“Pilots concern me that are continuously bragging of all they have done, how well they can fly, and how great of a pilot they are. Actions speak louder than words, and I want to see professionalism and safety in the way they fly, as opposed to the words they speak,” says Tony Bonham.

Bonham’s aviation career began while he was still in high school, and upon graduating he joined the Army to attend flight school. Due to a recruiter’s ignorance, Bonham didn’t fly through his service; instead he stayed on the ground as an air traffic controller in Savannah, Georgia. “I actually went into the Army to fly helicopters but once I got in I found out that my eyes were far too bad to pass the physical for flight school. My recruiter had a field artillery background and was not familiar with aviation requirements and apparently didn’t care enough to learn,” he remembers without bitterness.

After leaving the Army as an air traffic controller, Bonham persistently found ways to fulfill his aviation aspirations that began when he was a young boy watching his older brother-in-law takeoff as an ag pilot. By the time he was discharged from the Army in 1982, Bonham had attained his

civilian commercial fixed-wing certificate, and later his fixed-wing single- and twin- engine, CFI, CFII, and ATP. He then got his CFI, CFII, and ATP helicopter add-ons, and by 1989 he was an FAA designated pilot examiner (DPE), which he held for 20 years. He started a flight school, Professional Helicopters Inc., which advertised in foreign magazines for students and business boomed for several years. The international students kept the school flying until 2003. On the side, Bonham also flew ag, pollinated Arkansas rice fields, and also got involved with aircraft sales. Unfortunately, much smaller aircraft that didn’t have fuel expenses — bees — diminished demand for his pollination services.

Undeterred, by 1989 Bonham turned from the agricultural sector and transitioned into his first Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) position Flying Angel 1 for Arkansas


The majority of the man’s career has been in HAA flying through the air to rescue others. Don’t dare call him Superman — or even a hero. At Air Evac Lifeteam, his mission is to vanquish the ‘hero’ mindset—before it kills someone. “A pilot shouldn’t have a hero mentality to fly at all costs to rescue a patient from the jaws of death,” Bonham earnestly states. “One of the most difficult things for me to get across in training is getting rid of that desire to be a hero.

“If you have a hero mentality, we’ll eventually be having a nice memorial service for you. Your boots will be on the stage and your helmet in an empty chair.”

The senior director is deadly serious about this; so serious that he highly discourages his Air Evac Lifeteam crews to even utter the word ‘mission.’ “They’re not The Doolittle Raiders on a mission flying to Tokyo in WWII. They can say ‘no’ at any point of the flight, patient on board or not. Crews can become comfortable, and even complacent, with excessive risk over time,” the Jonesboro, Arkansas, native poignantly notes in a soft Southern accent that in no way softens his intensity.

That hard intensity for safety was forged in painful fires. “I have experienced fatal accidents as a manager. The first events are wrenching. Outwardly I don’t appear to be a person that is bothered a lot, but really I am, especially at night when I am alone. After some previous fatal accidents, I’ve thought about quitting. Making that

call to someone that their loved one will never be home again...hearing a wife and mother cry and the children scream...then going through the memorial services... it was more than I thought I could take.” Bonham pauses. Has he ever come close to quitting? “I got to a point, where I felt that I’d be deserting if I quit. I stay because I hope to improve things. I’ve got a lot of trust in our chief pilot, flight-training cadre, and crews, but I want to personally get in front of our new-hire classes to talk with them about inadvertent IMC and other lessons we have learned. I will have a very hard time if one of them has an IIMC fatality or expends one of our aircraft and I wasn’t in front talking to them.” So he stays in the battle, fighting in the front — a gladiator seeking no glory, who cannot leave the arena. Why?

Children’s Hospital. An acquaintance of Bonham, who was an FAA inspector with the Little Rock FSDO, (as a CFI Bonham earned a Gold Seal flight instructor designation from taking applicants to this inspector for their checkrides) recommended Bonham to the hospital for the position. Line pilot, assistant chief pilot and chief pilot positions followed before he was promoted to senior director of flight operations at the largest independently owned and operated medical

air service provider in the United States: Air Evac Lifeteam.

Bonham briefly left HAA in 2001 in an attempt to move to the airlines. He was typed in a Lear Jet and worked for a company out of Florida flying cancelled checks at night in a Lear 25 and 35. Within a few months, he was offered a job by Executive Jet flying a Citation Ultra. But one week prior to reporting for duty, the 9/11 terrorism occurred; airlines hit rock bottom. Bonham then returned to HAA. Oh, and since his Army days he religiously runs a 10K every other day! Some bragging from the overachiever with bad eyesight could be justified.


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