“Pilots concern me that are continuously bragging of all they have done, how well they can fly, and how great of a pilot they are. Actions speak louder than words, and I want to see professionalism and safety in the way they fly, as opposed to the words they speak.” says Tony Bonham.
Bonham’s aviation career began while he was still in high school, and upon graduating he joined the Army to attend flight school. Due to a recruiter’s ignorance, Bonham didn’t fly through his service; instead he stayed on the ground as an air traffic controller in Savannah, Georgia. “I actually went into the Army to fly helicopters but once I got in I found out that my eyes were far too bad to pass the physical for flight school. My recruiter had a field artillery background and was not familiar with aviation requirements and apparently didn’t care enough to learn,” he remembers without bitterness.
After leaving the Army as an air traffic controller, Bonham persistently found ways to fulfill his aviation aspirations that began when he was a young boy watching his older brother-in-law takeoff as an ag pilot. By the time he was discharged from the Army in 1982, Bonham had attained his civilian commercial fixed-wing certificate, and later his fixed-wing single- and twin-engine, CFI, CFII, and ATP. He then got his CFI, CFII, and ATP helicopter add-ons, and by 1989 he was an FAA designated pilot examiner (DPE), which he held for 20 years. He started a flight school, Professional Helicopters Inc., which advertised in foreign magazines for students and business boomed for several years. The international students kept the school flying until 2003. On the side, Bonham also flew ag, pollinated Arkansas rice fields, and also got involved with aircraft sales. Unfortunately, much smaller aircraft that didn’t have fuel expenses—bees—diminished demand for his pollination services.
Undeterred, by 1989 Bonham turned from the agricultural sector and transitioned into his first Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) position Flying Angel 1 for Arkansas Children’s Hospital. An acquaintance of Bonham, which was an FAA inspector with the Little Rock FSDO, (as a CFI Bonham earned a Gold Seal flight instructor designation from taking applicants to this Inspector for their check-rides) recommended Bonham to the hospital for the position. Line pilot, assistant chief pilot and chief pilot positions followed before he was promoted to senior director of flight operations at the largest independently owned and operated air medical service provider in the United States: Air Evac Lifeteam.
Bonham briefly left HAA in 2001 in an attempt to move to the airlines. He was typed in a Lear Jet and worked for a company out of Florida flying cancelled checks at night in a Lear 25 and 35. Within a few months, he was offered a job by Executive Jet flying a Citation Ultra. But one week prior to reporting for duty, the 9/11 terrorism occurred; airlines hit rock bottom. Bonham then returned to HAA. Oh, and since his Army days he religiously runs a 10K every other day! Some bragging from the overachiever with bad eyesight could be justified.
Hero Means Zero
The majority of the man’s career has been in HAA flying through the air to rescue others. Don’t dare call him Superman—or even a hero. At Air Evac Lifeteam, his mission is to vanquish the ‘hero’ mindset—before it kills someone. “A pilot shouldn’t have a hero mentality to fly at all costs to rescue a patient from the jaws of death.” Bonham earnestly states. “One of the most difficult things for me to get across in training is getting rid of that desire to be a hero. If you have a hero mentality, we’ll eventually be having a nice memorial service for you. Your boots will be on the stage and your helmet in an empty chair.” The senior director is deadly serious about this; so serious that he highly discourages his Air Evac Lifeteam crews to even utter the word ‘mission.’ “They’re not The Doolittle Raiders on a mission flying to Tokyo in WWII. They can say ‘no’ at any point of the flight, patient on board or not. Crews can become comfortable, and even complacent, with excessive risk over time,” the Jonesboro, Arkansas, native poignantly notes in a soft Southern accent that in no way softens his intensity.
That hard intensity for safety was forged in painful fires. “I have experienced fatal accidents as a manager. The first events are wrenching. Outwardly I don’t appear to be a person that is bothered a lot, but really I am, especially at night when I am alone. After some previous fatal accidents, I’ve thought about quitting. Making that call to someone that their loved one will never be home again … hearing a wife and mother cry and the children scream … then going through the memorial services … it was more than I thought I could take.” Bonham pauses. Has he ever come close to quitting? “I got to a point, where I felt that I’d be deserting if I quit. I stay because I hope to improve things. I’ve got a lot of trust in our chief pilot, flight-training cadre, and crews, but I want to personally get in front of our new-hire classes to talk with them about inadvertent IMC and other lessons we have learned. I will have a very hard time if one of them has an IIMC fatality or expends one of our aircraft and I wasn’t in front talking to them.” So he stays in the battle, fighting in the front—a gladiator seeking no glory, who cannot leave the arena. Why?
Don’t Wait Too Late
He answers that question, when asked another question about past regrets. “I’ve waited too late on many occasions, in many areas, and this has come back to haunt me many times. One of the failures in my life is on a personal level, and it’s something that I think of often. The older I get, the more interested I have become in history, including family history. Both of my parents were born in the early ‘20s, and of course lived through the Depression and WWII….The Greatest Generation. Probably like most that lived during that time period, they didn’t discuss it much, unless asked. Unfortunately, I was going to ask for decades, but was always too busy. I didn’t ask and lost the opportunity to hear their stories. I know my father traveled back-and-forth across the U.S. on Route 66, and by train, to work in the Kaiser Shipyards, just across the Bay from San Francisco, in Richmond, California, during the war, and later returning home. He volunteered for the Marines during the war, but was declined because of a hernia that was found during the examination, but as many from that generation, he wanted to do his part.
Like most, being busy with life, I didn’t become really interested about his journey until my later years, and now both have been gone for over 10 years. Also, both were from large families and all aunts and uncles are gone too. It’s simply been a lesson of lost opportunities for me.” He next concludes with what well may be the reason he stays in his pressure-cooker career, “A lesson I’ve learned the hard way, regardless if it involves questions I wanted to ask my parents regarding their lives, or things I want to say or do to keep our crews safer: Don’t let things pass you by that you intended to do or say, or it may be too late. One never knows if one additional word or discussion could prevent an accident and save a life.”
A lot has happened since Bonham began in HAA almost 30 years ago, but nothing passed him by. “The pendulum has completely swung from the ‘80s,” he recalls. “There was little formalized training back then. Pilots were encouraged to find a way to fly and many were paid bonuses for each patient they transported. That was much needed money for a pilot; it encouraged taking off into bad weather.” He recalls one of his earlier jobs at another company: “If a pilot accepted a transport, the medical personnel knew as they went out the door that they better head to the aircraft—or for their cars. Man, if we still had all those mindsets today that was prevalent back then, our industry would be having an accident a day.”
Bonham has done his part with pride over the decades to reduce fatal accidents and those heartbreaking phone calls to families that followed them. He says, “Being part of changes at Air Evac Lifeteam to include aircraft safety enhancements is my greatest personal or professional achievement. We now have NVGs throughout the company, glass cockpits, autopilots, SMS, Just Culture (an active learning culture that is constantly adapting to improve safety), and eight new Frasca flight training devices.” However, Bonham believes now’s not the time to rest. He says, “I think one of our greatest opportunities is to continue working toward decreasing the accident rate within our industry. It seems we have made great strides in the past couple of years and are definitely moving in the right direction, and we need to continue this trend and not become complacent. It seems the safest we as an industry ever are, is the week or two immediately following an accident. It’s then that we seem to be most aware and alert. We need to always maintain that mindset. I just want everyone going home to their loved ones, every time their shifts have ended”
Careful hiring is a key component to perpetuating the mindset Bonham wants. “One of our biggest challenges currently is pilot staffing, and this is affecting the entire industry. Year-over-year, it continues to become more of a challenge to find pilots, much less pilots that we want within our company.” What does he most look for in a new employee? Bonham states his standards, “We look for someone that is honest, that is dedicated to safety, and that strives to do the right thing in and around an aircraft when he or she knows that no one else is looking.”
It sounds like Bonham just described himself.
But he doesn’t like heroes that brag.