By S. Clayton Moore
Sometimes it’s hard to find your way in the aviation world. With so many charter operations, fixed base operators and myriad other enterprises emerging in America’s burgeoning general aviation market, it’s not always easy to find a successful role to occupy.
One San Francisco aviation company has found its place in the busy local aviation market with a successful balance between corporate charter and aerial photography. South Bay Helicopter Service, Inc., based at Hayward Executive Airport (HWD) in the San Francisco Bay Area, is flying high with a robust pair of high-performance helicopters and high-end clientele who find that the dynamic helicopter company is worth every penny.
“Everyone has found their niche here in the Bay Area,” explained Mike Phillips, director of operations and general manager for South Bay Helicopter Service. “Ours is film production work and upper-end charter. We work with the other helicopter companies here and it’s really a happy little community.”
The company, privately owned by a party who wishes to remain anonymous, was established in April 1997. It was originally founded primarily to service corporate transportation needs but has since evolved into a full-service charter company.
Phillips has invested much of his own time and effort in ensuring the company’s success. He began his aviation career in 1979 as a helicopter mechanic stationed in Germany but has had a lifelong attraction to these fascinating flying machines.
“I got into helicopters because of my uncle,” he explained. “When he graduated from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, they had a Bell 47 helicopter on display. That intrigued me and away I went.”
He went on to flight school at Fort Ord, Calif., during his service with the U.S. Army, serving as a line pilot, maintenance test pilot and test pilot examiner. Although he left active duty in 1987, he continued flying as a reservist until 1997.
He also picked up work as a helicopter pilot for a number of organizations including Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. in Louisiana and Associated Helicopter Services in Southern California, culminating in a job as base manager for Northern California operations for Helinet, based in Van Nuys, Calif.
In December 2001, he accepted his current position with South Bay Helicopter Service. Soon after, he managed to recruit Gary Sharpe from Helinet, who is now serving as South Bay’s chief pilot. Sharpe has more than 7,000 flight hours and a wealth of experience in both charter aviation and aerial photography. He’s earned a 5,000-hour safety award and completes annual factory training with multiple helicopter manufacturers.
“We just dive in and do whatever needs to be done,” Phillips said. “Gary is a very capable, highly experienced pilot as well as an instructor. We look at each job, and if it’s something that’s particular to somebody’s experience, they do the job. If it really doesn’t matter, we divvy up the work depending on who’s available.”
The company maintains two primary aircraft, although they’ll bring on additional helicopters and pilots for large events. The primary charter aircraft is the company’s Agusta 109 Power, a luxurious, twin-engine helicopter capable of carrying up to seven passengers and reaching speeds of nearly 200 mph. This is South Bay’s second Agusta helicopter, and the company has a third, an Augusta Grand, scheduled for delivery in early 2008.
“It’s just been an excellent machine for us,” Phillips said. “People love it. It shows well. It performs incredibly. Because of what it costs to operate and charter, it’s really intended for upper-end executives and that’s what they’re asking for.”
On top of high-end performance, the sleek Agusta 109 also has several features that charter customers find attractive. In addition to being quiet and air-conditioned, the helicopter also features XM satellite entertainment, laptop connections with wireless Internet and well-appointed leather interior.
South Bay is the official helicopter company for the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif., and home to some of the world’s most famous racing events, including the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix, the Monterey Sports Car Championships and the U.S. Sports Car Invitational.
“The race track business is all about moving people: drivers, team owners, officials and other members of the race teams, as well as spectators,” Phillips said. “The traffic situation at these tracks is astounding, with single-lane roads and three-hour backups. We’re doing five-minute flights from our staging areas, getting people in and out of there. It costs them a few bucks, but they’re a lot happier at the end of the day.”
Although the company uses up to six helicopters during an event, the prime attraction is naturally the Agusta 109 Power. In addition to Laguna Seca, South Bay also services events in Phoenix, Ariz., Las Vegas, Nev., and other sites in Northern and Southern California.
“It’s a great self-sufficient machine,” Phillips said. “The people that get in the Agusta really like it and we get a lot of repeat business. It’s been big with the Hendrix Motorsports Team from NASCAR, and that brings us a lot of NASCAR business. It’s been a great marriage.”
Their unusual profession brings the pilots of South Bay Helicopter into the company of some remarkable clients, including famous actors, musicians and other celebrities. Among the clients who have flown with either Phillips or Sharpe are celebrities like Jimmy Buffett, Mel Gibson, Cindy Crawford, Mariah Carey and Wayne Newton.
“We see a lot of celebrities during the course of normal charter operations,” Phillips said. “When you’re working on motion pictures, you don’t necessarily meet the stars because it’s usually second-unit work or they’re using stand-ins. There’s a ton in everyday transportation, though.”
The aerial photography business now makes up 50 percent of South Bay’s business. In addition to providing more routine services such as land surveys for developers, the company has also made quite a name for itself helping studios and production companies shoot television commercials and major motion pictures. Most of the work is done with the company’s Eurocopter AStar, a workhorse of an aircraft.
“The aircraft has whatever modifications are necessary to mount cameras on it, but the companies bring everything else with them,” Phillips explained. “It’s had just about every camera system that still works on it at one time or another.”
Powered by a single Turbomeca Arriel 1D turbine, the AStar has a maximum speed of 169 mph, a climb speed of 1,500 feet per minute and a ceiling of 16,000 feet.
“Day in and day out, it performs to the highest standards,” Phillips said. “The AStar doesn’t have a lot of hours on it, but we love it.”
While South Bay Helicopter Service doesn’t provide any technical assistance or camera operations, they provide the most crucial service by flying to the best of their abilities.
“It’s very interesting and it’s a lot of fun, but it works you over sometimes,” Phillips said. “I’ve done flights where you’re hovering above the coast of California with the wind blowing at 30 knots, and you’re trying to keep this thing still so you can get a nice shot. It works your abilities.”
To get the job done, Phillips has even had to join the Screen Actors Guild in order to work on film and television productions. South Bay Helicopter has contributed aerial photography to dozens of productions including the television shows “Presidio Med” and “MDs” and the feature films “Bee Season” and “Cradle to the Grave.” Most recently, Phillips contributed to the filming of “X-Men 3: The Last Stand” and a new television drama for ABC called “Women in Law.”
Some of the most challenging work involves shooting car commercials, producing the dramatic aerial shots of vehicles familiar in most television advertisements.
“We’ve done flights where they have a car parked out on an outcropping and you get that aerial image around the vehicle,” Phillips said. “We’ll do flights where we chase them down the highway. We’ll do passes where they drive under us as we fly forward on a low pass. It all depends on the director and what they want to see at the end of the day.”
One of the more recent jobs for South Bay was filming a commercial for Lincoln Mercury in Oregon, which also featured the Agusta 109. Following the new Zephyr automobile down the beach, Phillips had to take the helicopter into a quick stall, accelerate behind the car and then break off.
“It’s certainly not all straight and level,” Phillips laughed. “We get right down there to get some good shots.”
Despite the challenges of their work, Phillips and his crew remain committed to safety above all other issues.
“We’ve never had an incident or an accident,” Phillips said. “My directive when we started with this company was that whatever we do, we do it safely.”
The company is serious about that commitment and does turn down work occasionally, like the recent request from someone who wanted to bungee jump from a helicopter.
“We turn down business when it doesn’t sound right,” Phillips said. “It’s not that something hasn’t been done or can’t be done, but we’re not always the ones to do it. We’re a charter company, not a stunt company.”
That’s one of the reasons that Phillips and Sharpe list their entire resumes and flight history on South Bay’s website so that potential clients are getting their full history.
“People are starting to realize that it’s often not aircraft that crash, but pilots, through errors,” Phillips said. “That’s why we put it all there. We keep everything aboveboard and that’s been good for us.”
In the meantime, South Bay continues its healthy relationship with other aviation companies in the area. While the company has the only working IFR twin-engine helicopter in the northern California region, they’re happy to trade jobs with other businesses like San Francisco Helicopter Tours across the Bay.
“We give them business and they give us business,” Phillips said. “They do a better job with tours than we could ever do. I couldn’t ask for a better setup. We complement each other, we’re close by, and we’re all good friends.”
With its excellent record and reputation, it’s no wonder that South Bay Helicopter Service has become one of the premier charter companies in the Bay Area. Besides, its pilots are still having a ball.
“It’s a great job,” Phillips said. “It’s the most fun you can have if you have to go to work.”
For more information about South Bay Helicopter Service, Inc., call 1-510 259-1279 or visit [http://www.sbayhelicopter.com].