The successful helicopter airline is the rotorcraft world’s equivalent of the lost continent of Atlantis. There are legends of its having once existed but as the years stretch into the distance, the chances of its ever having been real seem to fade away. You can almost count on one hand the number of scheduled helicopter operations putting black ink into their books and have fingers left over. (To be precise, they are the Vancouver, British Columbia-based HeliJet Airways, British International Helicopter’s Penzance-Scilly Islands run at England’s southwesternmost tip, Copterlines, linking Helsinki, Finland with Tallinin, Estonia, and a handful of short-haul, inter-island operations linking Hong Kong and Macao.)
To be successful, a helicopter airline entrepreneur needs to fulfill a simple if demanding formula. There must be at least a pair of destinations each sharing a high demand for passenger traffic and not too far apart. Ideally, they should be separated by some sort of barrier difficult to surmount, such as water or congested urban sprawl. And there should be room for helicopter landing sites close to the desired destinations, ideally more convenient than the local airport by an order of magnitude. After all, isn’t the ability to land vertically right on top of the desired destination the whole reason for the additional operating expense and complexity of rotary-wing flight?
If all this seems like a complex formula for success, well, it is. But one Washington, D.C.-area businessman thinks he’s mastered this complexity. And since he made his first $70 million or so successfully surfing his way through the dot-com circus of the late 1990s, Steve Walker might just have the skills needed to create the first viable helicopter airline the U.S. has seen in some time.
Walker made his millions in the computer business. He turned a $30,000 personal investment into Trusted Information Systems, maker of computer data firewalls and encryption systems, and later sold it in 1998 for $350 million. Walker strolled away from that deal with some $70 million in his pockets.
Walker, 58, came to discover helicopters late in life but he preaches a self-taught rotorcraft gospel with a refreshing, born-yesterday “why not?” innocence not heard in this jaded business for decades. Tiring of the weekly highway commute between his Beltway businesses and his 20-acre leisure retreat on a beach in Delaware, Walker chartered a helicopter. “After that first trip, I was sold,” he remembered with a grin. “I couldn’t understand why more people that worked like me and could afford it weren’t doing the same.”
Charter soon led to ownership of a Bell LongRanger, then to management of other helicopters purchased by some of Walker’s well heeled friends. Looking for a good home for what was emerging as a thriving helicopter management and maintenance firm, Walker discovered what is now called Tipton Airport. Located on the Anne Arundel/Howard County border just south of Fort Meade in Odenton, Md., Tipton Airport is almost equidistant between Baltimore, Washington, Annapolis and Columbia, Md. Immediately adjacent to Maryland Route 32, the airport is just minutes from the major arteries of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, I-95 and I-97.
Before its present incarnation, Tipton was the U.S. Army airfield designated to serve Fort Meade, home to, among other government agencies, the ultra-secret National Security Agency (NSA). Walker has worked there during his years as a civilian developer of high-level, high-security computer projects for the military, so he was familiar with the facility.
Privatized by the 1988 Base Realignment & Closure Act and closed in 1995, Tipton Airport reopened on Nov. 1, 1999, and is operated today by the Tipton Airport Authority, a state-chartered public corporation. The 366-acre facility is bordered by Fort Meade and the NSA to the north and by the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge to the east, south and west, providing an exceptional natural anti-noise buffer between the airport and local residents. Less than half a mile outside the 18-mi TFR established around Washington in the days following September 11, Tipton only just managed to stay in operation throughout the crisis.
With its 3,000-ft runway, Tipton can’t do much for more than the smallest business aircraft operator. In fact, its primary function in the days when the Army used it was to provide helicopter flight line and hangarage facilities to Fort Meade. A local flight school and the Fort Meade flying club keep the pattern comfortably active. After a few years of disuse, Tipton has the look of a sleepy little airfield emerging from hibernation. Walker is doing what he can to shake it awake.
The first step was to renovate one of the field’s three slumbering hangars as home to Walker’s flight management and maintenance firm, Glenwood Aviation. “The hangar was left as, well, the way the military sometimes leaves things,” Walker recalled. “They just shut the lights off, locked up and left. They left the water in the pipes, rusting out nearly every valve and pipe in the system. We’ve had to pull almost every piece of plumbing and wiring out of the hangar, part of a roughly $175,000 renovation. It’s worth it to start up a helicopter facility this close to the nation’s capital.”
In the process of getting charter services launched, Walker decided on a name, Capitol Rising, and pursued the certification needed for his company to become a factory-authorized Eurocopter repair facility.
With a solid location just outside the Beltway, Capitol Rising’s charter business began to take off, keeping a JetRanger, a LongRanger and one of the more unusually configured Agustas (technically an Agusta A109 Power, but a transitional aircraft built with the Power airframe and transmission and the A109C’s Rolls-Royce 250-C2OR-1 powerplants) very busy.
Walker is one of those people who can see opportunity in the things that interest him and then exploits that opportunity in a way that generates money. The JetRanger earns its keep on weekends when it serves East Coast NASCAR racing, its belly-mounted microwave relay bouncing the TV signals from the minicams installed aboard the cars to the racing teams and broadcasters. The result from a couple of hours of not-too-exciting flying over a NASCAR event is those thrilling over-the-shoulder, drivers’ eye shots of the race that make televised NASCAR coverage so exciting.
“If this progression seems a little haphazard,” Walker said, “well, it was, kind of. One thing led to another.”
Talking with Walker and buoyed by his calmly confident “why not?” attitude toward business growth, one comes away with the opinion that if he ever took the time to read the gloomy prognostications on the future of the helicopter business, he took very little notice of it.
As Capitol Rising’s business was growing and Walker’s inroads into the mid-Atlantic/Northeast corridor helicopter community were branching out, he encountered a few Fortune 100 companies using upscale rotorcraft as shuttles between either major urban centers or as ways to quickly link those centers with far-flung facilities. “We had a pilot moonlighting for us who was also part of an operation that was flying a major U.S. executive between his home in Manhattan and his Beltway office every day. When I heard that, I was astounded. But when the total flight time on an S-76 for that trip turned out to be just 75 minutes one-way, I had to wonder why no one else was offering this sort of service. Then I found out about the whole long history of helicopter airlines in the Northeast and I began to see where they had gone wrong.”
Given maintenance and operations costs, every seat aboard a transport helicopter is precious, too precious for an operator to fly empty. A 60-percent load factor aboard a Boeing 737 is one thing; aboard a seven- to 12-seat helicopter it is quite something else. “The trick is to make the customer pay for the empty seat, not the aircraft operator,” said Walker.
“By now it’s been well proven that fractional helicopter operations don’t work,” he continued. “The reasons are various. Deadhead positioning time is too costly, meaning that all your customers must be in roughly the same geographical area. And all your paying customers have to be on board to make a reasonable amount of revenue.”
Being a dot-com millionaire is not without its advantages. “It gives you a solid base for your investments and you wind up with a lot of rich friends and business acquaintances. That’s who I’m turning to now for additional capital.”
Walker formed his own investment group and is also a prominent member of Capital Investors, an informal D.C.-based investment group counting among its members AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.
Walker plans to use his capital to develop a sort of scheduled air-taxi service in which the client buys the seat (or seats) that regularly shuttles between the New York and Washington areas initially. “Who gets to fill the seat is the client’s responsibility,” Walker says. “Whether or not their seat is flown empty on a given day is up to the client. With a 75-minute city-to-city flight, no long lines at the airport (because there are no airports) and the ability to touch down right in midtown, we’re billing it as the ‘two-hour business meeting that doesn’t have to take a day and a half.’”
Initial plans call for the beginning of operations of what’s been dubbed “America Rising” next spring between Tipton Airport and Manhattan Downtown Heliport near Wall Street. “At first we’ll use a trio of Sikorsky S-76Bs, each seating seven passengers,” Walker said.
Not really an airline but not really an air taxi, America Rising would allow its customers to sell unused seats although “we’d prefer to sell for them,” Walker conceded.
Big Plans Need a Place To Land
Walker sees the use of the S-76Bs as just an interim step. With rotorcraft manufacturers hungry to find civil sales in these parlous economic times, large-capacity helicopters under development such as the Bell/Agusta AB139 and Sikorsky S-92 are being priced for sale to launch customers at prices and terms that could best be described as “attractive.”
“Bell/Agusta and Sikorsky are both interested in our project, and we really want to get a blend of those helicopters into this operation. I think we’ll be able to work something out that will serve both of us well,” Walker said. “To really ensure year-round operations in this part of the world, it’s vital to have full IFR and en route de-ice capability. Both the S-92 and AB139 will have that.”
In the case of the S-76B, only inlet-icing protection is provided, not rotor-blade or fuselage.
But flying hardware is only one thing. The other side of the chicken-and-egg conundrum that has long frustrated passenger rotorcraft operation is a lack of heliports, helistops or just clear pieces of out-of-the-way ground in which to land, pick up/drop off and take off.
Walker concedes his effort has encountered some nimby (not in my backyard) resistance, “But the degradation of airline service has brought the business traveler around to the idea of corporate aircraft travel as something other than a perk for the extreme high end of the executive food chain. Middle management is wearing itself out on the U.S. Airways Washington/Boston/New York shuttle when it could be making the same trip at a fraction of the cost in terms of fatigue and morale. That new reality has changed a lot of thinking about heliports among some public officials. In our search for helistops, we’ve been warmly welcomed in some surprising places. The downtown Marriott in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has not only allowed us to use a rooftop, but at a zoning committee meeting for that site, a councilwoman stood up and gave an impassioned defense of inner-city helicopter operations. She said, ‘If we want to make Baltimore into a world-class city, we’re going to have to provide this sort of infrastructure.’”
Walker continued, “Then they voted that when that wing of the Marriott is torn down, as a city-planning design deems must happen in the next few years, another comparable downtown site [for a helistop] must be found.”
A host of office parks throughout the Beltway have isolated at least a corner of a parking lot as a designated helistop, and the managers of those office parks were happy to have America Rising interested. “With the business slump, they’re glad to add any feature that makes their development more attractive to executive travelers,” Walker said.
Ill-used or unused land is also often available. “We have a site out toward Annapolis that combines a park-and-ride commuter facility with a Metrorail stop. There are a couple of acres of vacant lot there, just scrub brush. I approached the agencies responsible for that land and in return for a promise to mow what’s left of the lot, they’ll let us pour enough concrete to build and operate a helistop on the rest. No neighbors to annoy, and with just a few alterations and improvements we’ll have the kind of intermodal transportation rail/air/auto facility the FAA and DOT have been lobbying for.”
Obviously, Walker’s idea needs an anchor at both ends, and today, for the first time in decades, both those anchors seem secure. Never in recent years has New York City had such a pro-aviation mayor. Michael Bloomberg, a licensed aviator who personally pilots his own Agusta Power and Falcon 900B, has professed status quo for the three Manhattan public-use heliports.
And Walker is developing his own comfortable, secure terminal at Tipton, which would provide a route anchor in the corporation-rich Maryland suburbs north of Washington. And he claims to have received per- mission to operate from a location on the terminal side of Baltimore/ Washington International Airport. But Walker has plans to penetrate more deeply penetrate the post-September 11 TFR zone surrounding DCA.
“We’re in negotiation to reopen the South Capitol Street Heliport,” reported Walker. The vest-pocket-size facility had been in operation for several years, going public after the local oil company that built it put it up for sale. While not much to look at, South Capitol is located in an industrial area just a few blocks south of Capitol Hill, which means easy access to officials in Washington, though under a whole new set of rules (see box at left).
Last month, Walker’s Glenwood Aviation assumed control of the facility under the terms of an agreement with its former operator, Air Pegasus. As negotiations with Secret Service and TSA authorities progress, plans will likely call for air-tight security protocols governing access to the sensitively situated site to be worked out to the satisfaction of both rotorcraft operators with a need for this sort of access and those entrusted to safeguard the area’s security. At press time the TSA declined to speculate on the future of the site, saying only that talks were ongoing.
In the longer term, Walker has detected intense corporate interest in a helicopter service linking the D.C./ Baltimore area with Virginia’s capital city of Richmond, a major regional business and convention center. “When we talk to interested individuals and corporations, there’s a cascade effect in terms of destinations, a sort of ‘well, if you can go here, why can’t you go there?’ thing,” Walker said. “That’s why it will be important for some of the major destinations to have IFR capability.”
Working out IFR approaches to so many new sites will require the assistance of Satellite Technologies Inc., a company specializing in the creation of GPS-based approaches and route structures for helicopter users. Primarily serving hospitals, STI is currently reviving the long-moribund Northeast corridor helicopter discrete IFR and RNAV point-in-space system via a system of nonprecision GPS approaches for major helicopter destinations such as the Wall Street Heliport, as well as major regional airports and helistops. “Obviously, this kind of route structure is vital to what we’re proposing to do with America Rising,” said Walker, “and we’ll be working with them to develop the same kinds of approach for some of the helistops we’re developing.”
Could Walker’s vision of a sort of rotorcraft-borne corporate shuttle van service really sell? Possibly, but for a simple reason. Rather than being launched by an aviation operator, America Rising is the brainchild of a high-tech entrepreneur who came to aviation late in life and coolly appraised the technology for what it can and cannot do. The result is what he considers a pragmatic synthesis of market realities.
“We don’t need to take much traffic away from the airline shuttles to be successful; we’re only planning seven flights or so on weekdays,” Walker said.
“Even with higher-capacity helicopters and every seat full, that’s not quite 100 passengers a day. What we are offering is an attractive, time-effective alternative that makes the best use of the customers’ time, at least the best use possible with today’s equipment and infrastructure.”