We get behind the controls of a Magni M16 gyroplane, chat with NASA engineers about the Mars Helicopter, look at Helinet’s firefighting Black Hawk & reflect on the legacy left by Universal Helicopters.
Chopper, the company that entered the helicopter industry by providing an Uber-style service that matched people looking to travel by helicopter with operators able to provide them, is continuing its ambitious expansion with a move into charter operations, leasing, aircraft sales, and the opening of a service center.
In July 2017, Chopper had 12 operators and 31 helicopters signed up to its ride-chartering service in Florida. It is now working with 72 operators in five states representing 120 aircraft, with links across California and Texas, and focused service in the cities of New York, Chicago and Boston.
To order a helicopter, customers visit Chopper’s website, select their region, departure, time of travel, and arrival points, and select which type of helicopter they would like to use. Pricing is predetermined and shown along with the number of passengers each helicopter can carry.
“[Operators] love it,” Mike Blackton, the company’s president, told Vertical. “We haven’t had any issues with them not liking it. We send them business. We don’t charge them for it. So there really no downside to it.”
According to Blackton, about four flight hours a day are currently chartered through Chopper, and he hopes to at least triple that with the aim of having over 400 helicopters signed up to the service by June 2019.
But his ambitions don’t end there. Earlier this year, he purchased Southeast Helicopter Inc., a Federal Aviation Regulations part 135 charter operator based in Savannah, Georgia, and moved Chopper’s head office to the city.
The company is also a Robinson Helicopter authorized service center and authorized dealer, but Blackton said the service center is likely to move to Orlando Executive Airport in Florida, where it will be joined by a “helicopter dealership.”
“Every place that you go to in the U.S., if you want to order a helicopter, you can go look at one that’s currently in service, but if you want to buy one you have to fill out a form, submit it, and then nine months to a year later they deliver your helicopter,” he said. “We’ve got a group of finance guys together and we’re going to go out and actually purchase the aircraft and put them on a showroom floor, so when you walk up, you can walk away with a helicopter that day, if you want.”
Blackton said he is waiting on new hangar space to open up at the airport, but believes potential clients would be prepared to pay a premium for the ability to fly certified pre-owned aircraft home the day they were purchased — enough to cover the cost of having the asset idle on display.
Ultimately, Chopper’s goal is to have five service centers and five dealerships across the county — a feat Blackton believes is achievable by 2021.
“I’m building a brand,” he said. “I want you to be able to come and buy a helicopter from us, get it serviced, if you need to charter one you can charter still with us. I’m trying to become an all-in-one one-stop-shop.”
That expands to leasing. Chopper is closing on two aircraft leases for operations in Florida and Georgia, and is close to bringing on a third.
Oh, and he wants to start a flight school, too.
“If we’ve got the helicopter, why not get the part 141 [flight school certificate] and let people come in and train with us?” he said. “If we’ve got these helicopters, I want to keep them in the air as much as I can. If I can get six or seven revenue streams going off of one helicopter, I’m willing to.”
Given the breadth of his ambition and the novelty of many of his ideas, it’s perhaps not surprising that Blackton admits he has faced a fair degree of cynicism about his plans. However, he insisted most critics were those from outside aviation.
“If I find someone that flies helicopters or that flies a private jet and I tell them what I’m doing, they’re all ecstatic — they think it’s great,” he said. “They don’t know why it hasn’t been done, and they really think it’s genius that someone’s stepping out of the box and doing this when it’s kind of not the norm.”
Undeniably, a lot of work lies ahead for the company, but Blackton said his love for aviation keeps him driven.
“It took me 31 years to find this career and I just fell in love with it,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve worked the past five years because I love what I’m doing.”