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Penticton helicopter age touches down for retirement

Jan Rustad calls it quits after long career that ended with him as chief flight instructor at HNZ Topflight
Jan Rustad (right) with Tim Simmons in the cockpit of one of the HNZ Topflight helicopters at the Penticton base. Rustad recently retired from the position of manager and chief flight instructor after over 30 years with the company. Co-worker and longtime friend Simmons is the new chief flight instructor.

“There is a season for all things.”

With those closing words to his team Jan Rustad concluded a chapter in his professional life which propelled him to legendary status in rotary-wing aviation.

After a career spanning over four decades and 19,000 hours of air time, the 67-year-old has decided to retire as chief flight instructor and manager of business development at HNZ Topflight, formerly Canadian Helicopters.

“Absolutely I’m going to miss it,” said Rustad, whose youthful appearance belies his years. “But I guess I’m like a sailor that’s come home from the sea in a way but I will always have a passion for flying, I love the industry.

“I’ve had a very good run at this, and now it’s time to kick back and relax a little bit and enjoy smelling the roses and enjoy my family, especially my 11 grandchildren.

“But I guess that’s how it works, all good things must come to an end eventually but I am going with a tear in my eye.”

Taking over the managerial duties at HNZ will be Kelowna consultant Don Venturi while longtime Topflight pilot and instructor Tim Simmons will move into the role of chief flight instructor.

During his 37 years at the school, formerly called Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training, Rustad was instrumental in developing a mountain flying program which brings pilots from around the world to Penticton and is said by some to be the best in the business.

“My focus has been passing on good operational flying and survival skills to young, up-and-coming, aspiring helicopter pilots, that really is my legacy,” said Rustad, who lives with his wife in Kaleden. “With each one of those young aviators, I’ve left them with a skill set that helps them fly a lot safer and a lot more knowledgeable about flying in the mountains and help them get home safely at the end of the day. That is certainly the greatest reward and to me, the greatest gift.”

Just a few of the agencies which regularly use HNZ training includes, the Canadian Armed Forces, RCMP,  the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy SEALs, FBI and Dutch military police.

As well, the spotless safety record during his 31 years at the school speaks for itself, especially in light of the challenging types of training (mountain and emergency) the pilots undergo.

However he does blame Hollywood for the somewhat tarnished image of helicopter safety.

“It is those things where a helicopter takes off, flies a couple of hundred feet and blows up into a fireball. This is not a good image and I’m living proof that doesn’t happen,” said Rustad, who has flown helicopters for a total of 47 years.

The new chief flight instructor, Simmons first flew with the man who would eventually become his mentor, co-worker and friend, in 1988.

“It was for a check ride when I was just one of those 100-hour pilots trying to get my first job,” recalled Simmons. “He certainly has become a legend. Flying with Jan is like flying with no one else in the world, you notice that the minute you get in the aircraft with him.

“Sitting in the cockpit of the helicopter beside him, that sense of calmness just resonates and lets you know everything will be okay.”

Simmons added he is sure every pilot who has trained under Rustad would agree the skills they learned from him have saved their lives.

“That’s absolutely true in my case, especially in the first couple of years flying operationally,” he said. “His dedication to making me a safer pilot has been second to none in the industry.”

Simmons also believes his boss instilled the importance of self-improvement in the team he now leaves behind.

“Because the day you think you know it all is a dangerous day to fly,” said Simmons.

“He has made the school a culture of learning, I mean on his last day of employment, he sat in on someone else’s ground school, trying to learn something new.

“We’re going to miss him, we already do but we’re not saying goodbye to Jan at all. His career may have come to an end but his friendships have not.”

President and CEO Don Wall of HNZ Group Inc. agreed: “I’ve known Jan about 23 years and consider him a friend and really, this is just another phase of his life.

“He is a very caring, people-focused person and there is no question we will miss him.”

For Rustad, apart from the home renovation projects that have waited patiently,  he has no specific plans for the future.

“And am I going to totally retire from aviation? It’s hard to say at this time but I’m going to have a bit of a sabbatical,” he said. “I may keep up my licences up for another year or so but like that sailor you gotta know when to part company with the ship.

“I guess maybe it’s time for me to wander off and in concert with my statement, there really is a season for all things.”