Jeff Codman pushed the cyclic control of his helicopter so the thumping aircraft made a wide loop above the landing area. He could see a crowd gathered on the ground.
Codman circled twice more before descending to a roped-off area in the parking lot at the Wakefield Mall in South Kingstown.
It was Black Friday – the official start of the Christmas shopping season – and as soon as the skids settled to the ground, Santa Claus jumped out and made his way into the mall.
Many days, Codman conducts aerial tours of Newport for tourists. Other times, he and his staff photographer are commissioned to snap pictures of real estate or a client’s boat. And some days, he’s called upon to fill in for a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
“I love flying and that’s why I do this,” Codman says. “It’s not because of money, because I don’t make a tremendous amount of money. But it is very fun.”
Still, it’s not quite what he envisioned when his father introduced him to the joy of flying planes when he was a teen. As a youngster, Codman thought that he would attend the Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot. That didn’t work out.
Instead, he’s been running a tour and aerial-photography business almost continuously since he obtained his commercial helicopter pilot license in 1988 – at age 18 – and shared a chopper his father purchased.
For years, it was mostly a part-time gig. He worked a variety of other full-time jobs while giving tours, teaching flying lessons and taking the occasional photo in his spare time.
That changed in 2000, when Codman bought an existing helicopter business and started operating it out of Newport State Airport in Middletown.
As part of the acquisition, Codman said he took over several contracts, including “deer count” flights for the state and amusement rides at local fairs and festivals, a revenue stream that dried up when organizers started fearing the liability issues following The Station nightclub fire in 2003.
Bird’s Eye View has made due, though. During the tourism season, Codman says the helicopter frequently is booked with short tours 1,000 feet above the Newport mansions, the Cliff Walk, Newport Harbor and Fort Adams. A 12-minute ride costs $59 per person in Codman’s four-seat chopper.
“Some days, I’m flying for eight hours,” he says. “There’s no better way to see Newport than by air.”
He also offers longer tours that are more expensive, and he can usually fly within a 25-mile radius of Newport State Airport. He is often asked by local residents just to fly over their home.
“People really like to see what their house looks like from the air,” he says.
When the tours are over, Codman has found other ways to fill the air time.
He recently purchased a $30,000 gyrostabilizer so video can be shot from the helicopter without annoying vibrations.
It has already gotten a lot of use.
Last month, Codman had a film crew from the Discovery Channel in his helicopter shooting lobster boats leaving the port of Galilee for a TV show on lobstermen. The company also worked with the Travel Channel on a special on the Newport Jazz Festival that was scheduled to premiere on Dec. 19 at 9:30 a.m.
Bird’s Eye View has done work for some defense contractors, too.
Most recently, Codman said, a company had its workers filming their own cars while the vehicles went through erratic maneuvers. Codman figures the company was working surveillance software that could detect suspicious movements.
The film and photography work generates about half his revenues, with tours bringing in the rest.
Codman says about a half-dozen times a year, he fields calls from men looking to pop the question to their significant other while taking an aerial tour over Newport.
In one case, he says he went the extra mile.
One caller wanted something a little extra special when he proposed, so Codman suggested he write the proposal in big letters on the ground in a place they could fly over it.
The man asked Codman if he could do it, and he was willing to pay.
So Codman got permission from a local farmer and used 30 bags of powdered limestone to write “Will you marry me?” in a nearby field. She said yes.
“Nobody’s ever said no,” Codman says of the dozens of proposals he’s seen while piloting.