Charlie Rowles Photo
World-class instructor and aviation leader steps up to guide HAI.
On Jul. 1, 2021, Randy Rowles became the new chairman of HAI’s board of directors. Being elected by your peers to lead an industry trade association is a huge achievement, but it’s an even greater feat considering that Randy quit high school in his first year and started a family as a teenager. He ultimately earned an MBA and now operates an internationally renowned helicopter flight-training school.
But to appreciate how Randy reached the summit of the helicopter community, let’s start from the beginning.
Randy’s father ignited an aviation spark in his son that quickly blazed when they visited an air show near West Palm Beach, Florida, where Randy grew up. Just 14 at the time, Randy took a ride in a Bell 47J Ranger. He liked it so much, he took another ride—all on his father’s dime, of course.
“Something struck me about it,” he recalls. “I just knew I wanted to fly.”
His first challenge wasn’t learning to master the aircraft but, rather, how to pay for the training. Bernoulli’s principle may give helicopters their lift, but students know money keeps them in the air. “My father told me, ‘I’ll pay for the first lesson, but you’ll need to figure out how to pay for the rest.’ ”
Fortunately, the senior Rowles had some good advice about where Randy could accomplish that, telling his son to hang out where he could learn more about flying—at the airport. So Randy pedaled his bike after school and on weekends to Palm Beach County Park Airport (KLNA). He roamed the ramps, getting to know people and doing odd jobs, such as washing airplanes and cleaning hangars, and then trading his sweat equity for flight time. That approach eventually paid off, earning the aspiring aviator his airplane private pilot certificate at the age of 17.
Randy was riveted on making it in aviation—but in school, not so much. He hated high school so much that he dropped out in his first year. To add to his challenges, he and Samantha Hoban, his girlfriend, whom he met in seventh grade, married and became parents at 18.
Luckily, a local pilot and community college aviation instructor took an interest in the teenager and insisted he take the GED (General Educational Development Test). He passed, earning a high school equivalency diploma, and his mentor invited Randy to take aviation courses at the community college.
There, Randy met many aviation professionals, leading to his first aviation job as a fueler for Aircraft Service International Group at Palm Beach International Airport (KPBI). Although only 17, Randy claimed he was 18 to get the job. “I was fueling for Delta Air Lines, driving a 10,000-gallon fuel truck,” he recalls. “I had several jobs to pay the bills.”
Randy credits the management of another company, Aircoastal Helicopters, for working out the deal of a lifetime, which enabled him to realize his dream of working with rotorcraft. “I didn’t like working with airplanes, and a worker at Aircoastal didn’t like working with helicopters, so the companies swapped us,” he says. “That single trade of employees really changed my life.”
At Aircoastal, Randy got his first taste of the helicopter industry, at times tagging along on company flights. But he still needed training to move ahead. Sweeping floors and fueling helicopters didn’t bring in enough money to fly them.
His next big break happened in that same hangar. Palm Beach Helicopters leased space from Aircoastal and ran a flight school. Wisely, Randy added the flight school’s office to his cleaning routine, eventually becoming friends with the owner. “I asked him if he knew any students willing to help pay for my flight lessons. He had a lot of high-end students—doctors and lawyers.”
His timing couldn’t have been better.
The owner of Palm Beach Helicopters was willing to invest in Randy’s aviation training in exchange for his help in establishing a crop-dusting company in Georgia. Randy earned his helicopter commercial certificate and one week later was applying the low-altitude, aerobatic yank-and-bank skills of crop-dusting.
Now 19 years old with some flying experience, Randy returned to Aircoastal Helicopters. Over the next several years, he worked as a line pilot, check pilot, and chief pilot while also starting the company’s flight school. “I was not only a pilot, but I learned to manage an aviation business,” says Randy.
Taking It to the Limit
While Randy’s ambition soared, his stamina was tested. Because of his experience flying Robinson helicopters, he was approached by the FAA to become a designated pilot examiner (DPE). In that role, he met instructors who trained pilots for the nearby sheriff’s department. One instructor flew a vintage Sikorsky helicopter that Randy learned to fly.
Next, Randy became an S-76 instructor at FlightSafety International. He was also a freelance pilot for businesses and air medical operations, including flying a Trauma Hawk for the Health Care District of Palm Beach County as well as flying for the South Florida Water Management District—all while employed by Aircoastal.
“Samantha used to bring me my flight suit between jobs. I was probably filing seven or eight W-2s a year,” he says.
In 2001, Randy started his own helicopter school, Palm Beach Helicopters, using with permission the name of his former employer, which had since closed its doors. Next, he added turbine training to the school’s curriculum.
The doors kept opening. He was approached by Bell Textron because the company’s retiring chief flight instructor recommended Randy for an instructor position at the Bell Training Academy. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse, even though it meant relocating to Texas, walking away from his business and other jobs.
At Bell, in addition to his role as a flight instructor, he was selected for the company’s High Potential Employee Program. That involved reporting to executive leadership, including the CEO, to provide guidance on how the company could improve its customer service and pilot training programs.
One day, while meeting with the vice president of commercial programs, Randy noticed the executive’s Harvard T-shirt and asked if he had attended the school. The vice president said he had only been at Harvard for a leadership class and then asked where Randy had gone to college.
When Randy replied that he had quit school in the ninth grade and only had a GED, “he looked at me like I had a third eye and asked how I was able to get hired at Bell,” says Randy. “I told him I was already hired for my flying background, and I completed an application afterward. He told me I had just hit a glass ceiling and that I needed an MBA.”
Going from a GED to an MBA is a staggering leap, but Randy had always found ways to clear major hurdles. This was no different.
Bell recommended he attend the executive MBA program at Texas Christian University. There, his extensive business experience along with his position at Bell were credited toward a bachelor’s degree, which allowed Randy to directly enter the MBA program. But getting in wasn’t easy. Randy compares the MBA entrance interview to “the Spanish Inquisition.”
After earning his degree in 2008, Randy was eager to gain some leadership experience and that opportunity came about at Silver State Helicopters in Nevada. He accepted the challenge of working in a company that some thought would create a new model for helicopter flight training. Still, he had an agreement with Bell that he could return if things at Silver State didn’t pan out.
That didn’t take long. Upon his arrival at Silver State, “it was evident there were major issues,” he recalls. Silver State had created extensive programs to recruit students and then provide them with loans structured to be paid back in 10 months, well before the 18-month training program concluded. The company anticipated that most students would quit, since their schools were about 45% over capacity. If that happened after 90 days, under the terms of the loan agreement, Silver State then kept the money.
Rather than invest in staff and resources, Silver State repeated this cycle again and again. In addition, the company financed most of its operation, so there was tremendous debt, Randy explains.
“They were committing fraud,” he says. Randy gave his notice and returned to Bell. Shortly after, Silver State went bankrupt, its students got fleeced, and lawsuits flourished.
Randy’s next assignment at Bell was in the government program management office. Sitting in an office chair didn’t suit him—he wanted to fly. Then the recession hit, and Bell cut jobs, including Randy’s.
Although Randy has held many full- and part-time jobs during his career, he credits his wife, Samantha, for her support because gaining all that experience meant time away from his family. “If it weren’t for my wife, I wouldn’t be able to do this. She’s been there for me,” he says. Randy insists family support is essential for an aviator’s career, where many positions require time away from home, uncertain hours, and frequent schedule changes, conditions that have led to many family breakups.
Looking back, Randy’s biggest regret was taking the job at Silver State rather than pursuing his dream job as director of the Bell Training Academy.. “But you don’t stop fighting, you keep moving forward,” he says.
Appropriately, for someone with that mindset, the best was yet to come.
In 2009, Randy and Samantha launched the Helicopter Institute. At first, they concentrated on providing checkrides. Then things began looking up.
Thanks to a referral from a former Bell colleague, Randy received a call from the Tennessee Valley Authority asking for helicopter training. Then another organization called, and another, and another as the business thrived.
Today, Helicopter Institute is a worldwide leader in helicopter training, with 19 employees and seven aircraft: a Bell 206B-3 and 407, a Eurocopter AS350 B2, an MD 500, two Robinson R22s, and an R44. The organization provides factory-alternative training for Airbus, Bell, MD Helicopters, Robinson, and Sikorsky aircraft owners. Rotorcraft training is offered from the private-pilot to ATP levels, as well as training for CFI, CFII, and night-vision goggle certificates.
Randy also provides night-vision goggle instruction to US government agencies, including the State Department, the Justice Department, and the FAA. “I’m one of the few DPEs authorized to issue endorsements for night-vision goggle instructors,” he says. Helicopter Institute also offers a management boot camp for aspiring Part 135 operators.
Randy is quite proud of his latest client, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Helicopter Institute has been selected as the university’s primary helicopter trainer, beginning with the fall 2022 semester. “It’s a huge feather in our cap,” he says. “We competed against many other companies.” The contract is special to Randy for another reason: “I’d always dreamed of going to Embry-Riddle.”
One way the Helicopter Institute strives to stay on the cutting edge of the industry is by participating at HAI HELI‑EXPO®. Randy first exhibited in 1993 with a Sikorsky S-55 turbine and has been there every year since. “HAI HELI‑EXPO provides a single venue where I can engage clients both domestic and international,” he says. “The educational courses and working groups also provide tremendous opportunities to expand knowledge, experience, and skills. The show is always worth the trip.”
Priorities for HAI
Randy’s volunteer work with HAI began in 2005 when he led the formation of an HAI committee focused on flight training issues, serving as its chairman for six years. He sees the association as a vital representative for the rotorcraft industry.
“The biggest issue for our US operator members is their ability to navigate FAA requirements and processes,” Randy says. “We need to make sure operators are getting the information they need to succeed.” However, he believes that HAI President and CEO James Viola’s experience as an FAA employee and executive and his keen understanding of both the FAA and the industry have helped HAI to be an effective mediator for the industry and a trusted source of information for the US regulator.
Randy would also like to see HAI expand internationally, pointing out that the problems and challenges of vertical lift are the same everywhere: improving safety, helping operators deal with noise issues, and integrating UAS pilot certification and training. “HAI has some 70 years of experience in embracing new categories of aircraft, and the global vertical lift industry can benefit from that,” he says.
Tackling the pilot and mechanic shortage is another priority for Randy. “We need pilots and mechanics with the experience for more high-end work. Therefore, we need operators willing to mentor and train.” High schools can also be partners in addressing aviation workforce development, he notes. “I’m so supportive of vocational training for high school students. An opportunity to have selected a vocational path related to aviation would have kept me in school.”
Another way to address the pilot shortage is by integrating drones into helicopter operations, Randy says. Using uncrewed aircraft systems (UASs) instead of helicopters for dull and dangerous operations such as pipeline and power-line inspections frees pilots for other tasks. “When the risk is in the yellow and red areas, the job is ideal for UASs.”
Challenges in Training
Reflecting on his 32 years in flight training, Randy says the latest generation of flight students learn differently and focus more on technology. However, upgrading older aircraft from steam gauges to glass can be tough. FAA policies, procedures, and guidance are very strict, and most haven’t changed much since the 1960s and ’70s, he says. “It’s challenging to get the FAA to approve new technologies.”
As an example, Randy says the supplemental type certificate required to install a Garmin G500 electronic flight display in an R44 is unnecessarily expensive because the installation is treated as an IFR upgrade, even though the aircraft can only fly VFR. The extra expense of the upgrade, while better preparing pilots for the modern cockpit, then increases the cost of training.
With an ongoing pilot shortage, pushing flight training costs to anywhere from $85,000 to $100,000—especially when entry-level pilots may make $25 an hour until they acquire enough hours to qualify for most commercial jobs—doesn’t make sense, Randy explains. Again, this is where HAI and its members can play a role.
“HAI has volunteer groups that work on issues on behalf of the board of directors, allowing HAI staff to propose solutions to the FAA.
“We need to get the cost of helicopter training down, and it all starts with certification and industry participation,” Rowles continues. “The industry needs a commonsense approach to pilot development that considers safety and uses good judgment.”
Randy is also exploring ways to ensure there are sufficient DPEs to meet public demand and currently serves on the FAA’s Designated Pilot Examiner Reforms Working Group.
An ATP pilot with more than 15,000 flight hours, Randy is also an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor. (In the box below, check out Randy’s tips on two maneuvers every rotorcraft pilot must master.) He’s traveled the world, from the North Slope of Alaska to South America, Austria, and China, to train pilots.
But he met one of his favorite students back in Florida, not far from where he grew up.
Some years ago, Randy recalls, he was in the lobby of the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport (KFLL), waiting for a checkride applicant. “Someone said hello, and I turned around and there was Harrison Ford!”
“I’m Harrison Ford,” the man said.
“I know who you are. What are you doing here?” said Randy.
“I’m your applicant today,” Ford replied.
Randy remembers that he had to collect himself for a moment. Ford, the star of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, was one of his childhood heroes—and now Randy would be his examiner.
As Randy tells it, Ford next said, “I’ve got kids older than you.”
The memory still makes Randy laugh. While he’s come a long way from the front seat of that Delta fuel truck, the spark that drove him then still drives him forward.