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For Andrew Busse, the distinct sound of a helicopter rotor and the thrill of fighting fires have been lifelong interests. Today, more than 30 years later, Busse is proud to say his interests, turned passions, are now becoming a business venture.
“I suppose it’s my earliest memories that started it all,” Busse recalled. “In 1988, my family relocated from Highmore, South Dakota, to the Black Hills. Later that same year wildfires broke out just west of Rapid City. I can remember watching helicopters dropping buckets of water to try and squelch the fire. It was devastating to watch flames engulf our neighbors’ homes as fire rescuers worked hard to salvage as much as they could. From then on, the call to serve sort of kept showing up.”
Busse’s interest in helicopters continued to grow, prompting him to join the South Dakota National Guard as a helicopter mechanic and flight medic. After a tour overseas, Busse re-enrolled at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and earned his degree in industrial engineering, specializing in aviation and attended the Army Rotary Wing Flight School at Ft. Rucker, Alabama.
To this day, Busse continues to share his passion for helicopters and aviation, instructing pilots in the South Dakota National Guard and serving as the lead pilot for Black Hills Life Flight, the civilian air ambulance service of the Black Hills.
But still, there was something missing for Busse.
“Owning and operating a full-service helicopter company has been a longtime dream of mine, and this idea has been in the works for more than a decade. In 2007, with fire once again literally at the doorsteps of the family home, I knew this was a service our state desperately needed,” he said.
Black Hills Helicopters, a full-service professional helicopter company, based in Keystone, South Dakota, is Busse’s entrepreneurial dream. The business will encompass all aspects of the helicopter industry — from flight instruction to scenic tours to utility helicopter firefighting. According to Busse, it’ll be the first company in the state that will fulfill the helicopter needs of western South Dakota.
“We’ve built this business with our own hands and it’s truly been a family, even a community, project thanks to the help of good friends and neighbors,” Busse said. “One neighbor poured our concrete and loaned us his tools and expertise, our other neighbor loaned us his lift. My mother was in the basket 30 feet off the ground working on the exterior. Even my 70-year-old uncle and fellow pilot helped with the construction process. My goal was to design something that the community could be proud of and resembled the historical nature of the Keystone area, and thanks to everyone who assisted, I’m confident to say I think we accomplished it.”
The Keystone Heliport sits above Buckeye Gulch, approximately one mile north of the town of Keystone, near the big timber bridge at the Keystone Wye. Busse said the location was ideal for the heliport — away from town, in the middle of the commercial-tourism corridor outlined in Pennington County’s Comprehensive Plan and next to U.S. Highway 16A. “Our goal was to minimize the noise impact of the helicopters and we planned our tour routes next to the busy highways to consolidate the noise to better protect our natural resources. Initially there was a little pushback, but after hearing our plan, everyone’s been hugely supportive and it’s something I’m truly grateful for,” Busse said.
Additionally, Busse said the Keystone Heliport is one of only a few heliports in the state that meet the stringent criteria set forth by the South Dakota Department of Transportation. South Dakota’s heliport regulations are more thorough than federal guidelines, to increase safety for helicopter operations.
Construction of the hangar and heliport is nearly complete, and Busse’s next step is getting the business off the ground, literally.
“Our goal is to have the doors open by Memorial Day, showcasing scenic helicopter tours of Mount Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park and Crazy Horse,” Busse said. “Hopefully within a few years of operating scenic tours, we will have the tools and resources to expand our operations into other facets of the industry, like flight instruction and helicopter firefighting.”
Busse says every summer the USDA helicopter firefighting contract with the Forest Service for the Black Hills has always been awarded to an out-of-state company, employing out-of-state pilots, mechanics and support personnel; thus funding other states’ resources.
“When disaster strikes and emergency services are needed, South Dakotans serving fellow South Dakotans just makes more sense. When we can educate, employ and serve our own, I think that speaks volumes and I hope I can be a small part of that dream I share with so many other young South Dakotans,” Busse said. “With Black Hills Helicopters, those dreams can become a reality.”