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Paul Schaaf

RPMN: What is your current position?
SCHAAF: Chief Pilot, Fairfax County, Virginia Police Department.  I am retiring on March 22nd and starting a new job as VP - Operations at HAI in Alexandria, VA overseeing the Safety, Operations, Regulations and International Affairs departments at HAI.

RPMN: Tell me about your first flight.
SCHAAF: My first flight in a helicopter was in an Army TH-55 at Fort Rucker, Alabama in the Army’s Warrant Officer Flight Training Program in 1987.  I will never forget my primary flight instructor, Mr. Whitesell.  Before starting our training sessions, he would often tell me about a road intersection he would pass through on the way to work.  He would say, “Do I make a left turn and come teach you to fly, or make a right turn and go someplace else? I decided to turn left today.”  The implication was that he made a choice that day to teach me and therefore was going to do it to the best of his ability and expected the same from me as his student.

RPMN:
How did you get your start in helicopters?
SCHAAF: My father was a career US Navy pilot whose career spanned WW2 through Vietnam. He flew carrier based fixed-wing propeller and jet attack aircraft, so I had it in my blood, I think, due to all the exciting stories growing up.   At age 14, I spent a night in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy and remember a medevac helicopter landing just outside my window.  I watched the patient being unloaded and the pilot tying down the rotor blade (it was a Bell 206 aircraft).  I thought at the time that there could be no job cooler on planet Earth.  Now, 33 years later, I think I called it correctly because I love it more today than I did when I started and seriously, how often do  people say that?

RPMN: When and how did you choose to fly helicopters? Or did they choose you?
SCHAAF: I was a distracted high school student with little academic ambition, but with an immense capacity to dream.  I found my way to the Army recruiter’s office expecting to find something useful to do.  A poster in the recruiter’s office hinted at the Warrant Officer Flight Training Program possibility.  I told the recruiter, “I will do that, thank you very much,” and he proceeded to tell me that he had never processed a recruit for that assignment and did not think it would be possible.   A few months later, I was in!  So, as to whether I chose helicopters or if they chose me, I would have to say that we met in the middle!
 
RPMN: Where did you get your start flying commercially?
SCHAAF: After about 15 years into my career with the police department, a friend put me in touch with a private helicopter pilot who needed help procuring a Bell 407 for his business and personal use.  We began working together and I developed a part-time business as a Part 91 aircraft manager serving this client and several others while continuing my work with the police department.

RPMN: If you were not in the helicopter industry, what else would you see yourself doing?
SCHAAF: I have an entrepreneurial spirit and creative bent and therefore would likely have chosen a profession where I could have put those attributes to work. 

RPMN: What do you enjoy doing on your days off?
SCHAAF: I enjoy spending time with my three children, bicycling, running, reading and playing violin.

RPMN: What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?
SCHAAF: I am most proud of the fact that in my 17 years of serving as Fairfax County’s Chief Pilot, my department has not damaged an aircraft or injured any person.  I would like to believe that it is because I have helped people in my organization feel a sense of ownership and individual responsibility through an appropriate hand’s off management style.

RPMN: Have you ever had an “Oh crap” moment in a helicopter? Can you summarize what happened?
SCHAAF: I have had several “Oh crap” moments during my career, but very fortunately each one has left me with only good lessons learned and no damaged aircraft or violations.   In the Army, I was conducting some instrument training in VMC.  During a procedure turn, we came within inches of having a mid-air collision with a Cessna 182.  We felt the burble of turbulence from the aircraft as it passed underneath us, filling our chin bubbles horrifyingly with a view you don’t ever want to see.   There were four people on board that UH-1H that afternoon.   We were close to our base and turned towards home - unanimously deciding without a spoken word between us, that the flight was over for the day. Another “Oh crap” moment flight sticks in my mind, that leaves me to this day ever mindful of my vulnerability to make a bad decision with possibly fatal results.   It was a classic case of the mission becoming more important than safety and responsibility.  

RPMN: If you could give only ONE piece of advice to a new helicopter pilot, what would it be?
SCHAAF: I would have to give TWO pieces of advice, the first very practical and easy, the second is a lofty goal for which all pilots should aim:
1) Do a WALK AROUND inspection before you start your engine(s) and do it EVERY flight.  During the walk around, not only inspect your aircraft and surrounding area for defects or things out of place, but do a final “gut check.”  Is this flight appropriate, legal and safe? Are you prepared and do you have a back-up plan in mind that covers contingencies? 
2) Treat your pilot’s seat as a sacred place where a solemn duty is performed.  As a pilot, regardless of how well things turn out, you have not done a “good job” unless it is done safely and responsibly.  The ends do not justify the means, especially in work as unforgiving as piloting a helicopter.

RPMN: In your view, what is the greatest challenge for the helicopter industry at this moment in time?
SCHAAF: Accident prevention! Why is it we continue to fly these machines, that can land anywhere, into bad weather. Why do we fly them with mechanical defects, and even fly them to fuel exhaustion?
Manufacturers continue to deliver us safer aircraft and safety systems that are better, easier to use and more capable. Yet, pilots continue to needlessly crash aircraft, kill people and leave black marks on our entire industry.  All pilots must be mindful that crashes destroy much, much more than what is found at the crash sight.   Leaders and managers must try to ferret out pilots that do not have the capacity for mindfulness.

Posted in: Human Interest

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