When I accepted the assignment to take a helicopter sightseeing tour, there was no hesitation. As someone who has skydived, bungee-jumped, and recently zip-lined in the Ecuadorian Andes, I was thrilled at the prospect of taking in area sights at 1,400 feet. And the fact that I could do so right from downtown Jersey City, my own backyard, was an added benefit.
On the morning of my tour the sun shone brilliantly, the air felt crisp and cool, and a few wispy clouds stretched lazily above—a gorgeous autumn day—perfect for spending time in the sky. I walked to the heliport, which is at the Paulus Hook pier between Sussex and Hudson Streets.
I was scheduled to go on a 20-minute sightseeing tour offered by Helicopter Flight Services Inc., which operates the Paulus Hook heliport adjacent to the New York Waterway ferry. When I arrived to check in, two European tourists were seated in the waiting area. Eventually two women from the United Kingdom joined our small group for a total of five passengers. Up to six passengers are allowed on each flight, not including the pilot. Most of the people who go on the helicopter tours are tourists—95 percent, in fact, according to a company representative.
Helicopter Flight Services began offering helicopter sightseeing tours from Jersey City just a few months before Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. After dedicating five to six months to repair damage suffered during the storm, the helicopter sightseeing tours were back. The company, which also runs flights from other heliports located in Manhattan, has operated in the New York City area since 1985, founded by aviation enthusiasts Topsy Taylor and John Kjekstad.
While I was anxious to get on the helicopter, there were a few pre-boarding logistics that had to be taken care of. An attendant named Yohan Fernandez asked me for my identification and weight. While I’m not often asked to share my weight outside the doctor’s office, I learned that passenger weight is used to help balance out the flight along with the fuel. I was also required to check any bags as a security measure. I was, however, allowed to take my camera. I was also outfitted with a bright yellow life preserver pouch that snapped around the waist. My fellow passengers and I followed Fernandez to the heliport gate where we received instructions on how to inflate the life preserver vest in addition to other safety information that you typically hear before boarding a flight. A photograph snapped of you by the attendant before boarding the helicopter is available for $25 at the end of the flight.
One by one we followed Fernandez single file as the helicopter blades whipped up the air around us. As I stepped onto the heliport, I stepped into a familiar scene from the movies, one in which the main character boards a sleek black chopper set against the cityscape, the sun shimmering off the water.
I sat next to the pilot, Floyd Maxson, and put on my seatbelt. I immediately felt enclosed in a cocoon of comfort between the soft, leather seats and a noise-canceling headset. Maxson, who has more than 10,000 hours of helicopter flight experience, greeted us on the headset. We sat in a Bell 407, one in a fleet of six high-performing helicopters operated by Helicopter Flight Services. It’s equipped with a number of safety-enhancing features including a terminal collision avoidance system, which allows the pilot deft maneuvering. The Bell 407 has four blades to make for a smoother ride and is made especially for aerial photography and sightseeing.
After hearing the magic words, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride,” we were up off the ground in a matter of seconds for a smooth takeoff. Everything grew small, from people to cars to buildings and monuments as we made our ascent. I felt like Wonder Woman in her invisible jet peering out at the horizon. With floor-to-ceiling windows, I had 180-degree views. As we hovered by the Statue of Liberty, it took on the form of a miniature. I noted the star-shaped pedestal at the statue’s base. Tourists appeared tiny, milling about at the edge of the waterfront.
Throughout the tour, Maxson served as our guide, pointing out visible landmarks while also providing interesting historical facts and general information. In addition to Maxson I could hear air control and a bit of music off in the distance. I actually enjoyed getting tidbits of air traffic details as it added to the allure of sitting next to the pilot with the controls and navigation tools. I thought, “I’d love to learn to fly this helicopter!” But we’ll save that experience for another day.
Flying up and down the Hudson River, I took in the full scope and breadth of the region. We flew by Yankees Stadium before turning at an angle and heading toward the George Washington Bridge, which cast a magnificent shadow across the river. As I looked out, patterns emerged, whether it was the repetitive squares and rectangles of building rooftops, the flow of traffic, or the shades of orange, red, and amber in the trees along the New Jersey Palisades. In the distance I saw the shape of the Hackensack River and the Meadowlands as Maxson pointed out MetLife Stadium.
As we flew by Weehawken and West New York and neared Hoboken, I regretted that the helicopter ride would soon be over. After a smooth landing, I hopped out of the cabin feeling a bit exhilarated from the ride—experiencing a helicopter high.
Hovering above the Hudson in a helicopter I was awestruck at how the experience allowed me to rise above the fray below. With the breathtakingly beautiful views, I appreciated the grandiose nature of all the structures, the people, movement and life that define this amazing area.
I’d love to experience the helicopter sightseeing tour again or offer it as a special gift for a loved one. I would also recommend it to out-of-town guests as a great way to take in the sights.—JCM
Helicopter Flight Services offers a number of tour packages that range from $99 to $299 depending on the length of the excursion. The 20-minute “Ultimate” tour I took usually costs $199 but is currently discounted to $184. There’s a $15 flight fee. The company also offers cruise and air combination packages. They offer full refunds and will reschedule any flights canceled due to inclement weather. Reservations can be booked in advance on their web site or via phone. For more information, visit: https://www.heliny.com.