Each year the National Air Transportation Association recognizes outstanding individuals who have demonstrated superior service to the aviation community and advanced a safety-first culture in general aviation. This year, Craig Sincock—owner, president and CEO of Avfuel Corporation—will receive the William A. Ong Memorial Award, NATA’s highest honor. Bill Bohlke—the retired former owner, president and CEO of Bohlke International Airways—will receive the NATA Distinguished Service Award. Read on for full interviews with Sincock and Bohlke, as well as profiles of each of this year’s other honorees, who represent all aspects of the general aviation industry.
William A. “Bill” Ong Memorial Award Craig R. Sincock, Owner, President and CEO of Avfuel
ABJ: What was the first spark that ignited your career in aviation? Can you talk about any surprising turns along the way?
Craig Sincock: My passion for aviation started early. Growing up in the 60s—the jet age of aviation— I watched in awe as we landed on the moon and was inspired by the way aviation connected our world as the Beatles walked off a Boeing 707 in New York. Then, my college roommates, who were flight instructors, introduced me to flying and I acquired my pilot’s license. For about ten years after graduation, I worked in the financial consulting industry, where one of our smaller clients was Avfuel. I got to know the business and, when I found out the owners were looking to sell, I jumped at the opportunity to marry entrepreneurship with my passion for aviation. With a small crew of three, we began to grow upon Avfuel’s foundation, transforming it into the industry’s first all-encompassing fuel supply and services company. Today, we serve more than 5,500 flight department customers representing 20,000+ aircraft at more than 3,000 global fueling locations and 650+ branded FBOs with a support system of 1,000+ employees. Together, we touch one-third of U.S. business flights daily with our fuel and services—the culmination of nearly 40 years of consistent growth. During those years, I’m proud to say we’ve worked in close coordination with NATA and I’ve seen first-hand the association’s phenomenal work to support general aviation—especially the FBOs we serve throughout the Avfuel Network.
ABJ: Can you share brief stories about any pivotal moments, mentors, teammates, or experiences that helped shape your career?
Sincock: There were a lot of affirmations along the way that our business plan was working. Was it a great business plan? Well, no. We were young and didn’t understand that we shouldn’t compete with the major oil companies. But we were ambitious and it worked! Every time a customer provided its vote of confidence by doing business with us was—and continues to be—a victory. From the smallest to the largest customer, we built the Avfuel Network one by one, motivated each and every time we welcomed a new location on board. Looking at the big picture, a major turning point for Avfuel’s accelerated growth was when we acquired the aviation divestiture of Pride Refining, Inc. Pride had a very strong presence from Texas through Colorado; as a Midwest company, Avfuel was looking to break into that market. I was amazed at the first convention following the acquisition when our new customers were asking when they were going to get their Avfuel signs. The excitement they showed in coming on board the Avfuel Network and their confidence in our team were more than I could have imagined. That was the driving force that took us from a regional entity to a national entity. From there, we dove down into our programs, listened to our customers to discover what they found valuable, and grew our service lines and geographic scope. This occurred by creating some of our own original programs and through more than 30 strategic acquisitions in total, including aviation divestitures from four NYSE publicly-traded companies. Of course, my colleagues and customers have always been my main motivators throughout my career. Their support and their needs continue to fan my flames of passion for aviation, and my desire to continue to evolve the company.
ABJ: Do you have any personal philosophy or business philosophy that you feel has helped contribute to your many successes? Can you briefly explain how and why?
Sincock: At Avfuel, we like to say we’re not in the business of selling fuel. We’re in the business of connecting people, businesses, governments, and cultures. That’s a big mindset shift: a shift from a product-first company to a people-first company. We don’t just focus on transactions; we prioritize relationships and bring a personal approach to business. Over the years, I’ve found people like working with people they like. It’s as simple as that. This mindset—this culture of care as we like to describe it—has been integral to growing our team, retaining talent, and attracting loyal customers.
ABJ: What is special about the team you have assembled?
Sincock: We have some of the best people in aviation. Avfuel’s team members are incredibly talented, dedicated and knowledgeable. They display great ingenuity to view problems as opportunities and dig down to find solutions that make our services better. Above all, they care for our customers and they care for each other. They bring the human approach to business and they have fun doing what they love: supporting aviators on a global scale.
ABJ: In the larger context of the NATA membership and general aviation industry as a whole, what do you hope others can learn from the business you have built, the team you have assembled, and the way you have approached serving your customers?
Sincock: When people look at Avfuel, I hope they see how vision, passion, dedication, and a great deal of listening can shape a business and an industry. By focusing on driving connections and developing relationships, we have taken the company farther than I think any of us could have imagined—and we are certainly not slowing down now. I look forward to years of further collaboration with some of our industry’s greatest minds and dedicated professionals, like those we find at NATA. I cannot overstate the good NATA has accomplished for this industry. For decades, it has been a forum for knowledge sharing, a leader in industry collaboration to solve complex problems, an advocate for general aviation at the legislative level, and a provider of exceptional safety programs.
ABJ: Is there any part of your story that you feel hasn’t been told, hasn’t been told well, or has been misunderstood?
Sincock: Over the past year, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my career. When I do, I feel immense gratitude: gratitude toward my family, friends and colleagues, and gratitude toward our customers and industry partners. Many of these customers and partners have turned into some of my closest friends and part of my aviation family. I’m grateful for the chance to have built something special over nearly 40 years. I’m grateful for every opportunity I’ve had to share that story with others, particularly this past year as I’ve recounted Avfuel’s journey to a number of talented, dedicated industry journalists. And I’m grateful the story isn’t over. Our journey continues as Avfuel evolves to meet the ever-changing needs of this industry. It’s a challenge I love—and I look forward to telling each new chapter of our story as it unfolds.
ABJ: What’s a question you wish people asked in these kinds of interviews around the news of this award? Can you answer it?
Sincock: I always love it when people ask about success—because success, I’ve found, can be arbitrary from one person to the next. People also tend to attribute some semblance of finality to it, as if the work is done once recognition is given or a venture is deemed successful. To me, success is found in the day to day. It means being able to follow my passion in building Avfuel, its people, its customers, and the brand. Success looks like mentoring others, developing relationships, and nurturing a culture of care that has allowed the company and its people to thrive. Success is found in making hard work fun and caring for the people around me, some of whom have been by my side for 30 or 40 years. Success is digging into the details and conducting business the right way. Of course, as a business, we have benchmarks and goals to achieve. But to me, success is much more personal, and by taking a human approach, I’ve found the rest tends to follow.
ABJ: What does the William A. “Bill” Ong Memorial Award represent to you?
Sincock: I am incredibly humbled to receive the William A. “Bill” Ong Memorial Award. To be recognized along with such an influential leader for general aviation is truly an honor. I couldn’t be more appreciative of those who made it possible: my family and friends, colleagues and customers, and industry comrades and organizations, particularly NATA. It’s through my work with such dedicated people that Avfuel has been able to thrive and increasingly serve the industry we love.
NATA Distinguished Service Award
Bill Bohlke, Bohlke International Airways
ABJ: First off, what’s your reaction to getting this Distinguished Service Award, a career recognition?
Bill Bohlke: I was very surprised and flattered that my name even came up to be considered for this. I guess it means I’ve done a good job helping the community out and helping people get a start in aviation. We’ve done that with a lot – a lot, a lot – of people. Bohlke International Airways is now a three generation family business.
ABJ: Can you share the story of the very first spark that got you into aviation, following in your father’s lead?
Bohlke: It started in New York: after World War II, my dad returned to his birthplace to build his own airport, which he owned from 1946 until 1959. When my parents got divorced in the 1950s, he decided to move to the Caribbean, looking to build another airport. He went to Puerto Rico first, then to St. Thomas, where the Governor of the Virgin Islands at the time said, “Well, you can take anything you want over in St. Croix because there’s nobody there.” So, he found a plot for a hangar near an over-grown WWII-era runway, sold his New York airport, and took a couple airplanes down to the Virgin Islands. I was still in high school, living with my mom, when he said, “You’ve got to come down here: you can get all your ratings.” In 1962, he came up to New Hampshire to solo me on my 16th birthday, and then I finally went down full-time in 1964 and never looked back. Thanks to my dad, and his foresight in putting me forward and giving me a lot of responsibility, I excelled very quickly. Do you have any favorite stories from your early days in the family business? In 1971, my father went into the cargo business after selling his Virgin Island Airways to Prinair, the largest commuter operating out of Puerto Rico at the time. He had a DC-3 and a Short SC.7 Skyvan, which is like a boxcar, but he needed bigger planes. The Bank of Honolulu had repo-ed three aircraft from a defunct airline in Honolulu, which they offered for $5,000 apiece, as is, where is. Two were flyable, and the third had a lot of good parts. So, he came back from Hawaii and said, “How would you like to go to Honolulu and fly a Curtiss C-46 Commando home?” I was 24 years old with a captain’s rating but a very small amount of captain’s time, I’d never flown over the Pacific, and these airplanes hadn’t flown for two or three years – yet I went out there and brought the first one back with two other pilots. We loaded it up with a tank, a bunch of groceries, and a bunch of parts from the third plane. I look back on that now: if that engine had so much as spit one time, we’d have been in the water, because we were way too heavy. But we made it back! It took 38 hours. We went from Honolulu to Phoenix, Phoenix to Dallas, Dallas to Miami, and Miami to St. Croix. When I got home, he asked, with a straight face, “How would you like to go and pick up another one?” I said, “No, sir. Once was enough!” Fast forward 10 years. I’m flying co-pilot on a DC-10 for American and we’re going to Hawaii. I remember hitting the button to ask the flight attendant for coffee with two sugars and cream, please. And I said to myself, “How the hell did I ever do that in a C-46?” But I did!
ABJ: What has it meant to your family to have this business and to have seen it passed down through successive generations?
Bohlke: Well, for one thing, it has meant that we’ve missed a lot of holidays and festivities! Running a family business sometimes means you’ve got to take the flights nobody else would, solve the problems no one else is around to solve. We lost a lot of playing baseball together and stuff like that, things we would normally have done if we were not involved in our own business. But I don’t think I’d trade it for anything.
ABJ: When you think about your success, is there any driving personal philosophy that you credit for making the business what it is today?
Bohlke: I think the philosophy is to work hard and have the foresight to look down the road. My dad deserves a lot of the credit, obviously, for having the insight and leading me to get involved. When I got out of high school I’d been accepted to several colleges in New York, but my dad said, “No, no, no. Come down to the Virgin Islands: we’ve got a new two-year college where room, board, and tuition for residents is 400 bucks a semester.” I went to school full-time in St. Thomas. I would fly over in one of our little airplanes, park on the soccer field on the north side of the runway, go to college during the week, and then fly back to St. Croix on weekends. By the time I was 19 years old, I was a captain flying scheduled service passengers back and forth to San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Croix on a four-engine De Havilland Heron. Without my dad, I would have never had that opportunity and I don’t think I would be where I am today. What’s it been like to pass it on to your son Billy in the same way? When he was about 19, Billy came to me and said, “You know, I think I want to fly.” I’d already helped him solo and earn his private license, so I suggested he join the Puerto Rico Guard unit, where he got his wings in a T-33, became a second lieutenant, and earned lots of ratings and experience. Now Billy flies Captain on everything we have. He could have moved on to the airlines, but he said, “No, I want to stay in this business because I love it.” So now he’s running the business eight days a week like I used to, and he still serves in the Guard as a lieutenant colonel. Billy loves what he does, and he loves aviation. He, his wife, and two kids even live right next to the airport!
ABJ: I see you’ve still been busy, even in retirement.
Bohlke: The Gray Eagles — which is the retired American Airlines pilots’ group — had asked me to serve on their board for almost 10 years. I kept saying, “I really don’t have any time,” because when I retired from American in 2006, I continued to work full-time with my son. When I fully retired, though, they came back and said, “Would you like to come on the Board now? You’ll be the second vice president the first year, first vice president the second year, and by the third year — it’s your show.” We’re having our convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October, so I’m heavily involved in that right now.
ABJ: What does the NATA Distinguished Service Award represent to you?
Bohlke: I’m sure there are many people that are deserving of the award, but I’m appreciative of it and honored to receive it. I’ve been involved in NATA for a very long time and have always thought the world of the Association. I think we became NATA members about 1970, and I was on the board of directors at one point. Visiting NATA’s headquarters in Washington was a chance to meet senators, FAA administrators, all kinds of people in the industry, and it really increased my knowledge of what the aviation world was about. When I reflect on my time in aviation – particularly thinking about “service” to the industry – one thing I’m proudest of is helping others get their start. My whole life, when I met a kid who was interested in airplanes, I’d always, always, always say, “Come on over – we want to work with you and show you what you can do. You might have to polish a few airplanes or clean some latrines, but we will get you some flying time to get you started.” And we did that with a lot of kids. You know, general aviation in the Virgin Islands was in its infancy when I first got here. There was nothing going on. Now look at it: kids we trained became Navy, Air Force, and airline pilots —777 captains and 747 captains — and we’re so proud that we were able to help. If they had the initiative, then we’d go forward from there. That’s my story.
Airport Executive Partnership Award
John Black, Executive Director, Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority
John Black has led the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority since its inception, transforming the Tennessee airport from a surplus WWII-era training field into a vibrant economic hub for the area and attracting more than $250 million in investment in the airport over 31 years of development.
Still, he says he was caught off guard when he learned of his NATA Award: “I was very surprised and honored at the same time.”
Black says his love of aviation dates back to early childhood. Partly inspired by an uncle who was a pilot, he remembers doing a report on the Wright brothers in 3rd grade, then starting a model airplane club at his school. “It’s been aviation ever since,” he says.
His role at the airport has now spanned three decades.
“I go way back,” he jokes. “This airport was constructed in 1942 as Smyrna Army Airfield. I came on board in 1991, just as a new, locally-formed airport authority shared by the county and the city was taking over. We had a lot of work to do! There hadn’t been much done on the airport in many, many years, but we started laying the groundwork for the future. A lot of money and a lot of hard work by a lot of great people has made the airport what it is today. Between the airport authority, the local community, and private investment, we’ve put over $250 million into the airport over the last 31 years. We’re now the third largest airport by size in the state of Tennessee, with 1,700 acres and room to expand.”
Ten years ago, when Black and his team commissioned their own economic impact study of the airport, it was measured at $74 billion. A more recent economic impact study produced by the State of Tennessee estimated it at $232 billion.
“So, it’s actually tripled in 10 years, which feels very validating of all the work that’s been done here,” Black says. “A lot of it is the growth of the airport business park: we’ve placed a lot of focus on diversifying our base, just like a stock portfolio. We have a one-megawatt solar farm here to generate electricity and return it to the grid, thanks to an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The National Guard is here, as well as two FBOs, three avionics shops, a blimp operation, and three flight schools that stay pretty busy. Stevens Aerospace does a lot of maintenance work here. We have several large hangars leftover from the military which we’ve converted and brought up to modern standards, and recently we added several new hangars. We also have some non-aviation development here in our business park with Hillwood, a Ross Perot company out of Texas. And we own a golf course, which we lease to the town of Smyrna. A little bit of everything is really our intent because aviation – like everything else – goes in cycles. The diversification helps to flatten out the curves.”
In light of the nod from NATA for the Executive Partnership Award, Black says partnership is the name of the game.
“We actually have 53 different leases here in our lease file,” Black says, “but I don’t like the words landlord and tenant, because really we’re all business partners. That’s how I see all the businesses here: when they’re successful, the airport is successful. So, we take a business minded, rather than bureaucratic, approach and we walk hand-in-hand with people as they go through a development process.”
Black credits his team for the many successes.
“There is never just one person that earns an award like this: there’s always a team behind it, and we have a great team here. A long list of people over those 31 years helped make this airport what it is, from our first chairman, Jack Weatherford, to our current chairman, Mike Woods. The fact that we’ve only had two chairmen in 31 years says a lot about our consistency, and everyone on our staff holds themselves to a very high level of customer service at this airport. I think that’s super important to the people that come in and out of here: when you set the bar high for yourself, they notice. I don’t want to leave out the Chamber of Commerce, the state economic development arm: we work so closely with them to bring business not only to the airport, but also to the local community because we’re part of that community.”
Black says he’s just getting started.
“We just finished three major projects extending more roads and utilities into another section of the airport business park and laying the groundwork for the next development area,” he says. “At the same time, in 2023 we’re kicking off a big project to completely rehabilitate one of our runways, and we’re taking delivery of a new aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicle. Next June, we have the Great Tennessee Air Show, featuring the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. After that, we’ll probably do a realignment of a few of our taxiways to increase efficiency, and we have several parties interested in building new corporate hangars. So, it’s all still very exciting.”
Black says he’s proudest of hosting community events, like the Smyrna Rotary Wings of Freedom fish fry, which raised $200,000 last year for veterans groups.
Other recent community projects include an all-inclusive aviation-themed playground for kids in the park on the airport property.
Black says he hopes the playground inspires future careers in aviation, just as his 3rd grade experiences inspired his.
“You never know! I say the same thing every time we host the air show,” he says. “When we’re all neck deep in the details, I tell our team, ‘Just take some time this weekend to stop and look at the faces of the kids, because that’s the payoff for all this hard work that you’ve done over the past year: kids looking to the sky and dreaming.”
Excellence In Pilot Training Award
Jeffrey Wolf, Chief Flight Instructor, Paragon Flight Training
Nominated for “an uncanny and natural ability to connect with people that has helped him become an exceptional instructor and mentor to many young aspiring aviators” and dubbed “the Michael Jordan of flight training because he’s the total package of natural ability, charisma, leadership, and work ethic,” Jeffrey Wolf is the Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Instructor at Paragon Flight Training in Fort Myers, Florida.
“It’s such an honor to be winning an award that some of the greats in the industry have won in the past,” Wolf says of his NATA Excellence in Pilot Training Award. “I’ve had really good role models and a lot of really good people leading me along the way.”
Wolf says he never forgets that his own career in aviation stems from his first experience with flight training, at Page Field in Fort Myers.
“I had a lot of odd jobs in high school and I’d saved up $200 which, when you’re 16 years old, feels like a million dollars. My dad asked, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I probably had something like a stereo system in mind, but he said, ‘You should consider taking a flying lesson.’ I took my first discovery flight that weekend, and every dollar I made from that point forward went to flying lessons,” Wolf remembers. “It became such a pivotal time in my life and career because I was in the middle of high school and looking for colleges. Realizing that aviation was the route for me really helped focus my search toward aviation colleges and achieving my goal. It’s amazing how one experience can flip everything upside down and send you in a totally different direction. My dad was not in aviation, not a pilot. He just knew, somehow, that I would thrive in this industry. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. Now my office is a cockpit: I get to inspire people, teach people, help them achieve their goals.”
Wolf got his Bachelor of Science in Aviation Management and Flight Operations from Jacksonville University in 2007 and has now worked at Paragon Flight Training Center for nearly 14 years.
Just as he was once awed by his first discovery flight, he says his favorite part of the job, which includes hiring and training flight instructors, is taking his new hires on their first training flights.
“I really enjoy flying with instructors on their first day, because I’m trying to give them 15 to 20 years of experience in three flights. How much can I cram into the five or six lessons I have with these new instructors to help them avoid all the tough experiences I had as a new instructor? If I can give them the right tools and share my experience, then they’ll teach as if they’ve been doing it for much longer than they have.”
Wolf says Paragon Flight Training is experiencing a period of tremendous growth – including a 28,000 square foot expansion on its airfield – making it a thrilling time for new pilots and the instructors responsible for training them.
“It’s definitely a unique time of opportunity for aviation students. When I finished flight training in January 2008, it was the exact opposite: airlines were getting rid of a lot of pilots and it was not a good time to be in the industry,” Wolf says. “Now, there’s a pilot shortage and at least a 20- to 30-year window where the airlines will need pilots, so our students have great options and great pay waiting for them. First-year pilots now are making three- to five-times more than I made in 2008! It’s quite an exciting opportunity and explains a lot of the growth our school is experiencing as well.”
Wolf says his teaching philosophy is about putting people first.
“I took something away from my commercial airline pilot days: they told me that they always hired the person and trained the pilot,” he says. “I think that what helps make me successful, and what is behind a recognition like this NATA award, is surrounding myself with the right people. It’s easy to make yourself look good when you have a crew of amazing people doing the right thing at all times, doing what’s best for the client at all times. I think we’ve done a really good job of running our organization, allowing it to grow, and being successful because of our reputation in the industry: people know we provide quality instruction, and that’s everything. I always say that the key components to a flight school are planes, facilities, and people. The planes and facilities are the easy part. The employees and the instructors, the staff that we have, are what truly make us special: you’re going to come into Paragon, we’re going to know who you are, everything is going to be really customized to you and your goals. Our staff is 100 percent the reason that our company is special and different among most schools out there, and I take great pride that I’m the one responsible for hiring and training those people.”
NATA FBO Customer Service Representative Award
Carla Keeney, Customer Service Manager, Jet Access Indianapolis
“I’m looking forward to attending NATA’s Business Aviation Conference in November and was really shocked and surprised to be among the NATA Awards winners,” says Carla Keeney, who has worked as Customer Service Manager at Jet Access for seven years and in the general aviation industry since 1993, including a 22-year stint in customer service at Million Air.
Keeney says she got her start in the industry when, after completing flight attendant training for Southwest Airlines, a friend put her on a different path entirely by introducing her to the world of general aviation.
“One of my girlfriends went to work for Beechcraft at the time at their FBO, and she said, ‘Have you ever thought about private aviation? Why don’t you come and talk to my line manager?’ I visited, talked to them, and fell in love with the general aviation side. That was 29 years ago; I’ve been in aviation ever since.”
Keeney attributes much of her success in customer service to the simplest of ideas.
“I feel like you should get to know your customers,” she says. “Between colleagues and customers, I have made lifelong friends in this industry, so coming to work is not really work. I just want to take care of the customers and do my very best job for them, whether they’re traveling for work or vacation. To me it’s all about the relationships I’ve formed over the years.”
Another secret to her success: Teamwork makes the dream work. “There’s not an ‘I’ when everyone is working towards the same goal: taking care of our customers and making sure every passenger has a great experience,” Keeney says. “Watching our company grow is also super exciting. We’re building a brand new FBO and a new hangar, and we keep adding additional team members, which makes it even more awesome.”
And a third secret: mentors. Keeney says she’s grateful to have had good guidance throughout her career and wants to share that advice with new colleagues.
“Jim Manning is now retired after 36 years in aviation; he taught me basically everything, because I knew nothing about private aviation when I first came into this industry,” she says. “Another mentor was Cherri Gott; I learned a great deal from her when I was at Million Air. And here at Jet Access, I’ve had so many mentors over the last seven years, especially Peter Uberto, who has been very instrumental in teaching me to make the most of new computer systems and new technologies to make the job more efficient. I try to do the same for younger colleagues and new teammates, thinking, ‘What can I offer this person that can help ease the learning curve?’ And it’s always something to help make the customer experience smoother.”
NATA Future Leader Award
Shae Helling, Director of FBO Operations and Marketing, Bismarck Aero Center
When Shae Helling first joined Bismarck Aero Center 10 years ago as a marketing specialist, it was his first experience in aviation. Just five years in, he moved up to Director of FBO Operations and has since helped shepherd the FBO through a period of tremendous growth, including, most recently, the February 2022 purchase of Bismarck Air Medical and Bismarck Air Charter to add vital services to the Bismarck community.
“When I first came on in 2012, this was a small business really focusing on growth, getting the name out there, and doing a brand change,” Helling remembers. “I didn’t have a background in aviation, but once I got in it I kind of fell in love with the passion that people have for flying. My first initiative was to implement a new logo and really drive the marketing department. I did that for five years, solely marketing for Bismark Aero Center, before I started wearing all the different hats: doing some PR communications, some sales, some HR, really getting a feel for all the different departments for the company. When the opportunity came up in July 2017 for me to take over the fueling business as director of the FBO, I went for it: another challenge in aviation, getting to be in front of pilots, and taking one more big
leap for our companies.”
The transition was a little jarring, he admits.
“You bet there was a bit of a learning curve going from just marketing the company to ordering fuel loads, watching the market, dealing with customers, and driving that customer experience for folks coming through Bismarck,” Helling says. “But it has been fun! I get to meet so many new people, and I get to be the guy that people see as they’re coming off the airplane, saying ‘Welcome to Bismarck. Happy to have you here.’ Not a lot of people have been through this area, so it’s kind of an honor to give them that first impression of North Dakota and of our community.”
Helling says NATA’s Future Leader Award is a validation of his personal philosophy of “servant leadership,” a Benedictine value he learned as a student and longtime volunteer at University of Mary in Bismarck and its famed Benedictine Center for Servant Leadership.
“To me, this award means there’s more growth to come, and I embrace that,” Helling says. “I’m always learning, trying to do better for my customers and my team, trying to embody that value of servant leadership. I don’t want to just point and say, ‘Go get things done.’ I want people to see I’m willing to do it, I’m willing to show you, I’m willing to be out there working alongside you. I want to be that servant leader who gives back to our community, gives back to the folks who work hard with me, and gets to know people at a better level than just boss and coworkers, so that we’re all growing together.”
Helling says he also attributes his success in the role to his rural roots, and to three role models in particular.
“First and foremost, I get my work ethic from my father, a farmer in rural North Dakota,” Helling says. “He taught me that the job’s not always done at five o’clock; it’s done when the job’s done. And then there’s my college mentor Karel Sovak, the guy who really instilled a lot of leadership qualities in me and who showed me what a leader in the community looks like. He taught me to keep learning, keep growing, and keep pushing myself to be better. And here in our company, our CEO Jonathan Simmers is one of my greatest role models: a very personable guy who drives a family culture, gets to know people on a different level, and makes you feel welcome. No matter what’s going on, he always has time for you and makes you feel special. That’s the kind of leader I aspire to be.”
As Helling contemplates the future at Bismarck Aero Center amidst a period of growth, he says sticking to those leadership values is the secret to success.
“We’re a very family-friendly culture and we want to hang on to that,” he says. “Bimark’s a smaller community in the grand scheme of our country, but we’re the second largest here in North Dakota and as our business is growing rapidly, that culture becomes ever more important. We go through a rigorous hiring process to find the right people that fit our culture, fit our company. And people are just happier because of that. When you enjoy what you do, it makes it easy to go to work every day. It’s not a reasonable request for people to have the best day of their lives every day at work, but I do want to work with folks that want to be here, want to work hard, and want to be happy where they work. That’s the culture that we’ve created here.”
Helling says he has to share credit for the Future Leader Award with his whole team.
“It means a lot to me that with this award NATA is effectively saying, ‘We think the values that you’ve brought to aviation are something to be recognized,’ and I’m grateful for it, but my real secret is that I’m very blessed to have a great team of great people around me.”
Safety 1st Certified Line Service Professional Award
David Hernandez, Line Service Manager, Mayo Aviation
Unlike many of this year’s NATA Awards winners who said their dreams of aviation careers started in childhood, David Hernandez says his career began with a chance recommendation from a friend the summer after he graduated from high school.
“My buddy was working at Vail Valley Jet Center and said, ‘Hey, you should come work at the FBO.’ I thought it sounded like fun,” Hernandez recalls. “In the beginning it was a college job, but then over 12 years there I kept getting promoted. I really loved the fast-paced energy of it all, constantly being on the go, being outside, being on the move. It was a unique job I’d never really considered until I got into it, but I ended up being the line operations manager there before moving over to Mayo Aviation three years ago.”
Hernandez says he was caught “quite by surprise” when he learned he’d won the Safety 1st Certified Line Service Professional Award: he had no idea he’d been nominated, or that he’d been called “one of the most safety-focused, reliable, and team-oriented individuals to have ever joined our staff” by his boss, who also wrote, “David champions safety in every aspect of his work and responsibility areas, regularly reviewing operations and assessing any potential impact on safety. Our customers routinely compliment David and his team on the exceptional level of service they provide, as do his fellow employees across the breadth of our company. He anticipates the needs of both client and colleague, is mission safety focused, and is a key factor in how we remain a successful industry leader in the Rocky Mountain Region.”
Hernandez, ever humble, says he prefers to consider it a team award.
“I’m not great at receiving individual recognition, especially when it comes to something like a Safety 1st award,” Hernandez says. “To me this is really a recognition that our whole team is functioning well together to prioritize safety, and it shows how much our team really cares, so I’m going to regard this as a group award. We were nominated as Colorado’s best charter service this year, so it’s not just me: it’s a whole group of people that want to do the best they can.”
While he loves working with airplanes, Hernandez says the people are the best part of the job.
“In addition to loving working with my team, I love working with our clients and I like the customer service aspect of it all: taking care of people, figuring out problems, trying to make everything look seamless,” Hernandez says. “It helps put the Safety 1st aspects of the
job into perspective. Yes, we’re working with $5 million, $30 million, $60 million jets, and we’re on the front line moving those planes around and protecting those assets, but even more so it’s about people: keeping our team and our customers safe.”
He says he considers his line technicians the key to that effort.
“We’re a charter company, so there’s a lot of different moving parts: we have a maintenance department, we have charter sales, and we have owner services. With line service, we’re the frontline,” Hernandez says. “We’re the first people that everybody sees when they get off the plane and the last ones to make sure their trip has gone well. In some ways we’re the face of the organization, so everybody here strives to be the best that they can.”