From video games to helicopter blades: Meet Bristow’s youngest aviator

Jack Christensen driving a helicopter

It’s a warm and humid morning around the Bristow heliport at the Houma–Terrebonne Airport in Houma, Louisiana. The light is beginning to crest the horizon in preparation for sunrise. The rhythmic thumping of rotors beginning to spin are heard across the tarmac as red lights dot the outline of an AW189 preparing to depart.

Bristow employees are busy; many have been onsite for hours preparing for a busy day of flying passengers safely to offshore installations. For Bristow’s , an IFR Pilot/First Officer who flies Second-in-Command on an AW139 helicopter, it’s an exciting time. It’s not his first flight nor is it his first day at Bristow. In fact, this was scheduled to be a day off, but Christensen happily came into work to cover for a colleague.

Christensen laughs at Customer Service Representative Jackie Galliano’s early morning joke before greeting another CSR, Jenny Kubiak. Two fellow Bristow pilots, drinking coffee and reviewing documents at the CSR counter, glance up long enough to say, “morning Jack-Jack,” a friendly reference to baby Jack-Jack from “The Incredibles” movie, poking fun at Christensen’s age.

Christensen, along with IFR Captain Michael Beauregard tuck their badges into their pockets and walk outside toward the AW139 to begin preflight checks and the Line CSRs loading customer baggage aboard the helicopter. The sky is calm and clear – a good day to fly.

The scenario is a typical morning for Bristow and Christensen, but Christensen is not the typical commercial pilot. He’s only been with the Company for eight months, but Christensen just celebrated his 21st birthday in February of 2024, having been hired on at 20. He’s already Second-in-Command of an AW139, a fact that isn’t lost on him.

“I'll always remember my first few flights in a Bristow AW139,” Christensen said. “It was a shocking feeling because most pilots don't get that kind of opportunity at my age in that type of helicopter.”

Christensen grew up in Sonora, California, nestled just north of Yosemite National Park, where he attended elementary through high school. All his friends and family were situated nearby in scenic Tuolumne County.

He never thought about anything else but following in the footsteps of his family, who were all grounded in the business world. Surprisingly, one thing that never crossed his mind growing up was becoming a pilot. From the time he was a child, this now 21-year-old commercial pilot had a fear of heights.

“I had a huge fear of flying growing up. I hated going on airlines. I took my first helicopter ride pretty young, and I hated that as well," Christensen recalls. "I never ever considered being a pilot. I was pretty set in my expectations that I’d go to college and get a business degree.”

But life had other plans for Christensen.

Jack Christensen posing in front of a helicopter.

At age 14, engulfed in video game play as many 14-year-olds are, Christensen found an inspiration for flying that was driven more by curiosity than by passion. "I was playing video games, and I started seeing planes and helicopters in the games. I thought, man, this might be kind of fun to try to fly in real life.”

With his newfound curiosity, his parents took him to the private, local airport where he decided to begin taking flying lessons. “I was still terrified of heights the whole time at the beginning, but for the next three years or so, I flew planes off and on maybe once or twice a month. I never thought about getting a license. It was more of just a hobby.”

The spark that would change his hobby to his passion, and eventually his livelihood, occurred during a family vacation to Hawaii about halfway through his high school years.

Shane Roberson, a flight instructor in Hawaii and family friend, invited Christensen for a helicopter ride while his family vacationed. "Shane asked if I’d be interested in a helicopter flight. I was like, ‘heck yeah!’ I got to fly one, and like many helicopter pilots, I fell in love instantly. It was intense. I've been following in Shane’s footsteps ever since," Christensen recounted.

Unlike his family, Christensen didn't pursue college or business. After high school, he moved to Kona on Hawaii's Big Island to attend flight school. He committed over a year and substantial funds to complete intense training, earning not just his helicopter license but also his fixed-wing ratings. "I obtained my fixed-wing private, commercial, instrument, and multi-engine licenses simultaneously with my helicopter license," Christensen explained. 

When asked about the challenge of obtaining both licenses at the same time, Christensen noted, "It was more manageable than you might think. Having flown planes from age 14 until the end of high school, I was already comfortable in the air and understood the underlying rules and science, which simplified things. 

Christensen completed the helicopter program first earning all necessary licenses and was then hired as an instructor at his flight school in Kona. Because he trained in both fixed wing and rotorcraft, he graduated with fewer hours than typically required for teaching. He initially worked as a ground instructor as he accumulated additional flight hours flying helicopters in his spare time.

Jack Christensen in a red helicopter.

When he logged enough hours to begin flight instruction, he also completed his multi-engine fixed-wing training. He embraced both flight and ground instruction, volunteering for group sessions in addition to traditional one-on-one lessons.

“Although I wasn't flying as much as I had hoped, managing around 60 hours a month made it feasible and enjoyable, especially in Hawaii where I also conducted helicopter tours,” Christensen said. “This marked my first commercial flying experience, transitioning from teaching to flying tours, which felt remarkably different and exhilarating.

“At age 19, I was conducting commercial coastal tours, including flights over Mauna Loa, an active volcano.” 

Although he enjoyed flying tourists above the breathtaking sights of Hawaii’s Big Island, Christensen had bigger plans for himself and an inkling to continue growing as quickly as he could make it happen. He began looking around for other opportunities. The only thing holding him back? Flight hours. He was at 500, which Christensen said was the absolute bottom for any job.

That didn’t deter him. He began sending out his resume everywhere, even for jobs where he didn’t meet all the requirements. 

“I can remember coming across Bristow. I was aware of the Company’s name since we operate in so many places around the world. I applied here as well and went through the website to see all the different helicopters a pilot working at Bristow might fly.”

Christensen had his doubts. Big doubts. He was convinced no one at 500 hours and at 20 years old would ever be flying large, IFR helicopters in the Gulf when his only experience was flying an R44 single-engine helicopter. “I thought I’d take a shot anyway,” he mused. “What did I have to lose?”

Unexpectedly, when Christensen mentioned that he had applied to Bristow to the owner of his flight school, Benjamin Fouts, he learned that Fouts was a former Era Helicopter pilot several years earlier, and Christensen was able to learn more about what life was like flying offshore. The discussions served to further pique Christensen’s excitement.

It was a pre-dawn Kona morning when Christensen’s cellphone rang. Half asleep, Christensen glanced at the number that was unfamiliar. He let it go to voicemail. Shortly thereafter, he heard the tone that he’d received a text. This time concerned and curious, he read the message. It was Bristow reaching out for an interview in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “I'm wide awake now,” Christensen recalls.

Child with large headphones in a helicopter.

Bristow asked Christensen if he had interest in coming to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for an in-person interview. Christensen, ecstatic at this opportunity, said he had never been to Louisiana, let alone the South, so he was excited for Bristow and excited to see Louisiana.

Christensen vividly recalls the intense two-week period he dedicated to preparing for what he described as one of the most significant opportunities of his young life. He credits his success largely to the diligent use of a flight simulator at his school. "Every day, I was in that simulator, flying simulated routes or approaches at Lake Charles, Louisiana," Christensen explains. This meticulous preparation mirrored the actual flight he expected to execute during the interview, and it paid off, making his performance nearly flawless.

In addition to simulator training, Christensen sought extra help from his fixed-wing flight instructor. Despite nearing the completion of his current training rate, he asked his instructor to help him accumulate more hours, specifically focusing on Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) in preparation for the interview. His instructor agreed, and they spent considerable time both in the air and in the simulator.

When Christensen traveled to Louisiana for the interview, he had logged 550 hours of flight time—50 hours more than the minimum required. His performance in the simulator impressed OCC Manager Jason Hayes, who conducted the interview and remarked that Christensen was in the "top 10 percent of people" he had seen. Christensen also excelled on the written test.

After a solid face-to-face interview, the decision was in Bristow’s court. The conversation shifted towards logistics, primarily how they could make it work given Christensen's relatively low hours and young age.

Despite these doubts, Christensen was offered the job flying for Bristow. Overjoyed and slightly overwhelmed, he remembers thinking how fortunate he was to receive such an opportunity at such a young age.

Rafting image

Shortly after accepting the offer, Christensen made some bold decisions. First, he was going to move from Kona, Hawaii to Houma, Louisiana. He purchased a car online in New Orleans without a test drive and rented an apartment in Houma sight unseen. Fortunately, both decisions turned out well—his car still runs smoothly, and he is happy with his living situation.

"That was a culture shock...From Hawaii to Houma, but I’ve enjoyed getting know Louisiana, the people and the culture," Christensen said.

Christensen’s transition into the role of a pilot at Bristow was marked by an eventful training experience in Lake Charles, where his age and capabilities quickly distinguished him.

The culmination of Christensen's training involved practicing helicopter landings on offshore rigs—a task he had never faced before. Despite the daunting scenario of landing the sizable AW139 helicopter on a remote ocean platform, the rigorous training he received left him feeling prepared and confident, even though the novelty of the task was initially overwhelming.

“My very, very first offshore landing seemed as though I was trying to land this huge bus offshore. I was used to an R44, so what a tremendous difference. I am grateful to the training staff at Bristow. They are tremendous.”

Christensen's real challenges lay not in the flying itself, which he approached with high confidence, but in the operational aspects of commercial aviation. The intricacies of paperwork, communication protocols, and the logistical demands of working on offshore rigs were all new to him. These responsibilities, including verifying the IDs of personnel and ensuring safety compliance, initially provoked anxiety, contrasting sharply with his comfort in piloting.

Throughout his early days, Christensen heavily relied on the guidance of his Captains, frequently seeking advice to ensure precision in his new responsibilities. His local residence allowed him to undertake additional shifts, accelerating his familiarity with the aircraft and operations, an opportunity he recognized as advantageous compared to his commuting peers.

Jack Christensen Driving a helicopter.

“I was flying a lot when I first started, which helped me immensely because I got to really know the aircraft, I got to know the area, I got to know how we operate. And, you know, it benefited me by far in helping me be successful.”

Now, eight months into his role, primarily flying offshore on two contracts, Christensen has not been tied to a single Captain but has instead experienced a variety of mentors. He credits his boss, Operations’ Manager Clay Voss, for significant support throughout his journey.

Regarding the recruitment and retention of new pilots in an industry where talent is always in short supply, Christensen suggests that Bristow could enhance its appeal by promoting the accessibility of positions to less experienced pilots. He believes that advertising the opportunity to start as a Second-in-Command flying IFR with just 500 hours could attract many who are unaware of such openings. Highlighting competitive salaries and benefits, Christensen emphasizes the potential to draw more candidates who might otherwise pursue other aviation paths upon reaching the 1000-hour threshold.

“I’d add that it’s incredibly helpful for new pilots to live in places like Houma, so they are able to take advantage of overtime and covering for colleagues to accelerate their development. It made a marked difference for me, and I think I’m proving that such a model can work.”

Christensen’s career path thus far has been unique, as it often is with pilots. Reflecting on his journey from high school to the cockpit of a Bristow helicopter, Christensen acknowledges that, "I was very fortunate and lucky enough to know what I wanted to do before high school ended. I recognize that this is not the case for many.”

In just three short years, from ages 18 to 21, Christensen has accumulated a wealth of life experiences. "A lot has happened in just the past three years," he said. “The decision to pursue flying full-time rather than attend college was the right thing for me. I wish they’d teach about the opportunity to fly in high schools.”

For Christensen, flying isn’t a job; it's a passion he brings to Bristow every day in a pursuit that appears will never cease. "My end goal would be to get every aviation license there is known to man and the future ones that will come."

Jack Christensen with a helicopter at night.