A day in the life of a helicopter tour pilot Christian Eskola
Residents and visitors alike noticed a distinct change in the skies over Myrtle Beach in May 2012, when Helicopter Adventure began sending up its firetruck red birds in earnest, all day, every day, seemingly one after another from 9 a.m. ’til the last passenger landed safely, many with their first helicopter ride checked off their bucket lists.
What does it take to manage an average of 400 flights a day (and as many as 800 in the height of the season) along with a fleet of 11 Robinson R-44 helicopters in the air, and 13 total, plus office staff, passenger loaders, a maintenance team and 20 pilots? It takes military precision and the leadership of retired Marine, pilot and owner, Freddie Rick II.
“I run this place like Marine Corp boot camp,” says Rick unapologetically from his Helicopter Adventures office near Broadway at the Beach.
“You have to,” he adds, “to maintain a 100 percent perfect safety record and this many flights a day, we have to be precise about every detail.”
I wondered about the logistics involved, and what the day was like for one of the tour company’s 20 pilots. Rick would team us up with 21-year-old pilot and trainer Christian Eskola. Any misgivings about his youth were quickly put aside after hearing his credentials, watching him go through pre-flight inspections, and eventually taking to the skies with him. Like so many passengers who would show up that hot and sticky morning, it would be my first helicopter flight.
After chatting with Rick and meeting with some of his staff, I’m introduced to Eskola and his wife, Mariah, who also works at the tour company. An east Tennessean, Eskola left the family roofing business to take on aviation. Barely out of his teens, he trained at Sevier County Aviation near his family home in East Tennessee as a helicopter pilot and flight instructor. He came to Myrtle Beach already certified and with some 1,500 flight hours already under his belt, but less than the 2,000 hours he’s working toward.
Eskola has long-term career goals in mind, and they’re not necessarily flying tourists over Myrtle Beach.
“I’m working toward certification to fly EMS helicopters [flying ambulances], and found Helicopter Adventures might be the fastest way to gain the hours I needed toward full EMS certification,” says Eskola.
By 8 a.m., a small army of staff is already busy with maintenance, rolling the birds out to the pad and preparing for the onslaught of passengers, many with a crisp $20 bill in hand.
The “Fly 4 Fun” tour, around two miles in total, is a quick trip over Broadway at the Beach, over the Ripken Baseball fields and back, and is a pretty great deal. For $20, patrons can take a ride, albeit a short one, in a half-million-dollar machine with a highly trained pilot. Many guests will opt for the longer “Boardwalk Adventure” ride at seven to eight miles, which flies over Broadway at the Beach and then to the ocean and back for $39. Others opt for the “Grand Adventure” at $179 per person. This 52-mile round trip flight travels up the coast to the N.C. border and back over the ocean and lasts about 25-30 minutes. Other tours at $59, $79, $99 and $129 offer other options as well.
“We make the same amount of profit per person on the $20 flights as we do the $179 flight,” says Rick, noting that the extra fuel costs and hours put on the machine add up. Flights are based on miles flown, not time in the air, and can vary by a few minutes either way. Still, most of guests opt for the $20 or $39 flights.
Though the operation runs smoothly, there have been a couple of roadblocks for the business. There are noise ordinances in Myrtle Beach and the Robinson R-44s are relatively quiet, though that didn’t stop a resident of the adjacent Plantation Lakes neighborhood from suing, spending three years court, and losing in an appeal.
“We originally tried to get a location by the airport before we ever broke ground,” says Rick, “but Horry County wouldn’t let us. Now, after all the time and legal expenses, there are new rules and all helicopter tours have to operate from the airport. We will have to relocate there in 2024.”
Eskola, flashlight in hand, finishes his preflight inspections along with the team, and everything checks out. Before flying us or any other passengers, Eskola, like all Helicopter Adventures pilots, hits the pilot lounge and his locker, where he changes into a snappy uniform, complete with shoulder epaulettes. Short sleeves and dress shorts keep the pilots professional, well dressed and cool, as the Robinson R-44s are not air-conditioned, though air vents keep the flights cool once airborne, even on the hottest days. Heating the cabin is much easier and it stays toasty warm in the winter months.
I comment that the operation seems extremely well thought out.
“Mr. Rick spares no expense,” says Eskola. “This is a first class operation, all the way.”
We make our way to the pad, waving to the Pad Master, and walking past a fleet of golf carts. The passenger waiting areas are still empty in the 45 minutes before opening.
Each Robinson R-44 holds 4 people (one pilot and three passengers), or up to 580 pounds excluding the pilot. The helicopters are very easy to get in and out of with front and back doors and a low profile to the ground.
Buckled up, we don our headsets for communication (a $5 per person upcharge, and worth every penny), and watch Eskola check his gauges and the radar for lightning. To add to the safety factor, we are informed that lightning and high winds are about the only thing that can ground the birds. Mariah flies with us, along with another guest, Jarod Castro, visiting from South America.
“Everybody ready?” asks Eskola, as he brings the rotors to full speed.
We give the affirmative and lift gently off the ground. Hovering what feels like just a few feet off the grass, each flight starts with a slow and low tour of the Helicopter Adventure property, where the pilot checks all his controls; pitch, throttle, antitorque, cyclic pitch, collective pitch, tail rotor function and getting final clearance from the control tower.
The airspace over most of the Grand Strand is controlled by FAA air traffic controllers based at the Myrtle Beach International Airport. Without their clearance, the helicopters don’t fly.
We gain speed and altitude, clearing power lines and trees that surround the property, and, in just seconds, we find ourselves nearing the U.S. 17 Bypass.
“That’s the big monkey of the Wax Museum underneath us,” says Eskola, images of the ill-fated King Kong and Faye Ray flooding my thoughts. A second later we’re over Broadway at the Beach. Flying in anything; an airplane, hot air balloon, hang glider or a helicopter is a relatively modern miracle that should not be taken for granted–it’s fantastic.
“That’s the upside-down house called Wonder Works,” says Eskola as we turn north and head up the Intracoastal Waterway in a smooth and comfortable flight, without too much noise, the headphones working well. Flying in and out of Myrtle Beach on a passenger jet offers a very different experience than the lower and slower look one gets through the massive, crystal clear, polycarbonate windshields of the Robinson R-44s.
Eskola is an FAA certified pilot first and foremost, making a well-deserved salary, but like all pilots, he’s also a tour guide welcoming tips. He answers passengers’ questions, points out spots of interest, and sometimes, learns a thing or two from locals flying with him–he’d only lived and flown over Myrtle Beach for a couple of months when we’d met.
Pilot Christian and his wife Mariah met as teenagers on a family vacation to Myrtle Beach while staying at Ocean Lakes campground. The couple has been toying with the idea of moving to Hawaii to finish his flight-hour requirements.
We can easily see the massive real estate development (some would say “over development”) of the region along U.S. 17, and the vast expanse of trees and low-lying swamp just west of the Waterway. After getting as far north as Briarcliffe Acres, we turn east toward the ocean. The view is spectacular, and it becomes a game of finding landmarks and shouting them to one another through the headphones’ built-in microphones.
A light drizzle gives way to low cloud cover as we fly through wispy clouds hovering just over the beach.
We work our way south over the beach and see the tall, impressive condo buildings of Myrtle Beach and the easy-to-spot SkyWheel as we make our way back. Our flight almost over, Eskola turns us back inland toward the Helicopter Adventure landing pads. The company’s website notes that the tours are “not thrill rides,” and that “motion sickness is very rare.” None of the passengers experienced anything but fun on our trip.
We come to land just as the crowds are starting to assemble in the parking lot, the doors opening to the general public at 9:00 a.m. There are no reservations required or available; flights are on a first come, first served basis. Tickets may be purchased in advance on the website if desired.
After landing, the mildly exhilarating ride over, we disembark. The passengers congratulate one another like they’d just returned from the Moon. To the Eskolas, it’s just another day at the office.
Eskola will fly four hours, get one hour off, and fly a few more hours in a typical day. We say our goodbyes as the ticket office and waiting areas are now filled to capacity. With 11 helicopters flying, the waits aren’t too long, and, with military precision, it’s easy to marvel at the efficiency of the operation.
Getting a taste of the sky and the scenic beauty below our feet while aboard these aircraft, all for the price of a McDonald’s family meal, is a pretty remarkable achievement, and one that Helicopter Adventures and its capable young pilots afford to us all.
Helicopter Adventures, 1860 21st Ave N., Myrtle Beach. (800) 359-4386 www.helicopteradventures.com