THOCK, THOCK, THOCK.
The blades cut the air overhead as the helicopter circles Capital City Airport and gently touches down on the tarmac.
The engine whines to a stop, and Jim Sedgwick unloads his passengers from the helicopter before starting safety checks for his next set of sightseers.
Sedgwick is the owner and pilot of York County-based Central PA Helicopters, a new company offering business charter flights to and from offices and airports, as well as sightseeing tours and wedding services.
“I just had enough of New York City and decided to stay closer to home,” said Sedgwick, a 20-year flying veteran and Shelburne, Mass., native. He and his family have lived in the midstate for 12 years while he commuted to the city for work as a helicopter pilot.
Central PA Helicopters has been open for about two months but recently received its commercial license, known as a Part 135 operating certificate, which allows the company to conduct commercial flights, including transferring business executives from airports to offices or other locations, Sedgwick said.
“The tours are an added extra, but the real meat of the business will be the business flights,” he said.
Todd Smith, the general manager of CXY Aviation, which runs the day-to-day operations of Capital City Airport, said he talked with Sedgwick for six months about starting the helicopter business.
Central PA Helicopters is a welcome addition to services at the airport in Fairview Township, he said.
“As soon as he came on board, I had a few businesspeople knock on my door (inquiring about service),” Smith said.
More executives are traveling for business as the economy improves, he said. Small private planes are most popular, but helicopters offer another option, he said.
“I think Jim’s hitting at the right time,” Smith said, “and I have a hell of a lot of respect for him for going after his passion.”
Chartered commercial services such as Sedgwick’s, known as air taxi services, have seen a dramatic resurgence in the first quarter at Capital City Airport, according to statistics from its owner, Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which also operates Harrisburg International Airport in Dauphin County.
There were 114 air taxi flights in the first quarter, up 128 percent from a year ago, according to SARAA’s report. Those stats don’t count Central PA Helicopters’ flights, because Sedgwick didn’t start until March, Smith said.
There’s a renewed interest in air taxi business since the economy began improving, plus many clients previously didn’t know Capital City was an option as a charter destination, Smith said.
Nationally, helicopter businesses weathered the recession better than their airplane counterparts, said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Virginia-based trade group Helicopter Association International. Additionally, there’s anecdotal evidence that it’s improving along with the economy, he said.
“That’s really due to the unique nature of helicopters,” he said. “There are missions where a fixed-wing can’t fly and you need a helicopter.”
There were companies that didn’t survive, but helicopters can be used as air taxis and for electronic news gathering, utility inspections and aerial photography, thus providing client diversity, he said.
“When one portion of their business falls off, they’re able to pick up other business by flying other missions,” Dancy said.
Flying is a family tradition, Sedgwick said. His grandfather owned an airplane, and his mother was a pilot, too. Soon, he followed in their footsteps.
Flying has taken Sedgwick to Hawaii, St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and the Rocky Mountains, where he got one of his first helicopter jobs taxiing hikers to hanging valleys for day treks.
But coming to Central Pennsylvania was the right move for business and family, Sedgwick said.
“I wanted to get more involved in the local community,” he said, “as opposed to working for someone else and traveling somewhere else.”
Air taxi ascent
Chartered commercial services in small aircraft, known as air taxi services, have seen a dramatic resurgence at Capital City Airport in Fairview Township, York County. Here’s what that takeoff looks like by the numbers:
January air taxi flight growth: 257 percent
February air taxi growth: 74 percent
March air taxi flights: 49
Growth from March 2011: 145 percent
First-quarter flights: 114
Growth from 2011: 128 percent
Total air taxi flights 2011: 289
Growth from 2010: 12.5 percent
Source: Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority monthly reports