“One of the good guys.” “A real gem.” “What happens when our industry gets it right.”
These are the types of comments I heard about Jim Wisecup as he was elected to the HAI Board of Directors and then was selected by his fellow directors as chairman of the association for the 2018–19 term. And spending an afternoon with Jim helped me to understand why he is so respected in the industry.
Jim is a highly experienced 16,000-hour pilot with a deep understanding of industry issues and an even better grasp of how we will solve every one of those problems: through people working together.
Deciding on Aviation
Jim grew up in the Houston area. After high school, he attended the University of Houston for a year, but he says that at 19 he was “too impatient” for college. (Fifty years later, Jim has more patience: he is finishing up his studies at Southern Utah University and expects to get a bachelor’s degree in aviation science in spring 2019.)
Even as a teenager, Jim knew that he wanted to fly for a living — his first ride in an airplane taught him that — so he joined the US Army. Unlike other services, the army did not require its pilots to have a college degree.
During his year in Vietnam, Jim flew for the MACV-SOG unit, which conducted special ops missions. Characteristically, Jim turns his year of living dangerously into a funny story, remarking that he had three engine failures caused by FOD (foreign object damage). The first was caused by a mortar round, the second by an artillery shell, and the third by a rocket-propelled grenade. He earned several decorations, including a Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and multiple air medals along the way.
Jim was discharged in April 1971 and then went to work for the US Department of the Interior. He had used his GI Bill benefits to get his fixed-wing ratings and was also working as a fixed-wing instructor. But his real goal was to find a job flying helicopters.
At this time, the helicopter industry was flooded with US Army–trained pilots and maintenance technicians, so finding a job in the helicopter industry wasn’t easy, even for an experienced pilot. Luckily, one of Jim’s fixed-wing students mentioned that he would soon be quitting his job at Offshore Helicopters in Sabine Pass, Texas.
Armed with that intelligence, Jim applied for a job at Offshore but was told that there were no openings. Jim didn’t share that there soon would be, and sure enough, he was offered the newly open position.
He started flying offshore in 1974 — pilot #5 of five pilot positions. After three years, when Offshore’s chief pilot left, Jim was offered the position. “I was probably the only one of the four pilots left who showed any desire or aptitude for the job,” says Jim.
Over 10 years of operations, Offshore went from five helicopters to 40, and from five pilots to 85. In 1979, when Bristow Helicopters bought Offshore Helicopters, Jim became chief pilot for Bristow’s US operations. After spending a year-and-a-half working for Bristow in the Gulf of Mexico, he was transferred to Bristow operations in Scotland and then to Malaysia as a training captain.
In 1984, Jim moved to Arctic Air as chief pilot — after several years abroad, he was eager to get back to the United States. He was working in California in 1987 when he got a call from Larry Kelly, whom he had worked with in the Gulf of Mexico (and with whom he later served on the HAI Board of Directors). Kelly urged Jim to apply for a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma, flying air medical missions for Rocky Mountain Helicopters.
Jim’s interview for the job was with John Heiskel, vice president of air medical operations for Rocky Mountain. Heiskel turned out to be someone who had interviewed with Jim for a job in the Gulf — and then didn’t get it. Luckily, Heiskel didn’t hold a grudge.
Jim has been flying in the helicopter air ambulance (HAA) sector ever since. Rocky Mountain Helicopters was acquired by Air Methods in 2002, and Jim is now an assistant chief pilot at the company, which operates 300 bases serving 48 US states.
Flying air medical has its own rewards, says Jim, who no longer flies patient transport flights. “I miss it sometimes, but not at four o’clock in the morning when it’s 10 degrees outside.” From thousands of transports, three or four patients have returned to say thanks, says Jim, and that makes it all worthwhile.
Success in a Small World
As you listen to Jim talk about his career, a common theme keeps popping up: how many jobs were the result of someone he had worked with reaching out with a recommendation or job offer. Jim laughs this off, explaining that “he has friends in low places,” but he goes on to explain that aviation is a small industry and the helicopter sector is a very small part of that — “Which is really good if you’re a good guy, and it’s really bad if you’re not.”
Jim believes that part of success in any job is how you treat the people — all the people — that you work with. “If you have looked out for people, then they will look out for you.”
He was fortunate to work with several people who influenced his management style. Jim Overstreet, the director of operations at Offshore Helicopters, was one. “He was a genuinely nice guy and didn’t have to be a horse’s butt to get things done,” says Jim. “He treated people fairly, and that got me going in the right direction as far as management style.”
Jim also feels fortunate to have worked with Heiskel, who was part of the management team at Rocky Mountain Helicopters and then Air Methods until his retirement two years ago. “One of the most honorable people I’ve ever met, and he got things done.”
Jim would like to see more industry recognition of the importance of mentoring, not just for new pilots and maintenance technicians, but also for people in midcareer. “Human factors is about more than safety; it’s also about how we treat people,” he says.
A Just Culture
Jim is grateful to have worked with companies who seemed to have developed a just culture before that term became an industry standard. “If you willfully and knowingly violate federal aviation regulations or company policy, you’re done, you’re gone. But if it’s an honest human mistake — well, we’ve had people make some big ones and they’re still working for us,” he says.
Jim has been training pilots since Vietnam. “I was a unit instructor pilot, and I really enjoyed that because I felt like I could pass along my experiences to the younger pilots or the newer pilots. I say younger — I was 20 years old at the time.”
In his current job as assistant chief pilot, Jim is responsible for all training on Air Methods AgustaWestland 109 and 119 aircraft and single- and multi-engine airplanes (the company divides chief pilot responsibilities by airframes). He is a check airman for the Bell 407 and occasionally flies ferry flights. He is also a designated pilot examiner.
While some pilots may enjoy the daredevil aspects of flight, Jim takes the opposite tack: “You can make it as safe or as dangerous as you want. I liked to make it safe, which is why after 50 years I’m still here.
“Not that I haven’t made mistakes,” he says. “But I feel like I’ve learned from those mistakes and I try to learn from the mistakes of others.” That’s an attitude he encourages in others.
It’s hard, he says, when a young, enthusiastic student pilot doesn’t make the grade. “They’ll say, ‘I’ve failed.’ And I say, ‘The only way it’s a failure is if you fail to learn from this.’ Just understand where you fell short and don’t do it again. It’s not a failure, it’s an opportunity to learn.”
Jim would be the first to acknowledge that the helicopter industry has some opportunities to learn. While unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, are a current hot topic, Jim believes that drones will become simply another tool in the aviation toolbox.
“There are jobs that drones should be doing, because they can do them as well or better than helicopters,” he says. “But there’s enough jobs that need helicopters, as well as pilots and maintenance technicians. That’s where we should be concentrating our efforts. What we can do best, let’s do it. What they can do better, they should do that.”
Noise complaints are another long-term issue for the industry. Through his work with Air Methods, Jim was part of industry efforts to reduce helicopter noise in the L.A. basin. He credits education and outreach by area industry groups to the local helicopter community for reducing noise complaints, but he also points out that similar grassroots campaigns targeting helicopter noise are springing up in other areas.
Tied up with the noise issue is preemption — which is another way of saying that the FAA is ceding its regulatory authority over US aviation to Congress and the states. If this trend continues, rather than one set of aviation regulations that apply to the entire United States, aviators could face a complex arrangement of laws and regulations, right down to communities designating specific altitudes for overflights.
Jim’s optimism about the industry’s ability to make headway on these issues in part stems from his experience. Yes, making good regulations is a challenge, but Jim can also cite progress made on several issues.
For example, when Rocky Mountain Helicopters first tried to use night-vision goggles (NVGs), the FAA threatened it with violating 14 CFR 91.13, Careless or Reckless Operation. It took a court case to change that, and NVGs have since steadily become more common in HAA operations.
“It took us 10 years to get the first ship outfitted with them and five years to get the second one. In the next 10 years, we went from two aircraft being equipped to 100 percent,” Jim says.
“That’s really been a huge game changer in the air medical industry. We had a year in 2008 where there were 17 fatalities in HAA operations from CFIT [controlled flight into terrain] accidents at night, with unaided vision. The number of those has dropped drastically.”
Making a Difference
Jim has been attending HAI HELI‑EXPO® since the 1970s (“back when HAI was still HAA”), but he really got involved in HAI when he was working for Rocky Mountain Helicopters. He was an active volunteer, serving on the Air Medical, Flight Operations, and Heliport committees.
Jim remembers hammering out recommended changes for the 2004 Heliport Design Advisory Circular (AC 150/5390-2B) with other members of the Heliport Committee. “It wasn’t always fun in those rooms, but we did get a lot of good things done, and it’s nice to think that I played a part in that. I’ve gotten a lot out of the industry, and I think being active in HAI is a way to put something back in,” he says.
Jim has been married to his wife Jessica for 31 years. Together, they have a blended family of five children (one from his first marriage, two from hers, and two children together) and six grandchildren.
He is proud of having a hand in raising five adults who are now on their own, busy with their careers. They are scattered around the United States: California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Luckily, Jim and Jessica enjoy travel, and the couple looks forward to spending more time on the road after Jim retires.
Meanwhile, Jim is happy to continue his work at Air Methods. “I’ve stayed there for a number of reasons. One, air medicine is a place where we do some good, and I thought I had things to contribute to our pilots. It felt like the right place to make a difference — helping pilots to be better pilots, our managers to be better managers, and my check airmen to be better check airmen. Because if we can help each other, it’s a whole lot easier.”