New HAI chair to focus on strategic initiatives, rebranding.
On a bright, sunny morning in Oahu, Hawaii, a few months before she’ll begin a one-year term as chair of the HAI Board of Directors, Nicole Battjes conducts a preflight inspection on one of the eight helicopters in the fleet operated by Rainbow Helicopters, the Honolulu-based air tour operation she founded in 2011.
An optimist, Nicole lives by the spirit of “aloha,” a Hawaiian word that signifies kindness, compassion, and community. She also embraces the mantra “Don’t quit before the miracle happens.” This philosophy appears throughout Nicole’s life and may be the reason she thrives today.
When she takes the reins at HAI on Jul. 1, 2023, Nicole will lead the board through a pivotal point in the association’s history. As part of a three-year initiative, HAI is rebranding. The change means a new name and logo, but it’s really about expanding the association’s mission to encompass a bigger, bolder vision of vertical aviation that includes all vertical aviation operations.
Rebranding is a huge undertaking, but it’s one Nicole has accomplished before, at Rainbow Helicopters. Based at Honolulu International Airport (PHNL), Rainbow offers aerial tours of the island of Oahu, private charters, photography and videography flights, and flight instruction. Its 12 pilots fly up to 32 flights a day, 365 days a year, flying more than 7,500 flights annually in a fleet of two Airbus AStars and six Robinson R44s.
Rainbow maintains its helicopters in-house, providing both routine and preventive maintenance. As an authorized Robinson service center and dealer, the company also overhauls its R44s. With 3,500 flight hours, Nicole serves as CEO, director of operations, check pilot, and flight instructor, but she also relies on a team of 50 employees—“the best team in the world,” Nicole says—to keep the whole operation running smoothly.
Her Own Path
The desire to create her own path emerged early in Nicole’s life. As a child growing up in a small town in Michigan, she knew two things: she wanted to be a pilot, and she was intrigued with business, sales, and marketing. “I was the girl selling candy bars out of my locker in seventh grade,” says Nicole.
She earned her pilot’s license at 18 and developed her own undergraduate degree at Eastern Michigan University, combining courses in business, aviation, and communications. Fixed-wing aviation lost a future entrepreneur when Nicole took a helicopter flight while in college and decided to pursue a career in vertical aviation.
After college, Nicole packed her belongings in her Honda Accord and moved to California for some early helicopter training and to work for Sonoma Helicopters. Along with managing the administrative side of the business and assisting with marketing and sales, she helped the small helicopter flight school pursue a Part 135 certificate, a task even seasoned aviation experts find daunting.
“They had one R44 and two R22s,” recalls Nicole. “The owner wanted a Part 135 certificate so they could fly on-demand charters to the wineries. I had no experience in that, but I knew I could figure it out.”
Nicole deciphered the complex Part 135 application process by reading, studying, and consulting with friends and connections across the industry, including the Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots.
“I learned a lot about regulations and the FAA and how the infrastructure of a Part 135 certificate was written and built,” Nicole says. “In addition to the administrative side, I looked at the practical aspects of becoming a Part 135 operator, which is huge. How does it get implemented in a company? What privileges do you have as a 135 operator? This experience built my confidence that I could do the same thing for myself. When I started Rainbow, the first thing I did was put in an application with the FAA for a 135 certificate.”
While at Sonoma Helicopters, Nicole earned the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship from the Ninety-Nines, giving her the opportunity to complete her commercial helicopter training. With an idea for a business and the freedom to go anywhere for the training, Nicole chose her own path once again—in Hawaii.
“I came to Hawaii because it’s so beautiful. I wanted to live in a climate that I could fly in every day. I also wanted to live in a place that had diversity and culture,” says Nicole, who now considers Hawaii her permanent home.
On Jul. 13, 2011, at just 27 years of age, Nicole started her company and launched her entrepreneurial vision. Over the next 18 months, she developed contacts, learned about the tour industry in Hawaii, and eventually leased her first helicopter and began flying tours. In the beginning, Nicole handled everything: answering the phone, scheduling reservations, shuttling customers back and forth, flying tours, and repeating the process again as many times as possible each day. After about six months of operating, Nicole was able to hire her first employee, a reservationist and shuttle driver.
“Leasing my first helicopter was a pivotal moment. I was really young. I had to earn credibility and build my business. Being a young woman in a male-dominated industry, I may have faced more barriers, but I never quit,” says Nicole. “I’ve never seen myself as unequal. My vision, my voice, and my capabilities are equal to anyone else’s.”
As we speak by phone in April, Nicole reflects on another crucial role: mother. She and her husband, Mark, have a 2-year-old who will shortly become a big brother when Nicole gives birth right around the time she becomes HAI chair—certainly a first for the association.
She credits Mark with being her constant advocate. “We met two years after I started my business, which I was very focused on growing, and he wasn’t intimidated by that at all. He believes in my vision and continually contributes to it. Mark is my biggest support.”
Running a business while building a family is challenging, and Nicole credits “a huge army of support” with helping her balance her work and home responsibilities. She also points out that being a mother has taught her a valuable business lesson. “Having my first child was a life-altering event that significantly changed my perspective. It forced me to become a better leader by efficiently devoting time and energy to family and the business to ensure that both thrived.”
Nicole believes the demands of motherhood have helped her focus on what’s important, both at home and at work. “When you have a child, you get really good at prioritizing, and your perspective becomes much sharper. Even though being a parent adds responsibility and takes time, it also helps you to make better, more effective decisions.”
As a member of Women in Aviation International and the Whirly-Girls in addition to the Ninety-Nines, Nicole is quick to acknowledge the support she receives from her industry network. “Fellow HAI Board member and former chair Stacy Sheard has been a huge inspiration to me. She had the courage to go out there and dream big,” says Nicole. “It really helps being able to talk through challenges with people like Stacy and other women in organizations like the Ninety-Nines. When you talk through a problem, it cuts it in half.”
Nicole realizes that her story demonstrates the industry’s increasing embrace of diversity. “The fact that my fellow directors elected me—not just a woman but one who will be having a baby just days before I become chair—is a sign of how far we’ve come as an industry. I hope my experience shows that we all have the capacity to create ourselves as leaders, to carve our own path of success. You can be a pilot, you can own a business, and you can have kids and a family.”
Growing in Tough Times
As with so many businesses, Nicole’s tour operation got hit hard by the COVID pandemic, closing its doors for nearly eight months. But Nicole’s optimistic nature kicked in, and she chose to turn the situation into a positive. “Instead of buying into the doom and gloom, we actually bought an AStar and dove into rebranding,” she says. “We decided we were going to come out of the pandemic bigger and better, and we have. We continue to grow, and these last couple of years have been our biggest yet.”
The team considered more than 75 names, but Nicole wanted one with a strong connection to Hawaii. In Rainbow, she found a name that reflects the state’s natural beauty as well as the spirit of aloha she and her team feel for the islands and their people.
“I’m in love with hospitality. I love flying people. I love hosting people. I love everything about Hawaiian hospitality and the tour business,” says Nicole.
She credits a dedication to customer service with propelling Rainbow’s growth. “We call it our ‘mana,’ which is basically our good spirits,” explains Nicole. “We’re obsessed with treating people well and giving them a good experience. It’s not just the guests; it’s all the people we work with. It’s also the vendors and those who are selling tours for us—everyone.”
With up to 32 flights a day, Rainbow Helicopters is a high-volume operation. Standardizing every process, from flying to maintenance to safety, is critical to its success. Nicole considers implementing a safety management system (SMS) in her business in 2019 to be another crucial moment in her life.
“The SMS really strengthened the trust between team members and the transparency around safety,” she says. Rainbow employees are empowered to speak up when they see a safety hazard and are rewarded for doing so.
“Your team are your eyes and ears,” says Nicole. “They’re the smart people who can identify hazards. Without them, you’re in a much riskier position of not understanding what your hazards and risks are.”
Nicole believes the SMS transformed Rainbow’s culture. “I sort of re-fell in love with my business after I implemented SMS,” she says. “SMS made it a place that everybody wants to come to every day, a place that has a strong mission and a strong sense of community. Before the SMS, we felt like an average company with average problems. Now, it feels like we really know who we are and where we’re going.”
Leading an Expanding Industry
Nicole joined HAI in 2009 to gain a better understanding of the vertical aviation industry. Having attended every HAI HELI-EXPO® since, she sees firsthand the value of participating in the association’s annual conference and trade show. “You learn about all the different lines of business and that the opportunities in this industry are endless if you put the effort in.”
Nicole values HAI’s ability to connect the industry. “The biggest benefits of HAI are building relationships, networking, and finding dynamic and workable solutions for industrywide issues. We’re better together as a vertical lift community,” she says, “and all organizations in the industry can rely on HAI to be a trusted resource to address our challenges.
“I try to be the example of what I want to see in the world, in my business, and in my local community. I implemented an SMS at Rainbow Helicopters, and I encourage others to use one. I look for ways to reach out and help companies that are facing the same legislative issues as mine. If we all do that, we’ll be better together.”
Nicole is passionate about vertical aviation and wants to ensure that its role in society is better understood. “A helicopter is not an accessory. It’s vital to the world in so many ways. It’s vital to seeing the world and having joyful experiences, to saving lives in emergency services. It’s vital to keeping the power on and to the military for combat and moving supplies. There are so many more examples, and the expansion of the vertical aviation fleet and missions means that our role is just going to get bigger,” she says. “It’s so important that vertical aviation is accepted and embraced as essential to community life and to our economy.”
Nicole was elected to the HAI Board of Directors in 2020 and helped spearhead the association’s 18-month strategic planning initiative, which yielded a roadmap for the association’s future. The plan details five strategic initiatives for HAI that will position the industry for growth:
- Unify the industry around a new vision of vertical aviation
- Engage the global value chain to create a favorable environment that will help the entire industry thrive
- Elevate the industry’s safety culture
- Develop business resources that will help companies elevate their operational performance
- Build and retain a skilled workforce.
“As an industry, we’re in a time of expanding and refreshing our identity. We’re recognizing that vertical lift has a whole new definition. Whereas historically it primarily denoted helicopters, it now applies to every type of vehicle that can fly vertically. We all share common flight characteristics, which opens up unique missions,” Nicole says.
“I’m so excited and honored to lead the board and the industry through the rebirth of HAI’s identity and the expansion of our mission,” Nicole adds. “I’m thrilled to see what we’ll become over the next 5 to 10 years. I look forward to boldly going where the technology takes us.”