Chopper offers more than just a tour

Helicopter can be utilized for photography, backcountry searches and sightseeing trips

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— As a longtime member of Routt County Search and Rescue, John Witte had numerous opportunities to hitch a ride in a helicopter while looking for a lost backcountry skier, hunter or snowmobiler. Then one day while buzzing along over the treetops, it dawned on him that he needed to rearrange his world.

"I realized I didn't want to be the passenger anymore," Witte said. "I wanted to be the driver."

Witte owned a door business in Steamboat Springs at the time, but he began commuting to Centennial Airport in Arapahoe County south of Denver to take flying lessons. He proved to be an apt pupil and enjoyed flying so much he resolved to become a commercial helicopter pilot. His resolve was so firm that he sold Pro-Door in Steamboat and bought his flight instructor's helicopter business.

Three years later, Witte is president and one of four pilots at Denver Helicopter Services Inc. He never moved away from Steamboat, and now he's basing a sleek little Enstrom 280FX chopper at Steamboat Springs Airport. He and the helicopter are available for hire for charter flights, flight instruction, aerial photography, commercial/industrial applications, sightseeing and proposals of marriage.

Trust him, Witte says, a helicopter flight to a romantic location is definitely one way to seal the deal.

"I once landed a couple on top of South Table Mesa (near Golden) and he proposed," Witte said. Based on the amorous activity in the cramped cockpit after he picked them up, Witte is fairly certain she said "yes."

Even for people who aren't bent on matrimony, a short helicopter flight can make a big impression.

"Near Denver, there's a restaurant called the Manor House that has a helipad," Witte said. "It's in the foothills above C470. People often book us to fly them to the restaurant. We'd take off from Centennial and fly over Cherry Creek Reservoir and then over downtown. Then we'd fly up to Golden and down the Front Range to the restaurant."

Most of Witte's Manor House clients find their way home in a limo, but if they've got another $300, he'll pick them up again after dessert and espresso.

Many of the flights Witte and his three Denver-based pilots make are more practical in nature The Denver Post hired Denver Helicopter last fall so that one of its photographers could document the final game ever played at Mile High Stadium from aloft. Frequently, they are hired by large contracting firms to provide a platform for commercial photographers documenting each step of a large building project or development. Construction of Pepsi Center was one of those jobs.

Witte said his motivation for basing a helicopter here is less about profit and more about the fact that the Yampa Valley is where he wants to spend his time. But he still has to keep the $170,000 machine busy.

"I don't want to give the wrong impression," Witte said. "The helicopter has to fly every day."

Witte estimates that if he can keep the helicopter busy two to three hours a day, he'll be successful. The two helicopters based at Centennial need to fly four to five hours a day for the business to prosper, Witte said.

Witte said he isn't hoping for Routt County Search and Rescue to be busier than normal, because backcountry searches sometimes involve human tragedy. But he hopes that having a helicopter based at the Steamboat airport will save lives.

"I enjoy the challenge of search and rescue missions," Witte said. However, his three-seat helicopter isn't the kind that will ever extricate injured victims out of the backcountry it doesn't have the power needed to pluck a litter basket off a cliff at this elevation. Instead, he said, the best role for his chopper is to quickly locate victims from the air and insert rescue teams into the backcountry.

Witte said he hasn't begun pursuing sightseeing flights, but he fully intends to develop that portion of the business. He's stressing that he will go to great pains to ensure the noise of his helicopter won't become a nuisance in the valley.

"That's not going to happen here," Witte said. "I've lived here for a long time (17 years). When you see a place grow up, you don't want to take away from that."

Witte said he avoids flying over downtown Steamboat, and when he takes a sightseeing charter to the mountain area, he'll fly at altitudes between 8,500 and 9,000 feet to reduce the impact of the noise.

"We don't want to bother people and we don't want the helicopter to be a detriment," Witte said. "We want it to be an advantage to people."

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