A Tale of Two Helicopter Operators

And why neither got my business.

We were in Glacier National Park last weekend. It was our first visit. Glacier is an amazing place, full of granite mountains, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. It’s the kind of place that’s perfect to explore by helicopter.

There are two helicopter operators in West Glacier, right outside the park. Here’s our experience with them.

Mom-and-Pop

The first one you come to as you’re driving in from the west is the “mom and pop” operation my friend, Jim, had recommended. Jim operates Big Country Helicopters in Coeur d’Alene, ID and had worked with this particular operator to give one of his clients a helicopter flight over the park. This operator has just one helicopter, a Bell Jet Ranger, which seats 4 passengers. It’s the perfect size helicopter for the location — two couples or a family of four can fly together but it’s likely to be cost-effective enough to take just two passengers. I assumed that like most smaller tour operators, this operator was more likely to offer a personalized tour experience.

Unfortunately, when we stopped in to the office for this operator at about 5:10 PM on a Saturday afternoon, the office was closed. There was no sign on the door with hours or a phone number. There were no brochures to take away. There was nothing. It was as if they weren’t interested in doing any business. Oddly, there were two vehicles and the helicopter parked at the property. But no one was around to help us or even tell us where we might be able to get help.

As they say in Twitterland: #FAIL.

The Big Operator

The other operator in West Glacier flies Bell Long Rangers — the same helicopter I flew at the Grand Canyon back in 2004. These helicopters seat six passengers, but two face backwards. I’ve sat in one of those backwards-facing seats and I can tell you that it sucks. This operator had three helicopters, one of which was parked right alongside the road on a little hill — kind of like a car dealer might show off a car or truck to passersby. There was some activity by one of the helicopters; some park employees in uniform and a pilot in a flight suit scurrying around like they were prepping for a flight. No tourists around, though.

A sign on the door said they were open from 8 AM to 8 PM. We went inside. A woman greeted us before we could get to the counter. The conversation went something like this:

Woman: “Can I help you?”

Me: “We’re interested in a helicopter flight.”

Woman: “Well, we’re done for today. Do you want to book something for tomorrow?”

Me: “Well, can you tell us about the flights? Where do they go?”

Woman: “There’s a half hour flight for $110 per person and a one-hour flight for $220 per person. There’s another couple going out on a 9 AM flight tomorrow. I can book you on that.”

Me: “We’re leaving tomorrow morning. We’ll think about it.”

I didn’t have much to think about. The woman had lost my business by making three mistakes:

  • If your sign says you’re open until 8 PM, don’t tell potential customers that you’re “done for the day” at 5:15 PM.
  • If your customer asks a question, answer it. Don’t answer questions that aren’t asked until after you’ve answered the one that was. I didn’t ask how long the flights were or what they cost. I asked where they went. I expected to see some kind of map of the park with a flight route.
  • Ask your customers what time is convenient for them. Don’t try to put them into a time slot that’s convenient for you.

Her attitude was so typical of the big helicopter operators. They can save it for the tourists who don’t know better. I worked for an operation like that and I won’t subject myself to their type of “service.”

No Helicopter Tour of Glacier National Park

So we didn’t get to see Glacier from the air. That doesn’t mean I won’t. I’ll be checking into the rules and regulations for flying over the park. Maybe next year, on our way to Washington, we’ll take a northern route.

On the Road Again

Traveling again.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard from me here in a while, it’s because I’ve been traveling. I’m doing one of my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventures in northern Arizona, accompanied by a video crew and staff writer for a respected travel magazine.

The goal of this trip is to gather about 90% of the video needed to create three individual broadcast-length videos, each of which will be made available on DVD. It’s a huge project and, so far, we have at least 20 hours of raw video footage to wade through.

I’m flying with a door off and a video guy on board taking glare-free video images of what we fly over. He also has at least two POV.1 cameras mounted inside the helicopter at all times. The other video on the ground is “chasing” us — actually, he’s getting a big head start each day to drive to the airport where we’ll land before we arrive — and taking video of us landing. Then there are cameras whirring all over the place on the ground.

Wild HorsesThe writer is sitting up front beside me, taking notes and using my Nikon D80 to shoot images of what she sees. Although a good portion of the shots have some unfortunate glare — not much you can do about that when shooting through Plexiglas — many of them are really good. Like this shot she took of a herd of wild horses we overflew on the Navajo Reservation two days ago.

It’s been a busy week so far. Although I’m trying to demonstrate to the writer what my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure is all about, I’m also working with the video crew to make sure we capture all of the footage we need for our three videos. I’m hoping she understands that my usual clients won’t be rushing around like nuts all day.

Antelpe CanyonI’m treating myself to a few of the activities my excursion guests get to enjoy. For example, on Tuesday, I joined the crew for a boat ride on Lake Powell that visited the “business side” of the Glen Canyon Dam before squeezing about a mile up Antelope Canyon (see photo) and gliding up Navajo Canyon for a look at the “tapestry” of desert varnish on some cliff walls. I skipped the Sedona Jeep tour and Monument Valley tour to work with one of the video guys or just rest up. Normally, while my guest are touring, I’m scrambling to get the luggage into their hotel room and confirming reservations for the next day. You might imagine how tired I am after 6 days of playing pilot and baggage handler.

At this moment, however, I’m sitting at the dining table of a double-wide mobile home near Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley. (Long story; believe it or not, the only lodging we cold get here in MV was in a pair of mobile homes that are part of the lodge.) I have the front drapes drawn aside so I can watch the eastern sky brighten for what promises to be a classic silhouetted butte sunrise. I always enjoy my dawns here at MV. Seeing the famous buttes outside my window is always surreal.

Today, we were scheduled to fly down to Winslow for lunch, then tour Meteor Crater and the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River. Normally, the Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure takes this route on the way to its last overnight stop at Flagstaff. But today we’ll probably go straight back to Page. I have four aerial photo shoots at Page starting on Friday morning; the money I make doing them will pay for this video excursion. We’ll do more video between those flights. Then we’ll hit the Crater, Falls, and Flagstaff on our way back to the Phoenix area on Sunday.

It’s a big trip and a bunch of huge projects. Just the kind of thing to keep me busy between flights for the winter season. But if all works well and as planned, I might be flying this route weekly in the coming spring and fall — with real paying passengers to take care of along the way.

Mike at Rainbow Bridge

Hold on. More to come.

My husband, Mike, joined me in Page for the weekend. I did some work, but we also had some fun. Yesterday, we rented a boat and went out to Rainbow Bridge, the world’s largest natural stone arch. Rainbow Bridge is only accessible by boat from the lake or by a grueling hike from a trailhead near Navajo Mountain. Even by boat, there’s currently a 2/3 mile hike from the dock to the Bridge. But that doesn’t stop hundreds of people — mostly on the three daily tour boats — from visiting.

Mike Holds up Rainbow BridgeI have a lot more to say about this day trip, but I can’t stop to write about it now. I’m terribly behind on a book project — partially because I took yesterday off — and I need to get the darn book done already.

But I leave you with this photo of Mike, apparently holding up the bridge. We took this photo in response to Mike’s friend, Bob Holds Up UnisphereBob, who recently sent a photo of himself holding up the Unisphere, a New York City landmark.