Leadership Profile: Ken Swartz
Note: A condensed version of this Leadership Profile appeared in the printed version of the March/April 2021 issue of Vertiflite
Kenneth I. Swartz, Aeromedia Communications
Ken Swartz’s lifelong passion for aviation was awakened at the earliest age. Growing up on a mountainside under the flightpath of de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver seaplanes arriving and departing from Vancouver Harbour, the aircraft were often at eyelevel, beginning a siren song that has been calling him ever since. “At a young age I could recognize the sound of the Royal Canadian Air Force Piasecki H-21 and Boeing Vertol CH-113 SAR helicopters flying patients to Vancouver hospitals, and the Canadian Coast Guard Alouette III and would track them with a telescope,” he remembers.
Capturing History for the Future
Today, the Toronto-based aerospace consultant, photojournalist and VFS Board member is a subject matter expert on a wide range of vertical, short and conventional takeoff and landing (VTOL, STOL and CTOL) aircraft operations. In addition to first being elected to the VFS Board of Directors in 2018 as the Regional Director for the Americas (Canada, Central America and South America), Swartz has served as a strategic advisor for VFS regarding rotorcraft operations and electric VTOL since April 2017, after seeing the parallels between the commuter and regional air transportation market and what Uber was proposing at its first Elevate Summit.
Since his first article and helicopter photos were published in a British aviation magazine — when he was 15 — he has written thousands of articles and market research reports covering mainline and regional airlines, manufacturing, business aviation, aircraft finance, aircraft engines, avionics, systems, airports, defense and special mission applications, helicopters and now eVTOL.
An aviation historian, Swartz helped “in the startup of the museum in the birthplace of de Havilland Canada and its famous line of STOL aircraft” — the Toronto Aerospace Museum (later renamed the “Canadian Air & Space Museum”) — and has worked with three other museums. He is also a director of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) Toronto Chapter and has researched and co-written corporate histories of several companies, including CAE and Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC).
A Very Early Career
Although only one member of his family worked in aviation — his uncle was an engineer at Boeing in nearby Seattle — the young enthusiast grew up surrounded by aircraft and aviation people, many of whom had flown in the First and Second World War, and were now worked in the civil aviation industry or Transport Canada.
“In my teens, I started cycling to the library and Vancouver airport, taking photos and asking a lot of questions. I wrote notes on every conversation I had to help me learn about the industry, write articles and record aviation history as it occurred,” he commented. “I was motivated to ask questions because although Canada was home for the world’s second largest fleet of civil aircraft and helicopters, the industry was grossly underreported by most aviation magazines.”
The UK tabloid Aviation News contained a regular column called “Rotary Review,” edited by Elfan ap Rees, which featured helicopter news from around the world. These were often reports from the field. “This was where my first aviation news stories and photographs were published, when I was in grade 10. My school had a great camera club with lots of cameras you could borrow, and had a modem dark room.”
Over winter break that year, he and his teen friend Brent Wallace — a future VFS member, Okanagan Helicopters and CHC aircraft maintenance engineer, and Transport Canada inspector — visited all the Vancouver area airports; they photographed 100 helicopters, nearly 10% of the Canadian fleet at the time. Wallace’s interest in helicopter operations influenced Swartz, who recalled, “Most of the helicopter operators were surprised that someone was actually interested in what they were doing and they were happy to share their knowledge and adventures.”
British Columbia was one of largest and most diverse commercial helicopter markets in the world and locally based Okanagan Helicopters (later merged to form CHC Helicopter) was one of the western world’s top three commercial operators by fleet size. This meant that every new helicopter model, big or small, would visit Vancouver on an early sales tour.
Writing for ap Rees (the 2008 winner of the VFS John J. Schneider Historical Achievement Award) also helped open doors, he recalled. “My first helicopter flight was in a SA330J Puma (N330RM) visiting Okanagan Helicopters, on my birthday in 1976. A few months later, Brent and I were invited to fly with the US Marines in an HMM-770 Squadron Boeing CH-46D Sea Knight during a visit to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. We took air-to-air photos of another CH-46D as we flew around the mountains on the Olympic Peninsula. A few months later, I flew in a Canadian Coast Guard Alouette III to a light house near Victoria [on Vancouver Island] — all during my final year of high school.”
Swartz became one of the first North American correspondents for ap Rees’s Helicopter International magazine when it launched in 1977. “I think that writing for Elfan gave me an outlet for my helicopter industry observations and research and provided a pathway into the industry as a market analyst,” he surmised. Swartz researched and wrote the “Canadian Comments” column for the magazine for more than 25 years and has been a regular contributor to ap Rees’s HELiDATA News market intelligence newsletter for more than 40 years.
Hands-on with Helicopters
After high school, the young Swartz planned to study aeronautical engineering, but “math and physics didn’t come easily to me, so I switched from sciences to the arts halfway through first year.” Undeterred, he spent five field seasons working on mineral exploration crews. “It was a great way to explore the wilderness at someone else’s expense, and I regularly flew in and moved camps with JetRangers, Long Rangers, AStars, Hughes 500C and 500D and a Bell 205A-1, as well as a lot of Beaver and Otter seaplanes and STOL Twin Otters into remote gravel air strips. I had a couple close encounters with bears.”
“Working in Northern Canada made me acutely aware that you don’t need an airport to achieve tremendous time savings and productivity if you are flying in a helicopter or seaplane,” he observed.
On his first exploration field season, Swartz came across an abandoned US Air Force Piasecki HH-21B from Alaska in the back of a hangar at Fort St. John Airport on the Alaska Highway. “I learned that the aircraft was going to be sold for scrap by the airport and alerted the Pacific Aviation Museum in Vancouver, who obtained it for a charitable tax receipt,” Swartz recalled (it’s now at the Comox Air Force Museum on Vancouver Island). “My inspiration to collect helicopters came from Elfan,” he said. As result, “I’ve been involved in four different Canadian aviation museums collecting aircraft — including a Bell 47J and CH-136 Kiowa, Brantley 305, Sikorsky S-51 and S-55, and a Vertol V-44 that was the first helicopter to land at the Vatican and be blessed by the Pope — and artifacts, preparing exhibits and writing newsletters.”
With money in his pocket from the field work and encouraged by his father who was an importer and his mother who was a travel agent, Swartz had the opportunity to travel the world. He started touring operations — often flying on the helicopters — in the Middle East, Gulf of Mexico, Paris, New York and everywhere else he could reach. On one trip to the UK, he finally met ap Rees, who had starting to collect gyroplanes and helicopters before he launched the magazine; the collection formed what is now the Helicopter Museum in Weston-super-Mare (see “VFS Dedicates Weston Airport as Vertical Flight Heritage Site,” Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2019).
“During my early travels, I visited Bristow’s Redhill headquarters, south of London, in 1975 when I was 16. I attended my first Helicopter Association of America (now HAI) convention and flew to my first offshore rig off Los Angeles in 1978. Later that year, I visited Heliswiss in Bern, spent a day at MBB Ottobrunn [now Airbus Helicopters in Donauwörth] near Munich, Germany, and a day in Aberdeen, Scotland, photographing North Sea helicopters when I was 19,” he recalled.
In 1977, Swartz met Joe Soloy and Randy Furtick at the Abbotsford Air Show, when they demonstrated one of the first turbine-powered Soloy-Hiller UH-12Es. “They invited me down to Soloy’s farm in Chehalis, Washington, where they were converting the Bell 47 and Hiller UH-12 to Allison 250-C20 turboshafts.” He spent the next few years regularly reporting on Soloy and his progress, and learned a lot about these and other early innovators.
His international trips extended beyond the western coast of North America. “I flew by Heli Union SA360C to an oil field off Alexandria, Egypt in 1982, and made my first extensive tour of Gulf of Mexico helicopter bases in 1985 — including a pilgrimage to Morgan City, Louisiana, which was the largest heliport in the world at the time — and visited the USCG Station Mobile and military helicopter operations at Fort Rucker, NAS Whiting Field, NAS Pensacola and Eglin Air Force Base the same week!”
Swartz estimated that he’s photographed about 4,000 different helicopters over his lifetime. By the early 1980s, Swartz was trading color slides of helicopters and data with a dozen correspondents around the world. “Not many people were interested in photographing commercial helicopters so there was a lot of aircraft to document and operations to record.”
While studying political science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Swartz spent a year studying international business and politics at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. There he had the opportunity to write about the Israeli helicopter industry (Israel Aerospace Industries’ MATA Division) and visited several Israeli Air Force aircraft museums at active fighter bases just prior to the 1982 Lebanon War.
Swartz then attended graduate school to study Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, because “it offered interdisciplinary courses in communications and technology, journalism, PR [public relations], and film, video and audio production, etc.” A major turning point in his career occurred at Concordia when he did a case study on PR practice at Canadair, Inc. (now Bombardier), one of Canada’s largest aircraft manufacturers, which was developing the Canadair Challenger business jet. The insider’s look at a major aircraft manufacturer made him determined to work in the aviation business, not just write about it.
While in Montreal, he interviewed the helicopter pioneers at P&WC, which was shutting down its Helicopter & Systems Division — which had built and maintained CH-124 Sea Kings since 1963 — and visited the Boeing Helicopter Division in Arnprior, Ontario. He also attended the historic press conferences in Montreal when the Canadian and Quebec governments announced the creation of a Canadian export-focused helicopter industry to be launched with the Bell 400 Twin Ranger program and the PW200 turboshaft programs (see his article, “Bell Canada Celebrates 30 Years,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2016).
On to Bigger Things
Out of school, Swartz became the aviation marketing and media relations consultant for Expo 86, the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication in Vancouver, which included North America’s largest airshow of the year. This was when he also started freelancing for Canadian Aviation, and became a contributing editor of Wings and Helicopters magazines, covering the entire Canadian aviation industry.
Then he moved to Toronto and expanded his freelance writing to cover the airline and aerospace industry. He began reporting on Bell’s new helicopter factory in Mirabel, Quebec, and MBB’s new factory in Fort Erie, Ontario. He also spent a year researching and co-authoring the book, Power: The Pratt & Whitney Canada Story, for CANAV Books, under contract. “This was a great opportunity to understand how engine developments enable new aircraft designs,” he noted.
In 1988, Pratt’s market forecasts indicated that fastest growing segment of the aerospace industry was the regional airline industry. He joined Air Toronto to develop new trans-border routes to the US for Air Canada after the under-50-seat trans-border commuter airline market was deregulated. “This meant I had to analyze the economies of many smaller US cities, match up cross-border manufacturer and supplier relationships, analyze existing airline schedules and fares, survey passengers and markets, and help sales teams identify which companies and travel agencies were generating trans-border passengers when very little public data were available” before the internet.
During this time, Swartz made his first connection with the Vertical Flight Society, then known as the American Helicopter Society (AHS): “I used my airline pass to attend my first AHS Forum in Washington, DC, in 1990, and visited the AHS offices to research information on the early Canadian helicopter industry published in Vertiflite in the early 1950s.”
In 1992, Swartz joined Skylink, which was the largest supplier of helicopter charter and regional airline aircraft charter services to United Nations peacekeeping forces. and other non-governmental organizations (NGO). It had aircraft on contract in Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Croatia, Georgia, Guatemala, Iraq, Kuwait, Rwanda and Somalia. There, he developed successful marketing communications programs to grow the company’s business and publicize its work on behalf of clients, such as the Canadian government, Canadian Forces, the United Nations, the World Food Program and UNICEF.
Among his many jobs, he worked closely with the Russian aircraft manufacturers and aircraft charter operators on the UN re-certification of Russian aircraft for peacekeeping use, including Mil Mi-17 and Mi-26 helicopters. He initiated the purchase of Cessna Caravans, Bell LongRangers and a helicopter operator for Skylink, and managed humanitarian relief aircraft contracts in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and southern Sudan.
“Skylink was a very ‘fast company’ when it came to mobilizing aircraft to meet UN crisis management need,” Swartz commented. “A personal highlight of my three years with the company was taking air-to-air photos of a UN Mil Mi-26 over Zagreb.”
During an eight-year stint at Bombardier Regional Aircraft — then the world’s third largest manufacturer of regional airliners — Swartz worked as an airline analyst and market analyst primarily on the American Eagle account, and then in media relations, helping to launch and support the company’s Dash 8 and CRJ aircraft in the Americas. There, he developed airline route, performance, fleet, operating economics and revenue models to support of the sale of CRJs to major US airlines. He also analyzed competitive intelligence, including financial analysis, fleet monitoring, scope agreements, market share, etc.
Swartz joined the commercial aircraft division’s communications as a regional aircraft /airline subject matter expert. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Swartz ended up running media relations for Bombardier Regional Aircraft, then the world’s largest manufacturer of regional jets and turboprops.
In late 2002, Mike and Lynda Reyno of MHM Publishing invited Swartz to be one of the first regular contributors to Vertical magazine, and also began writing for MHM’s Skies magazine (originally Canadian Skies) when it launched in 2010.
Since 2008, Swartz has been an aerospace consultant, supporting non-profits and companies — large and small — active in the aviation, aerospace, urban air mobility, electric aviation, tourism, and heritage sectors, while continuing to write for aviation news outlets.
He also stepped up his freelance helicopter industry writing and regularly covered several “beats,” including offshore operations and aerial firefighting support.
In 2011-2012, Swartz was contracted by CAE, Inc., the world’s leading flight simulation and pilot training company, to write the company’s (then) 65-year history. For this he conducted in-depth analysis of the evolution of CAE’s flight simulation, visual systems and training center businesses, interviewing more than 80 current and retired senior executives and engineers. The research formed the basis of Aviation in Canada: The CAE Story, published by CANAV Books in 2015.
Swartz said he rediscovered VFS when the Annual Forums began rotating to Montreal. Forum 58 in Montreal in 2002 featured a full day program, “A Day with the Pioneers.” Swartz said, “I had never encountered a future-oriented aviation organization that had such a high regard for its industry history and the contributions of its pioneers.”
Swartz attended the subsequent VFS Forums in Montreal in 2002, 2008 and 2014, moderating the annual “CEO Panel” that last year.
He started writing regularly for Vertiflite after he began following Toronto-based AeroVelo’s flight trials for the Society’s Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter (HPH) competition. AeroVelo won the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize in June 2013 and many members of the team went on to eVTOL developer Kitty Hawk (see his article, “Back to Kitty Hawk: Exploring the Secrets of the Kitty Hawk Flyer,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2017).
With the eVTOL developments heating up in March 2017, Vertiflite began covering the subject extensively. “When I saw the [March/April 2017] issue of Vertiflite with the Volocopter on the cover, I thought it was crazy.” After the astonishment that he had missed the early signs of the eVTOL market, VFS Executive Director Mike Hirschberg asked Swartz to help develop a strategy to address the emerging eVTOL market.
He immediately saw where new urban air mobility concepts overlapped with historic helicopter airlines, de Havilland Canada’s efforts to develop urban STOL ports, high-frequency urban commuter seaplane services (like found in British Columbia), and Bombardier’s efforts to create new markets for the high-speed Dash 8-400 turboprop and CRJ regional jet — albeit over much shorter urban route networks.
As a communications strategist, Swartz also recognized as the eVTOL industry expanded there would be lots of publications and industry associations seeking to “own a slice” of the eVTOL market. To remain central and relevant to the discussion, VFS had to position itself as the “go to source” for information on the entire eVTOL industry and ecosystem.
Just days after the first Uber Elevate Summit (and the unveiling of the Kitty Hawk Flyer), Swartz and Hirschberg created the eVTOL.news website (initially with only 18 designs), expanded the eVTOL News email newsletter, created social media channels, and made its in-depth Vertiflite content available to the public to help educate everyone on the promise and progress of eVTOL — as well as grow VFS membership. Over the past four years, Swartz also jump-started developing video content — including video-recording VFS eVTOL conferences — developed content for VFS panels and meetings, and been a prolific contributor to Vertiflite. As a member of the Board of Directors, Swartz has helped guide the strategic direction of the Society.
Swartz saw his first piloted eVTOL aircraft fly in July 2017 when Kitty Hawk shipped two prototype Flyers at the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for public demonstration. The pilot was Dr. Todd Reichert, whom Swartz knew from Toronto as the co-designer and human “engine” of the AeroVelo Snowbird human-powered ornothoper, Eta human-powered speed bike and the Atlas human powered helicopter.
“Watching Todd easily maneuver the Flyer above the windswept waters of Lake Winnebago for about 10 minutes was remarkable sight,” recalled Swartz. “This was first publicized flight of an eVTOL aircraft in North America.” He later reported on the first flight of the Astro Aeronautics “Elroy” passenger drone at Toronto Markham Airport in September 2018 (see his article, “Astro’s Elroy Blasts Off, Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2018).
Since much of Swartz’s career had been focused on short-haul air transport markets, he knew how new electric propulsion systems result in a step-change reduction in aircraft operating costs that could stimulate new forms of air transportation. “We are witnessing the birth of an industry and we had to do all the things that the pioneers of the helicopter industry did when they created AHS in 1943, and more.”
Looking back over the past four years, Swartz summarized, “Now VFS has established itself as the world’s leading voice for rotorcraft and eVTOL. So, we were successful, just like they were then.”