The minute I stepped onto Wall Street, my excitement turned to nervousness. I could hear the impulsive sounds of helicopters taking off and landing in the distance. As a gust of wind, courtesy of the bone-chilling polar vortex that visited New York City in mid-February, tried, but failed, to snatch up my hat, I started to have second thoughts about my high-flying adventure.Search for flights to New York
As my teeth chattered and my face stung from the sub-freezing temperature, I reminded myself that taking a helicopter ride is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Scenic helicopter rides are on the bucket list for many intrepid travelers, including me, who would jump at the chance to hover deep inside the Grand Canyon or soar high above isolated Alaskan glaciers. It hadn’t occurred to me that taking an urban city helicopter flight over my hometown could be just as fun here as those in far-flung places.
Checking in for my flight at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6 and South Street in Manhattan was a rather informal affair: I entered the gray concrete building perched on the edge of the East River and showed my ticket confirmation to flight personnel at Helicopter Flight Services. I was promptly led to a man standing adjacent to a hamper of yellow square packs the size of iPads. Without a word, he strapped the pack around my waist. “This is your life preserver,” he said. He pointed to a locker where I could stash my purse. Passengers aren’t allowed to bring anything aboard the chopper except a camera.
I was then asked my weight, as seating assignments are based on weight for proper balancing. Now was not the time to be dishonest. I quietly admonished myself for overindulging on my recent trip to Martinique as I mumbled my weight.
The other four passengers and I were then ushered over to a seating area to watch a two-minute emergency briefing video, which began with the not-so-comforting but practical: “Hats, scarves or any other loose items that could fly into the rotor system must be removed. Do not raise your arms above your head.”
As we waited for our flight, I couldn’t help but notice the other passengers ahead of us. I must have missed the memo that said four-inch stilettos are de rigeour for flying in a helicopter over New York City. As I turned to look at my pink and black sneakers, my gaze was interrupted as we were called to board our flight.
After posing for enviable, $20 Instagram-worthy selfies in front of the helicopter, I gingerly climbed aboard the black Bell 427 helicopter, carefully ducking my head as the rotor blades whizzed overhead. After everyone was seated and bucked in, we put on headsets. “How is everyone? Are you ready?” asked our pilot, who listened as each passenger responded in the affirmative. Then, without warning, we were airborne.
Up, up and away…
At times stomach-churning, the 12-minute flight up the Hudson River afforded the expected and clichéd bird’s-eye view of Manhattan’s major icons: the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Central Park, One World Trade Center and views of New Jersey’s coastline, along with the mundane: yellow taxis sitting in traffic, people briskly walking and countless building façades.
The thrilling ride also provided plenty of unexpected and surprising observations:
- Helicopter tours are quite popular. Helicopters from five different companies were systematically taking off and landing on the day of my tour. These daily flights bring as much as $50 million annually. However, this will soon change. The New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Helicopter Tourism and Jobs Council recently announced that tour operators will reduce the number of tourist flights in half by January 2017, eliminating nearly 30,000 flights annually. Sunday flights will be eliminated as well as flying over Governor’s Island.
- You gain celebrity status. In a scene straight out of a music video, I’m convinced the rush of walking on the helipad toward the helicopter is the aeronautical version of walking the red carpet. (I was, after all, walking in the footsteps of the U.S. President, as this heliport is where Marine One lands during presidential visits).
- The takeoff is very smooth. Lifting off the helipad is like ascending in a glass elevator, only this elevator spins around!
- It’s hard to sit still. Once airborne, the helicopter flies at an angle allowing the helicopter to move in any direction, which helps explain why I felt like I was having the sensation of “falling.” At first, I found it hard to balance myself and my camera as we cruised at speeds up to 160 mph.
- You don’t fly over land. Due to a “fly neighborly” agreement with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the helicopter does not fly over midtown Manhattan, rather it hugs the coastline and remains over water.
- You can talk to the pilot. We were all required to wear a headset, which reduced the engine and rotor noise to a low hum. The headset also allowed us to hear the pilot simultaneously narrating key sights and navigating our route with air traffic control. Plus, we could ask questions if we wished.
- It’s impossible to carry on a conversation. Forget small talk with fellow passengers or chatting with your friends. The headsets have microphones for communicating, but the views kept me speechless.
- At times, it’s like being on a roller coaster. It doesn’t take long before the helicopter pilot is adjusting the altitude. One second you’re seemingly just above the water and the next you’re not. The helicopter dips and soars as low as 1,500 feet and as high as 10,000 feet, depending on what the air traffic controllers at LaGuardia International Airport allow the pilots to fly at any given time.
- It can be a bumpy ride. Turbulence is a lot more unnerving in a helicopter, especially on a windy day, but the matter-of-fact, soothing baritone voice of the pilot reassured me the amusement ride-like swaying of the helicopter was just that – amusing.
- Helicopters make dramatic turns that you can see and feel. One minute you see the horizon, the next second you don’t. It creates an exhilarating, experience similar to riding a rollercoaster.
- Don’t get sick. The air sickness bag that I almost had to use was the size of a standard envelope. In other words, pretty useless.
- Been there. Done that. The excitement of another bucket list item checked off never gets old. Having taken a helicopter ride, I can now say I know what it’s like to fly. I’ve never skydived (and probably never will), but I enjoyed the adrenaline of flying like a bird. It’s a heli-cool ride I won’t soon forget!
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