Chartering a private helicopter, whether for quick transport or a family vacation experience, has always been popular with luxury travel clientele. And of course, it goes without saying that there are a myriad of precautions put in place to ensure the safety of helicopter passengers.
It’s important to think about what actions must be taken when chartering a private aviation vehicle in order to ensure your safety. We’ve consulted with helicopter pilots and private aviation companies to breakdown the need-to-knows in regards to chartering a private helicopter. Here’s everything to know before you charter, including FAA regulations, questions to ask your pilot, and additional precautions.
Regulations to Know When Chartering Private Helicopters
On a private helicopter, the pilot-in-command (or PIC)’s role is of the utmost importance. Contrary to the practices of private jets or commercial flights, the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook grants the helicopter pilot full jurisdiction “to make sound, safe decisions throughout the flight.”
The pilot-in-command must also conduct a thorough pre-flight inspection. Aaron Brill, CEO, pilot, and lead guide of Aspen’s only helicopter company, Aspen Heli Skiing, says pre-flight inspections are standard practice for PICs, whether they’re operating a helicopter or a commercial aircraft. You’ll always see pilots “making pre-flight inspections alongside aviation maintenance inspectors,” says Brill.
The bracing need-to-know about helicopter flights versus private jets and commercial flights is that helicopter transport does, unfortunately, have a much higher accident rate than any fixed-wing aircraft. According to the FAA, this is likely because of “the helicopter’s unique capabilities to fly and land in more diverse situations than fixed-wing aircraft and pilot attempts to fly the helicopter beyond the limits of his or her abilities or beyond the capabilities of the helicopter.”
There are also a few aviation regulations that apply to commercial vehicles and private jets but don’t extend to helicopter travel. A fixed-wing aircraft, whether a private jet or commercial vehicle, must follow the regulations set out by 14 CFR 91 - General Operating and Flight Rules. Furthermore, private jets have to reckon with a new mandate as of January 2020, which says all jets must be outfitted with technology that automatically reports the location of the aircraft. This law does not apply to helicopter charters.
Finally, helicopter charters are not required to have a black box the way commercial aviation vehicles are. These black boxes are meant to record the happenings in flight in the event of a crash.
What to Ask the Operator Before You Charter
The FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook implies that the bulk of the responsibility in terms of maintaining the helicopter, making decisions in the air, and determining flight conditions pre-flight, lie with the pilot. As a result, the best practice is to have a candid and open line of communication with your pilot prior to your helicopter charter.
In many chartering instances, the charterer has a long-standing rapport with the pilot. But whether or not you know the pilot beforehand, you can present him or her with standards that will make you feel safe. Before boarding a helicopter, ask that your pilot check with the local police department to see if they are flying their helicopters in current conditions. You can also ask about how weather implications are impacting commercial airline and private jet flights.
Brill recommends passengers also ask about the helicopter being used. “The most important question for heli safety is how old is the helicopter, as most helicopters have thousands of hours on them, and the older they get, the more service they need,” he says. His team only flies helicopters from 2019 and onward, for example.
Brill also stresses the value of a more powerful helicopter, specifically in certain areas. “Aircraft performance (helicopter and jet) decreases with warm temperatures and higher altitudes,” says Brill. “Flying into and out of locations like Aspen requires additional power, and it's always best to have extra power available to the pilot.”
The solution here? Ask about the aircraft itself and “when possible, use the most powerful helicopter for the charter,” says Brill.
Carl Hauprich, chief pilot of Arizona-based Sunstate Aviation and one of the pilots who flies key personnel to and from Castle Hot Springs during operating season, recommends luxury travelers working with a charter broker ask about the company operating the flight. “I would ask if the person they are speaking to is part of the charter company or simply a charter broker,” he says.
If the person you’re coordinating with is not directly involved with the charter operator, the passenger should be empowered to ask about who’s operating the flight and what aircraft they’re using. Furthermore, Hauprich reminds passengers that the pilot is responsible for reviewing the “maintenance status and any open discrepancies that may be deferred.” He recommends asking the pilot or helicopter company about any open discrepancies on the aircraft you’ll be using.
What to Know About Cleaning Procedures for Private Aviation
In addition to safety measures on your private aircraft, hygiene procedures are top of mind. And there are, of course, hygiene advantages to flying private. “Private flights offer less exposure, as the passenger has limited time in public spaces and less interaction with people due to very shortened times for check-in, security, boarding, etc.,” says Ian Moore, chief commercial officer of Vista Jet. “In some cases, the passenger goes directly from his or her car to the aircraft with no stopping at all.”
Furthermore, many private aviation companies have updated their already rigorous cleaning practices to accommodate the heightened need. Vista Jet, for example, uses a sanitizing product called Bacoban after each flight. “This product is active/effective for up to 10 days but will nonetheless be carried out after each flight,” says Moore. And the crew—who, Moore says, now must “take their temperatures twice daily and report immediately to the Duty Manager should their temperature be above 37.5°C ”—is responsible for making sure that this cleaning procedure is maintained.
Ultimately, you need to trust the charter company, the pilot, and the crew when flying private. As you prepare to charter a helicopter, you’ll want to ask about the aircraft itself (what year it’s from and its level of power), the pilot (because they have full authority over safety decisions in the air), and of course, the cleaning procedures for the aircraft.