For more than 80 years, vertical aviation aircraft have made considerable differences in lives, communities, and businesses worldwide. Our industry’s achievements are the result of an exceptional level of dedication to professionalism and safety by aviation professionals.

Every year, through its Salute to Excellence Awards, HAI recognizes a number of these outstanding members of the vertical flight community for going above and beyond in their work. Whether in a single instance or throughout a career, these pilots, maintenance technicians, flight instructors, safety professionals, operators, and industry leaders from around the globe remind us to always aim for excellence.

HAI recognizes our 2024 honorees for their remarkable achievements across the rotorcraft industry. We congratulate them and celebrate their extraordinary contributions to aviation and the example they set for the entire vertical flight community.

Nominations for the 2025 Salute to Excellence Awards, to be celebrated at VERTICON 2025 in Dallas, will be accepted beginning in June 2024. Visit for more information.

Matthew Zuccaro Land & LIVE Award

Buhagiar and Sidorski

Capts. Steve Buhagiar and David Sidorski
Pilots, Bristow Group
Houston, Texas, USA

On the afternoon of Sep. 24, 2022, Steve Buhagiar and David Sidorski were flying four passengers in a Bristow Group Leonardo AW139 to Houma, Louisiana, from an offshore oil platform. When the flight was about seven minutes from the airport, the crew heard a loud “whoof” sound and saw thick smoke coming from the overhead circuit-breaker panel. Smoke immediately filled the cockpit as the low–rotor rpm warning alarm sounded, both engines began racing, and the aircraft started a rapid climb.

Buhagiar, the pilot-in-command for the flight, fully lowered the collective as he fought to bring rpm back and maintain aircraft control. Meanwhile, Sidorski snapped the left-side door window in two and, to protect the tail rotor, pulled half of it in and behind the seat, clearing smoke from the cabin. With the cabin clear of smoke, the pair began troubleshooting. Buhagiar lowered the landing gear as a precaution. The engines were at 140% torque as rotor rpm slowly returned to 100%. Even with collective full down and nose level, the aircraft was in a 1,700 ft.-per-minute climb.

“We’d climbed from 3,500 to almost 7,000 ft. in the span of a few minutes,” Buhagiar recalls. “I remember thinking at that point we were going to climb to 20,000 ft., flame out, and be a lawn dart into the marsh. I didn’t know how much more the aircraft could take. We needed to reduce power. I asked David to bring engine one down to idle to see if that helped.”

Sidorski brought engine one to idle and the rpm immediately deteriorated to 80%. He rapidly brought it back and rpm slowly returned. During that maneuver, however, the aircraft had descended 1,000 ft. With no other option seemingly apparent, Buhagiar nosed the aircraft forward in an attempt to lose altitude. The aircraft sped up to more than 186 kt., well above the aircraft’s maximum speed, as Buhagiar flew in a large, gradual spiral to descend.

Once lined up for the runway, the crew decided to bring engine two to idle and attempt an autorotation. The rotor rpm immediately plummeted to 67% before returning to full engine power.

Now knowing the aircraft could still fly at 67% rpm, Buhagiar and Sidorski elected to exchange rpm for altitude by throttling back the engines and immediately powering back up repeatedly to descend. The two pilots continued the maneuver, exchanging rpm for airspeed in the end to lose the last several feet. The helicopter touched down at what Buhagiar believes was about 60 kt. Both main landing gear collapsed while the aircraft skidded 800 ft. down the runway before sliding 15 ft. into the grass and stopping.

“This incident, while harrowing, highlights the significance of exemplary pilot training, the importance of teamwork under duress, and the ability to make strategic decisions during crises,” wrote Jason Glynn, US area manager for Bristow Group, in his nomination for the award. “Buhagiar’s and Sidorski’s actions were instrumental in preventing a potential tragedy.”

Buhagiar and Sidorski were successful in safely landing the aircraft with only one minor injury (a passenger noted a sore back but was released after medical examination). Later, the US National Transportation Safety Board determined the incident was caused by incorrectly routed wiring that chaffed, caught fire, and caused the upper carbon-fiber collective torque tube to melt and rotate, leaving the rotor blades in a full pitch position even when the collective was down.

“It was such an intense experience, the entire event,” Sidorski recalls. “There were so many times we could have died, but neither of us locked up. We kept flying the aircraft. There is nothing in the manual that tells you what to do in this situation. We worked together to meticulously test options based on the warning and caution, not making any sudden or drastic actions. We knew we were done if we didn’t do anything, so we did what we could while the aircraft was still flying to get us down safely.”

Excellence in Communications

Bryan Matsukey

Bryan Matuskey
Production Team Leader/Videographer, Rotor Pro magazine
Prescott, Arizona, USA

Bryan Matuskey grew up in a creative household. His mother was a photographer who regularly took photos and planned and filmed skits for her kids. Later, Matuskey’s older brother taught him about video editing, lighting, and art interpretation.

In high school, Matuskey made a video that so impressed the school that the administration hired him to create a promotional video of their own. He also filmed local sports, all while considering his video work to be just a fun side hobby. Then, word got out about his skills, and people kept recommending Matuskey for new projects. It wasn’t long before he realized he could develop his hobby into a career.

Matuskey formed his own business in 2006 and worked on a variety of projects, including his own cable television show, interdisciplinary art films at Arizona State University and Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, and religious icon videos for the Episcopal Diocese.

Matuskey’s dad loved aviation and often took his children to the airport on weekends to have breakfast and watch aircraft. That exposure to aviation early in his life made it natural for Matuskey to say yes when helicopter flight training company Guidance Aviation called requesting a promotional video. That first assignment for Guidance Aviation led to training videos, followed by an offer of full-time work. While at Guidance, Matuskey created an online training school for uncrewed aerial systems and developed a maneuvers guide app for Robinson helicopters.

It was in the Guidance booth at HAI HELI-EXPO 2013 where Matuskey met Rotor Pro magazine Editor-in-Chief Lyn Burks. Burks initially hired Matuskey to make a few videos and eventually offered him a position to assemble the entire bimonthly magazine in addition to creating videos to accompany each issue.

“Bryan’s true gift to the industry lies in his ability to transcend traditional magazine articles,” writes Burks in his nomination letter for Matuskey. “He crafts video narratives that take viewers on immersive journeys, allowing them to perceive the intricacies of vertical lift operations from unique and uplifting perspectives. He has enabled countless operators to share their stories with the wider vertical lift community.”

Today, Matuskey designs six English-language and two Spanish-language editions of Rotor Pro each year, having helped publish more than 6,000 pages since he started. He has produced over 130 helicopter industry–specific videos with nearly 2 million total online views, as well as 80-plus educational, training, and safety-related videos for various vertical flight organizations around the world. After a decade with Rotor Pro, what stands out most to Matuskey is how his work shines a positive light on all facets of the industry.

“The projects I’m most proud of are those that show the unique ways helicopters save, serve, and protect people around the world,” Matuskey shares. “For instance, a video I did on helicopter EMS operations was instrumental in [helping] foreign governments adopt [such] operations. And a documentary I worked on successfully advocated for the continuation of the National Guard’s Apache AH-64 helicopter program. It’s very gratifying to learn that the videos I make have a positive impact, and I’m honored to be a part of telling the industry’s story.”

Humanitarian Service

Sponsored by Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company

Rainbow Helicopters

Rainbow Helicopters
Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

On Aug. 9, 2023, employees of Honolulu, Hawaii–based Rainbow Helicopters woke to the devastating news that a fire had destroyed the town of Lahaina, Maui. They had an immediate and overwhelming desire to do something, anything, to help their greater Maui ohana—their Hawaiian family.

Throughout the day, the Rainbow Helicopters team reached out through its wide-ranging network to learn what people needed. They soon received a clear message: people had left their homes with nothing, and mothers and babies in particular needed immediate assistance.

Having herself given birth just six weeks earlier, Rainbow Helicopters owner and director of operations Nicole Battjes dove into action. She sent her father-in-law and a Rainbow team member on a Costco run to buy as much formula, diapers, baby wipes, and other supplies as could fit into an Airbus AS350 helicopter. As the two purchased over $4,000 worth of supplies, news spread among the rest of the Rainbow Helicopters team. People stayed on past their shifts, and others returned to volunteer their time to aid in the humanitarian effort. Mechanics ensured the helicopter was ready to fly, ground crew weighed loads, operations managers planned and oversaw loading, and pilots created the flight plan. On the morning of Aug. 11, the helicopter flew its first relief flight to Maui, landing at Kapalua Airport (PHJH), as close to Lahaina as it could safely land.

Ground-tour company volunteers met the helicopter with vans to unload and transport the supplies to families in need. The helicopter then flew to Maui’s international airport in Kahului, where the team loaded more supplies that couldn’t get to Lahaina by ground and brought them to Kapalua. During the flights, the team saw firsthand Lahaina’s complete destruction and the desperate need of its residents. When they returned to Oahu, they shared what they had witnessed, inspiring further action.

The Rainbow team established a GoFundMe account in hopes of raising $1,000 to purchase supplies for the residents. All told, the account raised over $76,000, 100% of which was used to purchase items for families affected by the fire. Rainbow Helicopters also established a base of operations for physical donations from around Oahu, and over the next several weeks the entire team donated hundreds of hours of off time to purchase, receive, and catalog supplies; package and weigh loads; load helicopters; and fly relief missions.

“It took on a life of its own, and I was overwhelmed with pride in our team, our community, and those making donations,” Battjes says of the response. “At one point, through our partnerships, we were receiving photographs of specific supplies individual families needed, and our team members were volunteering their time to run to stores to get them and put them on the next flight. It took extra effort to drive around Oahu to find everything. It was really incredible to see people making this effort, and it was a feeling of hope during such a tragic time.”

In those first several weeks after the fire, Rainbow Helicopters flew 13 missions to Maui carrying more than 5,500 lb. of supplies, including 275 containers of formula, 175 cartons of diapers, 175 boxes of baby wipes, and more than 19 gallons of breast milk. Castle & Cooke Aviation donated all the jet fuel, and Rainbow Helicopters covered the avgas and aircraft for all the flights, which were flown in both Robinson R44 and AS350 helicopters.

To help with distribution, Rainbow Helicopters partnered with several organizations, including Northwest Mothers Milk Bank in Tigard, Oregon, and local nonprofits Keiki O Ka ‘Aina and Na ‘Aikane o Maui, which helped distribute the supplies and provided the operator with specific requests from families.

Rainbow Helicopters continued its efforts into the holiday season. Working with Keiki O Ka ‘Aina, the company provided food, gifts, and necessities to families in need. The operator also provided an aircraft to fly Santa Claus to Maui to deliver food, gifts, and necessities to children and spread holiday cheer.

W.A. “Dub” Blessing Flight Instructor of the Year Award

Sponsored by Hill Air

Catherine Press

Catherine Press
CEO, Chinook Helicopters
Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada

Chinook Helicopters CEO Catherine Press is a pioneer in not only flight instruction but in the entire Canadian helicopter industry. She began flying her dad’s floatplane at 11 years of age, soloing her first airplane at 16. When her father purchased a Bell 47 and started Chinook Helicopters in 1983, Cathy learned to fly that aircraft, as well, and on her 17th birthday she earned private licenses in both airplanes and helicopters. At the time, she was one of only half a dozen female helicopter pilots in Canada.

Press gained business and customer service experience working at Chinook Helicopters, and after she earned her commercial licenses in airplanes and helicopters, she began flying for the family business too, performing charters and electronic news-gathering, aerial-survey, search-and-rescue, and forestry missions. At age 21, she completed her airplane flight instructor rating, and in 1997, at age 27, she earned her helicopter flight instructor rating, becoming Canada’s first female helicopter flight instructor.

“Toward the end of my flight instructor flight test, I asked the examiner, who came from Ottawa to do the test, how many female flight instructors there were in Canada,” Press recalls. “He said ‘one’ and I asked who she was. He said, ‘It’s you! Congratulations!’ ”

Press dove headfirst into flight instructing, teaching up to 1,200 hours a year as she helped build up Chinook Helicopters as one of the country’s largest flight schools. A passionate learner, she studied for and earned her ratings from the FAA, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). She most recently acquired the ability to teach in Canada for EASA certification.

Press, who has more than 10,000 hours of flight instruction time, is currently the only person in Canada to hold Transport Canada pilot examiner status in both airplanes and helicopters. She has received Canada’s David Charles Abramson Memorial Flight Instructor Safety Award in recognition of her achievements and in 2021 was awarded an honorary doctorate of technology through the University of the Fraser Valley, in British Columbia.

“Cathy’s willingness to take chances and support individuals to reach their potential is quite admirable,” wrote Chinook Helicopters Chief Pilot Bill Snedden in his nomination of Press. “She exudes positivity and maintains connectivity with the Canadian aviation industry and regulatory bodies. Cathy drives the aviation industry forward with her incredible leadership and continual involvement within the community. The impact she has had on the pilots she has trained, employed, and networked with has been life-changing for them.”

In addition to flying, Press built Chinook Helicopters from a 3-aircraft school into a 16-helicopter, 14-airplane professional flight training academy. She also pulled together a team for the school to develop and receive Transport Canada approval to build four in-house flight training devices, a move she says saved the company tens of thousands of dollars over purchasing the devices.

Press also gives back to the aviation community. She is currently vice chair of the Helicopter Association of Canada’s board of directors and chair of the association’s Flight Training Committee. Press is also a board member of the British Columbia Aviation Council and a past board member of the International Women’s Forum. She serves on the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s Aviation Advisory Committee and remains deeply involved in student mentorship programs.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, and I was surrounded by aviation, so becoming a flight instructor was the perfect combination of my two passions,” she says. “That’s why I’ve not gone away and had a career longlining in large helicopters in other countries. I’ve stayed with the training because I really do enjoy people. I enjoy seeing, and I enjoy being a part of, their successes.”

Law Enforcement Award

Sponsored by MD Helicopters

Andrew Edgerton

Andrew Edgerton
Chief Pilot, Fairfax County Police Department Helicopter Division
Fairfax, Virginia, USA

Andrew Edgerton fell in love with aviation at an early age, spending hours flying airplanes with his dad. Originally, he hoped to be a naval aviator, until he learned during his high school years that he had less than perfect eyesight. He continued to fly nonetheless, earning his single-engine land and sea airplane ratings in his early 20s before switching to helicopters.

Working at a desk job in the telecom industry, Edgerton built his helicopter ratings to include commercial, instrument, flight instructor, and instrument instructor ratings. He began teaching flight instruction in helicopters in 2006, teaching on weekends and evenings until he landed a full-time news helicopter job.

In 2010, Edgerton joined Virginia’s Fairfax County Police Helicopter Division as a civilian line pilot flying the agency’s Bell 407. He was a part of the unit in 2011 when it became the first law enforcement agency and air ambulance service in the United States to use Bell 429s. When the division’s chief pilot position opened in 2021, he stepped up.

“I love the flying we do, as no two days are the same, especially because of the dual services we provide the community,” Edgerton says. “When the chief pilot position opened, I saw an opportunity to put my old business career skills to work to help strengthen the division.”

Edgerton had his work cut out for him. When he took the position, the helicopter division was temporarily based at Manassas Regional Airport (KHEF) in Manassas, Virginia, where it had been since July 2020, while its heliport in Fairfax was being rebuilt. He was responsible not only for running the helicopter division from a temporary facility, but also for overseeing the complex process of designing and constructing the new heliport—and then facilitating the unit’s successful relocation to the structure in 2023.

“One of Andrew’s most significant accomplishments was leading our team through a challenging transition period, which included the construction of a brand-new heliport, necessitating a three-year relocation to a temporary facility,” explained Fairfax County Police Lt. Brian Bowman in his nomination of Edgerton for the award. “This achievement is particularly noteworthy, as his meticulous planning, leadership, and attention to detail ensured that our operations remained safe and uninterrupted throughout the transition. Andrew’s resolute work ethic, dedication to our public safety missions, and significant contributions have not only elevated our aviation unit but have also had a profound impact on the safety and well-being of our community.”

Edgerton also served as the division’s safety officer for seven years before his promotion to chief pilot. In this role, he evaluated and mitigated risks associated with the unit’s missions and developed plans and risk assessments to maintain safe operations. He also ensured that the agency maintained strict compliance with all aviation regulations and guidelines.

He remains on the front line and is the first to volunteer to cover shifts, including off hours and holidays.

“I really do believe in and enjoy serving the community,” Edgerton says. “I get up in the morning and I want to go to work. I enjoy the administrative work, but I also love to fly. If I can pick up shifts while ensuring the other five pilots can attend to their personal lives, all the better.”

Golden Hour Award

Childrens Health Neonatal Pediatric Transport Team

Children’s Health Neonatal/Pediatric Transport Team
Children’s Health, Dallas, Texas, USA

The term “golden hour” is traditionally used to identify those critical first 60 minutes after a traumatic injury or onset of symptoms when a patient must receive lifesaving care for the best chance of survival. In neonatal critical care, however, there is another critical window—the “golden six hours.” This phrase refers to the time from a traumatic birth to when an emergency treatment called neonatal therapeutic hypothermia must take place to reduce the chances of further complications, as well as subsequent brain and organ damage.

Neonatal therapeutic hypothermia is a therapy specifically for babies who have experienced a lack of oxygen and/or blood flow to the brain and other organs during the mother’s labor and delivery. The therapy is administered using a water-filled cooling blanket to lower the baby’s body temperature, prolonging the time before further damage can occur.

On a hot summer night in July 2022, a baby was born prematurely with multiple complications at a community hospital in North Texas. With no neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the hospital, doctors decided to transport the baby to the Level IV NICU at Children’s Health Children’s Medical Center Dallas, all of whose ground vehicles and aircraft are equipped to support critical neonatal and pediatric needs.

After receiving the call, the Children’s Health Neonatal/Pediatric Transport Team launched the medical center’s Sikorsky S-76C++ from Dallas Love Field (KDAL). Nicknamed Child 1, the aircraft is a dual-pilot IFR helicopter that allows patient transport in poor weather conditions when other services can’t fly.

During the 30-minute flight, registered nurse Alex Cross, respiratory therapist Korey Roberts, and paramedic Hali Henry pre-cooled the equipment while the community hospital team began stabilizing the baby and preparing the infant for transport. The effort of both teams allowed the transport crew to begin the cooling process by 3 am, well within the golden six hours.

“When we arrived [at the community hospital], it was clear the baby was distressed,” Cross shares. “We acted fast to make sure the patient was comfortable, initiated cooling, and transported the patient. Children’s Health had their cooling mechanism ready, so as soon as we landed [back in Dallas] we moved the patient over and there was no interruption in this patient’s intervention therapy.”

The Neonatal/Pediatric Transport Team’s readiness and rapid delivery of cooling therapy was instrumental in helping the premature infant. This intervention has become more common for the hospital, with the team performing it roughly once a month, Cross says. She attributes this care to increased awareness of cooling’s ability to help reduce neurological damage after a traumatic birth.

This transport process is an example of the wide variety of responses the Children’s Health Neonatal/Pediatric Transport Team performs on any given day, with the team transporting more than 5,000 children a year.

Safety Award

Rex Alexander

Rex Alexander
President, Five-Alpha
Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA

A veteran vertical aviation professional, Rex Alexander has made significant strides increasing safety in the industry through patience, diplomacy, and perseverance.

Alexander began flying in 1985 as a helicopter pilot in the US Army. He later served in the Indiana Army National Guard as a pilot, instructor pilot, and standardization instructor pilot during his 10-year military career. After leaving the military, Alexander flew helicopters for the offshore oil-and-gas industry before becoming a helicopter air ambulance pilot with Omniflight Helicopters.

Over the next two decades as an air ambulance pilot, Alexander became a force for safety. He joined the Indiana Association of Air Medical Services and the National EMS Pilots Association (NEMSPA), serving as a board member and president for both organizations and advocating for increased safety in the helicopter air ambulance industry.

“I lost a lot of good friends in military and EMS accidents,” Alexander says. “When you look at the accidents, most were completely preventable. One of the biggest things that pushes me is that pilots are held to a higher standard than anyone else when looking at an accident. After an accident occurs, it’s way too easy to blame pilot error. It requires effort and specialized training to identify and classify the causes of and contributing factors in an accident. I’m driven to identify these causes and contributing factors, educate the industry on why they are threats, and work to eliminate them.”

While serving in the air ambulance industry, Alexander began to design and develop heliports. Assisting hospitals, he began to identify safety issues regarding heliport standards, building codes, fire codes, and pilot education. With this knowledge, he began to advocate for increased safety across the industry. In 2006, he worked with colleagues at NEMSPA to develop the HEMS Weather Tool. The following year, Alexander became cochair of the US Helicopter Safety Team’s (USHST’s) new Infrastructure Working Group (IWG).

In 2013, with the HEMS Weather Tool still in experimental status, Alexander collaborated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research to hold a joint industry–government summit to identify issues and roadblocks to launching the tool. The meeting ultimately uncovered a roadmap to effectively bring about FAA-mandated changes. Through their efforts, Alexander and the USHST IWG were successful in getting the HEMS Weather Tool fully funded and established under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aviation Weather Center.

Since then, Alexander and members of the USHST IWG have hosted eight highly successful summits dedicated to advancing helicopter safety and improving low altitude–aviation infrastructure.

Heliport and vertiport safety remain a key passion for Alexander. Today, he’s an infrastructure advisor to the Vertical Flight Society; a member of NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility Ecosystem Working Groups; and chair of the National Fire Protection Association’s Helicopter Facilities Technical Committee, which produced the association’s 418 Standard for Heliports in 2021. Alexander is also an instructor for the US Department of Transportation’s Transportation Safety Institute, teaching heliport evaluation, planning, and safety courses as well as an advanced rotorcraft accident investigation class.

“What drives Rex to action every day is knowing system safety is always shared and is always perishable,” wrote Tom Judge, executive director of LifeFlight of Maine, in his nomination letter for Alexander. “Every day, our people climb into helicopters, and soon new vehicles, and operate in a safer environment due to Rex’s efforts.”

Maintenance Award

Sponsored by Rolls-Royce

Michale Yip

Michael “Yippy” Yip
Director of Maintenance
Becker Helicopter Service Pty Ltd
Queensland, Australia

Michael “Yippy” Yip’s career began in 1977 when he enrolled as an apprentice to obtain a certificate of aircraft maintenance from Australia’s government-run Technical and Further Education program in Sydney. Since then, he’s built a 40-plus-year career as a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer, A&P mechanic, chief engineer, maintenance controller, head of aircraft maintenance control, and director of maintenance.

In 2009, Yip joined Becker Helicopter Services and has since developed an industry-wide reputation for not only his maintenance and management skills, but also his ability to strengthen teams and increase their safety margins. Yip has achieved these feats while overseeing a team of more than 50 full-time engineers and maintaining a fleet of 20 Bell 206 JetRangers. He has achieved a remarkable 98% availability rate under Australia’s IFR and night-vision imaging system standards.

One of Yip’s standout achievements, according to Becker Cofounder, Chief Pilot, and Executive Director Mike Becker, is his innovative way of strengthening relationships between pilots and engineers. “His programs are designed to cross-train staff and facilitate direct interactions, which have led to a more cohesive, efficient, and safe working environment,” Becker says.

Yip’s contributions to the Becker team include a monthly pilot maintenance program that culminates in a company barbecue to help foster a sense of community and open communication among staff. He’s also organized in-house safety programs to provide avenues for his team to participate in industry-wide safety initiatives. For instance, Yip included the company’s engineers in night-vision goggles training to improve both maintenance and operational effectiveness. His proactive approach to safety management systems (SMSs) includes encouraging his staff to actively contribute to the company’s SMS program, which helps promote a culture in which safety is a collective responsibility.

On the regulatory front, Yip has been a voice of reason and an agent for positive change. He has worked meticulously with local and international regulatory bodies to fine-tune the wording and intent of regulations, ensuring they are both current and operationally practical. His work has resulted in amendments to existing rules and regulations, marking him as a true industry influencer.

Yip’s philosophy is to take all he’s learned throughout his career and use it for the betterment of the company and his teams. “An efficient, profitable operation is possible with a well-resourced team,” Yip says. “I advocate for what the people who work for me need and also encourage them to help support everyone else along the way.”

Yip also mentors future aviation professionals. He’s trained 10 apprentices over the past decade, the majority of whom have remained in the industry, often in advanced positions. Some have even gone on to start their own aviation businesses, attesting to the quality of training and mentorship they received under Yip’s guidance.

When not overseeing Becker’s maintenance program, advocating for his team, or mentoring the next generation, Yip is deeply dedicated to his family—both at home and at work. He invites employees’ families to participate in staff celebrations and awards vouchers for family activities in recognition of work performance, emphasizing the importance of family’s contribution to work–life balance.

Pilot of the Year

Michael Sagely

Michael Sagely
Senior Pilot, Los Angeles County Fire Department
Santa Rosa Valley, California, USA

Michael Sagely, who in 1984 learned to fly helicopters in the US Army, has expressed extraordinary professionalism, leadership, and skill throughout his career.

Sagely’s story differs from that of most other former army aviators. He joined the service in his mid-20s after having been a Division I All-American athlete in men’s volleyball at San Diego State University and having played on the Olympic team. After enlisting in the military, he was accepted into flight school, aced Warrant Officer Candidate School as a distinguished graduate, and was an honor graduate from primary flight school, flying the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Upon assignment to the army’s 82nd Airborne Division, Sagely progressed rapidly and was selected for the instructor pilot course before becoming a CW2. During his 22 years in the army, Sagely served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and later was accepted into the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), where he flew elite special combat missions in multiple aircraft types. During his service, he received seven Air Medals and a Bronze Star for his actions in multiple combat operations and earned a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics with an aviation safety minor.

Upon retirement from the army, Sagely worked as a contract fire pilot for the Angeles National Forest Rappel/Helitack crew before being hired by the Santa Barbara County (California) Fire Department. In Santa Barbara, he became the first pilot in the unit’s history to conduct night-vision goggles (NVG) snorkel operations.

Sagely credits his success during his first three years of aerial firefighting to his army flying experience. Managing multiple radios for air and ground assets, flying in combat situations, using NVG, and performing precision operations transferred well to wildland firefighting.

Sagely joined the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD) in 2009 as a pilot. His leadership skills and aviator talents led to his promotion to senior pilot in less than two years. He has since earned two valor awards from the department and three awards for heroism from Sikorsky for his part in multiple rescues and other lifesaving missions.

Sagely attributes his success as a pilot and leader to significant mentors he has learned from throughout his career. Unsurprisingly, he has become a mentor himself, choosing people to guide who are willing to step outside their comfort zones and grow. Indeed, his leadership and mentorship within the LACFD have helped strengthen the department.

When reflecting upon his career at the LACFD, Sagely says it isn’t the awards and heroic missions that define his experience. Rather, his particular passion has been making LACFD Air Operations better.

“In the military, we had a saying: Leave the foxhole better than you found it,” Sagely shares. “If I were to highlight one piece of my career, it is my focus on the overall health of the organizations where I work, from adjusting attitudes and approaches to work to creating processes and procedures that help everything run more efficiently and safely.”

Lifetime Achievement Award

Sponsored by Bell

Anthony Cosimano

Anthony (Tony) Cosimano
International Aircraft Purchase and Lease
Warwick, NY, USA

Anthony “Tony” Cosimano has enjoyed a long and storied career filled with not only captivating adventures but also key actions that have influenced the future of the helicopter industry.

“Tony has traversed over 60 years of industry change, technology, and advancement,” wrote AW139 Capt. Stacy Sheard in her nomination of Cosimano for the award. “He was often the first, or one of the first, to fly commercial helicopters in many places around the world. Tony’s history has propelled the helicopter industry into what we know today. All the while, he offered mentorship and participated in various associations, committees, and endeavors supporting the industry and especially its people.”

It all began in Jamestown, New York, on a cold, rainy February day in 1956. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were in town for the world premiere of the film Forever, Darling, and Cosimano’s high school band led the parade for the event through town. He watched the celebrity couple arrive via a Bell 47. It was the first time he’d seen a flying helicopter, and the wonder of it stayed with him.

Cosimano originally planned to be a musician. He attended the University of Michigan and, later, the US Military Academy at West Point, where he played trumpet in the US Military Academy Band. His experiences there included participating in the lead band for President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade in 1961.

While at West Point, Cosimano joined the school’s flying club and learned to fly airplanes, but it was helicopters that captivated him most. He was one of a few helicopter pilot candidates accepted into the US Army flight school, earning his helicopter wings in 1963. He deployed to Vietnam the following year to support South Vietnamese fighters from the air during the Vietnam War, flying armed Bell UH-1B helicopters with the Cobra Platoon of the 114th Aviation Company.

After leaving the army in 1966 following an eventful flying career that included several close calls, Cosimano returned to New York and continued to pursue his passion for flying. Chesapeake & Potomac Airways hired him to fly AT&T underground right-of-way cables in a Bell 47.

In 1968, Cosimano cofounded Decair Helicopters with two partners. The company quickly grew, offering utility, flight training, and charter services in the New York City area and beyond.

One of Cosimano’s more memorable experiences in the early years of Decair Helicopters was providing aerial support for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969, transporting organizers, performers, and medical teams. That job helped boost the company’s profile, leading to a police contract, new utility contracts outside the state, movie shoots, a large oil exploration contract in Peru, and support missions for multiple rescue operators. During that time, Cosimano also formed the Helicopter Emergency Lift Program (HELP) to assist local agencies with helicopter support at no cost to the community.

After selling his shares in Decair in 1978, Cosimano accepted a management position to form the Envirogas helicopter department in Buffalo, New York. He also formed media company Metromedia’s helicopter operations unit and later the helicopter program at insurance giant AIG. He also became involved in the early stages of developing the Leonardo AW139 by chairing a worldwide customer advisory board.

After retiring from AIG in 2007, Cosimano took a position helping bring AW139 and A109 series helicopters from factory acceptance to the completion, sales, and delivery stages. He also started another company, International Aircraft Purchase & Lease, to provide consulting and pilot services.

“It’s definitely a passion, and that passion keeps me completely enmeshed in the helicopter industry,” Cosimano says of what’s driven him during his 60-plus-year career. “Every day is exciting, and I’m still flying, still very much involved and working with the [Leonardo] factory.”

Harold Summers Legacy Award 

Harold and Zhilin Summers

Zhilin Summers

Harold Summers was a part of vertical aviation for over 60 years, entering the industry after earning his airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificate in 1960, then flying helicopters on the Alaska Pipeline. He joined Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI) in 1964 as a mechanic–pilot, eventually rising to the role of VP of maintenance and engineering, in which he oversaw a massive fleet of aircraft globally that included more than 400 helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico alone. One significant achievement during his tenure with PHI was the implementation of health usage monitoring systems (HUMSs) in the organization’s fleet.

After 40 years with PHI, in 2004, Summers became director of maintenance at HAI (now VAI). While at the association, he dedicated the final 17 years of his life to improving the industry, serving as an active, vocal participant in countless HAI working groups, industry working groups, and national and international regulatory committees or working groups. His work took him across the river to Washington, D.C., back to the Gulf of Mexico, and around the world.

“Throughout his career, subordinates, peers, and leaders all recognized Harold’s ‘by-the-book’ work ethic,” says VAI President and CEO James Viola. “Except when he would disagree with ‘the book.’ Then, he was by-the-book in his efforts to change ‘the book.’ Because of his passion for our industry and his willingness to share his knowledge, our industry is indeed better as the results of his efforts.”

Summers never stopped working until his death in October 2021 at the age of 83. Ten years earlier, he received the prestigious FAA Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award, recognizing his 50 years of working in aircraft maintenance.

“Our current Salute Awards recognize special achievement by individuals or groups throughout our industry,” says Viola. “This new award recognizes Harold’s passion for the industry, particularly his enduring efforts to make every part of our industry better.

“VAI received numerous suggestions of methods to honor Harold’s spirit and legacy,” adds Viola. “We considered renaming existing awards in his honor, but nothing felt right. I am grateful to the VAI Technical and Maintenance Working Group—in which Harold participated—which proposed creating this new award to recognize extraordinary efforts to aid and improve our industry.”

In recognition of her unwavering support for her late husband, the inaugural award recipient of the Harold Summers Legacy Award is Zhilin Summers.

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