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It is said that chance encounters are important because they can have branching power. That is, they have the potential to have unforeseen knock-on impacts that dramatically alter the course of one’s life, sometimes opening up unexpected opportunities.
Such was the case for flight training icon Jerry Trimble. He couldn’t possibly have predicted how a chance meeting with a seemingly random individual in the 1970s would so dramatically affect the course of his life — and the lives of so many others in the years to come.
At the time, Trimble was in his mid-20s and finishing up his airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificate while at Northrop University in Inglewood, California.
Already an accomplished fixed-wing pilot and certified flight instructor (CFI), he also had experience with helicopters, having flown a Bell 47 for a brief time in Indonesia and in Oregon with an agriculture spray operator. The helicopter time gave Trimble the experience to earn his commercial helicopter add-on.
While Trimble was performing minor maintenance on his American Champion Citabria at Hawthorne airport one day, a group of classmates came by and invited him on an outing to nearby Torrance airport. They were going to visit a friend who had designed and built a new model of helicopter. “His name is Frank Robinson,” said one of the group. “Ever heard of him? Do you wanna come with us?”
“It was one of those decisions in your life: ‘Well, maybe I should go, maybe I shouldn’t… I don’t know,’ ” recalled Trimble. “Finally, I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go. Why not? It sounds interesting.’ ”
It was a short car ride to the Torrance airport. There, the group made their way to a small hangar off Crenshaw Boulevard where Robinson was sharing space with another small aircraft company.
“We walked around the corner and there was an R22: N32AD, serial #0002 [serial #0001 had “taken a brief dip in the Pacific Ocean” during flight testing],” said Trimble. “They were working on the last stages of flight tests to get it certified.”
“The helicopter wasn’t like anything I ever pictured,” he continued. “So of course, I’m thinking: it’s not done because it didn’t have the engine skirted. That was my first impression: where was the rest of it? And then the T-bar cyclic — that was totally new — and the tachometer was different compared to other helicopters.”
Robinson mentioned one of his A&Ps had just quit and he was looking to replace him to keep the R22 certification process on schedule. “The ink was still wet on my A&P [certificate] when he offered me a job,” said Trimble. “I said, ‘sure!’ — and that was back in 1979.”
On his first day on the job, Trimble was presented a daunting task: fly with Frank Robinson in the tiny R22 as a flight test engineer. “So, I barely made it through math class and here I am, now a flight test engineer, which basically meant taking notes.
“It was an interesting flight,” said Trimble. “I was a little nervous about being up there in this experimental helicopter. Then, later that day, I had to go up again with another pilot. So, I finally started to feel comfortable in the helicopter.”
Trimble spent about two years working for Robinson, initially performing maintenance and later production test flying what he estimates to be the company’s first 30 aircraft. His time flying alongside another Robinson test pilot, Bob Golden, helped Trimble attain his CFI Helicopter rating.
During these years, Trimble became acquainted with Arden Danielson, a businessman from Hillsboro, Oregon. He was the launch customer for Robinson’s first R22, having purchased serial #0002 during the certification process. Once that was complete, Danielson took possession of the aircraft and ferried it to Oregon and his newly established Robinson Helicopter dealership.
Having family roots in Oregon and sensing an opportunity, Trimble decided to leave Robinson and follow Danielson, intending to help him with the dealership. It wasn’t long, however, before Trimble’s entrepreneurial instincts took over.
Building a business
In the early 1980s, Trimble arranged to lease a Robinson R22 from Danielson to launch his own business: a one-man/one-helicopter flight training academy, which Trimble named Hillsboro Helicopters.
Trimble’s business wits and his goal to provide the highest level of flight instruction soon put his company on firm footing. In just a few years, the once tiny flight training academy had expanded to a fleet of an estimated 25 aircraft (half were Robinsons), and nearly 40 employees. The company also provided airplane instruction.
The success of Hillsboro Helicopters attracted the attention of a prominent Oregon businessman and philanthropist. His original interest was to fulfill his ambition of flying helicopters and earn his rating. Before long, however, the businessman changed his focus, deciding that he wanted to own the company. In 1992, Trimble sold his company, with the new owner changing its name to Hillsboro Aviation.
Trimble spent the next 15 years working throughout the Pacific Northwest. He piloted a number of aircraft, including corporate jets and turboprops, fought fires in the Skycrane and flew air medical missions in a Bo.105 and an EC135. He also held several management/administrative roles: chief pilot, director of operations, director of maintenance and chief flight instructor, in both airplanes and helicopters.
After his many years immersed in so many facets of aviation, Trimble found himself increasingly frustrated and unfulfilled working for others. He was being drawn back to working for himself and pursuing his real passion: flight instruction.
In searching advertisements for aircraft that would help satisfy his business ambitions, Trimble came across an R22 that piqued his interest. The aircraft was registered as N9015V, serial #0011. “Back in 1979 or 1980, when I was working for Robinson, that serial number came down the pike,” said Trimble. “I might have been the first guy to fly that helicopter.”
Alison Row, Trimble’s wife of 18 years, said Jerry pulled out his logbooks to confirm that he was likely the first person to take it into forward flight. “That was kind of a sign and maybe the motivation to start Jerry Trimble Helicopters,” she said.
Trimble went on to purchase the aircraft, and in 2007, he stepped away from corporate aviation. The little R22 became the foundation for Jerry Trimble Helicopters (JTH), which Trimble envisioned as a small Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 61 school focused primarily on helicopter CFI training.
He based the operation from the McMinnville, Oregon, municipal airport. Trimble felt the location was ideally suited for helicopter training. A non-tower airport located in the heart of Oregon’s wine country, with a field elevation of 163 feet (50 meters), it offers instrument approaches and departures and is surrounded by open space with a variety of terrain to challenge students.
Fifteen years since its inception, JTH has evolved beyond Trimble’s early vision of CFI training. Today, he has a cadre of seven flight instructors who he has personally trained, and the company now provides the full gamut of primary through advanced helicopter instruction, as well as fixed-wing training.
Robinson helicopters continue to be Trimble’s go-to for flight training. “The Robinson product, for the money, it’s the best helicopter that we could be using,” said Trimble. “If there was a better helicopter for less money, then I’d be using it. It’s just the most economical way to get the job done.”
The fleet consists of two R22 HPs, one R22 Beta, three R22 Beta IIs, one R44 Raven I, one R44 Raven II, one R66 (on a Part 135 certificate for charter work), and one MD 500C. The company also operates three airplanes (two Cessna 172s and one Piper Aztec PA23-250) for fixed-wing training and commercial jobs.
Trimble understands that just having helicopters isn’t enough. “We get a lot of students who come here and they’ve been flying somewhere else that has only one helicopter. And then when it breaks down, they have to wait: nobody’s flying,” he said. “The Robinson products are really good because we can keep our students flying. In fact, they’re spoiled. If they can’t fly when they want, then they’re upset.
“We try to operate equipment that we own 100 percent and we self-insure our equipment,” he continued. “That allows us to avoid the insurance problems and the bank problems and we can then pass that saving onto our students.”
A tailored approach
JTH instructors not only train students to meet the FAA’s standards, they also tailor the curriculum to the end goals of the individual student. “We are trying to incorporate a student’s ultimate flying goals,” said Alex Ambros, JTH’s lead flight instructor. “If someone has an interest in EMS [emergency medical services] or search-and-rescue flying we might do a lot more off-airport landings. Or, if they want to do utility, we’re going to emphasize out of ground effect, settling with power recognition and recovery techniques — because that’s applicable to the bulk of the flying they’ll be doing.”
JTH also helps students find their first flying job. “I’ve always felt, in flight training, it was really important to get the students a job,” said Trimble. “They’re not just trying to get a commercial or a CFI. Most people we work with are doing it for a career. They need a job. So, we need to make it affordable and give them a pathway to get from a student to an employed pilot.”
For those working toward their CFI, Trimble has his own special brand of one-on-one instruction. Some may find the course somewhat intense, but expectations are clear from the outset.
The prerequisite for JTH’s CFI course is the students have their commercial helicopter rating and have completed both of their written tests. “We have a seven-day course and they take their check ride on the eighth day,” said Trimble. “It’s full-time, about 10 hours of flying and 30 hours of ground instruction. It varies on the student.”
JTH CFI Bekah Taylor said the check ride is scheduled before the student shows up. “He puts you through a grueling week-long course and yes, you get your CFI in one week,” she said. “He has a pretty high success rate as long as you’re willing to put in the work.”
“Most people we work with are doing it for a career. They need a job. So, we need to make it affordable and give them a pathway to get from a student to an employed pilot.”
One element that sets JTH apart is the culture instilled by Trimble and Row. “Not to sound corny or anything, but we definitely go for the family-style, mom-and-pop type atmosphere,” said Ambros. “Jerry and Alison are invested in us as people in addition to being pilots.”
JTH has always been sensitive to the costs associated with flight training, and strive to make things as economical as possible — even going so far as to provide housing assistance. The Trimbles own properties in McMinnville that have accommodations for students to use for a modest nightly fee.
“We have the student housing where students are living together college dorm style, family sibling style, and that definitely changes the atmosphere around the training environment,” said Ambros.
While many students take advantage of the housing assistance, it’s the per-hour cost of training at JTH that is the biggest draw. “Jerry is charging less than any other flight school I’ve been able to find,” said Taylor. “It’s anywhere from $50 to $100 less [per hour]. And then the fact that we’re able to fly R22s for pretty much everything, versus having to pay for an R44 for your instrument training.”
“I just try to keep everything as inexpensive as possible,” said Trimble. “The more you jack your prices up, the smaller the market gets, the fewer people can afford it. It’s still crazy expensive.”
Trimble’s passion for flight instruction spans 46 years. It’s hard to know how many pilots have been influenced by his wisdom and passion. “What’s interesting now, I’ve had more than a couple people that I have taught to fly that are retiring,” said Trimble. “One guy has been flying 747s for UPS and he’s retired now. Another is retiring after 30 years flying air medical.”
But Trimble’s enthusiasm for flight instruction has endured and he shows no sign of slowing down. “I think Jerry sets a really good example when I walk out the door and see him rolling around in the gravel underneath a helicopter,” said Row. “He can do everything and there’s no job that he would ask someone else to do that he wouldn’t do himself.”
Trimble’s chance meeting with Frank Robinson all those years ago certainly had “branching power.” It dramatically altered not only Trimble’s life, but also the lives of many others, resulting in opportunity and adventure. “Frank gave me an opportunity, and now we try to mentor the next generation of pilots as much as we can,” said Trimble.
“What I like about flight instruction: you are the show,” he continued. “It’s all about teaching the student how to fly. And teaching somebody, when you do it right, changes people’s lives.”
I enjoy reading your article on Jerry Trimble story. I have wanted to fly helicopter for a long time , I’m kinda observing with it , but like alot of people out there that can’t afford it. I’m a veteran of 12 years of army service. I have flown in helicopter before in the army. I am 72 years old and that might be to old to do that, I appreciate your article.
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