By Jeff Mattoon
It’s scary enough to launch a new aviation business, but it’s especially tough to do so when your country is attacked a few months after the launch and questions arise about the future of general aviation. It was rough, but Mike and Regina Fyola not only toughed it out, but also have grown their business. Their future is, well, looking up.
In June 2001, the Fyolas decided to act on a hunch, some unscientific research and the prodding of friends, and launched Rotors of the Rockies, a helicopter training and charter service based at Jeffco/Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (BJC) in Broomfield, Colo.
“We started with one Schweizer 300C, and now we have five Schweitzer trainers and a Bell JetRanger 206-B3 for (Part 135) charter operations,” says Regina Fyola.
Fyola handles the business side of the operation while her husband oversees flight operations and is chief pilot. Mike Fyola’s flight credentials are quite impressive; he began his flying career in 1991 in the Army flight school, trying to immediately transition to active duty as a pilot. Unfortunately, that was during a time when the military’s wings were getting clipped, so he left the Army for law enforcement flying, while also flying for the National Guard.
For 10 years, he carried the dual roles, gaining experience in Hueys, Cobras and Blackhawks, the helicopter he now flies for the Guard. For six of those years, he was assigned to the High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site in Eagle County, Colo., gaining invaluable experience in high altitude operations. To date, his total helicopter flight time exceeds 4,000 hours.
In the summer of 2001, while flying for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, an idea started to form about a new venture.
“At first it wasn’t a very serious thing, just kind of goofing around with friends,” he said. “Then we started putting some numbers on paper and realized it really might be an opportunity. We put a business plan together, found an investor and got really busy right out of the chute.”
In June 2001, Fyola started Rotors of the Rockies, and in August of that year, he left the sheriff’s department to work on his business full-time. With the exception of a brief diversion in 2003, he hasn’t looked back.
An all expense paid trip
Feeling the call to duty, in June 2003, Fyola volunteered for active duty service, and was sent to Iraq for the 507th Medical Squadron. He piloted one of the first two American aircraft flown into Saddam International Airport, conducting medevac flights. Eight months later he was back at home to retake the reigns at Rotors.
“It was a short deployment,” he recalled. “Now they’re a year-and-a-half. But we were replaced fairly quickly, and we didn’t skip the chance to get out of there.”
Back home, the Fyola’s business was thriving. More Schweizers were added through lease-back programs with helicopter owners, and students were pouring in the door.
“This is really a market-based business, and when the economy suffers, helicopter training is one of the first things to go,” says Gina Fyola. “We feel fortunate we’ve been able to do pretty well.”
Relying solely on economic factors is no substitute for solid, intelligent business management.
“Over the years, the market has had modulations, and we’ve seen aviation companies come and go. This is a low profit-margin type of business, so it comes down to quality of service—letting the customers know they are valued. And it’s about safety and good business practices. I think people recognize that,” she suggests.
The hunt for new opportunities
A good business practice the Fyolas follow is hunting for new opportunities.
“When we received our charter certificate from the FAA, we looked around to see what others were doing with charter service, to see if we could fill a special market,” says Gina Fyola.
While searching for new enterprises, they became aware of two Denver-area restaurants with helipads. Both restaurants were contacted, and the couple received favorable responses. But one restaurant really rolled out the red carpet and made a huge effort to make the co-venture work.
“The first restaurant owners really thought it was a good idea, but we could tell from their service that it really wasn’t a priority. Numerous things occurred in our short association, but the one that sticks out was an occasion when we landed on the heliport, and pilot had to shovel the snowy walkway himself,” she remembers.
That snafu contrasted greatly with the experience Rotors had at The Fort, a restaurant in the small foothill town of Morrison. Not only did The Fort welcome the venture, but they also were very active in increasing the chances for success.
“The Fort really stepped up, in the way they treated us and our customers. They actually invested more than $6,000 in helipad improvements. That told us they were going to be ideal partners,” remembers Mike Fyola.
The replica is a Colorado landmark itself
The Fort sits on an elevated property in the Denver metro foothills, next to the world famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It was built by the late Sam Arnold, a Denver businessman and visionary, and has served as a proud ambassador for Colorado ever since.
From the time the doors of The Fort swung opened in 1963, the restaurant-museum was recognized as a regional point of interest, but now that interest has grown and crossed international boundaries. Buffalo steaks and other fare are sold globally via the Internet. The Tesoro Foundation, created by Sam and Mary Fox Arnold, seeks to protect and promote the treasures of America’s artistic past, by organizing historic and cultural events, and through reenactments of the early 19th century fur trade business.
Arnold had a keen sense of creating the new, wrapped in the old, and passed that along to his daughter, Holly Arnold Kinney, who now operates the restaurant, and has fond memories of growing up at the scenic location.
“In 1962, after discovering this wonderful property in the late ’50s, my mother was looking through a Colorado history book and happened upon a drawing of the old Bent Fort, an 1830s fur trading post on the Santa Fe Trail,” recalled Kinney. “They already had an architect working on an adobe style home, but she and my father fell in love with the idea of living in a home fashioned after a fort, and they began that process.”
When Arnold, a successful salesman and fine food connoisseur, approached banks for a construction loan, he found, to his disappointment, that he couldn’t get a residential loan. Undaunted, he decided to open a restaurant on the lower level and live with his family above the restaurant.
With that plan, he received the business loan needed for the project. His replica of the original fort is surprisingly more authentic than the replica built by the National Park Service. It’s no wonder. Over time, Arnold researched more than 2,000 books and records of fur traders, who had traveled up and down the Santa Fe Trail, not for the physical structure alone, but also for the foods that were served during that time—especially buffalo.
The Fort’s featured dish is buffalo, but the restaurant offers so much more. Besides the food, it’s not just going out to dinner at this place; it’s more like a history lesson and an experience.
“When people walk in with a cape of woes, miseries, frustrations and angers, we want to take them away to another place, with time out from life, to restore and refresh their spirits,” says Arnold.
Many publications and television shows have featured the restaurant. Those who’ve enjoyed one of the West’s most historic and famous places to dine make up an extensive list. Seemingly, every time someone of importance visits Colorado, a trip to The Fort is worked into the schedule. One of the Arnold family’s most memorable times came when they entertained the 1997 World Leaders Summit of the Eight, hosted by President Clinton.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Arnolds would try something new with the 2004 arrangement with Rotors of the Rockies. Back in the 1980s, The Fort had received helicopter flights by a now defunct helicopter operator.
“When we were approached by Rotors of the Rockies, it sounded like a good idea. We told them all we needed to do was check their insurance, and then we would give it a try,” says Kinney. “It was one of the best decisions we’ve made; the partnership with Rotors has been wonderful. They’re great people and run a really professional operation.”
A great partnership turns “Golden”
Burt and Andrea Lewis, owners of the Golden Hotel, have opened doors to the future by encouraging new ideas from their staff.
Fifteen months ago, Diana Burdette-Lincoln had been with her new job for three days. While driving to work, she heard a radio ad promoting the Rotors of the Rockies/The Fort dinner flight package. Her reaction was immediate.
“I thought how unromantic it would be to have this great dinner followed by a wonderful flight over the city lights, only to return to the tarmac and drive home,” remembers Burdette-Lincoln. “As I listened, I thought, ‘If it were me, I’d want that evening to continue.’ So I contacted Regina at Rotors, and she and Mike came to the hotel for lunch and a tour.”
Burdette-Lincoln, director of sales for the Golden Hotel, had a vested interest in a proposed lodging addition to the flight and dinner package. But as the Fyolas discovered, it did make sense, especially since the hotel’s interior motif was similar to The Fort.
“We had already been thinking about a hotel arrangement to add to the dinner flight, so when Diana called, it was great timing,” recalls Gina Fyola.
Test bookings were arranged and the response was definite—this was a winner.
Romance and remarriage
When David and Laurie Jackson heard they had won a contest, it was good news, after hearing bad news.
In December 2005, David Jackson learned he had colorectal cancer that had metastasized into his lungs. He was told that if he opted for the most aggressive chemo treatment, he could expect to live 15 to 24 months. He was told that if he could survive five years, as many do, he had beaten the cancer.
When Jackson, 64, began his aggressive chemotherapy, it changed him. Prior to the regimen, he and his wife traveled and enjoyed a “vivacious” and romantic lifestyle. Now, he was too exhausted.
“It was difficult for me to see him in pain,” remembers Laurie Jackson. “When he’d ask for something that he couldn’t get up to get himself, he’d tell me how much he loved me; he always kept his spirits up.”
One day, she saw a contest ad in a local lifestyle magazine. All she had to do was explain why hers was the most romantic, wonderful husband in the world. She was full of reasons why her husband was the most wonderful; she had been counting her blessings every day for months.
She received a call that they had won an all expense paid “Love is in the Air” package, from Rotors of the Rockies, The Fort and the Golden Hotel. She was thrilled, but she had no idea what was to come.
The day of their trip, the Jacksons checked into the spacious Creekside suite at the Golden Hotel, and took a leisurely stroll around historic downtown Golden. Later that evening, they were taken by limo to the helicopter pad located a few minutes from the hotel.
The flight to The Fort took about 20 minutes.
“We thought they would land a few blocks away from the restaurant, and then we’d have to walk to the restaurant,” Laurie Jackson said. “But they landed right at The Fort. All the people were watching us come in. We felt like royalty; it was neat.”
As she recalls, The Fort dinner was truly an experience. So much so, they recall everything they ate.
“For the appetizer, we had buffalo and quail eggs with raspberry sauce,” she said. “David had quail for dinner, and I had the salmon. We were served a great wine. For dessert, we had the cheesecake with creme brulee.”
After dinner, they were whisked away for a spectacular night tour over the city.
“It was crystal clear, and you could see everything,” she recalled. “David held my hand the whole trip, and when we were over the capital building, he had a surprise for me.”
Her husband proposed again. They had been married 14 years, and he was ready to “do it all over again.”
They were taken back to the Golden Hotel, where they were surprised with champagne in their suite and roses on their pillows. It was truly a fairytale evening.
David Jackson is still undergoing chemotherapy. They are also looking into some promising, experimental treatments. They are optimistically planning to make a trip to Mexico to renew their vows.
“We’ll do the ‘Love is in the Air’ package again,” Laurie Jackson said. “It was so meaningful and such a rich experience.”
For more information, visit [http://www.rotorsoftherockies.com], [http://www.thefort.com] and [http://www.thegoldenhotel.com].