Helicopter flights are high on everyone’s bucket list, so it was thoroughly interesting to talk to the owner of Heli Fly, John, about his journey into the business. Based in Sussex, Heli Fly take people out on stunning tours of Brighton and Hove, getting a gorgeous mix of ocean views and historical landmarks. Here’s what John had to say about the progress of the company, and how it all began.
1) Please explain your journey as 'HeliFly' so far.
HeliFly grew from an unfulfilled boyhood ambition. Like many boys that grew up during the 60's & 70's space race, I dreamed of being the next Neil Armstrong or Chuck Yeager. I spent years building Airfix models of aircraft and rockets and later crafting gliders from balsa wood, glue and doped tissue paper.
During my teenage years I joined the Air Training Corps and did some fixed wing flying in Chipmunks and gliders but was soon being told that my dreams of being an aviator would be just that - dreams. Having had asthma from an early age and not having 20:20 vision I was told that the RAF would not accept me. And so I parked that dream.
Fortunately, something else had come along that fascinated me. No, not girls! Computers!
25 years later, running an IT company based in Burgess Hill, I was once again bitten by the aviation bug. A supplier had asked us to accompany them to the British F1 Grand Prix and was flying us in by helicopter. The inbound journey was a blur of excitement and anticipation, but on the return journey I decided to watch and see how the pilot made the helicopter do what it did. There and then I decided I needed to be able to fly a helicopter too.
Scroll on another 10 years and I am now a commercial helicopter pilot and flight instructor. I've sold my interest in my IT business, re-invested it in HeliFly and am living the dream of that teenage boy!
I'd be lying if I didn't say that the best part of the job was the flying, but what comes a close second is seeing the reaction of our customers. For many of them a helicopter flight will be a once in a lifetime experience and the ear to ear grins after the flight are a joy to behold.
Every now and then I also see myself 10 years ago in the eyes of a passenger. I can see they've been bitten by the helicopter bug and I know they now want to fly.
Aviation is always in a state of flux as rules and regulations constantly change. Currently the industry is in the middle of one of its biggest changes for some time as we move from rules imposed by the CAA to rules imposed by Europe and implemented by the CAA. Keeping on top of these changes whilst delivering an affordable flight experience is an on-going challenge.
2) What has been the biggest or most memorable event you've provided?
HeliFly have provided so many memorable events it's hard to choose a single one. We've had in-flight proposals where "Marry Me" has been mown into a field as well as a surprise flight for a newly married couple. On the flip side of life we've had ashes scattered from our helicopter and have taken seriously ill people for a final flight as they tick some of the boxes on their personal bucket lists.
Personally, my most memorable event was flying customers into the British Grand Prix and completing the ambition I laid down for myself many years earlier.
HeliFly have flown with a number of celebrities over the years, but we are understandably discrete as to who, where and when.
One celebrity we have spent some time with was Chris Evans as he and his wife studied for their PPL(H) licenses at Shoreham airport a number of years back.
It's hard to know if this is an achievement or not, but in 2007 there were 5 pilots and 4 helicopters at Shoreham licensed to conduct passenger transport flights. There's now just HeliFly with 1 pilot and 1 machine, such has been the severity of the recession.
3) Is there any inside information you can give us?
Don't spend all of the time looking through your camera taking pictures. Enjoy the moment!
For those on a limited budget our experience flights offer a cost effective way of taking to the skies over Brighton & Hove. For those looking for a unique way of celebrating a special occasion, lunch or afternoon tea at one of our range of Sussex country houses is unforgettable.
When booking a helicopter pleasure flight always ask which AOC holder will be operating the flight. If you're then told that the flight is a private flight or a trial lesson then you may well not be flying with a pilot licensed to conduct public transport flights or in a helicopter that is maintained to public transport standards.
4) Do you have any exciting plans for the future that you'd like to tell us about?
HeliFly's ambition is to increase the number of public transport flights from Shoreham. We hope to be operating larger machines in the future as the UK economy recovers.
How the experiences might evolve or how any competitors might affect the industry.
The only changes predicted to our various flights are that we will add some more venues to our lunch and afternoon tea flights. Sadly, the only other change will be price increases as fuel, airport fees and engineering cost continue their steady rise.
5) What would you say is your most frequently asked question?
We get asked a wide range of questions but the most common are:
How fast are we going? In the cruise about 120mph.
How high are we? Generally between 1300 & 1800ft during the cruise.
How far will the helicopter go? When flying passengers around 2hrs 10 minutes on full tanks which is enough to get from Shoreham to Cornwall.
(Kids) Have you ever had a crash? No!
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