Jeffrey P. Pino, who led Sikorsky Aircraft during the Stratford-based manufacturer's wartime expansion and development of a revolutionary high-speed helicopter, died Friday after a World War II-era fighter plane he was piloting crashed near Maricopa, Ariz. Pino was 61.
Nick Tramontano, known to some as the "mayor" of Oxford Airport, was also killed.
Pino led Sikorsky between 2006 and 2012, a period in which the company bid successfully for multiple contracts totaling billions of dollars, including a new helicopter to replace the aging Sikorsky fleet used by the White House.
Sikorsky's Stratford plant is the single largest manufacturing plant in Connecticut; under former owner United Technologies, the company has long been Fairfield County's largest employer, with new parent Lockheed Martin having committed to maintaining the Stratford plant following its acquisition of Sikorsky last year.
The cause of the crash had yet to be determined as of Saturday; Pino owned a P-51D Mustang fighter named "Big Beautiful Doll," with the Associated Press citing a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman saying the aircraft that crashed appeared to be a Mustang and the Arizona Republic reporting that Pino was the registered owner of the plane that crashed.
Sikorsky released a statement on its website from Dan Schultz, whom Lockheed Martin named in November as president of the manufacturer.
"During his six years as (president) of Sikorsky, Jeff brought personal energy and passion for aviation innovation to our industry," Schultz said. "We remember Jeff as a leader, pioneer, innovator and advocate."
David Faile, president of the Friends of Sikorski Airport, identified Tramontano as the second man killed in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media.
"Nick, known as the 'mayor' of Oxford Airport ... was a key member of the aviation community known and befriended by many," wrote Faile. "He will be sorely missed."
On Saturday, employees and others reflected on Pino on Sikorsky's Facebook page, including Charles Romano Jr.
"The coolest president we ever had," Romano wrote. "The only president that would actually stop in the hallway or the shop and say hello and ask how you were doing."
After retiring from Sikorsky in 2012, Pino moved to Chandler, Ariz., where in 2013 he became CEO of Macquarie Rotorcraft Leasing.
Later, Pino became vice chairman of Colorado-based XTI Aircraft, which is planning an experimental aircraft called the TriFan 600, designed with ducted fan engines to take off and land vertically, reminiscent of the aircraft in the movie "Avatar."
In a statement on XTI's website, the company's founder called Pino "a brilliant strategist, visionary and expert in all things aviation."
"Jeff loved flying and he was genuinely excited about what the TriFan 600 will mean to the future of flight," stated David Brody, founder and chairman of XTI. "As a man with big ideas, and even bigger dreams, Jeff was committed to bringing the TriFan 600 to market, and now, more than ever, so are we."
Pino joined Sikorsky in 2002 from Textron subsidiary and rival Bell Helicopter, and in March 2006 was promoted to president even as Sikorsky was in the throes of a strike that would last six weeks.
Major Sikorsky milestones during his tenure included the acquisition of PZL Mielec in Poland to serve as a secondary manufacturing plant for international variants of Sikorsky's Black Hawk helicopter; a huge expansion driven by Pentagon demands for helicopters and parts for combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq; and competitions for massive contracts, including a new helicopter for White House use as Marine One, combat search-and-rescue helicopters for the U.S. Air Force, and the heavy-lift helicopter CH-53K King Stallion for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Pino also oversaw the final development of the Sikorsky X2, a high-speed helicopter designed with stacked rotor sets that rotate in opposite directions and a rear-mounted "pusher prop" to help the aircraft achieve speeds a third faster than the Black Hawk and other traditional helicopter designs. Sikorsky's successful design and flight of the X2 would win it the 2010 Robert J. Collier Trophy from the U.S. National Aeronautic Association, the top prize in U.S. aviation awarded annually. Sikorsky hopes to sell the Pentagon on the design as the base platform for a new generation of fast scout helicopters.
During Pino's years, Sikorsky also saw its share of challenges as well, the worst being the crash of a Sikorsky-built S-92 helicopter off the coast of Newfoundland that killed 17 people, the cause later determined to be a gearbox failure that resulted in the loss of oil.
Sikorsky saw other setbacks as well, including a Department of Defense reprimand for quality issues in the months after the 2006 strike that prompted UTC to dispatch future CEO Louis Chênevert to Stratford to get production back on track; and technical problems that resulted in delays delivering new maritime helicopters to Canada, sparking criticism in Ottawa and losses that hit UTC's bottom line.
If Mick Maurer, the man who succeeded Pino as president in 2012, won wide respect at Sikorsky for his engineering acumen, in Pino the company had a leader who had spent plenty of time in the cockpit, dating back to his days as a U.S. Army pilot after graduating in 1976 from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in psychology. While serving in the Army, he would obtain an MBA through a distance learning program offered by Webster University.
Pino often appeared animated when talking about flight, including at a 2012 ceremony commemorating the installation of the Black Hawk fuselage outside the company's plant in Stratford, when he jocularly referenced his own skills.
"I want to dispel a myth that our chief test pilot landed it on the pedestal," Pino said at the time. "He didn't. ... I could have."
One individual eulogizing Pino on Sikorsky's Facebook page noted an entry on Pino's own page from October, in which he posted a video taken while aloft, catching an expanse of clouds below and blue sky above, while quoting from the poem "High Flight" penned by aviator John McGee just a few months before his death during World War II.
"I have slipped the surly bonds of earth," Pino wrote.
Staff writer Alex Gecan contributed to this report.
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