The sky's the limit for helicopter tour company

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Hilton Head Island's iconic Harbour Town Yacht Basin and lighthouse as seen by helicopter. PHOTO BY CHANDLER HUMMELL

For two young people who had been raised in the aviation business, it was a no brainer. Creating a business that reflected their love for flying and their desire to be entrepreneurs guided their direction to what is now Hilton Head Helicopter Tours.

Isaiah Burch and Lori Center met when he worked for her family's helicopter tour enterprise in and around Gatlinburg, Tenn. "She was my boss," he said. "No, I wasn't," she said with a smile.

Center was an operations manager for the family business, and Burch was one of their pilots. He came to them with several years experience as an EMS pilot.

They started dating and eventually married, and soon began looking for their own place in the world of aviation.

"We drove the whole East Coast," Burch said, looking for a place to settle down. "We came to Hilton Head on vacation in 2010 and thought it was really pretty." Surely there was a helicopter tour business here, they surmised. But no, there was no such thing.

(There had been such a company about 15 years ago, Burch said, but it failed. He said "Lori and I did a lot of research about what they did wrong, so we wouldn't do the same.")

The couple moved to the island in 2014 and began working on a plan to start their business.

From the beginning, they worked closely with Town of Hilton Head officials. They met all the criteria and eventually earned the required business license. "The Town has been great," Burch said.

They moved into the building at 38 Gateway Circle that had housed the original Hilton Head Airport and set up shop in January 2015. Since then, they have been perfecting their craft, developing tours of the area and increasing their customer service efforts. "She does the business end," Burch said of his wife. "I do operations."

"At first, we hit the tourist market," Center said. "But we discovered that locals wanted things to do too."

They found that area residents often have no idea what the whole island looks like, because so much of it is behind gates. "Some people have never been off the ground," Center said.

Center said her husband is "good about identifying with customers," making all feel at ease, even first-time fliers.

"One thing that sets us apart," Burch said, "is the headsets." Each passenger gets one and can hear and speak with the pilot and other passengers during flight.

Burch enjoys sharing his knowledge of the area's nature and history. He particularly likes to be able to point out loggerhead turtles swimming near the shore. "They are so cool," he said.

Burch started flying at age 15, and in 23 years in the industry he has a spotless safety record with no accidents or incidents.

Safety remains his top priority. "We pride ourselves on safety," he said. "That comes first, even before customer service."

Every passenger gets a safety briefing before flying, learning what to do in case of emergency and how to inflate the floatation device all are required to wear.

An unexpected benefit of the business has been Burch's watchful eye in the sky, which provides an extra level of safety over the ocean. "I've seen two capsized boats, one boat fire and some large sharks," he said. He radios the control tower to report his findings so someone on the ground can take action if needed.

"That service is our way of saying 'thank you' to the Town for allowing us to be here," he said.

The company currently flies just one helicopter, a Robinson R44 Raven, a three-passenger model. The helicopter is heated, so they can fly year-round. While Burch is the primary pilot, they employ a couple of seasonal pilots as well.

It's not just the island that customers can explore from the air. The helicopter tours fly over parts of Bluffton and Daufuskie Island as well. Recently, the company has been approved to fly northward, over Fripp, Hunting and Parris islands.

Burch said one of their company goals is that "we never want to say 'I'm sorry, we can't.'" So, they offer varied tour options in all price ranges. If someone has a special request or area they'd like to see, they will do their best to accommodate the request.

Even the building is available for private functions, with the helicopter and a pilot available to give rides during the event.

One thing they won't do, Burch said, is fly a sunrise tour. "We respect that people want quiet in the morning," he said. Operating hours are 10 a.m. to sunset.

For more information, call 843-505-7182 or visit www.flyhhi.com.

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