On the face of it, David Monks seemed an unlikely candidate for membership of the prestigious Helicopter Club of Great Britain. Mid-twenties, Essex boy, in trade even−and then there was that spiky punk haircut… This was the late twentieth-century, when the Robinson helicopter was beginning to democratise helicopter flying, but still, there was a limit! As one long-standing member said to David at the time: “When I joined the club it was full of titled people you’d see in The Times, it wasn’t full of oiks like you.” 

Not too many years later, David couldn’t resist calling up the same member to tell him that he, David Monks, had been appointed Chairman of the Helicopter Club. “The oik is running the show,” he said. He might have made a second call soon afterwards when he became Chairman of the Royal Aero Club, and a third at the end of 2020 when he was elected President of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the global governing body of air sports and aviation record-keeping−a venerable 115-year-old institution of which every pilot has heard, but few know why. 

In the course of rising to his current heights, Monks has tamed the punk hairdo and accreted gravitas, a wealth of administrative experience and a great deal of political acuity, which will now be tested to the full because the FAI has serious issues that must be faced if it is to re-establish its relevance to those in aviation who question its raison d’être. Unfocused, poorly run, expensive and opaque are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe the FAI, and that’s from friends of the organisation. ‘An old boys’ club for seat-warmers’ is a less charitable appraisal. 

David Monks takes over the Presidency of the FAI from New Zealander Bob Henderson at a time when there is simmering dissatisfaction among those who effectively ‘own’ the FAI – the one hundred or so national organisations (like the Royal Aero Club in Britain) who support it financially and who are, in turn, delegated to oversee air sports and to channel record claims back to the FAI headquarters in Lausanne.  

The issue is that a disconnect has developed between these National Airsports Control groups (NACs) and the Executive Board of the FAI. The latter seems intent on pursuing ambitious plans for which it has no real mandate, while those who pay the piper are increasingly disgruntled at the tune they’re hearing. Given that the whole system involves a multinational myriad of competing influences, the job of repairing the damage is not for the faint-hearted−but luckily, those who know Monks say he’s the man for the job. Immensely practical, brilliant at identifying the nub of a problem and fearless in addressing it, he is politically astute enough to bring doubters along with him, and sufficiently ruthless to deal with those who don’t see the light. 

While he accepts that there are shortcomings at the FAI, Monks says the organisation is as relevant and as necessary now as it was one hundred years ago. “The job it does is vital and its people are dedicated and capable,” he says, “but I recognise that our focus must be improved, and that will be my first objective.” 

David is no stranger to Pilot, having featured in the magazine when he and 96-year-old wartime Lancaster pilot Rusty Waughman flew in the Pooleys Dawn to Dusk competition, visiting every one of the bases at which Rusty had been based during the war. In 2019, David also wrote an appraisal for Pilot of the sixty-year-old Sycamore helicopter he flew across London with the Red Bull team.

He is a passionate rotary-wing aviator and a keen competitor−Captain of the British Helicopter Team in international contests, winner of a bronze medal at the 2008 World Helicopter Championships, two silver medals at the 2012 World Championships, winner of the Queens Cup and holder of three FAI world records. In fact, the main reason he has involved himself in the governance of air sports is because any competition in which the rules are inexplicably flexible offends his ferociously competitive sensibilities. Too often he has found that where the FAI is concerned, statutes, regulations and rules are not always what they seem. 

Monks, now fifty-three, has been flying since the early 1990s when he decided that a real helicopter was probably a lot easier to fly than the models to which his father had introduced him, and bought himself a trial lesson from Heli Air at Wellesbourne Mountford for his twenty-fourth birthday. There, Mike Smith passed him to his son Quentin (‘Q’) and the Robinson R22, and in a matter of two months David and Q rattled through the syllabus.

“Actually I was right,” David says. “It was a lot easier than flying the models, and I found I had a feel for it. When I had about thirty-seven hours I went flying with Mike Smith on what I thought was a pre-test−we went down to his local pub and I demonstrated a sloping ground landing by rocking the helicopter on a table in the beer garden. We did everything you’d expect in the real test, then Mike got out and said ‘okay, you’ve passed’. And that was my skills test. I had to fly a few more hours before I had the minimum number to apply for a licence.” 

David had been an apprentice electrical engineer with his local council in Braintree, Essex, and set up his own company installing data cables for computer networks in the early years of mass computerisation. He worked in The City fitting out networks for dealer systems in the days of white socks and ‘loadsamoney’, and times were very good. Soon he was employing fourteen people and had moved to the Midlands, where, among other things, he installed everything that moved for Volvo Truck and Bus throughout the country. He hired helicopters from HeliAir and began to build up his hours.

“My first trip after qualifying was to Braintree to visit the family. I discussed it with Q first, because I had to cross Luton and Stansted and I hadn’t crossed a zone on my own. As ever, Q stressed how simple it was, and off I went−and in fact Luton Radar were extremely helpful, handed me on to Stansted, and everything went swimmingly until I got to where I was going: Rayne Hall Farm airfield. It had never occurred to me that it would just be one grass field in a thousand: very difficult to spot… and for the life of me I couldn’t find it. After thirty seconds of disorientation I calmed down, figured out where it ought to be in relation to the shape of the town and saw a barn that looked like a hangar, and indeed that was it. So you see, the problem that catches you out in aviation is rarely the one you’ve prepared for.” 

Like all self-fly-hire pilots he found that the money in his account disappeared fairly quickly. Then at Wellesbourne he met helicopter owner Lawrence Fowler.

“He told me I’d got it all wrong,” David says. “I should have bought an aircraft before I learned to fly, then I could make money leasing it back to the school and pay only marginal costs for my own use. His figures stacked up, so Mike Smith and I decided to go fifty-fifty on a time-expired hull, G-RACH, from Mark Souster at Redhill. Mike got side-tracked so I took on the project myself, got the aircraft rebuilt at the Robinson factory in California and ended up with a zero-hour machine for about £65,000, all in. And the project paid off. I hardly ever saw it−G-RACH was doing about 650 hours a year for HeliAir. In two years it made £15,000 in taxable income even after I’d covered the cost of all my JetRanger and R44 time.” 

David then accepted a good offer for G-RACH and bought another time-expired hull from Mark Souster, G-INGB, which again he got rebuilt at the factory. This became G-ZAPY, which he still owns and in which he has competed all over Europe−as far afield as Moscow. 

“I joined the Helicopter Club largely in order to take part in competitions,” David says. “And perhaps my attitude didn’t quite fit at that time−I was in it to win it, and there were long-standing members with expensive turbine helicopters who turned up their noses at that attitude. The competitions, they said, were only a bit of fun, and wanting to win was infra dig. But I was twenty-eight years old, I was invincible, I’d just paid cash for another helicopter and, oik or not, I thought winning was the biggest part of the fun.” 

Monks teamed up with fellow neophyte Jonathan Penny and went into battle. The competitions take the form of navigation exercises, timed stages and on-airfield handling exercises like conveying a bucket of water on a long rope through a slalom course before depositing it−hopefully still full−on a target table, and getting a boat fender into a barrel in the shortest time. In their first competition, in 2000, there were thirty entrants−these were the days when the RAF and Army flew smaller helicopters like the Gazelle and the Squirrel, and not only entered the competitions but practised hard beforehand.

Monks and Penny came twenty-third. “Actually that was quite good,” says Monks, “but at the time we were devastated. We had intended to win. We could fly forwards and backwards−what else was there? It was a steep learning curve. The next year we did some practice, learned the rules and made a plan, and we were among the medals.” 

In 2005 Monks and Penny were part of the British team for the World Helicopter Championships in Rouen. This was an eye-opener for anyone who thought the rules were sacrosanct. I was present as a journalist and witnessed everything that went on. The Russians, who are state-sponsored, were found to have two maps in their cockpits after the navigation event−one was the official map that everyone was given, the other a more detailed map, ready-marked with waypoints. In the quarantine area, where phones were banned, members of the French team were using mobiles. When challenged, one claimed he’d borrowed a judge’s phone to call on an urgent family matter.

At least ten competitors were found to be illegally carrying phones in their aircraft. Out in the field, there were clearly close relationships between some judges and some competitors, and there was widespread inaccuracy in scoring. Despite protests, no action was taken. For a World Championship, it was a farce. The Russians won, the French came second. Both teams should have been disqualified. Monks does not join in the finger-pointing, but he does accept there were many breaches of the rules, and that nothing was done about them.

“Penny and I made some silly mistakes but did quite well,” he says. “We came second among the British team and sixteenth overall. The Russians walked away with it−they spend hundreds of hours practising and it’s a point of honour with them to win, whatever it takes.” 

In 2007 Penny and Monks won the British Open and in 2008 they went to the World Championships in Eisenach in Germany. There the British team won the Bronze medal, beaten only by the Russians and the home team. While the Germans ran a cleaner competition than the French, there were still annoying anomalies. British tactics in the slalom dictated that crews should leave themselves at least forty seconds of the three and a half minutes allowed, in order to get the bucket onto the target table at the end, because failure to do so incurred an eighty point penalty.

If this meant missing out gates at ten points each, so be it. But the chief judge ruled that skipping a gate also meant that the next gate was taken out of sequence, which incurred an additional ten-point penalty and largely negated the tactic. This was specified nowhere in the rules, and the British team made strong representations to try to get the decision rescinded. The Chief Judge, a Russian, would not be swayed. 

For Monks, it was all part of the learning process. In 2009 he was made Team Captain, and he began going to competitions around Europe, initially with Penny, later with Caroline Gough-Cooper, who had twice been World Ladies Champion. He flew to Italy for the World Air Games in 2009, competed several times in Germany, and in 2012 flew G-ZAPY to Moscow for the World Helicopter Championships, an epic trip of twenty-six hours out, and much the same home. 

“A fascinating trip,” he says. “At the last airfield in Poland we met up with the Red Bull Bölkow 105 and the rest of the group, and we flew across Ukraine with an ambulance following us with fuel on board because 100LL was illegal in the country. When we landed, the only way they could get the fuel onto the airfield was in an ambulance. Every landing cost about $600: $400 for the aircraft and something like $200 for each crew. We ended up paying dollars in Ukraine to a Russian’s Swiss bank account, and a lot of cash changed hands, too. You can imagine… 

“We came back from Moscow with a silver medal for the team, and Caroline and I got the silver medal in the precision flying event. The Russians never got over the fact that we took an individual medal away from them, on their territory.” 
David joined the Board of the Helicopter Club and became Team Manager as well as Captain, which effectively required him to function as a UK delegate to the FAI’s Rotorcraft Commission, the GIC. The FAI is funded by twelve commissions, each representing the sporting branch of a particular aviation pursuit, plus two technical commissions. Their delegates report to the FAI President.

David says: “As a competitor I was aware of the shortcomings of the system, how rules could be interpreted in a way that was advantageous to some, and at CIG, I would argue for the disadvantaged. Eventually I was asked if I would become Chairman of the Rules Committee and CIG Secretary, so they must have thought that I was contributing something.”  

One small example of an unsatisfactory situation−among many−arose when the Russians were seen to be using seat belt extensions which allowed them to lean out further and have better control over their underslung loads. The rules stipulated that helicopters should have only standard equipment. The Russians argued that their competitors were big men who needed the extensions; when that didn’t work they suggested everyone use belt extensions. “But of course they’d been practising with them for five years, whereas others would see them for the first time in competition,” David says. “So there was a clear disadvantage, and someone had to draw the line, whomever it may have upset.” 

Monks also became Chairman of the Helicopter Club and took the Club’s seat at the Royal Aero Club, which is Britain’s National Aviation Committee (NAC) and as such helps fund the FAI. “The RAeC is a very good organisation which brings aviation groups together and makes awards to the deserving,” Monks says, “but it’s important to understand that while competitors make up only three percent of the RAeC membership, some fifty percent of the RAeS’s turnover goes to the FAI. The members need to know that money is well spent.”  

Whether in London or Lausanne his message was the same: keep it simple, make sure standard procedures are adhered to and that everyone knows the rules. “That means everyone has to do their jobs,” he says. “When deficiencies are pointed out, they have to be addressed. But everyone wants to be the good guy, nobody wants to grasp the nettle and resolve the difficult problems. You can’t sweep things under the carpet forever because one day the pile will catch fire and burn your house down. If things are allowed to drift, people become disillusioned and they walk away. Rather than give up, I thought it best to get into a position where I could do some good.” 

Monks’s campaign for the top job really began in 2018 when he was asked to go to a conference in Egypt as a CIG delegate and sat in on the Commission Presidents’ Group Meeting with the then President of the FAI, Fritz Brink. “This is meant to be the meeting at which the different Commissions pass their issues and concerns to the FAI President, who then takes them to the Executive Board,” he says. 

“Unfortunately things got a little confused because the entire Executive Board sat in on the meeting, and after each Commission President stood to say his or her piece, the Board picked apart their presentations in what I thought was an unnecessarily confrontational way. So every speaker sat down bruised, and nothing was achieved. 

“The Commission Presidents were crestfallen after the meeting, so I sat them all down and asked whether that was an unusual scenario. Turns out it wasn’t−they, the operational element of the organisation, the people who actually produced the sports, felt they were not being listened to by a Board that was fixated on its own grand projects. Money was being spent on creating a ‘Brand FAI’ concept by which the Board hoped to attract sponsorship by organising the World Air Games, a sort of aviation Olympics which has stuttered along for some years. But the Commissions were more concerned with getting the existing competitions and world championships right first. They felt the FAI should concentrate on its own constituency, the aviation world.  

“The relationship between the FAI President and the Commissions was, to my mind, the most important one in the organisation, but there was clearly a disconnect between the engine room and the bridge. The presence of the Executive Board had changed the dynamic of a meeting that should have been a clear line of communication to the President of the FAI. So I wrote down each Commission President’s points, and I said to them ‘I want you to send that to the Board’. Basically that document explained that we’d been unable to do what we’d wanted to do because of the way the meeting was formatted, and we would like the FAI to do this, this and this. 

“That put the cat among the pigeons−the Board didn’t care for it at all. More than that, it brought the Commission Presidents together in a more cohesive way, and they’ve become a very tight group. Some of them suggested I stand for the FAI Presidency, but initially I declined because I didn’t think I could lead both the Royal Aero Club and the FAI. I was busy in the UK trying to get the CAA to change its stance on certain aspects of competition regulation. What’s more, the FAI Presidency is very much a political role, which does not appeal to me. But it became increasingly clear that the FAI Board wasn’t really listening to what the Commissions were saying, and that needed to change.”

As it turned out, though, that was not the only problem: “There were other issues that needed to be addressed. I couldn’t get a clear picture of the finances from the accounts, and the NACs were unclear as to where their money was going. I wrote a paper on where I thought there should be savings and passed it around Europe, and it was well received. In 2019, I proposed a new budget for 2020 that reduced FAI expenditure by £230,000, and income by a similar amount. And of, I think, 300 votes in the room, 282 supported my budget.” 

In December 2020, when Monks stood for the Presidency, Bob Henderson withdrew from the election but votes still had to be counted. There were almost three hundred in Monks’s favour, and one vote against.   

“The first order of business is to get the organisation stable, get the engine working smoothly and fix relationships that are fractured. And we need to tell people in aviation what the FAI is, and why we need it. FAI provides three very basic things on behalf of about one hundred member organisations−rules for competition, rules for records and recording services, and awards for meritorious endeavours in aviation−and those member organisations sell the virtues of FAI to their members in turn. The focus needs to return to those three services, and do them efficiently, cost-effectively and well. Later there will be other avenues that can be exploited, but only once the foundations are stable.” 

There have been changes on the Executive Board, and a new Secretary General is in place, but Covid has stalled everything, for good and ill. Early indications are that the nations wish to give the new boy a chance−FAI subscription requests went out in January and by the end of the month more than half had been paid, as well as some withheld subscriptions from last year. 

“Competitions and records are important in aviation because they improve skills, engender new interests, and bring together like-minded aviators from different groups and nations”, says Monks. “But if they are to enjoy widespread support, the rules must be sacrosanct and everyone must know them, administration must be transparent and participation affordable. All pilots should think about trying their hand at competition−and you know, if you’re that way inclined, you could even try to win.”

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