Helicopter Service from Connecticut to Manhattan a New Option for Commuters

The early morning calm is lost to the whirl of spinning rotors as Thomas McCusker boards a chopper at Sikorsky Memorial Airport.

The suited Weston resident, who works on Wall Street, smiles as he settles into a window seat for the 26-minute helicopter commute from Stratford to downtown New York City.

Clear skies greet McCusker and US Helicopter's two pilots during the vertical liftoff. This day, he's the lone commuter on an aircraft designed to seat eight passengers.

At 1,500 feet and seemingly oblivious to the helicopter's noise and vibrations, McCusker gazes down on Long Island Sound, the Connecticut and Long Island shorelines, the Throgs Neck Bridge and LaGuardia Airport.

Within minutes, he's savoring the flight down the East River, communing with a breathtaking skyline. He points out his beloved Brooklyn Bridge.

``I never get tired of it,'' McCusker says. ``I wish I can do it every day. It's nice not having the subway door shut on me.''

McCusker acknowledges that it's a ``treat,'' a Connecticut commuters dream, to travel above the crowded rail cars and often congested Connecticut highways.

He considers it a good value to spend $144.90, including taxes and fees, each way with US Helicopter Corp., a company that added weekday Connecticut service in June.

He says he'd consider buying a monthly pass if one becomes available. McCusker usually takes Metro North and a subway to reach Wall Street.

``I won't drive in. Coming home is a nightmare, too stressful,'' he says.

The leased Sikorsky helicopter, which departed at 7:04 a.m. last Thursday, lands at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6 on the East River at 7:30, on the dot.

But that's not always the case. Although the sky is the faster way to get to New York, the commute can be affected by the weather.

One day last week, dense fog grounded the morning flight, but McCusker wasn't perturbed.

``It's part of the equation,'' he says of the curveball thrown by Mother Nature.

Marketer Bernie Trueblood, 64, of Fairfield, also weathered Monday's fog in good spirits. He has flown into Manhattan with US Helicopter about a dozen times to meet with clients.

``It's the only way to go,'' Trueblood says. ``Time is precious. You have the most beautiful views of Manhattan. ... You catch your thoughts, get a little bit of serenity.''

Since US Helicopter initiated Connecticut flights, its early morning and evening services have averaged about two to three passengers, company officials said.

Jerry Murphy, US Helicopter's chief executive officer and president, says it will take time for its Connecticut commuter route, charter service, and regular airport shuttles to secure a marketplace foothold.

According to Murphy, a Long Island resident, it has been two decades since a company offered regularly scheduled helicopter flights from the New York heliports to area airports.

It has been three decades since regular helicopter service has carried Connecticut commuters to and from New York, he says.

Helicopter-commuting took a big hit in 1977, the year the landing gear of a passenger helicopter failed atop the former Pan Am building in Manhattan. That helicopter, made by Sikorsky, tipped over, killing four people standing on the rooftop platform and one on the ground.

US Helicopter was founded in 2003, but it wasn't until March 2006 that the company began regular weekday shuttle flights from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The company currently has a fleet of four leased Sikorsky S-76 B helicopters.

US Helicopter's prime business focus is to regularly shuttle ``time sensitive business travelers'' to and from Newark Liberty International Airport and JFK, both eight minutes from Manhattan.

US Helicopter, which hangars three helicopters overnight at Sikorsky, has markedly reduced the one-way Connecticut fares. It initially charged $179, plus taxes and fees; the fare now is $129.30, or $144.90 with taxes and fees.

Currently, the company flies out of Sikorsky to the downtown heliport weekdays at 7 a.m. The return flight departs at 7:30 p.m. from the East 34th Street Heliport, arriving at Sikorsky about 8:05.

Donal McSullivan of New Canaan, US Helicopter's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, said ownership spent years getting the business off the ground.

``We have moved mountains to get where we are,'' McSullivan says.

A major hurdle, he said, was convincing the government to put security checkpoints at the downtown and midtown heliports.

The screening equipment now in place is administered by the Transportation Security Administration, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. It allows US Helicopter customers flying on American Airlines to JFK, and those flying Continental Airlines to Newark, to check in luggage and secure boarding passes at the heliport, avoiding long airport lines.

Connecticut commuters flying to Manhattan from Sikorsky pay an additional fee to shuttle to the airports.

McSullivan, who works out of an office across from Grand Central Terminal, helped secure $15 million in financing to pay for the helicopter leases, 18 pilots, maintenance crews, online booking, airport infrastructure and operational pacts with the city-owned downtown and midtown heliports.

``The biggest helicopter market in the world is New York. It's going to take another 6 to 12 months to get traction here,'' McSullivan says.

``We've identified need for the service in a number of other major United States cities. Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the obvious ones.''

The company's five-year business plan envisions flying about 35 helicopters and a staff of 400 in several markets.

Piloting the dual-engine helicopter departing Sikorsky is Capt. Andrew Gaudette, 39, of Coventry. Back home from military service in Kuwait, he began working for US Helicopter in December.

``I love it,'' Gaudette says. ``The business is picking up.''

Hartford resident Ryan Caswell is the co-pilot. He points to the New York homes below near Shea Stadium.

``We have to stay at a higher altitude. We don't want to wake anyone up,'' Caswell quips.

The helicopter soon approaches the Manhattan skyline that McCusker and Trueblood never tire of. Ditto for Caswell.

``Beats working for a living,'' Caswell quips.

To Robert Blackman, 55, of Fairfield, US Helicopter offers quick weekday transport into Manhattan at a cost comparable to hiring a limo or a car service.

He says he has no trepidation commuting by helicopter.

``It's very comfortable. Very smooth,'' says Blackman, one of the commuters fogged in last week. ``It's not a white-knuckler.''



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