Local couple’s chopper services flying high
By Kristine Cannon
Sitting in the passenger’s side of her father’s Robinson R44 helicopter, parked on a helipad in the Scottsdale Airpark, 10-year-old Avery Clifton has her hair in a ponytail, hidden under a bulky, black headset.
She’s wearing a blue, floral dress, and she’s proudly showing off a brown, rectangular book with gold lettering: “The Pilot’s Flight Lot and Record.”
Avery wants to be just like her dad, Scott Clifton, who has more than 23 years’ experience flying helicopters for local news stations and as a search-and-rescue pilot for the state of Arizona.
“She’s already logging hours, and he’s teaching her to fly because she wants to be a pilot,” says Avery’s mom, Vanessa.
Vanessa and Scott are the owners of two family-owned businesses: Cave Creek-based Aerial Solutions and the newly launched, Scottsdale-based Western Sky Helicopters – both of which involve helicopters but serve different purposes.
Aerial Solutions, founded in 2008, is considered the authority for helicopter program management, event management and hot air balloon advertising.
Aerial Solutions not only manages the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, but also launches all hot air balloon events in town.
Western Sky Helicopters is brand-new — it opened in January — and conducts helicopter tours throughout and just beyond the Valley, as well as fills the void for charter work in Phoenix.
“There’s starting to be that demand for it,” says Vanessa, vice president and COO of Western Sky Helicopters.
With Western Sky’s charters, which recently launched this month, guests can ride in one of their Robinson R44, Raven II helicopters, which come equipped with air conditioning, leather seats and bubble windows.
Western Sky’s 14 CFR Part 135 certification allows guests the option to get picked up or dropped off wherever they’d like – as long as there’s a helipad available.
“We saw that there was the void in the market,” Vanessa says. “We would get calls from people all the time just because they know we’re involved in the helicopter industry that were like, ‘We need to charter out to NASCAR. We need a charter flight out to a golf course.’”
“There’s going to be a lot of charter work,” Vanessa continued.
What makes Western Sky’s charter services appealing, according to Vanessa, is its price. Because Western Sky flies a smaller aircraft, it has smaller operating costs, meaning the client spends less, comparatively.
Western Sky’s bread and butter, though, are its helicopter tours.
“People who travel here, they’re always looking for activities and things to do,” she says. “Just in a span of a week, we’ve got four tours lined up and we haven’t even started our big marketing push yet. So people are already starting to find us.”
Western Sky offers four regular, year-round tours, including a “Valley and downtown Phoenix” tour, a “city lights” tour, a “mountains and lakes” tour and a sunset tour.
They also offer seasonal tours, such as a holiday lights tour and a Fourth of July tour.
Vanessa says the tour that offers the most bang-for-your-buck is the hour-long, $375-per-adult sunset tour.
“It’s going to give you kind of all of the tours wrapped into one,” she says.
With the sunset tour, flyers will also get the Valley tour, as well as see mountains and lakes. And on the way back, they’ll catch a glimpse of the city lights.
All tours use the Robinson R44 helicopter, which holds a pilot plus three passengers – and, yes, it has air conditioning.
More out-of-the-ordinary, special requests include utilizing Western Sky’s helicopters for real estate-related aerial photography and ranch management.
“There’s a huge market for real estate sales people who want to get a good, overall picture of these areas that they’re looking at purchasing a home,” Vanessa says.
Regarding ranch management, Western Sky can assist ranchers in getting a head-count of their cattle.
“Some of these ranches in the outlying areas are huge, so if they need to transport feed out to a remote area, if they’ve got a fence line that’s down, we can do that,” she says.
Vanessa says she has also received requests from men who want to propose in a unique way.
“They want to be flown to a really unique, beautiful spot, land, get out, make their proposal, fly back,” she says. “Those are the kinds of special requests that we’re getting now.”
In the future, Western Sky is interested in partnering with local chefs and resorts to create romantic packages where a chef and clients are flown out for a special meal in a remote location.
“We’re working with golf clubs, and just really start promoting the charter, letting everybody know that we’re out there,” she says.
Helicopter tour pricing is based on time: 20-minute tours are $175 per adult and $125 per child, while 40-minute tours are $275 for adults and $225 for children.
“We just want it to be really straightforward with our pricing,” Vanessa says. “We know what it costs to operate the aircraft for per hour. I don’t care where you want to fly.”
Surprisingly, Vanessa says the 20-minute tours are not as popular as they thought they’d be, so they’re considering changing the blocks of time from 20 or 40 to 30 or 60 minutes.
“I thought that’s what was going to be the most popular because it’s the least expensive, but everybody says it just doesn’t seem like long enough,” she says.
What’s important to Vanessa is pricing the tours at a price-point she would pay herself.
“I’m not going to price it to where I wouldn’t personally take my family,” she says.
But what’s most important to the Western Sky team is trust and safety; they’re what Vanessa says sets them apart from the competition.
“It’s extremely important to us as a company and part of our company ethics is we’re not going to put you in an aircraft with anybody that we wouldn’t put our own family and children in an aircraft with,” she says.
All three FAA-certified pilots currently employed by Western Sky, including Scott, Don Hooper and Ryan Shugrue, have over 60 combined years of experience.
“These guys have thousands and thousands of hours of experience between them, and that’s just something that we wanted to focus on doing a little bit differently,” Vanessa says.
This level of care – and the community’s familiarity with Scott – is why Vanessa believes they’ve had such a positive response to Western Sky, so far.
“It has to do with my husband’s reputation within the industry,” she says. “He’s very respected with what he’s done and where his career has gone.”