New business has lofty ambitions: Helicopter tour company hangs banner at airport | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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New business has lofty ambitions: Helicopter tour company hangs banner at airport

Susan Wood
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Don McKay, right, waits for a ride in the High Sierra Helicopter on Wednesday as a present for his 85th birthday. From left are pilot Claudio Belloto, Gail McKay and owner Doug Bawden.
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The view from above may be looking up for business at the Lake Tahoe Airport.

Despite the city-run airport’s noise threshold and tough track record with previous companies, a Placerville helicopter pilot who started scenic tours last weekend remains steadfast in keeping his business afloat.

“I don’t do anything that I expect to fail at,” owner Doug Bawden said Wednesday.

The $1 bill on the wall of the High Sierra Helicopters office said it all: “Good luck.”

Bawden said he’s undeterred by the history of airport businesses – with a glider plane operator leaving town after only a year, restaurants switching hands as well as Lake Tahoe Skydiving and Era Helicopters never showing up because the deals fell through after City Council approval.

He’s brought on board a pilot from the Italian Air Force, an assistant and a sleek, quieter-than-usual Robinson Raven II chopper to get the sightseeing business off the ground. Her ride is smooth, fast, visible and comes with or without doors – something his Wednesday morning customers remarked about after completing the $89, 20-minute South Shore tour between Zephyr Cove and Emerald Bay. Other packages include a 45-minute lake tour for $179 and an hour sunset flight for $259.

“We had never flown with the doors off. It’s nothing to be afraid of,” Gail McKay said. The woman from West Palm Beach, Fla., said the 56th wedding anniversary present for herself and husband Don was “well worth the money.”

The McKays liked the view from the four-seater chopper.

“I’d recommend it to anybody. The beauty of this place from the air is magnificent. You see the boats, the beautiful homes and where they played celebrity golf (at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course),” she said.

The couple took a helicopter tour in Hawaii.

“When we travel, we like to do what’s offered because we may not be back,” she said.

That’s precisely what airport officials are counting on. That’s why negotiations are under way to bring a skydiving company to the airport to share a hangar with the helicopter company.

Bawden – who has flown for 26 years including a stint with the Air National Guard – hopes to build on flight operations, perhaps to the point where reopening the airport tower would be justified.

The airport tower closed Oct. 1, 2004 when the Federal Aviation Administration hiked its fees to $222,000 to man the airport tower. Cash strapped, city leaders declined to pay the fee hike and the tower operation was forced to close.

He admitted he’s not expecting to get rich, but he anticipates making a bottom line. So does the city, which gets a cut in the operation. The South Lake Tahoe government will receive $88 and $483 per month for leasing the terminal ticket counter and terminal office space, respectively. It will also get revenue amounting to 10 cents per gallon of fuel fees and 15 cents per gallon for aviation oil.

“We’re the only one in town with this (service). And, when I did the research, I got a lot of positive feedback,” Bawden said.

“I feel they’ll be very successful. I think the market and the interest is here. It’s something different, something new and something to come experience in Lake Tahoe,” said Smokey Rickerd, the city’s new transportation, solid waste and special projects coordinator. Rickerd worked diligently on negotiating the contract with Bawden.

Bawden said the trend of helicopter operations across the country has been on the upward swing.

Of course, Tahoe isn’t like any other place.

Jim Hildinger, who runs Angora Resort, hasn’t been keen to the idea of helicopters flying overhead because it disrupts the serenity of his guests and the residents.

“I can see why they want to go over(head). It’s beautiful here,” Hildinger said.

The emergence of the business has also got the attention of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, which developed a noise threshold from a 1992 settlement agreement.

“We’re concerned about it,” League Executive Director Rochelle Nason said, adding the environmental watchdog group plans to keep an eye and ear on the operations.

High Sierra Helicopters was given a mandate of staying under 80 decibels in its flight operations. The airport plans to conduct tests to ensure the threshold is abided by.

So be it, Bawden and Rickerd said.

“That’s why I got the quietest helicopter I could,” Bawden said.

Photo:4493222,right;


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