Up, up and far! | Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

7:43 – Pilot and trainer Christian Eskola, 21, explains the pre-flight checks he and the crew perform each morning.

Residents and visitors alike noticed a distinct change in the Myrtle Beach skies in May 2012, when Helicopter Adventure began sending out its fire truck red birds for good, all day, every day, apparently one after another from 9 a.m. until the last passenger lands safely, many with their first helicopter flight have checked their bucket list.

What does it take to handle an average of 400 flights per day (and up to 800 at the height of the season) as well as a fleet of 11 Robinson R-44 helicopters in flight, and 13 in total, plus office staff , loader passengers, a maintenance team and 20 pilots? It takes military precision and the leadership of retired Marine, pilot and owner, Freddie Rick II.

“I run this place like a Marine Corp training camp,” Rick says without apologizing from his Helicopter Adventures office near Broadway at the Beach.

“You have to,” he adds, “to maintain a 100% perfect safety record and so many thefts per day, we have to be precise about every detail. “

I wondered about the logistics involved and the day of one of the tour operator’s 20 pilots. Rick would team us up with 21-year-old driver and trainer Christian Eskola. Any doubts about his youth were quickly cast aside after hearing his credentials, seeing him go through pre-flight inspections, and eventually fly away with him. Like so many passengers who would show up on this hot and sticky morning, this would be my first helicopter flight.

7:59 – Part of Robinson’s R-44 fleet, each valued at around half a million dollars, awaits their turn in the skies of the Grand Strand.

7:43

After chatting with Rick and meeting some of his employees, I’m introduced to Eskola and his wife, Mariah, who also works for the travel agency. East of the Tennessean, Eskola left the family roofing business to get into aviation. Barely out of his teens, he trained at Sevier County Aviation near his family home in eastern Tennessee as a helicopter pilot and flight instructor. He arrived at Myrtle Beach already certified and with some 1,500 flying hours already under his belt, but less than the 2,000 hours he works for.

Eskola has long-term career goals in mind, and they don’t necessarily fly tourists over Myrtle Beach.

“I am working on certification to fly EMS helicopters [flying ambulances], and I found that Helicopter Adventures was perhaps the fastest way to save the hours I needed to get a full EMS certification, ”says Eskola.

At 8 a.m., a small army of employees are already busy with maintenance, rolling the birds to the platform and preparing for the onslaught of passengers, many with a $ 20 bill in hand. .

The “Fly 4 Fun” tour, about two miles in total, is a quick trip down Broadway at the Beach, to the Ripken baseball diamonds and back, and it’s a pretty good deal. For $ 20, customers can take a ride, albeit a short one, in a half-million-dollar machine with a highly skilled pilot. Many guests will opt for the longer seven to eight mile “Boardwalk Adventure” ride, which flies over Broadway at the Beach, then out to the ocean and back for $ 39. Others opt for the “Great Adventure” at $ 179 per person. This 52-mile round-trip flight travels up the coast to the North Carolina border and back over the ocean and takes about 25 to 30 minutes. Other tours at $ 59, $ 79, $ 99 and $ 129 also offer other options.

“We make the same profit per person on the $ 20 flights as we do on the $ 179 flight,” says Rick, noting that the extra fuel costs and machine hours add up. Flights are based on kilometers traveled, not time spent in the air, and can vary by a few minutes in either direction. Still, most customers opt for the $ 20 or $ 39 flights.

Although the operation is going smoothly, there have been some obstacles for the company. There are noise ordinances in Myrtle Beach and the Robinson R-44s are relatively quiet, but that hasn’t stopped a resident of the nearby Plantation Lakes neighborhood from suing, spending three years in court and losing out. call.

“We originally tried to get a location near the airport before we even started work,” says Rick, “but Sorry County wouldn’t allow us. Now after all the time and legal fees there are new rules and all helicopter tours have to be operated from the airport. We will have to move there in 2024.

(Left) A clear illustration of optional flight paths awaits online customers, who must decide in advance which tour option they want; (Law) 8:12 – Eskola continues his pre-flight checks.

8:12

Eskola, flashlight in hand, completes her upstream inspections with the team, and everything is verified. Before flying with us or with any other passenger, Eskola, like all pilots of Helicopter Adventures, goes to the pilot lounge and his locker, where he transforms into an eye-catching uniform, with shoulder pads. Short sleeves and dressy shorts keep professional pilots neatly dressed and cool, as Robinson R-44s are not air-conditioned, although air vents keep flights cool once in flight, even on very hot days. hotter. Heating the cabin is much easier and it stays nice and warm during the winter months.

I notice that the operation seems extremely well thought out.

“Sir. Rick spares no expense,” Eskola says. “It’s a first class operation, all the way.”

8:15 a.m.

We head to the pad, greet the Pad Master, and pass a fleet of golf carts. Passenger waiting areas are still empty within 45 minutes before opening.

Each Robinson R-44 can accommodate 4 people (one pilot and three passengers), or up to 580 pounds without the pilot. Helicopters are very easy to get on and off with front and rear doors and a low profile to the ground.

8:18 – Eskola communicates the readiness of passengers via his helmet, just before taking off from the ground. At the top left, a waiting area protects passengers from the sun while waiting for their flight.

8:18

Strapped up, we don our headsets for communication (an extra $ 5 per person and worth every penny) and watch Eskola check her gauges and radar for lightning strikes. To add to the safety factor, we are told that lightning and high winds are about the only thing that can immobilize birds. Mariah flies with us, with another guest, Jarod Castro, from South America.

” Everybody is ready ? Eskola asks, as he spins the rotors at full speed.

We say yes and gently lift off the ground. Hovering over what appears to be yards from the grass, each flight begins with a slow, low tour of the Helicopter Adventure property, where the pilot checks all of his controls; pitch, throttle, anti-torque, cyclic, collective pitch, tail rotor function and obtain final clearance from the control tower.

Airspace over most of the Grand Strand is controlled by FAA air traffic controllers based at Myrtle Beach International Airport. Without their permission, helicopters do not fly.

8:19

We gain speed and altitude, clearing the power lines and trees surrounding the property, and within seconds we find ourselves near the US 17 Bypass.

“It’s the great ape in the wax museum below us,” Eskola said, images of hapless King Kong and Faye Ray flooding my thoughts. A second later, we are on Broadway at the Beach. Fly into anything; a plane, a hot air balloon, a hang-glider or a helicopter is a relatively modern miracle that should not be taken for granted, it is fantastic.

“This is the upside down house called Wonder Works,” Eskola explains as we turn north and ascend the Intracoastal Waterway in a smooth and comfortable flight, without much noise, the headphones work well. Flying in and out of Myrtle Beach on a passenger jet offers a very different experience than one gets through the massive, crystal-clear polycarbonate windshields of the Robinson R-44s.

Eskola is first and foremost an FAA certified pilot, who earns a well-deserved salary, but like all pilots he is also a tour guide with welcome tips. He answers questions from passengers, points out points of interest, and sometimes learns a thing or two from the locals who travel with him – he had only lived and flown over Myrtle Beach for a few months when we first met.

Pilot Christian and his wife Mariah met as a teenager on a family vacation to Myrtle Beach while staying at Ocean Lakes Campground. The couple toyed with the idea of ​​moving to Hawaii to complete their flying hours.

We can easily see the massive (some would say “overdeveloped”) real estate development in the area along the US 17, and the vast expanse of low-lying trees and marshes just west of the waterway. After reaching north to Briarcliffe Acres, we turn east towards the ocean. The view is spectacular, and it becomes a game of finding landmarks and shouting them out at each other through the headphones’ built-in microphones.

A light drizzle gives way to weak cloud cover as we fly through wispy clouds hovering just above the beach.

(Left) 8:22 – Passengers enjoy a spectacular view of the Grand Strand. Above Briarcliffe Acres we turn south, towards Myrtle Beach as part of the loop we are making; (Environment) 8:24 – The number of flights fluctuates enormously during and outside the tourist season, with up to 800 flights per day in the height of summer and as few as 400 flights per month off season.

8:22

We head south over the beach and see the tall, impressive Myrtle Beach condo buildings and the easy-to-spot SkyWheel on the way back. Our flight almost finished, Eskola takes us back inland to the airstrips of Helicopter Adventure. The company’s website says the tours are “not thrill rides” and “motion sickness is very rare.” None of the passengers experienced anything but fun on our trip.

8:24

We make it ashore just as the crowds start to gather in the parking lot, with the doors opening to the general public at 9:00 am. No reservations are required or available; flights are on a first come, first served basis. Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website if desired.

After landing, the slightly exhilarating ride finished, we disembark. Passengers congratulate each other as if they had just returned from the moon. For the Eskola, it’s just another day at the office.

8:26

Eskola will fly four hours, have an hour off and fly a few more hours on a typical day. We say goodbye to you as the ticket office and waiting rooms are now packed. With 11 helicopters in the air, the waits aren’t too long and, with military precision, it’s easy to marvel at the efficiency of the operation.

Getting a taste of the sky and the scenic beauty beneath our feet aboard these planes, all for the price of a McDonald’s family meal, is quite a remarkable achievement, and an achievement that Helicopter Adventures and its young pilots talented offer us all.

Helicopter adventures, 1860 21st Ave N., Myrtle Beach. (800) 359-4386 www.helicopteradventures.com


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