Craving a little perspective, entrepreneur Alex Lustberg recently took a helicopter tour over his fair city of San Francisco. “It was short, roughly 30 minutes, but exhilarating,” he said. “The day was majestically clear, and the most exciting part was when we were hovering next to the Golden Gate Bridge — the chopper suddenly banked to the left and we flew underneath.”
For the record, that’s a perfectly legal maneuver (but only on clear days). It’s also OK to hover over active volcanoes in New Zealand, zoom over pods of beluga whales in Manitoba or suspend yourself around the thundering cataracts of Iguazu Falls in Brazil. All it takes is a late-model helicopter with an experienced pilot and a couple hundred dollars.
In many cases, helicopter flight-seeing tours don’t just provide a little perspective — they’re the only perspective available. Cable cars simply don’t exist to reach the awe-inspiring glaciers north of Juneau, or the salmon runs of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.
According to the U.S. Air Tours Association, roughly 2 million tourists took to the skies last year on flight-seeing trips in the United States, with 60 percent of that number hailing from overseas. In fact, flight-seeing is a $625 million domestic industry (that includes fixed-wing flights).
The benefits of helicopter flights over fixed-wing aircraft are relatively straightforward — proximity (i.e., “the hover factor”) and accessibility. In a Cessna, you can’t touch down on the floor of the Grand Canyon for a quick amble around an ancient Havasupai Village or alight for a champagne brunch on a tiny cay in the .
As always, safety is a concern. The industry averages 1.9 accidents per 100,000 hours flown, which is a quarter of the number of accidents of private planes, but 10 times greater than commercial aircraft. Not surprisingly, all of the sightseeing helicopter accidents in the United States since 1996 have occurred in just four states: (20 accidents), Arizona (10), (8), and (1).
Cameron Davidson, an aerial photographer who has shot for Outside, National Geographic, Vanity Fair and Smithsonian over the course of a 27-year career, only works with pilots who have at least 1,000 hours of flight time (his regular pilot has around 20,000). After a particularly dicey experience with a replacement pilot, he said, “I found out the guy only had 700 hours, and the majority of that was as an instructor.”
Cameron is also a big fan of turbines — preferably a Hughes 500 or a Bell Jet Ranger. “The Bell Jet Ranger has an amazing safety record and is the most common turbine helicopter in North America,” he said. “They’re roomy, reasonably fast and are solid performers.” He also recommends a light breakfast before your flight, going light on the coffee and grapefruit juice.
Any reputable helicopter tour company should be FAA certified “Part 135,” which subjects it to a more stringent set of safety guidelines than other air carriers. Earlier this year, two fatal accidents in Hawaii resulted in tougher rules regarding minimum altitudes (at least 1,500 feet) and floatation-device requirements.
The environmental concern is also significant, especially in areas where wildlife could be directly affected. UNESCO has recently taken a hard look at helicopter activity at its World Heritage sites, and if you were hoping to soar over the Andes to Machu Picchu in a helicopter, you're out of luck, at least for now: All flights have been suspended while the government sets some rules for this growing industry.
Outside of investing in recent helicopter models that consume less and run quieter, good corporate citizenship helps. Nimmo Bay, a heli-ventures resort near , is a member of a sustainable tourism collective that cooperates with the British Columbian government in local stewardship efforts.
For our list of 10 fantastic helicopter tours, we’ve suggested established tour companies recommended by our partners at Frommer’s. We’ve also concentrated on areas of the world that are a) magnificent and b) relatively inaccessible. Enjoy your flight.