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New HAI president Jim Viola aims to expand association’s reach

Avatar for Oliver JohnsonBy Oliver Johnson | January 22, 2020

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 39 seconds.

Helicopter Association International’s (HAI’s) new president and CEO plans to reach out to the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) and drone industries as part of an ambitious growth strategy that includes broadening the association’s reach internationally.

Jim Viola became the new head of HAI on Jan. 16, and in an exclusive interview with Vertical, he said the association could play a key role in providing programs that enhance safety and encourage professionalism across all realms of vertical flight.

New HAI president and CEO Jim Viola said the association is planning to reach out to the eVTOL and drone industries in order to broaden its international reach. Rob Reyno Photo

“With the quadcopters that are coming out, the electrical propulsion, the tiltrotor [aircraft]… there’s so many things that are out there, and I think that everybody is trying to figure out where it fits in [to the existing rotary-wing system],” he said. “It’s a prime opportunity to figure out where we, as an association, can reach out — not just to pure helicopters as in the days gone by — but I want to reach out to all [those involved with] these new vehicles.”

With the industry’s largest tradeshow, HAI Heli-Expo, just days away, Viola said he would be looking for feedback from the association’s existing members on how the industry can “open up our arms to all the opportunities that are out there” — with the prospective new generation of vertical lift aircraft offering new ways to achieve the same missions helicopters achieve today.

“Promoting these unique contributions to vertical flight is what’s important,” he said. “And that’s why I think, as an association, we need to open up and go broader than helicopters and really get into all the new type of vertical flight aircraft that are out there and are coming.”

Viola took over as CEO and president following the retirement of Matt Zuccaro, who had been at the helm of the association for almost 15 years. Zuccaro has returned to consulting work, and one of his first assignments will be at Heli-Expo.

“Matt’s going to be a consultant for me as we go through the show, so you’ll probably see us side by side working for a smooth transition for the show, since it’s very important to our members that we have a successful show,” said Viola. “I’ve got my staff here making sure that I can take opportunities to meet the members at the show . . .  so that as I take over the helm here as president and CEO, we can continue to meet their needs for a successful association.”

Viola’s aviation career began in the U.S. Army. “I figured I was just going to do a short term in the military to learn how to fly and then come out and do civilian flying,” he said. “My rule was that as soon as the Army gave me a desk job and I stopped flying, I was leaving. Somehow I managed to fly a whole bunch of helicopters inside the Army and I never really stopped flying.”

He ended up serving for 27 years, the majority of which he spent in Special Operations. During his time in the military, he flew the Hughes TH-55; Bell UH-1 Huey, OH-58 Kiowa, and AH-1 Cobra; MD 530, Boeing CH-47 Chinook; and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk.

Two weeks after retiring in 2008, Viola joined the Federal Aviation Administration. He rose through the regulator’s ranks over the following years, with his most recent post being director of general aviation safety assurance. In this position, he was responsible for maintaining consistency and standardization in safety oversight activities for the general aviation community. He was also responsible for starting the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST).

“[The USHST] really did some deep dives as to what you can do as a small operator to bring safety [enhancements] to your organization,” he said. “The intent of the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team as well as the International Helicopter Safety Foundation is to be able to provide all that information so that you can use it to educate your pilots. The issue now is how do you make sure pilots are using that?”

Viola said he hoped to use some of the contacts he made during his time working with the International Helicopter Safety Team (now known as the International Helicopter Safety Foundation) to engage those working in the industry in countries such as India and China that seem primed for growth.

“One of our sayings with the International Helicopter Safety Foundation is we don’t want to see the accident rate grow with the increased use of helicopters and vertical lift,” said Viola. “We don’t want to be the big dog coming in and taking over, we just want to make sure we all play together and see what can we do to help them.”

Viola said it was HAI’s focus on safety that held particular appeal to him in deciding to join the organization. “It’s all about understanding that you have to enhance safety first or the industry is going to suffer,” he said. “Everywhere I looked inside of HAI was safety; it was all about safety and professionalism, so that was something that really motivated me to go after the job.”

In terms of potential legislation impacting existing rotary-wing operations, Viola said the major issues of concern were noise issues and airspace segregation at the state level. The former has been an area of focus for the last few years for HAI, which has sought to counter concerns through its “Fly Neighborly” program. In terms of the latter, “one of the things the FAA has done is managed the airspace here so that we do have the safest air transportation system in the world,” said Viola. “We really don’t want to give up any of that because it is working.”

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