Above: Mark at Dakota Rotors’ main location near Custer, South Dakota. (Johnny Sundby Photography)

 

Workforce development, airspace access are key priorities for VAI 2024–25 chair.

Helicopters haven’t always been a part of Mark Schlaefli’s workday. The new chair of the VAI Board of Directors embarked on his vertical flight career later in life—at 41. Two decades later, he’s demonstrated there’s a place for everyone in vertical aviation.

Mark, who will step into his new leadership position at VAI for one year beginning Jul. 1, 2024, has enjoyed a range of roles in aviation, including line pilot, chief pilot, director of operations, and, currently, co-owner of seven helicopter companies in the Upper Midwest and Mountain West of the United States, including Dakota Rotors in Custer, South Dakota. Now, Mark has added another important role: industry advocate.

It all started with a potent mix of adventure, curiosity, and determination. Before he entered aviation, Mark was a computer-graphics designer longing to break free from his desk job to work outdoors. While vacationing near the Gulf of Mexico, he would watch helicopters come and go, ferrying crews, executives, and supplies to oil platforms offshore. He wondered who was flying all the machines.

“It really piqued my curiosity. I’ve always been fascinated with aircraft, especially helicopters. I was under the impression that you had to go into the military to even have a chance to work in the industry,” says Mark. “I’m not sure where that idea came from. But it turns out, that’s absolutely not true.”

Mark briefs his team in the hangar. “We all work very closely to help create excellent pilots,” he says. (Johnny Sundby Photography)

In 2005, two years before taking his first flight lesson, Mark attended HAI HELI-EXPO®, the annual aviation conference and trade show now known as VERTICON. There, he gained a good understanding of the industry but found little encouragement. One presenter at the show told him his age would be an issue if he were to pursue a career in aviation.

“That just motivated me more to say, ‘I’m doing it,’ ” says Mark. “I started looking into what it would take, from the process to the cost to the career options. I discovered that, in fact, it is entirely possible to build a career in aviation starting at age 41.

“I chose helicopters specifically for the variety of their capabilities,” Mark continues. “And given the airlines’ flight-time requirements and retirement age of 65 at the time, I believed I could have a longer career with helicopters than with fixed-wing aircraft.”

A New Career

Mark’s foray into aviation began in 2008 at Civic Helicopters in Carlsbad, California, where he completed his ratings, served as a flight instructor, and learned about flying and the industry from owner Chin Tu. Mark also credits 2021–22 VAI (then HAI) chair and Helicopter Institute president Randy Rowles as an early mentor, along with Rotor Pro Editor in Chief Lyn Burks and, in later years, Eric Lincoln, former director of operations for Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. Mark is quick to point out that many more people continue to guide and shape his growth in the industry today.

While a flight instructor at Civic Helicopters in Carlsbad, California, Mark trained both San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and San Diego Police Department pilots. (Mark Schlaefli Photo)

After gaining expertise and flight time at Civic Helicopters, Mark joined Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters in southern Nevada in 2010. He flew the Eurocopter EC130 and AS350 for air tours and charters, rising through the ranks to chief pilot.

Mark then moved to Sundance Helicopters in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2014 as chief pilot and was promoted within eight months to director of operations. He oversaw a fleet of up to 29 helicopters, one fixed-wing aircraft, and 60 pilots across three bases in Nevada and Arizona. Mark stayed with the company until it closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I probably would have stayed there forever had it not been for the pandemic,” Mark says. “It was a great combination of tour and utility work, and the team we built was incredible.”

Mark landed next at Redding Air Service, a utility operator in Northern California, first serving as chief pilot and then as director of operations, a position he still holds today. At Redding Air Service, he manages a fleet of eight aircraft engaged in power-line construction, human external cargo operations, fire suppression, and other utility services.

In 2021, Mark and business partner John Wells purchased four companies specializing in Part 91 and Part 135 air tour operations in South Dakota, and later in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in Montana and Wyoming. The acquisition included Dakota Rotors, which offers Part 135 on-demand charter services and Part 133 external-load operations. Dakota Rotors also provides pilots, aircraft, and maintenance to the other companies in the group. Its fleet of nine aircraft comprise Robinson R44s and R66s, Bell 206B-3s, and Bell 206L-4 LongRangers.

“At the height of our business in the summer, we have about 30 employees and 18 pilots,” says Mark.

Building a Workforce

Workforce development will be one of Mark’s chief priorities as VAI chair. Tour operations like his have historically been an important stop for new pilots, enabling many to gain hours and experience before moving on to other missions.

“I’ve hired a lot of pilots over the years, probably north of 225. A majority of those represent lower-time pilots who are breaking into the industry, building time and, more importantly, experience,” says Mark, who has 3,600 flight hours and an airline transport pilot rotorcraft certificate as well as rotorcraft instrument, CFI, and CFII ratings.

“At Sundance, we were developing a program to hire pilots with 750 hours instead of the typical 1,000 hours. The idea was to take pilots with a new commercial license and slowly work them into the flight rotation while mentoring and training them along the way to have them functioning as commercial pilots earlier and at a higher level of safety and performance. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, Sundance folded before the program got off the ground.”

Mark plans to re-create the Sundance program at Dakota Rotors, with the goal of helping pilots go from the learning environment to the commercial flying environment in a way that adds value and experience to their resume. He’s also interested in helping pilots earn their commercial license in exchange for time working for the company as a cost-effective approach to developing a workforce in-house.

A Bell 205 operated by Redding Air Service performs work under a fire response contract with Shasta–Trinity National Forest in California. Mark still serves as director of operations for the utility operator, where he was also chief pilot before purchasing his own helicopter companies in South Dakota. (Mark Schlaefli Photo)

With both experienced pilots and maintenance technicians in short supply, Mark believes operators themselves have to be part of the solution.

“My company can produce only so many experienced commercial pilots at a time. We need more companies doing something similar,” Mark says.

“There are other things operators can do to promote workforce development. For example, we added a safety management system [SMS] to our small operation. With us introducing SMS to people early in their career, they can begin to understand what a healthy safety culture is, how to assess risk, and how to apply mitigation to their daily activities. It prepares them for the next step in their career working for a larger company.”

Passionate about Airspace Access

Another industry issue Mark feels passionate about, airspace access, directly affects his air tour business. Federal rules have cut his air tour flights over the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Badlands National Park from an allocation of 9,300 to 0. In response to what amounts to a ban on air tours by uninformed policymakers, Mark has filed suit to overturn the new rules.

“Advocacy for issues like access is one of the biggest benefits of VAI. The association has a fantastic government affairs team working on our behalf to engage with lawmakers. We may not get everything we want, but we have someone out there fighting for us.”

The owners of Dakota Rotors are finding ways to cope with the shifting landscape. The company has grown over the past couple of years by adding new locations in the Yellowstone area and diversifying into other sectors such as utility operations.

Mark’s companies fly tours and perform utility operations from the group’s main location near Custer, South Dakota. (Johnny Sundby Photography)

Serving the Industry

As for what’s ahead in his year as chair, Mark is focused on continuing to develop and implement VAI’s strategic initiatives. Of the association’s new identity as Vertical Aviation International, he emphasizes that the organization’s member-focused purpose hasn’t changed.

“Advocacy for issues like airspace access is one of the biggest benefits of VAI. The association has a fantastic government affairs team working on our behalf to engage with lawmakers.”
—Mark Schlaefli

“It’s just more inclusive,” Mark explains. “We’re embracing the future. Helicopters are vertical aviation. We’re just evolving to include other vertical-capable aircraft. We want a unified industry ecosystem, with manufacturers, operators, training organizations, and service providers all working together and supporting each other.”

Having attended HAI HELI-EXPO every year since 2010, Mark values the show for its focus on networking, sharing best practices, and discussing industry needs.

“I learn something every time I attend. Actually, I learn something new every day in this job. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the industry. I love that education is a big piece of what VAI offers,” says Mark, who has served on several of the association’s committees and working groups, including those involving safety. “I think learning how to establish a healthy safety culture is essential. We replicate our mistakes over and over. The causes of accidents are repeated themes. Finding ways to curb those is one of our greatest challenges.”

Mark thinks of his role as VAI chair as a mixture of leadership and service.

“Rather than focusing on individual accomplishments, I’m more interested in our collective growth as an industry. It’s about supporting VAI staff, engaging with members and serving their needs, and ensuring the health of the association. I want what’s best for all of us. I want us all to prosper; I want us all to be safe. I’d like there to be a future where we all share in increased ­opportunity.”

Share the Story
Christine Knauer

Christine Knauer

For more than 25 years, Christine Knauer has written for major aircraft OEMs, MROs, and avionics manufacturers as well as aviation trade organizations and publications. She specializes in editorial and marketing content that shares the stories of aviation’s people and machines. Christine holds a master’s degree in aviation safety.