Helicopter Tours in Wine Country

The reality for would-be helicopter operators.

I got yet another email from yet another helicopter pilot interested in doing the kind of work I do. He’s currently in the military, based overseas, and emailed me about his situation and an idea. I deleted his original message after responding, but did retain this:

Have you looked at increasing your footprint with a business partner and second helicopter? From reviewing your website it seems you have the perfect job and location to cater to the wine industry of central WA.

At Martin Scott
Here’s my helicopter, parked in a great landing zone at one of my favorite wineries. Unfortunately, the winery’s insurance company told them I could no longer land there. This year’s challenge: getting them to reverse their decision.

This made me laugh. “Perfect job and location to cater to the wine industry.” I’m not sure whether the author of this message understands the realities of the wine industry in this area. Yes, there are wineries in the Wenatchee area. In fact, there’s one about 1/2 mile down the road from where I live. But the dozen or so wineries near here don’t need helicopter service. And most of them either don’t want it, can’t support it with a safe landing zone, or have insurance-related restrictions that make operation on their premises impossible.

Of course, there are more wineries in the Chelan area, about 20 minutes flight time north of here. But there’s also another Part 135 operator up there with a business virtually identical to mine. The cost of me getting up there to service wineries in that area would make me far more expensive than that pilot, who is based right there. So I have to limit my Chelan activities with offering round trip flights from Wenatchee to Chelan — just as he’d likely limit his flights in Wenatchee to flights originating in Chelan. Simple economics of supply and demand.

I responded:

Thanks for writing, but no, I’m definitely not interested in adding a partner or helicopter. There isn’t enough business in the area for me, especially with competition in nearby Chelan. A second helicopter would add cost without revenue.

If you’re interested in building a tour business to serve the wine industry, I suggest Tri-Cities or Walla Walla. They both have far more wineries and activity than the Wenatchee area.

Good luck.

The Tri-Cities and Walla Walla areas are much bigger wine-producing areas. There are dozens of wineries in each place, many of which are in rural areas that can support helicopter landing zones. I’ve even done a little research in the Walla Walla area and found a number of winery owners interested in helicopter winery tours to their facilities. Trouble is, Walla Walla is about 45 minutes each way from Wenatchee, so flights there would be too costly. And I’m not interested in relocating to Walla Walla.

But again, it all comes down to supply and demand. You need to base an operation in an area where there are a lot of potential clients who have a lot of disposable income. After all, how many people are interested in spending $500 or more on a few hours of entertainment for up to three people? And if you’ve found the perfect place to offer helicopter tour services, chances are, there’s already an operator there. Now you’re dealing with competition which makes it even harder to get off the ground because you have to share that potential client pool with someone who is already known in the area.

And then there’s the problems faced by a Twitter/Facebook friend in the Margaret River area of Australia. He started a helicopter charter service, Wild Blue Helicopters, in that wine region and was soon plagued by noise complaints from the locals. One of those locals took matters into his own hands by vandalizing my friend’s helicopter, causing several thousand dollars in damage. After making a major investment in his business there, he’s abandoning it because he’s simply tired of dealing with the problems the locals are causing. Who wants that?

Why don’t people see this? Why do so many pilots think that all they need to do is buy a helicopter, move to an interesting place, and hang out a shingle for the clients and money to start rolling in?

I thought I was done with the conversation, but he replied. Again, he made me laugh.

Thanks Maria! I’m not sure how to do it but I think it would be a lovely way to spend a few years. Do you enjoy it?

“Lovely.” It would be lovely if I were independently wealthy and didn’t need to make a living as a pilot.

I responded with the brutal honesty I’m known for:

I enjoy the flying, but there simply isn’t enough of it.

And after 14 years in this business — in Arizona and now in Washington — I’m tired of dealing with potential clients who can’t respect the value of my services and understand the cost of operating a helicopter. Too many cheapskates. Too many people who think I’ll spend an hour preflighting/postflighting my aircraft to take their 8 year old kid for a 10-minute birthday ride for $25.

If you think you’re going to get into this business and make a good living at it right away, think again. It took more than 5 years for my business to support itself and another 3 years for it to become profitable enough to support me. I was fortunate to have another income for those 8 years; most people don’t. It’s a difficult business to succeed in.

I’ve written about this extensively on my blog, https://www.aneclecticmind.com/

My advice? Get a job flying for someone else. Let them have the headaches and costs of dealing with aircraft maintenance and the FAA. Fly, get a paycheck, spend your off time with your friends and family.

Now I’m sure lots of folks who don’t operate helicopter charter businesses in Washington’s wine country — or small helicopter charter businesses in a big city like Phoenix, where I used to be based — will take this opportunity to bash my business skill and blame me for my belated success. My response to you: If you think you’re so smart, you try it. And then let us all know how you do.

You might want to read this, too.

As for this pilot, I hope he makes the right decision for his future.

What do you think?