Mankind has always wanted to fly, to soar with the birds, to have the mile-high view. And while we haven’t physically evolved to fly, we’ve used our scientific genius to innovate machines that can—among them, the adventurous, useful helicopter.
The father and son team of Rocco and Nic Novelli, owners of Queen City Helicopter Corp., are working diligently to attract and train helicopter pilots and provide the helicopter tour experience to the public.
N.C. Helicopter, Inc. was originally established in 1978 as a flight school. When the Novellis purchased the company, they decided to add a subsidiary, Queen City Helicopter Corp., to offer flights for aerial photography, survey and scenic and entertainment tours as well. The two companies share space in Gaston County’s Bessemer City.
A General Overview
Situated on private property, N.C. Helicopter flight school students gain an advantage. “Most flight schools operate out of municipal airports and can’t offer the opportunity to take off and land near trees or in confined areas,” says Rocco, chief operating officer for both companies. “Our students get real-world experience.”
The company’s grounds are bordered by trees on two sides, and a lake and electrical wires on the fourth side. Located 15 minutes from Charlotte and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and surrounded by smaller airports in Gastonia, Shelby, Lincolnton and Concord, the property is optimally situated for students to learn about air space and communication frequencies.
The company is also just minutes away from Lake Norman, Lake Wylie, Crowders Mountain and Chimney Rock, giving it the perfect base for helicopter touring.
The flight school, designated as a part 61 school, is one of the few in the state that is approved by the Federal Aviation Agency. It is one of the very few that utilizes the R22 Robinson helicopter, which N.C. Helicopter does exclusively. These helicopters, the most popular in the world, require pilot certification in addition to licensure.
“Their controls are more difficult to manipulate; they have a semi-rigid rotor system,” explains Nic, company president. “If you fly a Robinson correctly, it is the safest helicopter out there. If you don’t, it is not very forgiving. If you can fly one of these, you can fly any helicopter.” The Robinson helicopter also has a reputation for being extremely fuel-efficient.
The school offers state-of-the-art facilities, including a simulation classroom and hangar. In addition, there is a three-bedroom, two-bath house on the premises for students to stay at no extra cost during the first 30 days of their flight lessons.
Nic is the pilot and certified training instructor for the company. Rocco oversees the business.
Flight students must be at least 16 years of age. There is no upper age limit, although everyone must pass a regulated medical exam conducted by a certified physician.
“Students come for different reasons. There are complete novices as well as some with previous training,” says Nic. “Many come to learn for pleasure and leisure pursuits; something they’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the time or money before now,” says Rocco. “Younger students tend to come in preparation for a career in flying.”
Awareness of the school is driven by word of mouth as well as their website. Students come from all over, according to Nic and Rocco.
Flight school instruction is geared to the individual. The school doesn’t train for companies, but rather the individual who wants to apply for a job. “We train the person that has to walk in the door of a company as a pilot,” says Nic.
There are a variety of job possibilities for helicopter pilots. Transportation for individuals—everyone from corporate professionals to snowboarders—emergency rescue or relief efforts, long-lining (hoisting big equipment or other items to the tops of buildings or towers), immediate delivery services, scenic tours, the list goes on. The Novellis say the demand for helicopter pilots continues to increase.
“There are not as many coming out of the military now,” says Nic. “During the Vietnam era, helicopters were in great use, but not so much in Afghanistan and Iraq.” N.C. Helicopters has no affiliation with the military but does have some students with past military experience.
Pilot licensure initially requires a minimum of 40 hours of in-flight training. At an average of $275 per hour, training calls for a significant investment; an average of $11,000 to $12,000 is equivalent to the cost for a year at many colleges and universities.
“Students’ access to funding is the biggest challenge,” acknowledges Rocco. “Most people pay out of their own pocket. It is difficult and rare to get bank loans for flight school.”
There are some organizations of experienced pilots and aviation industry people who provide students with financing but the criteria for the loans is extremely high, according to Rocco. Women often have better luck because of an organization named Whirly-Girls which gives out scholarships and grants to women for flight school.
On Top of the World
Being at the controls is not everyone’s cup of tea. For those that seek out the Queen City helicopter service for quick transportation or a great scenic tour,they are well rewarded. Queen City Helicopter is set up to provide flight tours for aerial photos and real estate surveys, and transportation for events of all kinds including birthday or anniversary celebrations, Easter egg drops, festival rides, vineyard tours and tastings, and high school career days.
The company frequently tours over Charlotte, Crowders Mountain and Lake Norman. Gift certificates are popular as are corporate incentives and rewards. Recent tours include a flight over Charlotte with members of a visiting band, Emperor, to assist them in their production of a tribute video to Sandy Hook victims, and flights over Lake Norman to photograph power boat poker runs. The company is also working with the Charlotte-based security firm, Karl de la Guerra Associates to provide VIP and tactical training for pilots.
The Robinson helicopter can seat one to three passengers at a time. Tours are affordably priced and in many instances are less expensive than a zip-line experience. Cost is based on time, calculated by a Hobbs meter, versus distance. The helicopter can travel at speeds between 115 and 120 miles per hour. Helicopters can hold enough fuel for three hours of operation.
Regionally, the company’s helicopters can land for refueling at Wilson Air Terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the airports in Gastonia, Shelby and Lincolnton. The number of customers varies greatly depending on promotions, the weather and events taking place. There is generally more activity in the summertime.
In their final stages of its application for 135 certification, Queen City Helicopter Corp. will soon be certified to transport passengers from point A to point B, meaning that a passenger could book a flight from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for example. The Novellis anticipate significant increase in business from both business and individual traveler sectors as a result.
The company is hoping to participate as part of the grand opening event for the new Charlotte Knights Stadium. Ironically, Charlotte’s largest event of this past year, the Democratic National Convention, did not provide any work for the helicopter company—in fact, it actually brought business to a screeching halt. “They put a temporary flight restriction in place to protect the President and that affected a 30-mile radius around Charlotte. We couldn’t even start a helicopter engine,” says Rocco ruefully. “Technically, if you did go up, the government could send an F-16 or Black Hawk to shoot you down,” grimaces Nic. “We worked it so the helicopters were in the shop for required maintenance during that time, about a week.”
Conveniently, Queen City typically conducts flights in uncontrolled air space where no flight plan is needed. “You don’t have to talk with anyone if you don’t want to,” says Nic, although he quickly points out that he does maintain contact through the appropriate radio frequency for the class of airspace. When entering controlled airspace such as that around the Charlotte Douglas, one must be in communication with their control tower. What is and is not controlled airspace is based on volume of flights in the area.
The Novellis hail from a town on Long Island, N.Y., called Shoreham Wading River. Nic grew up and went to school there. His first exposure to aviation was in high school through an experiential learning program that allowed students to pursue various vocational and technical curriculums. He spent half of his school morning at the airport where he learned to fly airplanes. He would fly over Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Then, he went on a helicopter discovery flight and was hooked.
“That was it; I’ve never looked back,” says Nic.
Part of his motivation for owning a flight school was due to the fact that several of the flight schools he attended were in the process of going out of business.
“There are a lot of pilots trying to be businessmen,” says Rocco. “They don’t have the right skill set and end up not making it. We did a thorough feasibility study and also found out that no one else in the area was flying Robinson helicopters, so we decided to open our own business.”
Rocco is a former New York City police officer who ventured in real estate. He and Nic moved to North Carolina’s Piedmont in 2009.
Much of the plans for the company over the next five years have to do with marketing and promotion. “People don’t yet know we’re here,” says Rocco. “We need to get our name out there.”
The Novellis are working to connect with regional high schools and community colleges to become a resource for vocational and technical training, perhaps similar to what Nic experienced in Long Island. “There are enough potential students regionally to support the flight school,” says Rocco.
The tour side of the company is already contracted to provide tours for the upcoming American Legion World Series (baseball) which is held in Shelby, and also the annual Foothills Wine Festival in Morganton.
Both N.C. Helicopters and Queen City Helicopter Corp. are active in the various tourism offices and efforts of Mecklenburg, Gaston and surrounding counties. Nic handles the internal marketing graphics and has designed the company’s web site, brochures and business cards.
Budgeting and other financial planning can be difficult with a constantly shifting customer base but the Novellis say they anticipated this variable in their business plan. “I’m very happy with how we’ve progressed so far,” says Rocco. “We’re in a good place.”
Rocco points out that fuel costs are even more unpredictable. Fortunately, the company’s established prices incorporate fuel costs and it hasn’t been necessary to raise them in the past year, says Rocco.
“We give good value,” promises Rocco, who adds that flight schools are not very competitive with each other regarding cost. “You can’t really cut costs because maintenance and fuel are built into tuition fees.
“In order to distinguish your school from another you must provide a higher quality of service, project a strong image of safety, have state-of-the-art facilities, and maintain clean and modern aircraft. It’s a small industry but there is plenty of work out there for everybody if you provide the right level of service.”