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Helen tourism goes sky high

New business offers helicopter rides over North Georgia

POSTED: May 25, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Pilot Dean Campbell of Scenic Helicopter Tours, takes a ride over Brasstown Bald in Helen, Tuesday. Campbell has accumulated more than 1,500 flight hours during the past four years.

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A new business in Helen is offering a bird’s-eye view of the Northeast Georgia mountains.

Scenic Helicopter Tours began operating in mid-April, taking visitors skyward for as little as $10 a person.

"It’s a service to people who would never normally be able to fly in a helicopter," said company owner Eric McMillan. "Our pricing attracts every type of clientele."

But make no mistake about it: He intends to earn a profit. The $10 flight is just an introductory up-and-down. More expensive excursions take passengers as far east as Tallulah Gorge and as far north as Brasstown Bald. For $300, people can get the "See It All" package that covers Georgia’s entire northeast corner.

A helicopter service may seem like an odd fit in Helen, a White County tourist town known for its Bavarian-themed buildings and "world’s longest Oktoberfest."

But McMillan, a native of Gray, said he has had his eye on Helen for years. "My parents used to bring me up here all the time when I was a child," he said.

McMillan is a helicopter pilot, though he does not yet have a commercial license. He said two helicopter tour companies operating out of Sevierville, Tenn., have been very successful in the Smokies, and he didn’t see why the concept couldn’t work in Northeast Georgia.

When he learned last year that a 10-acre property on the south end of Helen was up for sale, McMillan thought it was the perfect place to build two helipads.

But he had to convince the Helen City Commission that the idea was workable. The property already contained a miniature golf course and amusement arcade, and that was the type of business the city had issued a permit for.

A few residents told the commission in December they were concerned about noise from the helicopters, which will be available to fly from 9 a.m. until sundown on most days.

The company currently has two certified pilots but only one helicopter, a Robinson R44 that seats four people. McMillan has put a down payment on a six-seater that he hopes to have delivered in a couple of months, a model he said will be much quieter than the Robinson.

But there’s no such thing as a silent chopper, and the whirring sound will be a necessary annoyance.

"As far as noise issues, helicopters are what they are," McMillan said.

Helen city manager Jerry Elkins said it hasn’t been as irritating as some had feared. "(The company) has tried to pick routes that affect the fewest number of people," he said.

"We have had some noise complaints, but it’s been minimal, mostly from people who live near the landing pad," Elkins said. "But the noise from the helicopter is certainly not as bad as some of the noise from motorcycles."

In recent years, Helen has become a popular spot for motorcycle tourism, and the city regularly receives complaints about revving, unmuffled bike engines.

Elkins now believes the helicopter company could be a plus for the city. "I think it’s going to draw a lot of people in from other counties, because there’s no service like this anywhere in the area," he said.

With an economy based entirely on tourism, Helen could use a boost right now.

"Tourism is really hurting. We’re seeing a downturn in travel," said Steve Gibson, general manager of the Habersham Winery just south of town. "Anything that can generate a little excitement has got to be positive."

Gibson’s company owns some cabins that are fairly close to the heliport, and he said he’s not sure whether the noise will be a problem for cabin renters.

But he hopes the helicopters might bring back folks who perceive the town as being frozen in time.

"One thing that’s often said about Helen is that it needs to have new things to do," Gibson said. "(A helicopter service) is certainly something that’s fairly unusual here."

McMillan said in general, he’s found a welcoming atmosphere. "We’ve gotten a lot of support from the local businesses," he said.

And he hopes he has quelled any safety concerns people might have had. "We’ve discussed with the (Federal Aviation Administration) and the city commission what we would do if we need to make a forced landing. There are plenty of places to put down."

Unlike an airplane, he said, a helicopter needs only a small area in which to land.

McMillan added that even though much of the mountains are covered in forest, there’s no reason to worry about the helicopter getting snagged in trees.

"We fly a 500-foot minimum above ground level. That’s the federal regulation," he said.

Though the helicopter flies over the Chattahoochee National Forest and state parks such as Unicoi and Tallulah Gorge, the company does not need any permits from the U.S. Forest Service or the state of Georgia. McMillan said airspace is regulated by the FAA, not by the properties that aircraft fly over.

Depending on the passenger’s budget, McMillan said he can take them over any of Northeast Georgia’s most famous landmarks, from Mount Yonah to Anna Ruby Falls.

If he had to recommend just one excursion, it would be the $100, 45-mile round-trip to Brasstown Bald.

"That’s absolutely the best ride we have for the money," he said.

But for those who can’t drop a C-note, McMillan recommends the $30, 12-mile flight over Unicoi State Park.

"That one has really beautiful mountain views."



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