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Executive Watch - Randy Rowles, President of Helicopter Institute

Posted 3 years 48 days ago ago by Admin

Executive Watch - Randy Rowles, President, Helicopter Institute

You likely know Randy Rowles from his training commentary, “Checkride,” in every Rotorcraft Pro issue.  However, you may not know that when Rowles takes off his ‘press’ hat, there are more distinguished hats in his closet: he is president and owner of Helicopter Institute Inc., the vice chairman of the Helicopter Association Board of Directors, an FAA designated pilot examiner, and a regular teacher at the annual HeliSuccess career conference. Yes, just as Forest Gump wore “lots of shoes” Rowles wears, and has worn, lots of hats. The difference between them is that Forest was mostly just a witness to history, whereas Rowles has actively participated in and contributed to the rotorcraft industry, especially in the helicopter training sector. “I love the training space,” he says. 

Yet, he has done much more than train individual pilots; he has brought industry-leading standards and capabilities to the small-business level, and as senior vice president of operations, he played a role in transforming ERA Group into a publicly traded aviation company on the New York Stock Exchange. The day ERA went public, Rowles was on the exchange floor to ring the closing bell.

Randy Rowles has traveled a long and winding road that took a high school dropout from scrubbing toilet bowl rings in hangars to an accomplished executive pilot with an MBA degree ringing Wall Street’s bell. His journey from grounded beginnings to high altitudes is inspiring…

‘Where Aircraft Live’

Rowles begins, “I was born and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida. I’m not from an aviation family, but I was the quintessential airport kid. My father (a mechanic for a golf course) for my 14th birthday bought me a lesson in a little Cessna 152 to see if I liked flying. I came out of that lesson really knowing that I wanted to fly. My father told me, ‘I’m glad you liked that. I paid for the first lesson, you got to figure out how to pay for the rest of them.’”

His father then wisely suggested that his aviation-oriented son spend his spare time “where aircraft live.” Rowles followed that advice and it contributed to his basic flight training.
“I spent all my spare time at the airport, beginning with middle school and through the years developing relationships that allowed me to barter my personal time for flight time,” he says.

Love & Struggle

The young teen also naturally got interested in other subjects than flight. In seventh grade he met a girl, Samantha. She soon became his wife as the young couple became parents at the age of 18. “We’ve been together since, and she’s been with me from the first hour of my aviation life, both as a couple and also as a business partner in our aviation businesses,” Rowles says. Understandably, the young parents were under adult-grade stress as they began and quit high school. “I quit high school for financial reasons,” says Rowles. “The reason I had success despite quitting school and having made a lot of bad decisions is because of key people who mentored me.”


One of those key people was a flying angel named Peggy Lang; she was a pilot for a local car dealership. Lang was also the aviation director for the local community college and she took an interest in Rowles future. She convinced the youngster to go back to school.  Rowles says, “That lasted two days until I realized I still hated school and dropped out again and resumed working for my dad at the golf course.”  Rowles was in the depths of hardship with no real foreseeable future. “Then,” he says, “Peggy made the phone call in 1987 that changed my life.” 

She asked Rowles to come to her college office the next morning. Upon arriving, Rowles learned that Lang had been working on his behalf. “She told me to report to Boca Raton High School later that week where she had arranged for me to take the GED (high school graduate equivalency degree) exam,” says Rowles. “I passed and she immediately invited me to take aviation classes at her college. From that, doors started opening up for me as I met local aviation business owners (Johnny Stinson and Danny Crowe) who gave me employment and experience.”

One of those first jobs was fueling Delta jet airliners, and even the Concorde, at the underage of 17. “I lied about my age to get the job because I was broke,” Rowles admits. The  fueler later ‘graduated’ to sweeping floors and cleaning toilets in West Palm Beach’s airport’s airplane shop. There was a similar fellow in the helicopter hangar who preferred airplanes, as Rowles was curious about helicopters “We reported to work one day and learned that our respective employers had swapped us, so I was traded like a ball player to Air Coastal Helicopters where I began to sweep and clean toilets around helicopters.”

Then, a shop mechanic, Ron, invited the teen to tag along on a helicopter delivery flight. “It was that day that I realized that helicopter aviation was the most amazing career that one could have,” Rowles remembers. “It was almost indescribable because it wasn’t one singular thing that convinced me, but just the whole experience of flying with professionals and feeling that I was a part of their industry.”

Rowles got his commercial helicopter license on his 18th birthday because the owner of Palm Beach Helicopters, Brian Parker, agreed to invest in Rowles aviation education. He paid for the hangar-rat’s flight training and the newly licensed Rowles agreed to fly for Parker’s crop-dusting startup in Georgia. That challenging piloting allowed Rowles to live out his earliest aviation interest. “I had first been excited by airplane aerobatic flying, but it would never have worked out financially. But then, when I did that helicopter agricultural flying, it was the closest thing to aerobatic flying. It tied into my earliest desire to do energy-based flying, but it was in a helicopter. That’s when helicopters hooked me hard.” 

After fulfilling his Georgia agricultural flying duty, Rowles returned home to West Palm Beach and Aircoastal Helicopters, where he was given the opportunity to be a part 135 line pilot. Within a couple years he became chief pilot of the operation.

 Working Opportunities

“From that point I developed a relationship with the FAA,” says Rowles. “The agency approached me with the opportunity to become a pilot examiner because of my history with Robinsons.” He took the offer and that led to his meeting one of his biggest mentors, Wayne Weisman, who trained pilots at the local sheriff’s office. “As an examiner, I worked with Wayne. He invited me to fly with him in his vintage Sikorsky aircraft in my off-time. I learned a lot about flying safely from him as I was learning the business side of helicopters from my employer, Dan, at Air Coastal Helicopters.” The young pilot wanted even more experience and applied for an S76 instructor position at Flight Safety international. “So, in my early 20s, I was working at Air Coastal Helicopters as chief pilot, an FAA designated pilot examiner, and teaching for Flight Safety International. In addition, I was doing a lot of part-time flying for corporate operators and for the South Florida Water Management District. I was probably filing seven or eight W-2s ( salary income tax statements) a year. Not only did the jobs make ends meet for my family, but it also gained me a wide variety of experience, especially in the S76,” says Rowles.

Now that the young Rowles family was on its feet financially, Samantha, who had worked in customer service for Jet Aviation (in part to use their aviation radio to talk to her constantly flying husband) and Rowles started their own training school in 2001. Rowles approached his previous employer, Brian Parker, who agreed to let the young couple have the name of his old business. Thus, the Rowles rebirthed Palm Beach Helicopters. 

The school was succeeding and expanding from Robinsons to turbine aircraft, then the phone rang in the Palm Beach Helicopters office. It wasn’t another prospective customer; it was Bell Helicopter calling out of the clear blue sky to offer Rowles his dream job. “Their chief flight instructor, another mentor of mine, Gary Young, was retiring and had recommended me for his plumb job at Bell,” says Rowles. “I was reluctant to leave my ongoing jobs and our business in South Florida, until Samantha encouraged me to follow my long-time, but I thought never realistic, dream of wearing a blue suit as a Bell career instructor.” 

Rowles then began stressful years of setbacks and advancement.

Failure and Fortitude

In 2004, Rowles moved to Texas to start his Bell Helicopter career, leaving his family behind. (His sister stepped in to manage Palm Beach Helicopters until the business sold so that Samantha could join her husband in Texas four months later.)

Since Rowles had owned a helicopter company and had charter helicopter experience, he was asked to interact with the Bell executive team in a program called the Bell Operational Transformation Program with the goal of providing feedback on how Bell Helicopter could improve their aircraft customer service. He was subsequently asked to enter their executive management mentorship program titled the High-Potential Employee Program.

As part of the program Rowles reported to either the CEO or executive vice president weekly for personal mentoring. At one casual Saturday morning meeting the vice president was wearing a Harvard Business School T-shirt prompting Rowles to inquire if his mentor graduated from the college. In return he asked about Rowles’s college degree. Rowles answered that he didn’t have a college degree and that he quit school in ninth grade—but he had a GED. “He looked at me like I had a third eye,” Rowles said. He asked how Rowles got hired at Bell for his position.  Rowles replied, “You guys never asked me about any degrees. You all called and offered me the job and I took it.” Rowles was informed that he had just  “hit a glass ceiling” in his Bell advancement prospects.

The corporation steered him to get an executive MBA at Texas Christian University. “That college admission’s interview was one of the hardest interviews in my life,” recalls Rowles. He was accepted with Bell’s recommendation. The business school and Bell wanted Rowles to gain executive team leadership experience. Such an opportunity came when Silver State Helicopters in Nevada urged Rowles to join them and straighten out their operations, which were drastically declining. With an agreement from his employer that he could return if things didn’t work out at Silver State, Rowles took the mission-impossible assignment in October 2007. The Great Recession was just getting underway and Rowles was shocked that Silver State’s ownership had acquired unsurmountable corporate debt. “By the time I got there, they had gone from a company with great liquidity to great debt,” Rowles says. He quickly surmised that Silver State Helicopters was a sinking ship and gave notice of his intent to jump from the doomed company with the plan of heading back home to Bell. Days later, Silver State Helicopters filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors on Superbowl Sunday.

“My leaving Bell (for Silver State leadership experience and an MBA) had a major impact on my career, because although Bell’s executive team thought it would be very good for me to leave to get my MBA, it put a bit of a divide between me and Bell’s pilot staff leadership because we all had different goals for me.” Upon his return, that pilot leadership directed Rowles to work on Bell’s production/manufacturing side in the Government Program Management Office—not work as a pilot. Not long after, Rowles was dismissed from Bell as the Great Recession caused the OEM to reduce its workforce. “There’s a little bit of a division (between Rowles and Bell’s pilot staff leadership) that never went away, but that’s the price you pay for making career decisions,” Rowles sums up the disappointing experience. “I like to grab onto challenges because I believe I can fix almost anything. My biggest failure is when I went to Silver State Helicopters. My be-all-and-end-all dream was to be a training instructor at Bell, and then I got caught up in other things at Silver State that I really believed I could fix. The strain that episode put on me and my family doesn’t discount what happened to other people, but it eventually cost me my dream at Bell. There’s a fork in the road in life, both personally and professionally. Everybody runs into forks multiple times. Sometimes you choose the right path and sometimes you don’t. But whatever the outcome, you don’t stop fighting and you keep moving forward as best you can.”

Moving Forward

Rowles and his supportive spouse moved forward by starting their current company in 2009: Helicopter Institute. “Our goal was to create, at a minimum, OEM-quality training for multiple manufacturers at our one training institute,” he says. “In addition to our current training offerings, we’re launching our 505 program this spring, after that we’ll have the 429 program. For example, our goal is that if you’re an A-Star operator you can get your A-Star or your 407 training and do your ATP in an R44 if you need to. All of this will happen at our one facility. We’re also now offering contract training for Part 135 providers. We’re also able to train and give operators their complete Part 135 checks, which eases the burden on FAA helicopter inspectors. We’re not copying what other trainers do, but we are trailblazing and offering regulatory turnkey training solutions that no one’s ever done. We’re doing it to fix industry training issues that the FAA cannot handle because they don’t have the staffing or capability to provide what we’re preparing to offer, and currently offering in specific cases.” 

With all his business success, Rowles emphasizes that his greatest pride is his family, as his adult children have returned to work at Helicopter Institute. “The fact that my children have grown up with me as their father and that they chose, in their own accord, to come back to work with us and for us is right up there at or near the top of my greatest lifetime achievement. I was so busy in their early years that I wasn’t around much, but somewhere in their early adult life they came to understand those choices I made that affected them,” he says.

Upon launching, Helicopter Institute began getting calls from one large organization after another. One of their first calls was from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). “They said we trained with you a few times at Bell and we still want to train with you under Helicopter Institute. Then we got another phone call from another organization and another phone call, and so on.”

One of those calls was from ERA Group, who asked Rowles to take over their training center at the Gulf of Mexico. Subsequently ERA Group’s CEO offered Rowles the position of senior vice president of operations. Rowles accepted the new responsibility (with Samantha staying behind to manage Helicopter Institute). As ERA Group’s senior VP of operations, Rowles, the man who was once looked at askance for lack of formal education, was now receiving operation reports spanning from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. 

And when ERA Group went public on the NYSE, Rowles was with the leadership team in New York to ring the closing bell for the world’s leading stock exchange. That’s the story of how a determined, business-owning husband and father with the curious combo of GED and MBA flew above his turbulent circumstances.