How One Man's Love of Aviation Let Seacoast Helicopters Take Off
In Start Your Own Transportation Service, the Staff of Entrepreneur Media explains how you can launch a profitable transportation service, whether you want to start a long-haul operation or an in-town service. In this edited excerpt, the authors profile the owner of a helicopter service to give wannabe transportation service entrepreneurs an inside look at a profitable business.
If you're thinking about starting a transportation business, learning how existing transportation service entrepreneurs got started and are running their businesses can help you figure out if this industry is a good fit for you. To get started, here’s the story of Seacoast Helicopters, which Bruce Cultrera started after leaving corporate America.
Bruce Cultrera has been involved in aviation his whole life. His first science project in middle school was about how the wing works. After graduating from high school, he went to the Air Force Academy. And when he got out, he bought his first plane and flew privately. But he’d always been a fixed-wing kind of guy and had never really thought about helicopters.
At least he hadn’t until seven or eight years ago when his wife bought him an introductory helicopter flight for a birthday present. He signed up immediately, and when they landed, Bruce was so enthralled, he said, “I’ve been wasting my whole life.”
He’d worked in the corporate world and had started several businesses -- real estate, management consultant -- none having anything to do with aviation. Bruce had gotten to that point where he was thinking about his retirement years and just knew he didn’t want to be bored.
While growing up in the seacoast New Hampshire area in the ’60s and ’70s, the small coastal town of Portsmouth hadn’t yet become chic and trendy. After living in many other places around the country, Bruce came back for a visit and noticed Portsmouth seemed up and coming with a huge influx of summer tourists and a revitalized downtown.
“I woke up one day and was done with corporate America. But the day I woke up with no income was terrifying,” Bruce admitted.
Bruce’s wife mentioned “Why not something aviation-related?” when he spoke of a retirement business, and he started to put some things together. Why not a helicopter business in Portsmouth? Pease Air Force Base had been shuttered and transformed to Pease International Tradeport. The former air base was home to the largest runway in New England and was still serving for military training and attracted some commercial aviation.
It seemed a natural site to locate Seacoast Helicopters.
After a year of planning, Bruce bought a little training helicopter. He did flight training and took photographers up along the seacoast. Then he bought a four-seater. The next year his business doubled. Then it quadrupled. He still has a couple of fixed-wing planes in the hangar.
The business does scenic helicopter flights to the tourist sector. They fly corporate clients from seacoast New Hampshire to Manhattan for business meetings; there are numerous helipads all around New York City where the customer is dropped off, the helicopter goes out to New Jersey and hangs out waiting for the call to come in and pick the client up, and then back to New Hampshire they go.
After having started several other businesses, Bruce says this is the most complex business he’s ever started. “Regulations make it very complex,” he says. “I’m sure I would have failed without all that previous experience.”
One complex aspect to his helicopter business that was helped by his previous experience is putting together proposals for federal contracts. It can be pretty daunting, Bruce says, when a 300-plus-page “request for proposal” is dropped on your desk.
Seacoast Helicopters has worked with Great Bay Community College, located on the Pease International Tradeport just down the street from his office, to create a helicopter pilot training program that took 18 months to put together. The business also offers private flight training, does the scenic tours business in the summer, and brings maintenance personnel to remote locations where government-owned towers are often located.
Besides Bruce and his wife, Karen, who’s the company’s vice president of marketing and strategy, Seacoast Helicopters employs four pilots on the “rotary side” and two fixed-wing pilots. Two of his pilots are ex-military certified mechanics and do the basic maintenance on all the equipment. All heavier maintenance is done by Port City Air, also located just down the street on the Tradeport. After every 100 hours of flight, a helicopter needs to be basically torn apart and inspected.
Bruce feels diversity is the key to success in a business like this. “My strategy is to cast a wide net, and then eliminate the things that don’t work.” Clearly he’s found some things that work!
Bruce’s advice to anyone thinking about an aviation transportation business? “Spend a lot of time in the planning phase,” he says. “Most businesses fail because they didn’t plan enough.”
He admits to being surprised by the amount of regulation in the aviation industry. And his favorite part of the business? “No doubt, it’s flying,” which, of course, he doesn’t do nearly as much as he’d like.