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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Huffman Helicopters: Making the Best of the Tour Industry

Tour operator flies Robinson R44s from a base in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large

All work done on Huffman’s helicopters is accomplished in
this hangar by company personnel.
Pick a tourist destination anywhere in the world, and you might find a helicopter operation selling aerial tours. From the serene beauty of the Grand Canyon, to the glistening skyscrapers in Dubai, there’s nothing like sightseeing from the air.

Huffman Helicopters – along with its parent company, Executive Helicopters – is headquartered in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Their customers, who come to town for the sun, beach and recreation, are often lured to Huffman’s cabana-style base on the southeast corner of Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR) looking for a special experience.

“When you’re in resorts, you’re in a gated community,” said Cleveland Smith, Jr., a security administrator, who travels often. “So we take helicopter tours to see what areas really look like.”

The problem for air tour operators, however, is keeping the price low enough for people like Smith, who have set a limit on what they think a flight is worth, given the area and the length of the trip.

Huffman charges as little as $20 per person for a two-mile flight along the shoreline closest to its base, and around $180 for a route that will take passengers along a 40- to 42-mile circuit. Seven other tour packages fall between those two.

Huffman owns eight four-seat, Robinson R44 helicopters, and requires at least two passengers before launching, unless one person is willing to pay the price of two riders. Otherwise, it would not be practical to launch, considering the company’s operating costs.

Jeremy Bass, the president of both Huffman and Executive Helicopters, admits that the tour business would not be able to sustain itself, especially in an area where customer traffic is seasonal, without another money generator.

“There are guys who hang up a big, blue tarp, strap it over a clothesline, and decide they’re going to make a million dollars flying tours in a leased helicopter,” said Bass. “And three months later, they haven’t made their lease payments... and they’re out of business. I didn’t want to be another one of those.”

Bass, a former small-town police officer who was bitten by the flying bug decades ago as a teenager, left law enforcement for a career in real estate, partly to make a living, and partly to finance his love of flying.

“Back in the late 90s and 2000, helicopter tours were primarily heavy iron, burning kerosene, flying over the [Grand] Canyon, Vegas, Hawaii,” explained Bass. “There did not exist a small operation [because] there was no helicopter that was cost-effective. All of those things play against the small-time operator.”

So, Bass decided to skip “small,” and invest large sums of money from his other endeavors to go directly to “big.”

Tony Malendrez, one of Huffman’s pilots, lifts off with a group of
customers. This particular helicopter matches the company president’s
Lamborghini parked in the background.
He is now an FAA-licensed fixed-wing and rotorcraft pilot, as well as a certified airframe and powerplant mechanic and CFI. In addition to his helicopter businesses, he operates a flying academy, a charter service, an aircraft repair facility, and an avionics shop. His companies own a total of 15 aircraft, half of which are single and twin-engine airplanes, and his shop is an authorized repair and parts depot for Robinson Helicopters.

Bass employs an average of 68 people across all sectors of his aviation-related businesses. He retains four helicopter pilots year-round, and adds four or five more for the summer tourism rush.

At Huffman, it’s all about giving passengers a memorable trip hosted by friendly staff. Potential customers, many of whom come as a spur-of-the-moment thing when they see the brightly colored Huffman billboards along the highway, seem to feel the excitement as soon as they arrive.

“Anybody that shows the slightest interest in something that I am so passionate about, I embrace them,” explained Bass.

Upon their arrival, customers are greeted by cheerful staffers dressed in company polo shirts and khakis. They are taken to a wall-size aerial photograph of the Myrtle Beach area that depicts available tour routes and prices. Once the person has selected a tour, they are weighed, given a waiver to sign, handed a boarding pass, and escorted across the small parking lot to a waiting four-seat golf cart.

Once the pilot has the aircraft running, a ground marshal will drive them to the aircraft, get them onboard and settled, and clear the pilot for departure. When they land, the marshal helps them deplane and drives them back to the parking lot.

On the other side of the field, maintenance people keep the remainder of the fleet in perfect condition. In fact, Bass mandates that all of the company’s Robinson R44s – from the oldest (a 1999 Astro), to the newest (a 2005 Raven II) – be “over-serviced.”

“We do everything preemptively. We replace, repair, rework, rebuild everything before it’s prescribed,” Bass explained.

So, if the manufacturer requires that the oil be changed every 100 hours, and recommends that it be done every 50 hours, Bass said that his aircraft’s oil will be changed after just 25 hours. Engine overhauls are done when they are just past half of the manufacturer’s recommended time.

“You’ve got to be passionate about this,” insisted Bass, who looks for that same kind of drive in the people he hires.

“We don’t look for a pilot. We look for people who love people,” he explained. “We love aviation, and we love people!”

Related: Tourism News

 

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