still not touching the aviation dream job that fascinated his inner boy. Then Nehls learned about a research professor at Syracuse University who specialized in rotorcraft, so he bundled up and moved to a city with even more lake-effect snowfall than Chicago and braved the blizzards to earn his master’s in aerospace engineering.

That degree was the ticket that gained the graduate’s entrance into the aviation industry. He landed a job in 1988 at McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Company (now Boeing) in Arizona and experimented a lot with fly-by-wire there. Then Honeywell recruited the engineer from MD in 1991. “My 18 years at Honeywell was an influential part of my career,” he recalls. “We did a lot of avionics development for many aircraft there: business jets, regional jets, and helicopters. I started out in the flight controls group as an engineer, but moved throughout the company into other areas like strategic marketing roles and government-industry relationships, but finished up again with flight controls. During that time I was fortunate enough to work on some of the most complex and successful avionics systems for aircraft and rotorcraft. It was a very busy, but extremely rewarding time.”

He circled back to the new MD Helicopters (after Lynn Tilton acquired it from Boeing) as VP of engineering and chief engineer. “It was a privilege to go back to MD because I was a fan of the MD500 series and the MD900. It was a real treat for me to work on those products again, and with a seasoned team of very dedicated professionals,” he fondly recalls.


While he was having fun at MD Helicopters, Nehls was pursued to participate as president in the birth of a new company—HeliTrak. To start up a new aerospace company is a rare opportunity. “I took advantage of it,” says Nehls who shares his time with his wife, Heidi, between Arizona and Washington state. “I resigned from MD on May 6 and I started here at HeliTrak on May 9, so I got a weekend off,” he says with dry humor. Less parched is his humor when asked about what he considers his greatest accomplishment. “Personally, it’s my marriage to my wife. (“We always have to say that,” he jokes.) We’ve been married for over 30 years now and she’s my best friend and supporter. And 30 years is a big accomplishment in this day and age.”

In regards to his greatest professional accomplishment, Nehls says serving as HeliTrak’s president is it. And it seems he isn’t having less fun than when he was at MD Helicopters. “The owners, John Mercer and Peter Hambling, and their families are great. We’ve got a really good team here and I’ve been having a blast,” he says.

Nehls seems to get along and enjoy his career, no matter what setting or role he is in, whether he’s working for a behemoth corporation or a small startup, whether he is an underling staff engineer or an executive leader. A clue to his contentment is found when he is asked to name a special career mentor. “It’s really hard to name only one,” he replies. “I’ve learned something from just about everyone I’ve had contact with, superiors—and subordinates. That’s the nature of the aerospace engineering business; it’s collaborative. When you have an open organization that shares information, you combine your talent and accomplish more.” The man seems to appreciate all coworkers and finds that almost everyone has something to contribute. “Over my career, when I worked in environments that shared ideas and gave feedback, we got much better results. In a nutshell, that’s my leadership style. I don’t have much tyranny at all to my style,” he says lightheartedly. Hmm…maybe my earlier Steve Jobs comparison was not apropos as Jobs was not exactly known for a non-tyrannical style. (I’m ignoring the rising twinge of guilt as I type these words on my beloved Mac.)

Another key to Nehls’ contentment is that he lets the game come to him when he’s good and ready. “I have tended not to force things in my career. Most of the opportunities I followed were offered to me. I probably could have advanced more quickly early in my career, if I had gone after positions, but I knew I needed to learn and grow, so I gave myself time to do that.”

He didn’t need more time when he was offered to take the reins to guide HeliTrak through its innovative startup. When asked if he was hesitant to seize the opportunity, he confidently and succinctly answers, “No.” But then that Midwestern modesty kicks in. “Honestly, I can’t take much credit for our innovations. Most of those ideas were already in place when I got here. A lot of hard work happened before I arrived. What I contributed was bringing some structure and focus to the development and production process and helped us get over some regulatory hurdles.” 17

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