From its humble beginning, Papillon has grown into an aerial tourism powerhouse, with 70 aircraft and 650 employees. Under the guidance of three generations of Halvorsons, though, it’s still very much a family business.
On a typical day, hundreds of people from around the world pass through Papillon Group’s “Aerocenter” in Boulder City, Nev., on their way to the experience of a lifetime — a Grand Canyon helicopter tour. Usually, only unflyable weather will stem the flow of eager passengers. On the sunny afternoon of April 16, 2015, however, Papillon paused its operations for a different reason: to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
As the last of the morning’s satisfied customers returned from the Canyon and boarded shuttles for Las Vegas, dozens of invited guests gathered at the Aerocenter to witness a unique fly-by. Five of Papillon’s Airbus Helicopters H130s — one for each decade of the company’s operation — flew past the assembled crowd in a V formation, led by the special “Golden Helicopter” that Papillon unveiled in March at Heli-Expo 2015.
The early years: Elling Halvorson (right), his family, and a Bell 47 at the Grand Canyon. Papillon Photo
Riding in the Golden Helicopter were Papillon Group founder Elling Halvorson and his daughter Brenda Halvorson, who is currently the group’s president and CEO. But they weren’t the only family members represented. Each of the other helicopters also held members of the Halvorson clan who play key roles in the group’s operations, including general managers Geoff Edlund and Jacob Tomlin, the third generation to join the company, along with their children (who may someday be the fourth). Fifty years after its founding, Papillon has grown into an aerial tourism powerhouse — but it’s still very much a family business.
This Airbus Helicopters H130 was specially painted to celebrate Papillon’s golden anniversary. In anticipation of the occasion, the company also reserved the aircraft number 50.
Creating a Legacy
Elling Halvorson didn’t originally plan on creating the world’s largest helicopter tour company. Although he was enamored of aviation as a boy, in his 20s, he followed his brothers into the construction business. Rather than pursue conventional contracts, however, he looked for jobs that were challenging and out of the ordinary — these, he figured, would generate a higher return. “I looked for projects that were very different, and this was key to me getting into the helicopter business,” he told Vertical.
In the late 1950s, Halvorson secured a contract to construct a microwave tower for AT&T on Echo Summit, a roadless, 9,400-foot peak high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. To ferry heavy construction materials to the site, he built a 1.5-mile tramway. To move people and lighter materials to the summit, he purchased a Bell 47-G3B1 helicopter, which back then was “the only helicopter that would operate at those altitudes,” he said. He paid $46,000 for the aircraft, which was the first G3B1 model that Bell built. At the time, he noted, “I thought $46,000 was a terrible price to pay for a helicopter.”
Papillon was founded as Grand Canyon Helicopters, and Grand Canyon remains central to its identity and branding.
A few years later, Halvorson won a contract to construct a 13.5-mile water pipeline from the North Rim to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was the largest contract the National Park Service had ever awarded, and it quickly became the largest helicopter-supported construction project in history, eventually encompassing more than 25,000 flight hours. From the Bell 47 to the Sikorsky S-61, “we used all of the types of aircraft that were commercially available at that time,” Halvorson said. “Everything was done by helicopter.”
Although helicopters were a practical necessity for the project, they also resulted in the world’s most spectacular commute. Workers and visitors who traveled to the job site by helicopter were “enthralled” with the trip in, and Halvorson recognized an opportunity. “When the project started getting to the end, I started giving tours,” he said. That led to the creation, in 1965, of Grand Canyon Helicopters, which is still one of the names under which the company does business (the name “Papillon,” which is French for “butterfly,” was a later addition).
Papillon H130s in formation over Boulder City. A total of five aircraft participated in an anniversary fly-by.
Despite offering an extraordinary way to see one of the world’s natural wonders, Grand Canyon Helicopters was not an overnight success. “It was hard in the early years,” Halvorson recalled, noting that he had to divert money from his construction enterprises to keep the business afloat. “My accountant and my banker told me to sell it.” But Halvorson prevailed, calculating that it was only a matter of time and people flown before the popularity of Grand Canyon helicopter tours caught up with their promise. Five decades later, the success of Papillon Group — now a thriving operator with 75 aircraft — has proven him correct.
Four generations of Halvorsons at Papillon’s 50th anniversary celebrations in Boulder City, Nev.
Keeping it in the Family
Halvorson’s vision guided the company for its first three decades of operation. As he was building his business, he was also playing an instrumental role in shaping the aerial tourism industry as a whole. Halvorson was a leader in numerous industry associations, serving twice as the chair of Helicopter Association International. He was also a co-founder of the Tour Operators Program of Safety, a nonprofit, industry-led organization dedicated solely to enhancing the safety of helicopter tours. Over the years, Halvorson has received numerous recognitions for his achievements; most recently, in January of this year, he was honored with the Vertical Flight Hall of Fame Award during the 12th Annual Living Legends of Aviation Awards.
“We have the golden jewel, the Grand Canyon, in our backyard,” said Brenda Halvorson. “The Grand Canyon is always going to be something that people want to see.”
But Elling isn’t the only Halvorson with a talent for business. His daughter, Brenda, began working as his secretary in 1986; in 1993, she moved to the Grand Canyon and was charged with overseeing Papillon. Elling Halvorson warned her that she would need to prove herself to Papillon’s employees — to demonstrate herself as a skilled manager, not just the owner’s daughter. “I told her, ‘You have to earn their respect,’” he recalled. “And that she did pretty shortly.”
Under Brenda’s dynamic leadership, Papillon expanded significantly, and she credits that, in part, to her father’s confidence in her. “The beauty of it was . . . I was given the trust and the ability to make quick decisions,” she told Vertical. For his part, Elling said, “A lot of people have trouble working with their children — I don’t have trouble letting them loose [to try] their wings. After a few initial years of being manager, I just backed off and let her come to me.” Meanwhile, Elling’s son Lon Halvorson (who is also a co-founder of Rainier Heli International) supported Papillon’s growth by overseeing aircraft acquisitions and financing. Another son, Kent Halvorson, lent his construction expertise to Papillon, serving as general contractor for the Boulder City Aerocenter project.
￼An aerial shot of the 50th anniversary celebrations at Papillon’s Boulder City Aerocenter.
“We’re very lucky to have a family that’s very capable,” remarked Elling Halvorson. That trait appears to have carried on to Papillon’s third-generation managers: Brenda’s son Geoff Edlund, now general manager of Papillon’s Nevada helicopter operations, and her nephew, Jacob Tomlin, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and F/A-18 pilot who oversees Papillon’s fixed-wing business, Grand Canyon Airlines.
While Papillon is now strongly associated with Airbus Helicopters aircraft, Bell helicopters have also been important moneymakers for the company over the years.
Edlund and Tomlin, who are in their 30s, joined the company only recently, and only after achieving professional success in other careers. That wasn’t by accident — the Halvorsons actually declined to let Edlund work for the family business right out of college. While that was a blow at the time, Edlund said, he now appreciates the decision: “I think we needed to prove ourselves to ourselves . . . to understand that you don’t need the family business to be successful.”
Now, Edlund and Tomlin are excited to take Papillon to the next level, just as Brenda Halvorson did before them. “We want to keep growing,” said Edlund. “We want to look for new opportunities and jump on the good ones.”
Here, three of Papillon’s 650 employees. Despite being a large business, Papillon strives to maintain a small-company feel and camaraderie.
As capable, talented, and ambitious as the Halvorsons may be, however, all of them are quick to point out that the success of this family business is not solely due to the family. Equally important have been the contributions of Papillon’s employees, particularly those longstanding personnel who have helped shape the company’s growth and identity. “The secret to it wasn’t just me or just Brenda; it was the people we put around us. We really have a good group of leadership here,” said Elling Halvorson.
Elling Halvorson co-founded the Tour Operators Program of Safety because, he said, “I saw too many accidents in the tour business.” His grandson Geoff Edlund said that safety remains a priority for Papillon: “If we’re not safe, we don’t have a business.”
“I picked the right people to make it happen,” echoed Brenda. “These people are not only business acquaintances or employees — they really are personal friends.”