Incoming HAI chair focuses on coming together to overcome challenges.
Corporate helicopter captain Stacy Sheard began her one-year term as chair of Helicopter Association International on Jul 1, 2020. Her interest in helicopters as a young girl sparked an aviation career that has taken her around the world, preparing her to represent a global industry as it navigates its way back from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stacy’s imagination was first captured by helicopters while growing up in Clovis, California, a small agricultural town at the base of the Sierra Nevadas. Every spring and summer, helicopters flew from the nearby Fresno Air Terminal to the mountains, drawing her eyes skyward.
“I was about 11 or 12 when I really started taking notice,” she recalls. “They were always flying by to fight fires, and I thought, ‘Wow, I want to do that!’ The show Airwolf was on TV about that time too. That was a huge part of growing up and really inspired me. I loved that show and helicopter.”
It was the early 1980s, and flight schools were few and far between. The money needed to learn to fly was even harder to come by. Undeterred, a young Stacy rode her bike to the Fresno Air Terminal (since 1996 the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, KFAT) and offered to sweep hangar floors at Rogers Helicopters as a way to be around the machines and learn more. The helicopter operator declined her offer.
“I knew I wanted to fly, but I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it,” she says. “Then my mom gave me a book full of Black Hawks. I think that was what helped me decide that I would join the army and learn to fly there.”
In 1990, Stacy enlisted in the US Army. Her initial assignment was working as a Russian linguist and analyst for the National Security Agency. Four years in, she applied for the warrant officer program and flight school. She graduated in 1995 and flew Hueys and Black Hawks for six years before leaving the army in 2001.
Finding Her Superpower
It was during her last year in the army that Stacy discovered the skill that has propelled her career. Based at Fort Irwin in California, she began to research post-army job prospects. She traveled to Las Vegas to meet with helicopter tour operators, including Sundance Helicopters. She asked questions about transitioning to civilian flying, handed out her resume, and did the most important thing a job seeker can do: made a positive impression.
“I was due to get out in November 2001, then September 11 happened,” Stacy says. “It was really hard to get a job, and it was a rough couple of months. But because I took the time to talk to employers, I landed a job when they started hiring again in January. That’s when I really learned and understood the power of networking.”
Stacy flew tours of Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in AS350 B2s for Sundance. One day while out flying, she crossed paths with Los Angeles–based pilot Desiree Horton. The two made a strong impression on each other. Not long after, Stacy applied to Helinet Aviation, in Van Nuys, California, to fly its S-76 on a contract for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (read more about Helinet Aviation in the Q2 2020 issue of ROTOR).
“When the chief pilot asked his employees if they knew me, Desiree spoke up,” she says. “I honestly believe that networking helped me get the job.”
Stacy later moved to Elite Aviation, also in Van Nuys, where she flew single-pilot IFR as a corporate Bell 430 captain. Her main assignment was corporate transport, with a little flying for film production on the side. When Elite sold its aircraft in 2007, Sikorsky hired Stacy as a production test pilot for S-76 and S-92 helicopters. Stacy again credits networking for the move.
“Three years before, when I was flying for Children’s Hospital in the S-76, I’d started talking with people at Sikorsky,” she says. “The timing was right when a job opened there.”
Stacy’s people and piloting skills expanded while at Sikorsky. Her duties included production test-flying in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, delivery flights, and flight instruction around the world. It was during this time she experienced the global helicopter industry firsthand.
“It was eye-opening to learn most places don’t know how to treat helicopters,” she recalls. “There were so many countries learning to embrace the helicopter industry and so little knowledge about how to do so. For instance, at one airport in India, I was lined up on the taxiway behind seven jets waiting to take off. They had no helicopter takeoff procedures. Experiences like these showed me how HAI can be of real value overseas.”
By 2014, Stacy’s reputation in the industry was growing. An insurance company, MassMutual Financial Group, recruited her from Sikorsky, offering her the chance to fly the AW139, an aircraft that piqued her interest. In 2015, she was recruited again, this time by Michael Rubin, majority owner and CEO of Kynetic, a holding company for e-commerce retailers Fanatics, Rue La La, and ShopRunner.
Today Stacy has flown more than 9,000 hours and holds an ATP helicopter rating and type ratings in the S-70, S-92, and AW139. In addition to her helicopter training, she found the time to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s in aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Stacy continues to fly for Rubin’s Fanatics as an AW139 captain, transporting Rubin and other executives to multiple offices, sporting events, and business meetings around the northeastern United States. Fanatics also owns a Gulfstream 550. The company directly employs four helicopter and three airplane pilots, relying on Executive Jet Management to manage all other aspects of the aircraft, including support staff.
Making Genuine Connections
The secret to all of her opportunities in the civil helicopter industry, Stacy believes, is the willingness to network and make genuine connections with people. After her visit and the positive impression she’d left, the chief pilot of Sundance made sure that when jobs opened up again, she was one of his first hires. Stacy never forgot this lesson and has since dedicated her volunteer time to helping others learn how to do the same.
Stacy’s first HAI HELI-EXPO® was 2004 in Las Vegas, and she hasn’t missed a show since. She was first invited to participate in the events sponsored by the Whirly-Girls, the international organization for female helicopter pilots, and then, being Stacy, found her way to other opportunities there.
“I soon began participating in the HAI Pilot Mentoring Committee and in Rotorcraft Pro’s HeliSuccess Career Development Seminar and Job Fair,” she says. “My subject was networking and how important it was to make genuine connections—the kind that help us support each other. But I really felt there was a need for military-to-civilian transition support. You really need the introduction to the civil industry and mentoring to help bridge that gap.”
In 2012, Stacy was invited to speak to military aviation personnel at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, about transitioning to the civilian world. HAI staff were also present and invited Stacy to develop the Military-to-Civilian Transition Workshop (Mil2Civ) at HAI HELI-EXPO. She has since led the Mil2Civ workshop as coordinator and presenter while also helping to recruit mentors to support military pilots in their transition.
“I really wished I had that kind of support when I was transitioning,” Stacy says. “Now that I know what it takes, I can tell others and help them be successful in their civilian careers. It feels good to give back.”
As a woman, Stacy believes making positive connections with others in the industry was even more important. “When I was starting out, it didn’t really register to me that just meeting people and making an impression would serve me down the road,” she says. “What you want is to improve the atmosphere of your workplace.
“Women are only 5% of our industry. Unfortunately, the attitude toward women is different from men. There is more emphasis on us having to show we’re an enhancement to the workplace, not a disruption. I try to partner with that 95% to strengthen the acceptance of capable female pilots and mechanics. I hope to come across as a good hire, someone who strengthens the team,” Stacy says.
Becoming an HAI Leader
By the time Stacy was elected to the HAI Board of Directors in 2016, she had already developed considerable connections that would help her guide and support the organization. She built on this knowledge and experience throughout the next four years. She was elected to another three-year term in 2019 and has been a member of the board’s Executive Committee since 2018. Her fellow board members selected her as the association’s next chair in January 2020 in Anaheim.
“The single most valuable thing I feel I’ve experienced since joining the board is Jan Becker’s leadership,” Stacy says. “I have been so fortunate to have been on the Executive Committee with her, learning from her guidance and being involved in the incredibly important HAI president search. I am so proud I was involved in bringing Jim Viola onboard. He’s a great hire, and I’m truly excited about what he’s going to accomplish.”
Stacy takes the reins of HAI during one of the industry’s most turbulent years. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she’s ready to take it head-on.
“My primary focus right now is returning the industry to service,” she says. “The novel coronavirus has set us back, and the entire industry around the world must recover. I believe it will be a slow, progressive recovery that will last longer than the one following 9/11.”
Stacy wants to facilitate HAI’s support for its members during this recovery. How can the association help through information, education, resources, and other support?
“I’d like to ask HAI members to help with this goal,” she says. “Jim has asked the membership to tell him what they need, and I encourage everyone to write to and tell him. He’s the real deal. He’s listening and will tackle all he can, but he needs to hear from the membership. If there is a webinar you need, people you need to talk to, programs you need, speak up. If we’re not tackling things you need, please speak up.”
Stacy also supports developing HAI’s international presence. From her firsthand experiences, she understands the benefit of developing a standardized, global helicopter community.
“Expanding the ‘I’ in HAI is a huge endeavor I believe in very much,” she says. “We don’t want to be US-centric. It’s going to be work. Countries can’t unite, so getting the industry to unite is a real challenge. We should start with being more standardized with what we do and help other countries to build helicopter industries using standard global practices.”
When it comes to the continual scrutiny facing the helicopter industry around safety, Stacy takes a moment to compose her thoughts.
“My vision of safety is it should be naturally intertwined in everything we do,” she says. “It has to be in our culture and in everything we do. I’ve been a safety manager in the military and in the civilian world. I want to change attitudes so we don’t think of safety as a separate thing. We should consider it a natural part of every single thing we do every day. Until we all can get to a place like that, we will continue to have issues around safety.”
The Power of Networking: Advice from Stacy Sheard
To a hiring manager, aviation professionals may all look the same on paper. It’s your personal connections that will make the difference in landing that first job or keeping your career moving.
“Someone may be extensively experienced, have the perfect resume, and their social media is on point, but ultimately the deal is always rooted in the personal connections made along the way,” HAI Chair Stacy Sheard says. “Think of every single interaction you have with someone in the helicopter industry as a potential job interview. It’s a small industry—that new pilot you’re training could someday connect you with your dream job.”
Here’s what Stacy recommends to ensure you stand out.
- Start Early. Reach out to potential employers early. Even if you’re several months to years from meeting the requirements to work at an employer, you can lay the groundwork by making that first connection.
- Make It Personal. Visit in person whenever possible. Asking questions, showing your positive personality, and listening go a long way in helping them to remember you.
- Listen and Learn. Follow advice if it’s offered. Your future employer will notice your focus when you’re eligible for their jobs.
- Stay in Touch. Once you’ve established a connection, keep it going. See the next three tips for ways to build and strengthen your bonds with other aviation professionals.
- Attend Industry Events. Attend networking opportunities like HeliSuccess, HAI’s Military-to-Civilian Transition Workshop, HAI HELI-EXPO, career fairs, and even local social gatherings of fellow aviation professionals to make meaningful, genuine connections.
- Be Part of the Community. Participate in helicopter and aviation organizations, volunteering when you can. The experience gained and connections you make will serve you throughout your career.
- Give What You Get. Networking is about building genuine connections, not scoring the most business cards. Keep it real, and take every opportunity to help or mentor others.