HAI/Dan Sweet photo
New HAI chair will expand association’s global reach, voice.
You could say Tom Cruise sent Jeffery Smith on a 36-year aviation journey.
In 1986, Jeff, who will become the 2022–23 chair of HAI’s Board of Directors on Jul. 1, was like most high school seniors, wondering what to do with his life. After seeing Top Gun that year, Jeff was sold. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he recalls about the movie starring Cruise as a young naval aviator.
Jeff visited a US Navy recruiter to pursue his career choice, but his spirit fizzled when he learned he needed a four-year college degree to fly jets. At the time, college wasn’t feasible for Jeff, but the recruiter referred him to the Army instead. That service branch was accepting nondegreed applicants to fly helicopters under its “From High School to Flight School” program.
The Army had already been a way of life for Jeff; his father, a Korean War veteran, had spent 28 years in the service. Along the way, the younger Smith had ample time to learn about Army aircraft. “My favorite was the Cobra,” he remembers. He applied to become an Army helicopter pilot and was accepted even before graduating high school, through the delayed-enlistment plan.
Early Career Years
As an Army pilot for 10 years, Jeff flew the OH-58 Kiowa and UH-1V Huey during assignments in North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. During his military career, he flew attack, air cavalry, general support, and air ambulance missions and served as an instructor, safety officer, and operations officer.
As in many careers, there are mentors who coach colleagues over workplace hurdles. So, too, in the military. Jeff credits his commander for the guidance he provided in helping Jeff balance work and family responsibilities while Jeff was in the Army.
“I was very young and had already started a family with two adopted boys, so I was dealing with a lot of home issues,” he recalls. “[My commander] helped me through that, and I give him credit for guiding me toward becoming an officer.”
Upon leaving active duty in 1997, Jeff took a job with Liberty Helicopters conducting sightseeing tours in the New York City metropolitan area. He soon became a Part 135 captain flying a range of helicopters: the 206L-1, AS350B and B1–3, AS355, AS365, EC120, and EC130. He went on to become the assistant chief pilot, as well as heliport manager and safety officer, at Liberty—all in just four years.
After his time at Liberty, Jeff worked for several other aeronautical companies, including the now-defunct Executive Airlines in Farmingdale, New York, where he managed a variety of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.
“I started as the lead helicopter captain and quickly progressed to chief pilot and then director of operations,” Jeff says. “Executive Airlines gave me the best experience of running a Part 135 company because I was always arguing regulations, like weather calls, duty times, 135 versus 91 trips, with the main principal. I was in my FAA liaison’s office so much that we became good friends.”
In 2001, Jeff started his own company, Integrated Aviation Group, flying a Dauphin with the helicopter’s owners. He hired one of his Operation Desert Storm colleagues from his Army days and together they obtained a Part 135 IFR certificate and added an S-76 to the business. The company was dissolved when the helicopters were eventually sold.
Jeff accepted a position with R.O.P. Aviation in Teterboro, New Jersey, in 2005 flying an S-76C+, AW139, and Gulfstream G550. There, as in his Army career, he had a benefactor. This time, that individual helped Jeff accelerate his way to a G550 type rating.
“It was an incredible show of loyalty, one that I will never forget and plan to always reciprocate. I flew the Cessna 172, the BE76 Duchess, and then right into the 550.”
In addition to his G550 rating, Jeff holds a helicopter multi-engine with instrument certificate as well as an ATP (airline transport pilot) and an AW139 type rating.
While he’s amassed an outstanding resume as a pilot and manager of pilots, Jeff’s not one to be satisfied with just building his career. Today, he’s R.O.P.’s chief pilot, but he’s also an aviation enthusiast dedicated to advancing the entire helicopter industry.
Serving the Helicopter Community
Jeff brings considerable experience and expertise to his new role as chair of the HAI Board of Directors. From 2006 to 2008, he chaired an FAA ad hoc committee providing recommendations on redesigning the complex metropolitan New York City airspace.
Following a fatal midair collision over the Hudson River between an airplane and a helicopter in August 2009, he served on the New York Airspace Working Group convened by the FAA to review operating procedures in the area. Their work contributed to the FAA’s establishment of a Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) in November of that year.
For Smith, the accident was personal. “The helicopter pilot was Jeremy Clarke, who flew for Liberty Helicopters. I had dinner with him two nights before. He was a happy Kiwi [New Zealander] and was engaged to be married.”
Jeff’s experience with New York airspace proved valuable during the annual opening of the United Nations’ General Assembly, which typically includes a presidential visit, creating a citywide TFR (temporary flight restriction) lasting up to three weeks. He was able to negotiate an exemption with the US Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration, and the FAA allowing helicopters to fly inside the TFR.
Jeff has served on several FAA task forces dealing with airspace or access restrictions in the New York City metropolitan area. He was awarded the National Business Aviation Association’s Silk Scarf Award, given to individuals for special contributions to the business aviation community, for his efforts.
Of all the work he has done to improve flight safety, however, Jeff cites the past 15 years on the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC) as his most rewarding in aviation. The group is made up mostly of flight department managers and chief pilots from the New York City metro area who rely on the council for guidance on political and legislative issues.
During his time with ERHC, Jeff served as chairman for five years as well as director and VP of operations. “We developed the New York City Air SOP, which standardized air tour routes flying out of downtown Manhattan, to address community noise concerns.”
The council also maintains a robust Fly Neighborly program that brings communities together to work out aviation issues. “I’m most proud of my leadership on the council,” Jeff says. “I became the subject-matter expert for helicopters in the Northeast.” For his service, Smith earned the council’s Chairman’s Award for Excellence.
In promoting aviation, Smith isn’t afraid to fight for an airport’s very existence. In 2014, he organized stakeholders to block a community effort to stifle operations at Long Island’s East Hampton Airport (KHTO). The town imposed crippling flight restrictions that would have shut down airport business. Aircraft considered “too noisy” were prohibited from flying from 8 pm to 9 am. “This included almost all the helicopters,” Jeff recalls.
Jeff’s group fought the restrictions in federal court and won an initial victory. However, the airport has since privatized and closed amid additional ongoing litigation.
With all his experience as an aviation advocate, Jeff is no stranger to HAI, for which he has served in various capacities for more than 10 years. He credits the association for giving him the tools to build his business and professional career and says his involvement in HAI’s working groups has honed his management and leadership skills.
“Members can draw on the HAI staff’s broad range of expertise whenever needed,” Jeff adds. He urges anyone in the vertical lift industry to become a member and take advantage of that knowledge, as well as the association’s many networking and educational opportunities, to advance their professional development.
Prior to becoming board chair, Jeff served as HAI’s vice chair and treasurer. In the latter position, which he held from 2020 to 2021, he was responsible for a $14 million investment portfolio. In addition, he chaired the Fly Neighborly and Environmental Acoustics Committees (now the combined Fly Neighborly / Environmental Working Group) for four years, working with operators, equipment manufacturers, engineers, and government agencies such as the FAA, Department of Transportation, and NASA to reduce the noise impact of aircraft and improve community relations.
“Noise mitigation and the need to maintain community compatibility is one of the most important issues facing the aviation industry,” Jeff says. He has also worked closely with HAI’s Helicopter Tour Operators and Flight Operations Working Groups and the latter’s Vertical Flight Infrastructure Sub-Working Group.
Priorities as HAI Chair
As chair, Jeff has three important priorities: expanding HAI’s international footprint to unify the helicopter community globally—“We need to emphasize the ‘I’ in HAI”—enhancing the association’s role as the leading global voice, and promoting and advocating for the vertical lift industry. (See “Vertical Flight Industry Struggles to Fill Vacancies,” below, for more on Jeff’s third priority.)
This year, the HAI board appointed a special advisor – international as another step in broadening the association’s global reach, an initiative Jeff aims to expand on.
“My vision is to expand our regional partnerships, like those we have with the European Helicopter Association and the Australian Helicopter Industry Association,” both of which participate in HAI’s International Partnership Program.
Another concern confronting the industry is the integration of eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft. “Vertical lift technology is rapidly changing. Electric vehicles will have sophisticated avionics, engineering for low noise and low emissions, and advanced batteries,” Jeff notes. “And they’ll operate in the same spaces as legacy aircraft.” The HAI board has appointed a special advisor – emerging technology to help the industry embrace these new vehicles, he adds.
As the incoming chair evaluates the current helicopter community, he considers safety to remain an issue. Poor flight planning followed by scud running is a recipe for disaster and far too often leads to unintended flight in IMC (UIMC), loss of control in-flight (LOC-I), or striking an object at low altitude (LALT). Unsurprisingly, the US Helicopter Safety Team ranks UIMC, LOC-I, and LALT among the top three causes of fatal helicopter accidents during the past decade. Jeff argues that too many accidents under these circumstances can be traced to a pilot’s refusal to say no.
“We’ve come a long way in changing the safety culture,” Jeff says. “But we still have a way to go. We need to go beyond ‘Land & LIVE.’ There’s a myth in aviation that we’re paid as pilots and mechanics to get the mission done. I would say we’re actually paid to say no.”
Other times, hazardous situations may be caused by inexperienced pilots flying unfamiliar or overequipped aircraft. “More training needs to be done for these pilots,” Jeff adds, such as providing more initial training and annual refresher courses to ensure that pilots use systems properly and spend less time distracted during critical phases of flight.
A VVIP Passenger
Jeff has more than 11,500 hours of flight time involving everything from air ambulance operations to flying in a movie production and enough stories to generate hours of great hanger talk. But one memory really stands out—the time Jeff and his copilot were assigned to fly to Kennebunkport, Maine, to pick up former president George H. W. Bush and fly him to a library dedication in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Before they could begin the trip in their TwinStar (AS355 F2), Jeff and his copilot were both required to have a top secret security clearance. The space over the Bush compound, located on Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, is prohibited airspace, just like above the White House.
The crew finally launched, and as they neared the former president’s property, they contacted Boston Center Air Traffic Control for clearance to land. “We don’t give those kinds of clearances,” was the response. “Still, I felt good about the mission, so we proceeded,” Jeff recalls.
As they flew over the former president’s estate, the crew noticed several buildings. “We didn’t know which one was the president’s residence,” Jeff says. “Then I saw a huge Texas flag next to one building. Being from Texas myself, I knew that had to be it.”
Spotting a grassy area near the flagpole, the crew landed, still unsure if the president was nearby.
“We saw a guy in overalls and a baseball cap walking toward us. ‘That must be one of the gardeners. He should be able to tell us if we landed in the right spot.’ But as the somewhat untidy guy got closer, a pet terrier ran by. “And sure as hell, it’s George H. W. Bush!” exclaims Jeff.
But wait, there’s another surprise. “After a few seconds, some Secret Service Suburbans [SUVs] approached us and came to a screeching halt. We found out we landed at the wrong spot.
“The former president was one of the most wonderful passengers we ever had,” Jeff continues. “He spoke about fishing, the kind of fish he caught, the history of the nearby islands. He was just a gentleman. When we brought him back [from the library dedication], he changed out of his suit and took off in his boat to go fishing even before we departed.”
HAI President and CEO Jim Viola praises Jeff for his contributions to both HAI and the helicopter community. “Jeff is one of those rare aviation trailblazers who will surely take the helicopter industry to the next level,” Viola says. “We look forward to his leadership.”
Jeff says none of his successes could have been achieved without family support, especially from his wonderful wife, Lauren. “There were many family functions I had to miss, and Lauren carried the load.”
Oh, and Jeff did eventually get that college degree, in 1995. He holds a bachelor of science in business aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Vertical Flight Industry Struggles to Fill Vacancies
There’s an urgent need in the vertical flight community for pilots and aviation mechanics/engineers, and the industry needs to find solutions soon, before the shortage becomes an emergency.
That’s how Jeff Smith, 2022–23 chair of HAI’s Board of Directors, characterizes the vertical flight industry today. The industry must be prepared now to address, and take part in, workforce development, he urges.
For decades, the main source for filling aviation jobs was the military. “The military pipeline was always the source for pilots and mechanics, especially coming out of Vietnam,” Jeff notes. “They were already trained and had no loans [burdening them].”
In the 1980s, about two-thirds of professional pilots got their training in the military. Now, that number has been reduced. All branches of the military have undergone force reductions, so the population of pilots and maintainers leaving the military has declined. Furthermore, vets are sometimes leaving the service with less flight or mechanical experience than before.
Fortunately, vertical flight careers offer a road map for each industry specialty. “If you want to fly offshore, fly fire or corporate, there are clear steps to take to get there,” Jeff adds.
Aspiring helicopter pilots first attend a flight school to get their ratings. These are generally expensive to obtain, but one way to keep training costs low is to earn your ratings in an airplane first and then transition to helicopters. “It‘ll be a lot cheaper and make you more marketable in the long run,” Jeff notes.
Most new pilots then immediately become instructors, usually at the same school, to accumulate hours, proficiency, and confidence. The next step could be to take a job as a line pilot for an air tour operation, usually flying single pilot.
“This is an excellent way to gain experience and network in the industry to find that next position,” Jeff says. The goal is to accumulate at least 1,500 hours, which is generally the minimum requirement for commercial pilots’ insurability. At that point, a pilot can move up to a twin-engine turbine and a corporate position.
Aviation mechanics/engineers can obtain their required training in two ways: attending an approved Part 147 or equivalent program or through apprenticeship programs that offer on-the-job training under the supervision of licensed mechanics/engineers. “They may go from washing helicopters to more advanced tasks under the review of an A&P,” Jeff says.
One obstacle for the vertical lift industry in filling maintenance positions is that many maintenance training programs focus solely on fixed-wing aircraft, meaning their newly minted graduates may not consider positions with rotorcraft operators or maintenance facilities.
To fill their pilot and maintenance vacancies, the vertical lift industry must find creative solutions to compete with the enticing employee benefit packages offered by regional airlines.
Jeff has personally mentored many aviation professionals. He especially encourages women to consider aviation careers, and he supports women’s aviation organizations such as Whirly-Girls: “I’ve had a successful career, and I want to give something back.”