Chopper Training flies into Iowa City

Originally published in The Daily Iowan 6/30/2009

The sound of the wind banging against the propellers rose in proportion to the speed they spun. The force of the gale slammed against bodies with enough strength to break people’s footing.

Then it stopped. The helicopter lurched upwards.

With the arrival of Utah-based company Whirlybird Helicopters, more locals who want to learn to fly a helicopter can get the experience. They can now get their professional or amateur helicopter operating license at the Iowa City Municipal Airport.

“Most people don’t know its an option,” said Adam Henderson, a Whirlybird flight instructor. “A lot of people think it’s just in the military.”

Adam Wilkerson, the Whirlybird Helicopters owner and an Iowa native, said he brought the company to Iowa City to provide people with the opportunity to learn to fly helicopters.

It’s an opportunity he didn’t have growing up in Danville, in eastern Iowa.

Henderson said the company isn’t trying to reach a specific demographic, but officials at the firm expect to get some interest from UI students and graduates who want to pursue a career as a professional helicopter pilot.

“Iowa City is a going to be a great younger demographic because of the University of Iowa,” Henderson said. “There are a lot of people who aren’t sure what they want to do.”

UI senior Ryan Nidey majored in flight operations at the University of Dubuque to be a pilot but transferred in the middle of his sophomore year.

Nidey, 22, said he has flown airplanes for as cheap as $60 an hour, and he would look into flying helicopters if it wasn’t more expensive than planes.

It’s the only thing holding me back,” Nidey said, “I’d be first in line in if I was able to do it. No question.”

Training for a recreation, or private, license requires students to participate in 40 hours of flight time at $260 an hour and around 40 hours of ground lessons at $45 an hour. Henderson said the amount of time spent on ground lessons “can vary from student to student.”

A professional license requires approximately 200 hours of flight time and around 150 to 200 hours of ground time; it can cost anywhere between $60,000 and $65,000.

Henderson said someone with a professional license can then become a flight instructor to get the 1,000 hours needed to be hired by a hospital or company.

“It’s just a matter of getting the hours,” he said.

Nidey, who will graduate with a degree in sociology at the end of the summer, said he turned away from flight school because of bleak job prospects.

“I can see the whole airline industry going down the tubes,” he said.

But Henderson has been doing his best to counter that attitude. He recently passed out fliers downtown, bought radio advertisement air time, and hosted an open house at the airport to raise awareness about the program, he said.

The response to the program has been strong so far, he said, with “a good mix,” of interest in professional training and recreational flying.

Recreational helicopter aviation is a new idea to a lot of people because they aren’t aware of it as they are of airplanes, he said. But he sees it changing.

“I think in the next few months [enrollment] will be about even,” Henderson said.

Video I shot and edited for The Daily Iowan website:

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