The Middlebrow

Helicopter Tours

Hansom cabs of the Space Age.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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I remember wishing that we could use my helicopter right then. The traffic was terrible.               — Donald Trump, from Trump: Think Like a Billionaire

A few days ago, on a sluggish afternoon in New York City, I had a Trump-like vision of helicopter flight. I didn’t have any real-estate deals to close or sheiks to entertain, but I could picture myself floating above Manhattan, casting a disinterested eye on the rabble below. A few minutes later, I was standing in the office of Liberty Tours, a helicopter outfit located at 12th Avenue and West 30th Street. The office was spare, and it was full of European tourists slumped in plastic chairs. Looking out a window that faced the Hudson River, I could see that the wind was blowing hard. Every few minutes, a helicopter floated off the tarmac, jerking and wiggling as if it were being reeled up a fishing line before it discovered its bearings in midair and buzzed off confidently. I was going to take a helicopter tour.

Helicopter tours, it can now be said, are an enormously sad way to impersonate a mogul. Not to discourage you—they’re quite fun—but just so you know. At Liberty Tours, most of the flights don’t dip in and out of midtown office canyons as they do in iconic movie shots; the choppers keep to the Hudson, with the skyscrapers viewed over the shoulder. Nor does one feel very Trump-like wearing a yellow life preserver around the waist or enduring the chattiness of Liberty’s airport-style security personnel. I had just made it through the metal detector when two attractive women walked into the lobby and bought tickets for the next flight. A security guard, named Robert, flashed me a big grin and said a bit too loudly, “It looks like you’re on the wrong flight!” Before I could stop him, he had slapped me a high-five.

A few important announcements prior to your helicopter flight. First, before boarding the helicopter, you will be asked to reveal your weight. On a later flight, I watched as a young man confidently announced his weight, while his girlfriend, after several agonizing seconds of self-appraisal, said, “About the same, I guess.” They must have had some afternoon together. Also of note: You don’t need to duck your head dramatically as you walk under the blades. When you see the blades whirring, however, you will probably want to do this anyway. Finally, your seat on the helicopter tour is only as good as the person seated next to you. I thought I had scored big with the rear right window (the helicopter held eight people in two rows, including the pilot). Then a beefy European gentleman appeared at my left, with a shy, toothy smile that indicated that his high-end camera would be pivoting on my chest for the duration of the flight.

If your helicopter is operating properly, the whole thing will shake violently. When we took off, it felt for a moment as if we were going to shake straight down into the Hudson—the helicopter seemed to pitch forward for a moment—but then we leveled off and flew south. We made a half-circle around the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island before turning north and coming up on the city. The buildings of New York looked almost like models—perfectly made and smashed too close together. It was late afternoon, and shadows had fallen over downtown. We passed the Empire State Building, the Europeans now wildly snapping pictures, before making a U-turn at Central Park and heading south again. The whole thing took only about 15 minutes—much too short—but it was strangely entertaining. I went back with a new cast of Europeans a few days later.

If helicopters have a hold on us, it’s not hard to see why. For one thing, the helicopter is the New Yorker’s dream taxi. In a city where one never feels like one is making good time, there’s something empowering about flying from lower Manhattan to Harlem in about three minutes. In New York, a new helicopter service will shuttle you from Wall Street directly to your gate at JFK for $140—not totally unreasonable if you’ve ever relied on a car service. Moreover, there is a romantic element to helicopter flight. It used to be that if you wanted to take a date on a tour through Manhattan, you would hire a hansom cab in Central Park. These days, a big spender might summon a helicopter. Liberty Tours offers a night flight for two called “Romance Over Manhattan” (prices start at $849), which the company says is ideal for marriage proposals. One wonders. Even if some men feel the urgent need to propose at great heights (atop the Empire State Building), the heli-proposal is a delicate affair. The groom-to-be must mount his case in 20 minutes or less. He must do it over the noise of the blades. If he gets turned down, there is no escape, and the flight becomes “Supreme Awkwardness Over Manhattan.”

And there’s something that feels dangerous about flying a helicopter. In New York there have been enough sickening crashes in the last year to make them seem as hazardous as bungee jumping. Last summer, a chopper with six European and Australian tourists dropped into the East River (“British Couple in Sky-Plunge Drama,” shrieked a British paper), and then, a few days later, another helicopter, filled with senior executives from MBNA, toppled headfirst into the same waters. No one died, but a British woman named Karen Butler, who was planning on celebrating her 40th birthday flying on a helicopter, instead spent it in Bellevue Hospital in a medically induced coma. “She speaks very little about it,” a friend told the Daily News a few months later. “There is still a lot of trauma for her right now.”

Our own helicopter tour had just touched down safely. I stumbled onto the helipad and tried to regain my balance. Just then, I saw Robert, the security guard from earlier, waiting at the edge of the tarmac and wearing a giant smile. I wasn’t sure what he wanted (maybe there were more attractive women in the lobby?), but as I walked toward him, I slipped into another reverie. Whether it was a sudden jolt of machismo or just happiness to be alive, I felt that in that short helicopter flight I had tasted a more fanciful way of living—a Trump-like existence. If I had to ride taxis and subways along with the rabble, perhaps I could at least adopt the manners of the helicopter set. I made a small gesture of this new life right then and there. I walked up to Robert and gave him a high-five.