Chris Nehls ‘85 has wanted to fly forever. The dream has been planted since his father took him to the skies with a fixed-wing pilot’s license around the age of five.
“We happened to fly out of a small grass strip when a Hughes 269 flew in. I was just absolutely captivated,” Chris recalls in an article from Rotorcraft Pro magazine. “Growing up, I decided that if I didn’t become a helicopter pilot, then I would become an engineer who was involved with helicopters.”
Time has passed, but the dream of flying and engineering helicopters has never faded. Chris navigated his passion and was fueled through collegiate studies to a mechanical engineering degree from Valparaiso University. After visiting campus, he knew immediately this was where he needed to go.
Chris has come a long way thanks to the start of that bachelor’s degree. “I have often said that if I did not attend Valpo, I would most likely not be an engineer today.” He now serves as the President of HeliTrak, a small start-up company that is focused on providing products that improve aviation safety. Their initial focus is products for helicopters, but their development road-map includes products for both rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, manned, and un-manned. He was pursued to be president since the birth of the company.
He has worked his way up in the world of helicopters thanks to the structure and individual attention he was given by professors. After Valpo, Chris studied towards a master’s degree in electrical engineering while working with a reconnaissance camera company in Chicago before moving to New York to earn his master’s in aerospace engineering under a research professor who specialized in rotorcraft.
Chris finally got his feet into the aviation industry, and it led him to McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Company (now Boeing) for three years, followed by 18 years with Honeywell. He returned to the new McDonnell Douglas Helicopters as VP of engineering and chief engineer. It was a treat for him to work on helicopter models he was passionate about.
But Chris still regards his time serving as HeliTrak’s president as his greatest professional accomplishment. He enjoys the company owners, the team, and the work he gets to do. It was an easy decision for him to accept the offer in 2016 and join the HeliTrak team. “I was looking for a new challenge, and the chance to build a small company that could use my aerospace experience was too appealing to pass up.” He acknowledges it isn’t always a walk in the park with a start-up.
“They are built on unproven concepts, and many are destined to fail. You are typically a small organization of like-minded individuals, and every day presents challenges. You work through the issues together, and often work outside your discipline.” He reflects, “It is very fast paced, and most decisions are made quickly and decisively. Compared to a larger corporation with a more relaxed work pace, HeliTrak is always buzzing and moving the needle one day at a time.”
Valpo’s College of Engineering helped Chris hone the focus he needed to succeed both technically and professionally. “Dr. Lehmann was instrumental in leading me down the right path to Valpo and encouraged me to pursue graduate school. Lesley Voss inspired my passion for control systems. I combined those experiences with my passion for aviation and have been very fortunate to work on some of the most advanced avionics systems for military and commercial aircraft over the course of the past 30 plus years.”
His affection and passion for his work is clear.
“The helicopter industry is also one of the most challenging, but rewarding to work in. Helicopters are typically not luxury items, but are work horses that save lives, protect or communities, and perform countless other industrial tasks. The people who work in the industry show their commitment to serve others and take that responsibility very seriously.” Chris demonstrates these ideals in his life. His passion for rotorcraft is clearly a lifelong dream fulfilled.