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Meet A Rotorcraft Pro - Mark Schlaefli, Black Hills Aerial Adventures

Posted 2 years 245 days ago ago by Admin

RPMN: What is your current position?

I am currently wearing two hats.  I am the owner and president of Black Hills Aerial Adventures, primarily an aerial tourism operator based in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and I am serving as Chief Pilot for Redding Air Service, a utility operator with a primary base of operations in northern California.  All of this has transpired within the last year.  Over the last 12 years I have served as the chief pilot in Southern Nevada with Papillon and chief pilot and subsequently director of operations for Sundance Helicopters in Las Vegas.

RPMN: Tell me about your first flight or experience with helicopters.

My very first flight in a helicopter was with Island Express flying from Long Beach to Catalina and back. I still remember the details vividly.  It would be a couple of years before the drive to become a pilot would set in.  After much research I began my training in 2007, and nearly quit more than once while attempting to overcome a significant fear of heights. The first couple of autorotations in the H269C cured the fear and the career progressed.

RPMN: How did you get your start in helicopters?

My career path to date has taken some very traditional and predictable turns. I was fortunate enough to land an instructor job with Civic Helicopters right after I completed my training. I was fortunate to have worked and instructed alongside great people who helped to shape the foundation of how I approached my career.  My first job after instructing was with Papillon in Boulder City, Nevada.  

RPMN: When and how did you choose to fly or work on helicopters? Or did they choose you?

I spent the better part of 20 years working in an IT field, specifically graphic design, modeling, and animation primarily for engineering and architecture. I suppose there is a mix of who chose who. I was to the point where the hours were long, with most of it spent indoors chained to a desk.  The goal was to get outdoors, and I placed no limitations on the career I would choose.  It quite literally could have been as a landscaper just as easily as a helicopter pilot.  I spent a good bit of time fishing offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the way to the water would pass by the big heli-bases, and once on the water would marvel at the aircraft coming and going from the platforms seemingly nonstop.  That exposure to helicopters is what made me decide to become a pilot.

RPMN: Where did you get your start flying or maintaining professionally?

My first job after instructing was with Papillon in Boulder City.  I made the trip in person to get a feel for the Las Vegas operators, and Papillon was the best fit.  I knew one person who worked there, but the real connection came from the Heli-Success seminar, where I was a regular attendee from the very first one forward. One of the organizers had passed my name to the chief pilot there at the time, and I was fortunate enough to be hired on the spot during a visit.

RPMN: If you were not in the helicopter industry, what else would you see yourself doing?

It is infinitely difficult to imagine being involved in another industry.  There was not a Plan B, it was all in to make this work regardless of the challenges.  The people, machines and challenges I have been fortunate enough to work with so far have resulted in a connection, which makes a career in a different industry almost impossible to imagine.   

RPMN: What do you enjoy doing on your days off?

Anything outdoors!  I love to get out into the wilderness to hike, bike and explore. Music is a great interest, but I’m not any good at it so it’s more of a noise making exercise than anything else. I hope to spend more time on the water with a fishing rod at some point.

RPMN: What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?

This is a difficult question to answer. In fact, there really isn’t anything that I alone have accomplished in the industry… yet. It was always a result of a team of people. One of the parts of my career that I look back on with reserved pride are all of the folks I have been able to look at across the table during an interview and tell them they are hired. Even more so when it was a candidate for a leadership position within the company, such as a chief pilot. I have to be careful with this answer, as the people I have hired and promoted earned their spot and it had nothing to do with me. I was simply lucky enough to have great candidates to choose from. Moving forward, I have a strong passion for helping pilots start their careers right and providing alternative ways of gaining experience. Removing barriers and reducing the price of admission is high on the list of items in which I hope to have an impact.   

RPMN: Have you ever had an “Oh, crap” moment in helicopters? Can you summarize what happened?

I have been very fortunate in my career so far to have avoided too many “Oh, crap” experiences.  On the other hand, I have certainly made a few questionable decisions that could have easily led to a situation in which very bad things could have happened. The one that sticks out in my mind the brightest was a low-fuel warning light that was a result of divided attention. The story could have ended with a landing and a very humble call for fuel, but it did not. I made a decision to fly the aircraft in this state to the nearest fuel. Human factors combined with hazardous attitudes or the inability to put ego aside very nearly led to disaster.  

RPMN: If you could give only one piece of advice to a new helicopter pilot or mechanic, what would it be?

Understand your authority as a licensed professional and never tolerate any situation which would compromise integrity or that of your certificate. Develop a strong sense of emotional intelligence and learn to say no.

RPMN: In your view, what is the greatest challenge for the helicopter industry at this moment in time?

Our industry faces countless challenges. In my current roles, there are some distinctly different challenges that I face as an owner as opposed to the chief pilot role. I could list a plethora of talking points, but I think it can be summarized in two words: legacy thought. The “this is the way we do it” argument should be placed on the shelf in favor of “how should we do it.” It’s time to take a critical look at how we do things and not be afraid of reinventing the wheel.