Podcast: Utah Rotor Pathway Program

Pete CodellaBusiness Elevated Podcast


Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 34)

This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Scott Romney, program manager with GOED’s Talent Ready Utah, and Kent Harrison, an assistant chief helicopter pilot at InterMountain Life Flight.

The Business Elevated podcast is also available on Apple PodcastsSpotify and Stitcher.



Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.


Scott Romney
Kent Harrison

Scott Romney (0:21): My name is Scott Romney. I am the program manager at Talent Ready Utah at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. We have a very exciting guest on the show today. He is the assistant chief helicopter pilot at InterMountain LifeFlight. His name is Kent Harrison. Welcome to the podcast.  What can you tell us about yourself?

Kent Harrison (0:38): Thanks for having me, Scott. I appreciate it. I’ve been involved in aviation for over 20 years and my background is in law enforcement. I kind of mixed the two.

When I was in law enforcement, I became a helicopter pilot, and then carried forward with that career up to now. I’ve been in a helicopter for a long, long time. I’m a fixed-winged pilot as well. I am just excited about aviation in general.

Scott Romney (0:56): That’s awesome. What is your current role there at LifeFlight?

Kent Harrison (0:59): Assistant chief pilot, but I’m also a line pilot. I hold a regular duty line position flying, quite often actually.  I’m also one of the check airmen, so I check the other pilots as they go about their duties. I’m involved in that and train with them as well.

Scott Romney (1:17): Terrific. Well, one of the reasons that we thought you’d be a great guest for us on the show today is because you’re one of the founding partners for the new Utah Rotor Pathway program. The program is an education pathway meant to engage with high school students and show them some opportunity for a career in helicopter aviation specifically. What can you tell us about your experience in that industry and the demand there might be for helicopter pilots and technicians?

Kent Harrison (1:41): Well, we currently are involved in a very desperate, desperate might be a strong word, but a sincere need for helicopter pilots and maintenance technicians. I haven’t seen this in the 20 years that I’ve been involved in aviation, the need for qualified helicopter pilots. Intermountain Healthcare, and IHC Lifeflight, are very interested in promoting helicopter aviation, and fixed-wing aviation and maintenance technicians within the industry.  Utah is a great place to mine those types of individuals. They’re here. We just want to interest them in the program in any way that we can facilitate that. IHC and LifeFlight are involved.

Scott Romney (2:18): Have you been flying in Utah for most of your career?

Kent Harrison (2:21): Yes. I’ve flown in other parts of the country off-and-on for many years as well. I have experience in other areas, but Utah is my home state. I love Utah. I love flying in Utah. I was flying in Utah this morning. It was a great sunrise by the way.

Scott Romney (02:34): Cool. I bet it’s way good from way up top there.

Kent Harrison (2:36): Yes, absolutely. One of the benefits of the job, and that’s why I think people are interested in it. It’s a little bit of a different office.

Scott Romney (2:42): Sure. What’s your favorite thing about the job? Do you have any cool flying stories you can tell us?

Kent Harrison (2:48): Aviation is a wonderful career. Personally, I always wanted to have a career where I wasn’t necessarily behind a desk 24/7. I opted for career paths that took me someplace else in aviation.

I love getting out and doing something different every day. I love working with professional people such as myself. I love being involved in an aspect of the industry where we are directly helping other people. Specifically, at LifeFlight, it’s wonderful to be able to get out and understand that you’re making a difference.

The law enforcement flying I do, and still do on occasion. It’s also rewarding. We go out and directly help individuals who are lost or injured or both. Also, we get to chase down individuals who don’t believe in obeying the law. That’s very rewarding from that aspect as well.

There’s just about every aspect of aviation that I really enjoy doing.

Scott Romney (3:44): There’s kind of a lot of different types of applications for your skills.

Kent Harrison (3:48): Helicopters are uniquely capable of filling a huge niche. There’s something for everything in helicopter aviation.

Just last night I was talking with an individual who fights fires and he fights fires and makes very good money during the summer, and then he skis all winter. That might be attractive to certain individuals. Those jobs are out there as well. There are people that work in the petroleum industry and go offshore in exploration for oil and gas that our country needs.

There is sight-seeing. There’s a personal helicopter usage as well in the corporate world. There are so many varieties of aviation that are available if somebody is willing to get started on the career path and gain the necessary skills and knowledge. Starting early is just going to give them a much longer and more broad career.

Scott Romney (4:32): Sometimes when you think about the aviation industry, you don’t always think about helicopters specifically. How did you get engaged in that aspect of the industry?

Kent Harrison (4:40): That’s an excellent question. It’s just been the last 10 or 20 years that helicopters, particularly EMS helicopters, have really come to the forefront. The medical industry-recognized, 25 or 30 years ago, that rapid transport to a hospital was key in not only reducing the fatality and mortality rate of individuals but also keeping the costs down.

The medical industry bought into this quite heavily. Rapid transport to definitive care is what it is. And I enjoyed that. I got into aviation, I came from an aviation family, but I also got into helicopters just because we can land anywhere and that is really neat. To be able to pick up people and take them immediately to where they need to be is a very worthwhile endeavor for me.

Scott Romney (5:23): Can you tell us a little bit about what a day in the life of a helicopter pilot looks like?

Kent Harrison (5:28): First of all, if things are going the way they should be going, a helicopter pilot will take a look at their personal readiness to go out and fly for that day. Are they physically able to fly? Have they consumed or ingested anything that would render them unable to fly? Have they got the appropriate amount of sleep?

These are federal aviation regulations as well. The helicopter pilot needs to look at those things first. This applies to fixed-wing pilots as well. Typically they’ll show up and take a look at their aircraft. They will talk with their maintenance technician and see if there’s anything that might be a missile with the helicopter or the airplane as the case may be.

They pre-flight the helicopters. They go out and take a good look at this thing. It’s not like you can pull these things off to the side of the road when they get a problem. We have to deal with it in the air. We want to be preemptive in making sure that the helicopter is okay. After that, we brief with our crew members for the day. This is pretty much industry standard to debrief with the people who will be flying with you to make sure they understand the weather, the capabilities of the aircraft and the mission for the day, so to speak. We can anticipate any special events, public relations events or anything like that. After that, we play the waiting game. Kind of like firemen and policemen, we’re ready to go. When a call comes in, we have hopefully done all of our homework correctly so that the aircraft would be ready to launch in under 10 minutes. That’s kind of our goal is to launch in under 10 minutes on any mission that we have. Again, the key component here is rapid transport.

Other helicopter positions may not be quite so spring-loaded to do that, but they all follow the same routine and make sure the pilots are ready. The maintenance technician has cleared the aircraft, it’s flyable from their perspective, which is just as important as the operator of the helicopter itself. The pilot is ready to go out and take the helicopter wherever it needs to go and do the mission that it’s designed to do.

Scott Romney (7:16): Just being prepared for at a moment’s notice to act as kind of what your day is all centered around.

Kent Harrison (7:22): It takes a lot of preparation to get to the point where you can go in and within about 15 or 30 minutes be ready to go.

There’s a lot of things that go into that in preparation for those types of days. Once you’re there as a professional, you can do that.

Scott Romney (7:34): What if you’re stuck up on the mountain, trapped, waiting for help? I’m sure those few minutes make a huge difference.

Kent Harrison (7:41): Absolutely, they make a difference.

I can give you countless examples of another hour and somebody may not have made it. We definitely make a difference.

Scott Romney (7:49): With that experience under your belt, and your current position, what can you tell us a little bit about why you got involved in the Utah Rotor Pathway program?

Kent Harrison (08:01): Intermountain Healthcare (IHC) is a very benevolent corporation. They believe in helping the community. They believe in helping their employees. They spend a lot of time and effort trying to just improve the whole situation.

They also recognize we need qualified helicopter pilots to assist their program. IHC and InterMountain Life Flight got involved early on because we wanted to see this program become a success. We want to facilitate those who are truly interested in aviation to have a worthwhile career and get started early and progress well.

We need professionals in our industry. We need good people. We really do. By helping them get started as early as possible along a pathway that is semi-structured, if not completely structured, that’s very good for us. Helicopter flying is a very structured industry.

Having that structure early, and understanding that, is a learning and an experiential process to get you where you are. That is going to help us. It can’t be something that is just a whim. It has to be something that is a focus.  Getting started early is beneficial for us.

Scott Romney (9:03): The training can be pretty intensive to become a pilot or technician.  How do you think the Utah Rotor Pathway addresses the workforce demand that you have coming down the line?

Kent Harrison (9:16): First of all, the nexus is in the education arm of our culture, so to speak. People who are already involved in education, it’s just a different facet of education. One of the neat things about aviation is that we generally get pilots in the seat of aircraft pretty quickly. They don’t have a three or four-year process before they can actually benefit from what their endeavors are.

They get to get started pretty early. I am involved in training and getting pilots into the seat of an aircraft, and getting them started. Training them early is really beneficial for them. They need the educational background, in terms of just being able to read and understand. They need to do some studying.

Early on in that pathway we want them exposed to aviation firsthand in the seat of an aircraft. Or, with your hands on the tools to fix them.

Scott Romney (10:09): The Utah Rotor Pathway program started when GOED contacted some industry leaders in the helicopter aviation industry. They talked to them a little bit about the workforce demand that they have for pilots and technicians. There’s a huge demand for both of those positions in Utah right now, and that demand will continue to grow over the next 10 years. We used a model that we’ve used before with our Utah Aerospace Pathway program, the Diesel Tech Pathways and the other career pathways that run out of GOED to give some direction to high school students as they’re looking for a career.

Once a student gets a taste of what that opportunity looks like, it’s really easy to get excited about it. How are you engaging with those students, and making that opportunity available to them?

Kent Harrison (10:53): IHC is kind of unique. We are in a position where we legally have the ability to have any passengers on board that are safe individuals when we transport patients. 

It’s a pretty easy step for us to invite individuals to go out on training missions with us. We train hundreds of hours a year in our aircraft.  Having an extra person in the back is not really a huge thing. We’ll find those individuals who are in the pathway and they’re committed to learning and growing. We’ll be able to offer them a firsthand look at what it is to fly a sophisticated modern helicopter in our environment. They will get a taste for what they’re looking at. We’re hoping that it will lead to bigger, better things for them.

Scott Romney (11:38): That’s terrific. That’s super exciting. I’m super jealous about that opportunity. We’ve seen a lot of students that kind of just have a hard time answering the question — ”what do you want to be when you grow up?” Most of the time they don’t even know what to say because they don’t know what opportunities are out there.  What can you say to students who are looking for a career that might open their eyes to an opportunity in helicopter aviation?

Kent Harrison (12:00): My suggestion would be to immerse yourself into some aspect of aviation right upfront, so you have a better idea if it’s something that you might be able to handle. The pathways program is going to expose these individuals to current professionals that are working in the industry, making money, earning a living and supporting their loved ones. Taking care of business, if you will. By exposing these individuals to those professionals in the industry, there’s no better way than they’ll get a good glimpse of what’s going on.

They’ll be able to ask any questions they have.  How did they do that?  How did they get there? What were their experiences?. What were their setbacks? What were the challenges? That’s why I think the pathway program is so important. To link them up with people who are actually in the industry.

It doesn’t matter that it’s LifeFlight or any other entity that’s involved in our pathway program. These people are all involved in aviation in one regard or another. They are the people who have the answers.

Scott Romney (12:56): In the pathway program, students can start getting engaged in high school. They continue to post-secondary education and get the certifications they need to become a technician or pilot. Can you give us an idea of what it looks like for the student when they get involved in the career pathway program? What are their experiences like once they’re starting to take classes and do the work-based learning?

Kent Harrison (13:16): They’re going to learn about the weather. They’re going to learn about the mechanics of what makes aircraft fly right out of the shoot. If we can get them into an actual training program where they’re hands-on, there’ll be flying almost immediately. Some of the educational institutions that I used to teach at we would put them into the aircraft on day one. As soon as we could and get them hands-on flying as quickly possible.

It’s just like riding a bicycle. Once you learn how to do it, and you do it correctly, you’ll be okay at it. Getting students involved, there’s some classroom time that needs to be done.  They need to have some basic understanding of physics, gravity and winds. Most people have that inherent understanding of those things. We just need to bring out the finer points of that so they can be safe. Then they understand that responsibility with being a pilot, and taking not only your own life but the lives of others in your hands as well. Taking it very seriously.

If you’re serious-minded about it as a student and wanting a good career, you’ll understand how this works and you’ll move forward with it. It’s actually quite fun to learn new things. I enjoy the opportunity, even at this stage of my career, to learn new aircraft and what their capabilities are.

I’ve moved around quite a bit. It’s been enjoyable to do that.

Scott Romney (14:42): Students can get involved starting in high school in this track that will lead them to a career in helicopter aviation. What is the next step that they need to follow to land that career that they’re hoping for?

Kent Harrison (14:53): Specifically here to Utah and this actually holds true outside of Utah as well, at least any other state that may have a similar program. The career pathway program is going to give them contacts in the industry. There are aviation schools that are aligned in our program and are part of our program, their end-user professionals as well.

Just by being immersed in the pathway itself, you’re going to develop these contacts of professionals in the industry. The next thing would be to identify a training opportunity for them. Whether it be through the military, which is always a possibility, or specifically with one of our local schools who all adhere to the same federal aviation regulations that we do. They can take these students from ground zero and start them off, literally train them to be a helicopter pilot and give them opportunities and contacts in the industry to take the next steps. They’ll literally go from the career pathway, make a contact and identify a school where they may be able to work. There’s also a financial aid that’s available through the schools. Know how to access. Then they can progress along a career path that will get them tailor-made to their abilities, their age and the time they have.

If they have an opportunity to take a year and be concentrated, they can progress quite rapidly. If they want to pursue a career in aviation while they’re working on educational goals, they can do that as well. My only suggestion would be that once they get started in the training, they stay committed to it at least twice a week and preferentially three times a week.

They don’t want to go backward in their training. The benefit of the pathway program is taking the students that are interested in aviation and lining them up with the career individuals in the state who can facilitate that progress. That’s what the pathway program is for. They literally can buck the headwind for them, and get them started where they want to be.

Scott Romney (16:49): They say a lot of times it’s not always what you know, it’s sometimes who you know. Having that face-to-face interaction with people inside the industry must help a lot as they’re looking to get placed.

Kent Harrison (16:58): The helicopter industry is still a relatively small world. Contacts made through something like a pathway program are invaluable throughout the industry.

These will be people that they interact with for years. They’ll be talking to them and conversing with them. Opportunities will open up down the road just because of the contracts they’ve made.

Scott Romney (17:15): The Utah Rotor Pathway program connects with students starting when they’re seniors in high school. They can sign up for classes taught remotely from Southern Utah University, and many school districts across the state, including Alpine, Washington and Iron counties.

They take classes that are paired with instructors from some of the big industry companies that lead the way and helicopter aviation in Utah. They’re offering training and hands-on experience. Students have an idea of what their career will look like once they finish the high school component. They can continue their education at one of the other post-secondary partners that offer helicopter aviation courses. They are able to work on their flight hours as instructors hired by either the schools or one of our participating aviation companies. After they have enough flight hours they are offered positions with the companies that participate in the pathway program.

There are two different tracks that you can get engaged with starting in high school. One is for pilots and one is for technicians. Both are equally in demand in the industry right now. Both have a lot of really great opportunities.

Where are those high school classes being offered right now?

Kent Harrison (18:27): There are several institutions in Utah. I know in Eagle Mountain the high school out there is very proactive with the pathway program. I know there are some places in central Utah as well that are working on it.

GOED has been very helpful in facilitating people. Linking with others so that this pathway can be reached in other high schools. There are career specialists in these high schools. As long as they’re alerted to what’s going on, they can offer these types of things to their students.

And the districts as well can immerse themselves in the opportunities. There is a need in the industry, and not just in helicopters, but also in fixed-wing aviation. We really want to open these career specialists’ eyes to the opportunities that are there for their students.

Scott Romney (18:25): I don’t know one high school student that would say no to a helicopter ride when they’re working for some type of a CTE course while in high school. I’m really appreciative of all the work that you’ve done to get this program set up.  If you had to do it all over again, would you still want to become a helicopter pilot?

Kent Harrison (19:31): Oh yeah. Looking back, I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made. This is a rewarding career. I do not mind going to work every day. There’s not a lot of people that can say that I enjoy going to work every day. I enjoy working with the people that I work with. I know what I’m doing is beneficial to our community and state as a whole. The rewards are hard to describe. Seeing people that I know, helping them get better, getting to definitive care and then watching our professionals intervene in their lives. That’s really rewarding for me. Yes, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Scott Romney (20:07): That’s kind of what we wanted to talk with you about today. Thank you so much for taking the time to come speak with us today. Is there anything else that you’d like to say to people interested in the pathway or in helicopter aviation?

Kent Harrison: (20:18): At the very least, check out the pathway. There are some very special people involved that are willing to help. They will make a difference. They can at least give you an idea of what you’re up against, and what you need to do to get going. It’s a very well structured and well-run program. So I’d say at least check out the pathway.

Scott Romney (20:35): Terrific. Well, thank you so much for your time, and thank you for our listeners for tuning in and hearing a little bit more about the Utah Rotor Pathway program. If you have questions about that program, how to get involved as a student, as an industry partner, or as an educator, please contact me. Scott Romney at sromney@utah.gov


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