a big legacy, and others need a breath of fresh air,” she says. Jan supports moving some committees to the status of a working group. “The group works for three months on a project and then finishes. The other way, when committees lag on without a clear purpose, they just lose energy. Groups need clear KPIs and missions.”
As chair of HAI for 2019–20, Jan will lead a project that will define the association for years to come: choosing the new president/CEO to succeed Matt Zuccaro, who will retire on June 30, 2020. “I think the board and the selection committee have a tremendous responsibility to see that it is an international search for a new CEO—man, woman, of any nation, any color. It’s not a fait accompli. The world is watching.
“HAI has to be a leader in embracing the changes that are in the industry—leading not just the helicopter industry but propelling innovation and reaching the next generation.”