The Flight Goes On

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Several months ago I booked a helicopter tour over the Strip. It was prompted by a Groupon offer, and my thought process—a marketer’s dream—was as follows: Why not?

The timing turned out to be terrible. Our flight, with Adventure Helicopter Tours, was set for five days after a Sundance helicopter crashed en route to Hoover Dam, killing all five onboard—two visitors from Kansas, two from India and the Las Vegas pilot. Sundance Helicopters, which operated that flight, had lost another helicopter in the Grand Canyon in 2003, piloted by someone nicknamed “Kamikaze.” Unsettling.

When National Transportation Safety Board investigators visited the site of the Dec. 7 crash in the hills east of Las Vegas, they determined that the helicopter’s engine had recently been replaced, and that the helicopter had taken a strange left turn and steep climb before mysteriously falling out of the sky. More unsettling.

By our flight day, the story had become, Is the helicopter-tourism industry safe, or are pilots showing off for tips? Was the industry in danger now, because tourists were afraid?

My girlfriend and I, though, never seriously considered canceling our tour. We showed up at the North Las Vegas Airport at 4 p.m. that Saturday. The office was extremely quiet, with a desk and a couple of sofas. The pilot, Tim, popped the top on our pre-flight bottle of champagne—a feature that’s included in the Adventure Helicopter Extreme Strip Tour.

When I booked it last summer, the tour promised “a pure adrenaline rush as you safely soar over the Las Vegas Strip.” Now, though, despite the champagne, a certain necessary sobriety informed the evening. We talked about the accident and about the industry generally. Tim said he’d been a pilot for eight years, that it’s a competitive business and that piloting is a “tip job” that sometimes requires them to be tour guides, bartenders, administrators and mechanics.

“But,” he said as he put our bottle down, “the flying part is great.”

With that, we rode out to the tarmac in a van, posed for a quick photo, then hopped up into the copter, propeller already spinning. I had a five-point harness seatbelt and headphones, and my feet were on glass—the helicopter’s nose was clear, allowing me to see the ground beneath me. It smelled like fuel and felt a bit like idling in a 1973 Volkswagen bug. But I reminded myself that this wasn’t meant to feel like a 747—it was adrenalin-based tourism. The Nevada tourism director recently told me that the industry trend is to make everything more “experiential”—to sell an all-five-senses adventure story, not just a getaway. It’s the way we are now: extreme, hurried, multitasking, and recording and rebroadcasting every move online as soon as possible, as if to double-dip the experience.

Tim spared us the tourist talk, and we tried to sit back and enjoy the ride. I put my camcorder away. In a second, our helicopter began to hover, and the ground fell away.

It was sunset. Ahead of us, the Las Vegas Strip shimmered. Beyond that, the sky was an unusual pink and purple. The ride was smooth; it was surreal to be close enough to the Stratosphere tower to see the deck, to see my own feet hovering above the MGM, to watch the moon rise out the window.

The feeling wasn’t so much adrenaline rush as awe. The city below was tiny, but vibrant. Still vibrant.