Helicopter tours offer views, experiences above and beyond everyday excursions
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – The A-Star helicopter bumped and dropped in the wind. The clouds were patchy and sent beams of sunshine shooting through, illuminating plots of land like spotlights. After one particularly weightless dip, Ashlee Burton grabbed the knee of the complete stranger sitting beside her.
“Sorry about your knee,” she laughed to Daniel Pistoresi, the HeliTahoe guide, who’s leg happened to be there.
The helicopter swooped away from Emerald Bay and the view of Cascade Falls, where the wind can be especially gusty, said pilot Claudio Bellotto. The group hovered over the Angora Burn site, blackened and gray in the overcast light. They cruised over Highway 50 and Echo Summit, where a week before no traffic had been allowed to pass.
“It’s amazing,” Ashlee Burton said into her headset.
The vast beginning of the American River Canyon opened up below them. Lover’s Leap, highlighted in the sun, looked like a giant boulder split in half. To the right, Horsetail Falls gushed 800 feet down the still snow-covered peaks, tumbling and running with more water than most years.
“Now, we’ll take a left at the stoplight,” Bellotto joked to his passengers before guiding the helicopter back towards Lake Tahoe.
Ashlee Burton and her husband Keegan Burton took HeliTahoe’s new waterfall tour to celebrate their second anniversary. The waterfall tour is just one of many services the company is offering to enhance summer recreation in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“We’re trying to set up tours at various price points, so people don’t have to be afraid of calling up and asking about heli-touring,” said partner Dave Rintala.
New summer adventures include guided heli-fishing, guided heli-hiking, mountain top wine tasting and customizable trips. These will be added to their variety of tours like the waterfall tour, the Sand Harbor tour and the sunset tour.
“We’re really trying to have something for everybody,” Rintala said.
The ability to land in remote locations and fly passengers from one spot to another began with the company’s heli-skiing service they launched early last winter. After obtaining the air taxi certification and the lease to a new A-Star chopper, its horizons expanded.
“To be able to use a helicopter not only to fly around and look at stuff from the air but to actually access spots on the ground is our biggest asset,” Rintala said. “It gives us an amazing ability to talk to people, find out what their goals are, and help them achieve those goals.”
But the sky isn’t exactly the limit. There are restrictions on where the helicopter can land, who they can take on certain tours and for how long.
“It’s not a free for all,” Rintala said. “We can’t just drop anybody anywhere.”
Before climbing into the silver and blue chopper, Ashlee and Keegan Burton, listened to Bottello’s pre-flight briefing. Bottello reviewed the safety protocol and detailed the procedure for an emergency water landing.
“I’m a good pilot,” Bellotto told the two. “I just got my license yesterday on Youtube.”
“Oh yeah?” the couple laughed.
The couple donned their red flight vests and headed out onto Lake Tahoe Airport’s landing pad. Bellotto, joking as always, has actually been flying helicopters for years.
The group flew over waterfall after waterfall, above frozen lakes and past Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort. They circled aloft the maze of waterways in the Tahoe Keys and the curving Upper Truckee River. The A-Star landed and the Burtons climbed out from their first flight in a helicopter.
“I felt my stomach drop to my butt a couple of times,” Ashlee Burton said with a smile. “But other than that, it was great.”