Kevin Bredenbeck has achieved more in three decades than many could hope to accomplish in several lifetimes.
To become a helicopter pilot, you must become skilled at many things. After the dawn of the social media age, those mastering the art of self-promotion can become well known in their field with relatively little effort and some good luck. Some go on to become well-known industry figures, while some prefer to quietly achieve goals they set to achieve, quietly excelling behind the curtain of relative anonymity in the helicopter industry as “quiet achievers”. Kevin Bredenbeck is one of the latter. Yet, has achieved more than many could hope to accomplish over several careers.
Like many pilots, Bredenbeck’s love for all things airborne began in early childhood. Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, during the “Gemini Years” as the United States competed with longtime foe Russia to be the first country to send a man into orbit and safely return them to earth, continuing the pursuit of greatness in the race to be the first country to land a man on the moon. Fascination with aviation was a part of growing up in that era, and inevitable for Bredenbeck, the son of an Air Force veteran who served in the Korean War as a crew chief for the F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bomber. A lesser-known aircraft than the popular F-86, the F-84 was the primary bomber aircraft used in the Korean war, responsible for over 60% of all successful bombing missions. The F-84 was also the first aircraft to be refueled in mid-air and was the first aircraft used by the USAF Thunderbirds display team.
Growing up only a half mile from what was once Springfield Airport. His childhood exposure to aviation was so vast that at an early age, Bredenbeck could identify dozens of aircraft purely by their sound. “I was the geek kid who could name any plane without looking up,” he noted during our interview.
Bredenbeck’s hometown also played a notable part in aviation history, as home to the Grandville Brothers (GB) Aircraft Company based in Springfield, where the duo produced the powerful, yet obscure looking and notoriously dangerous Gee Bee Racer R1 and R2 in the 1930s as air race competition planes. Bredenbeck could recall walking the now abandoned grounds of the former Springfield Airport as family members recounted witnessing the Gee Bee aircraft being put through their paces as they walked along the perimeter fence of the airport.
As launch events happened with more regularity during the space race of the 1960s, each launch day resulted in the young Bredenbeck “playing hooky” from school as he sat riveted in front of the family television marveling at the technology on display showing just what man was capable of as the space program advanced. His distraction and fascination too great to even consider concentrating on schoolwork on these days. His mind made up even at a young age that this was his destiny. “I was always going to be an astronaut or a fighter pilot. Period,” he said.
Never straying from his objective, he began his journey learning to fly in 1978, gaining his private, commercial and instrument ratings during his four years attending Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, graduating in 1982 ¬¬with a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Studies and Avionics at age 22. During his four years at Embry Riddle, Bredenbeck was also a member of a Marine PLC club, which he explained was not quite the same as a traditional ROTC program, but contained many of the characteristics of an ROTC, working as a funnel to bring skilled talent into the Marine Corps aviation program as officer candidates. Bredenbeck, still with his eyes set on space, took the Marine Corps aptitude test, which he scored highly on. His score high enough, in fact, to grant him a provisional slot in Marine Fighter Pilot training.
Eager to begin his flying career, Bredenbeck was preparing to head to Pensacola, Florida to begin his career and sign his paperwork committing at least the next four years to Uncle Sam when a phone call changed his career path, at least temporarily.
Bredenbeck received an unexpected call asking if he would like to come and work for NASA, utilizing his degree as a systems engineer at United Space Booster Incorporated, who specialized in assembling and placing the solid rocket boosters on spacecraft that would propel them into the outer atmosphere and eventually into outer space, where Bredenbeck hoped to one day travel as an astronaut.
After just over a year at NASA’s USBI and some sage advice from a mentor that knew his aspirations of being an Astronaut, Bredenbeck was advised that if he wanted to become an astronaut, he needed to obtain a more widely diversified experience level if he ever wanted to make the grade. His mentor at USBI would be the same person to make calls on his behalf to friends at Sikorsky Aircraft located in Stratford, Connecticut that would soon lead to Bredenbeck’s employment at Sikorsky as a flight test engineer that specialized in production testing removals with the early model UH-60A Black Hawk.
Sikorsky at the time was ramping up deliveries of the Black Hawk, completing over twenty Black Hawk’s a month as the Vietnam era Bell UH-1H began to reach its end of usefulness in the Army and began to cycle out and be replaced by the UH-60A Black Hawk. In addition to a large number of Black Hawks leaving Connecticut, Sikorsky also completed at least two Sea Hawks and one CH-53 for delivery in addition, which Bredenbeck mentioned was for a non-wartime effort, a substantial achievement for the company.
Having a background in the technical and engineering side of aviation before joining the flying ranks granted Bredenbeck with a wealth of knowledge that few other pilots possessed that set him apart from others. This skill would continue to benefit him right throughout his career as people grew to know his skill at identifying problems and finding solutions.
Clearly not cut out for life flying a desk, Bredenbeck’s determination to fly for a living proved a powerful motivator as the sky continued to call him back to his original plan of flying in the Military. After a year with Sikorsky, he began submitting applications for flight school with both the Army and Navy. Both services expressed a keen interest in making use of his background as a welcome addition to each of their aviation branches. For Bredenbeck the choice was not a complex one, as all he wanted to do was fly…and in the least amount of time possible. His mind already made up that he would join the branch that made the offer first.
Not a service that likes to lose quality applicants, the Army scooped up Bredenbeck with an offer of a direct commission due to his background in aviation. One to lead by example, Bredenbeck decided to do it the hard way, completing basic training, then earning his wings at Fort Rucker Army Airfield where he completed warrant officer flight training (WOFT) where after three months, was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lt.
Bredenbeck stayed on at Rucker, not as an instructor as one may think, but instead moving into a role he was uniquely qualified for, joining the test division based at Mother Rucker for a short time where he flew a variety of aircraft until he finally transitioned as a pilot in command of what was by now an old friend – the UH-60 Blackhawk. Staying on at Fort Rucker until the end of 1985, Bredenbeck was then deployed to Korea, serving in the 377th “Dustoff” medivac company headquartered in Soul, South Korea. His new company operated a total of twenty-five UH-60 Black Hawks from four bases around South Korea, including aircraft stationed at the demilitarized zone at the border between North and South Korea.
Upon his arrival, Bredenbeck was sent to Taegu, South Korea, home of the 377th 3rd platoon. Upon arrival, he was not even given a chance to put his bags down before having bars pinned on his collar. Bredenbeck had been granted his direct commission. This meant instead of assuming the role of a pilot in the 377th and serving in multiple mission types that included medical evacuation, search and rescue and patient/soldier transport, Bredenbeck instead assumed the role of unit maintenance officer.
Bredenbeck was also deployed to Iraq as a Dustoff pilot during Operation Desert Storm during the last year of his eight years spent in active duty in the Army, which upon returning stateside after Desert Storm in 1994, he then decided to retire from active duty status, transferring to reserve status. He would continue to serve his country for an additional five years attached to AVCRAD, based in Groton, CT. His reserve unit responsible for bringing aircraft back to service from active duty after serving in a war zone. Bredenbeck’s unit oversaw quality control procedures and allowed him to still gain flight time in the Bell UH-1H Huey and Blackhawk. Bredenbeck finally retired from Military service in 2000 after his growing workload forced a decision to be made to ensure he still maintained a good work/life balance.
As his full-time military service days wound down, Bredenbeck decided he wanted to continue flying as a career and began the search to find an employer that he could make that happen within the civilian world. That search led Bredenbeck back right to where his career in the helicopter industry began. Returning to the place he had departed over eight years prior as an engineer, taking a role at Sikorsky in Connecticut. But this time in the flying role he had always wanted as a production test pilot.
Unbeknown to Bredenbeck, taking this role would set in motion a career path that would not only become his home for twenty-three years but also see him become part of aviation history in a helicopter
During his “second round” at Sikorsky, Bredenbeck noted that he was very fortunate to have the opportunity to be “mentored by the best old school pilots there was,” each fueling his passion to eventually strive to personally make a difference in helicopter safety. His endless passion for achieving set objectives, unstoppable drive and his unique skill set having been an engineer before becoming a pilot set Bredenbeck up for long-term success at Sikorsky. His ability to assist from a more technical level fueled his rapid rise through the ranks at Sikorsky. Applying everything he learned working with industry legends of the time, he progressed to the role of engineering pilot, then test pilot. He learned from greats like Ed Dinsmore who helped him develop an in-depth understanding of how the avionics and electronics in a helicopter worked with each other.
Bredenbeck also listing major influencers in his career being Phil Pacini, a former Air Force pilot who flew the iconic Sikorsky HH53S “Jolly Green Giant” before joining Sikorsky. Pacini took him under his wing, teaching him the finer points in the relationship between the structural engineering process and how it related to test flights in helicopters. Nick Lappos was also a large influence in Bredenbeck’s early flight test days. Lappos was at the time the chief test pilot for the research and development department at Sikorsky, who he credits as teaching him lessons that he still applies to flying to this very day. In addition to his mentoring, Lappos was the person to offer him the job returning to Sikorsky once again, this time in the pilot seat.
John Dixon was Sikorsky’s former chief pilot for many years prior to Bredenbeck’s arrival, who remembered the name on the resume on his desk, inquiring as to if the resume belonged to the same person that he recalled from almost a decade prior from his short stint as a flight test engineer. Although almost a decade had passed, Dixon clearly recognized Bredenbeck from his first stint. Bredenbeck still considers himself incredibly fortunate to have studied under such industry greats that chose him to share their knowledge with to see him succeed and reward his passion for what he was doing.
The long list of “hall of fame” quality test pilot alumni that passed on some of the most valuable lessons he could have ever imagined also included Russ Stiles, Sikorsky’s former chief development pilot on the iconic “helicopter that never was” the RAH-66 Comanche and his direct boss and mentor Chris Geanacopoulos – nicknamed “G12” by his peers for his twelve letter surname of Greek origin. G12 was the chief test pilot of the Black Hawk.
Bredenbeck progressed over the next decade eventually succeeding Dixon as the Chief Pilot of Sikorsky 2003, incorporating other roles and titles that included Director of Flight Operations at Sikorsky, essentially the top role in his field in 2005.
In 2006 took on the role as chief development pilot of the revolutionary X2 technology demonstrator that would become the test bed to prove the technology functionally now residing in what is aimed at becoming the next step in military light gunships, the S-97 Raider and future vertical lift generation Black Hawk, the SB-1 Defiant.
During the X2 program it conducted 23 flights, totaling 22 total hours of flight time. The X2 unofficially broke the rotorcraft world speed record, set on July 26th, 2010. The X2, having met or exceeded all testing parameters was approved during this test flight to see how fast the aircraft could fly safely without any adverse effects, reaching a top speed of 252 knots (289MPH) in straight and level flight to the delight of the flight test engineers and ground crew, having broken a long-standing record in the industry. The X2 program was awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy in 2011 for its technology and achievements in aviation.
In 2014, after nearly a decade in one of the most respected roles in commercial aviation, Bredenbeck stepped away from the management and leadership roles he had excelled in to specialize in the once in a lifetime opportunity to become the Tech Fellow R&D pilot for advanced platforms using X2 technology originally developed and tested in the X2, making Bredenbeck the logical choice for the role, which would be his last.
After spending twenty-three years with Sikorsky, it was time for a change, said Bredenbeck. After achieving a great deal throughout his test flying career that played a substantive part in the overall safe operation of thousands of helicopters now serving in multiple disciplines and missions around the world. Bredenbeck credits the testing process related to the introduction of fly by wire technology into helicopters, first with the Black Hawk, then continuing with the S-92 as both one of the largest challenges and greatest successes that he states in a humble tone that he played a “small part” in its eventual success within the industry as the new standard.
While being fortunate enough to gain knowledge and experience that few ever will, Bredenbeck chose to eventually take an early retirement from Sikorsky, retiring in March 2016 at age 57. His aim from that point forward was to indulge his passion for helicopter safety through a new mission.
Never pausing to take a breath after retiring, Bredenbeck decided to take the bull by the horns and invest in his passion for safety and saving lives by using the knowledge he had gained from a lifetime flying, to create a world first program for the helicopter industry that he hoped would significantly advance safety if widely adopted by the industry.
In 2017 Bredenbeck began his own company, KLB Aviation, Inc. located in Westlake Village, California. His initial idea developing into a syllabus of over three hundred pages of instructor and student reference material titled Helicopter Upset Recognition and Recovery Training program (HURRT.)
This revolutionary approach taught instead of avoidance methods, but what to do if bad weather or inadvertent meteorological conditions (IMC) occurred. Bredenbeck has never been one to shy away from hard questions, like this one created when his training was announced, which forced the industry to confront an ugly truth and admit that changes needed to be made if lives were to be saved. His course structured to tackle the problem of what to do and how to survive to overcome the muscle memory reactions and panic responses that have cost many lives in the past occurring to those that were never trained to be IN an IMC situation, but to avoid it, which was all too often leading to deaths each year as no training existed in the helicopter world to combat this issue, unlike in the fixed wing world that had taught recovery from these situations for over a decade.
Bredenbeck has gone on to work with civilian companies, individuals, the Helicopter Association International (HAI), IHST, and the FAA to “define requirements that address an advanced stage of learning focusing on training techniques that will directly impact and aim to reduce the number of loss of control (LOC) and controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents seen in the industry” said Bredenbeck.
The course delivered by KLB is delivered in a three-day course Covering basic aerodynamics, then moving on to more complex methodology designed to combat poor decision making and classroom-based instruction on how to recover from some of the more common mistakes that can lead to loss of control in an aircraft before students then progress to actually performing the tasks and beginning to develop the muscle memory needed to become proficient in avoiding or recovering from LOC in the helicopter by performing the maneuvers in a helicopter simulating IFR conditions under the supervision of Bredenbeck.
Describing the technique of what is achieved during his course, Bredenbeck says that his course is “flying the fine line of control and pushing them (students) as far as they can go to eliminate over- controlling of the aircraft.” Students learn to master managing the energy of the helicopter, a BO-105 used for this course, featuring twin engines and a rigid rotor system. Time is not spent on simulation, but hands-on training, so that students can feel the responsiveness of the helicopter and perfect their techniques in flight.
Bredenbeck has lofty goals regarding safety within the industry. He states that in a perfect world, he hopes to change the way pilots look at safety. “I’d like to drive the requirements back into the FAA, PTS or ACS standards in all rating types, so you’re always visiting these topics in flying and working them through,” he stated. “I think this will address the safety problems we’ve all had in the industry. You can’t change bad decision making, but you can give people the skills they need to fly better.”
Bredenbeck has never been one to shy from complex tasks in his over thirty-five-year career and enjoys being the go-to for the hard questions. So, inventing a first for the industry that challenges pilots to “adapt and overcome,” developing new skills that may keep them alive in extremely adverse conditions suits him just fine.
Bredenbeck keeps busy training pilots from various branches of the Military to instruct other pilots as HURRT instructor pilots, along with training Firefighting pilots in initial and advanced flying of both the UH-60 and S70i Black Hawk and Fire Hawk respectively after securing several lucrative training contracts to provide training to federal, state and local agencies that operate both airframes thanks to his diverse experience with every model of Sikorsky aircraft and his diverse training background. If Bredenbeck’s commitment to safety is contagious, it may very well be the start of a major shift in the industry.
When asked what he saw in the long term and where he wanted to see himself situated over the next decade, the usually quick to respond Bredenbeck paused, giving careful thought to the posed question. “After years of doing so much, and moving so fast, the most appealing thought is to slow down and stand still: Fly fishing.” He replied matter-of-factly. “I have owned a rod for years,” he explained. “I’d love to just stand in a stream in Montana. Catch a Trout, throw it back.” Having achieved more in helicopter aviation than many in his over three decades of service to his country, both directly in the Military and with Sikorsky, making sure that military rotorcraft delivered by the industry giant was the best they could be for our troops, I am certain that somewhere in Montana, sits a stream stocked full with trout that has his name on it, waiting patiently for the day he trades his wings in for a fishing pole. Even if it is only for a day or two before the sky calls to him again.