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When Steve Hickok was honored this year at the Living Legends of Aviation 14th Annual Awards, it marked the culmination of a journey that he never could have imagined at the beginning of his career.
That’s because Hickok, president of Hickok & Associates, didn’t set out to make the “groundbreaking advancements” in helicopter instrument flight for which he was recognized. In fact, he stumbled into the field by accident — but was propelled forward every step of the way by his passion for making things better.
Hickok’s entry into aviation came in 1975, when he joined the U.S. Army and learned how to fly helicopters. As an Army aviator, his experience with night vision goggles (NVGs) progressed from full faceplate to cutaway NVGs and finally ANVIS, and he knew firsthand their tremendous potential for increasing operational effectiveness and safety.
But when he transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1984, Coast Guard aviators were prohibited from using NVGs. Hickok pushed the Coast Guard to change its policy, and helped develop the organization’s first NVG program.
When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decided to launch a civilian NVG project in 1993, the agency borrowed Hickok from the Coast Guard in order to tap his expertise. As soon as he arrived at the FAA’s offices, however, he learned that the project had been cancelled. Instead, Hickok was made the FAA’s helicopter instrument flight rules (IFR) GPS program manager. He was in for quite an education.
“I had been flying instrument approaches to airports for 18 years, but knew nothing about how IFR procedures were produced,” he recalled. “There weren’t any GPS approaches yet, the constellation wasn’t operational yet, and no GPS receivers approved.”
Tasked with leading the development of helicopter non-precision GPS instrument approaches, Hickok jumped into his new duties with both feet. But he encountered some bureaucratic inertia in the FAA, which always had a limited budget for rotorcraft. So Hickok made a deal with the agency: if he could convince industry to provide test sites, aircraft, pilots and operational funding for a flight test program, the agency would fund the “truthing” systems and engineering support required to establish the criteria and validate the approaches.
Despite having few contacts in the civilian helicopter industry at that time, Hickok found a number of willing industry partners. The project moved forward, and the resulting helicopter instrument approaches became the first GPS approaches approved anywhere in the world. Almost immediately, the helicopter air ambulance operators who had sponsored approaches put them to work in transporting critically ill and injured patients to definitive care.
When Hickok retired from the Coast Guard in 1995, he saw an opportunity to leverage his insights into a new business that would make these life-saving approaches more widely available.
“To do this, somebody has to know this whole big picture across all the lines of business in the FAA,” he explained. “I decided that I would try it — and if I couldn’t make this happen, I would go get a job as a helicopter pilot.”
When Hickok launched his business, the FAA was still developing instrument approaches manually. Hickok, however, recognized that a wealth of digital data was available to develop approaches more rigorously and consistently. He began by developing software programs that would allow him to take full advantage of that data; after about a year-and-a-half, he was ready to present a proposal to the FAA.
“They very quickly said not only no, but hell no!” Hickok recalled. But he knew what he could offer the industry, and he wasn’t about to give up. Determined, Hickok lined up support from members of Congress, and was given an opportunity to demonstrate what he could do. Although the FAA didn’t make it easy on him, Hickok was able to prove to the agency that he could develop safe, reliable instrument approaches as well as any government agency, and in 1997 became the first non-federal IFR procedure developer.
Eventually, as his reputation solidified, he gained additional privileges, including the ability to validate his own approaches and, more recently, to use his own proprietary criteria in designing approach procedures. “My goal was always to be able to do everything,” he said. “It took me from 1995 to 2008 to get there.”
Today, Hickok’s positive impact on the helicopter industry is undisputed. With a staff of only seven people, including himself, Hickok & Associates has designed and maintains more than 600 instrument procedures, which is more than most countries can claim. As Hickok pointed out, “Most of those procedures are to hospitals, and thousands of patients have been transported when otherwise the pilots would have had to cancel or turn down missions without IFR procedures at their heliports.”
Hickok is still just as passionately involved in his business as he has been for the past two decades. But he also hopes that his story will inspire others to carry his legacy into the future with the same determination.
“The reason why this industry has thrived is because of the tenacity of the industry people themselves,” he said. “I was very tenacious.”
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