Providence Journal - High on R.I.

You can walk, hike, run, drive and even sail around Newport. But for a truly unique perspective of the City by the Sea, you need something like a Bird’s Eye View.

That’s the name of Jeff Codman’s company, whose helicopter tours of Newport and Aquidneck Island provide up-close and personal view of places most people would never get to see from land or sea, such as the two huge ponds from across the road from Easton’s Beach (called, simply enough, Easton’s Pond South and Easton’s Pond North) or the many private oceanfront estates hidden behind the trees of Ocean Drive.

The tours also offer a unique perspective to many of the more common tourist attractions and local landmarks, from the mansions along Bellevue Avenue to Fort Adams, Newport Harbor and the Pell Bridge.

Even the Cliff Walk, with it’s gorgeous views of the rocky shoreline and the back side of the private estates and mansions, looks more impressive – and foreboding – from 800 feet up in the sky.

“Most people have no idea how rocky the shoreline is, “Codman said on a recent trip in his helicopter, speaking into a microphone linked to headsets for each of his two passengers.

And unless you’re out on a boat, you’d probably never see many of the private homes on the outcroppings along the shore, let alone on the many rocky islands just offshore.

Most amazing, he noted, is the amount of open space in the city – not only around the ocean, but also among the many working farms.

There’s much more open land than anyone realizes, Codman said, noting that even natives tell him they’re amazed by what they see when they’re flying above the city and along the shoreline.

They often can’t even figure out where they are, once they’re up in the air. “Most people get lost, even though we’re only flying at 600 feet,” Codman said. But that’s part of the fun of being up in a helicopter.

Codman said his businessis the only one in the region that offers regular helicopter tours of Newport and Aquidneck Island, in addition to tours of other nearby areas. He also offers aerial photography of houses, neighborhoods and events, such as the America’s Cup races or outdoor weddings.

He launched the company four years ago, when he bought a former helicopter tour company based in Southeastern Massachusetts and moved it here to the Newport Airport, which is actually in Middletown, off Route 114.

He’d been flying small airplanes with his father, an amateur pilot, since he was 12 years old and started flying helicopters six years later, at age 18. He tried to find a job flying helicopters commercially, but found there wasn’t much of a market for helicopter pilots – and the few jobs there were, didn’t pay very well. So he worked for his father, a logger, taught helicopter lessons, and did private charters in a leased helicopter until he learned of the local helicopter tour business that was up for sale.

When Codman took over the company, he began offering tours and lessons from the Newport Airport year round. He also offers gift certificates for both.

He later branched out into aerial photography, taking pictures of everything from scenery and events to private homes and boats. He and a photographer regularly go up to shoot photos of individual boats and houses in various neighborhoods, and then he lets people know they are available for order through his Web site for $75 for an 8-by-10. But he also will take customized photos of a home, boat or even for $185 to $500, depending on circumstances, he said. It’s just another way to make his love of flying helicopters pay off when it comes to paying the bills, Codman said.

“It’s not easy. But it’s fun,” he said.

The tours make up at least half of his business, especially this time of the year, when he’s flying six or seven days a week, whenever there’s someone who wants to go up.

One of the advantages to helicopter tours, he said, is that they offer a much closer and more personal view of the city than a typical small plane that flies several thousand feet higher. Codman flies a three-passenger Enstrom 280 Shark, averaging about 800 to 1,000 feet above ground and traveling 90 to 95 miles an hour.

He offers two standard tours: A 15-minute tour of the mansions for $95 for two people, or a 30-minute tour of the entire island, including the mansions, horse farms, vineyards and polo fields for $165. It doesn’t sound like a long time, Codman noted, but he covers a lot of ground in that time.

It actually feels a lot longer, when you’re in the air. He recently took a Journal reporter and photographer up to check out the sites of Newport, and in 18 minutes, he’d cruised the coastline, the mansions, Newport Harbor, the Pell Bridge and the inland areas leading back to the airport in nearby Middletown.

And the views were spectacular, even on this hazy summer day, when we could see all of Aquidneck Island and as far as Point Judith and Narragansett. On a clear day, Codman said, you can see Block Island.

As we lifted off this day – the helicopter rises straight up and you watch the ground fall away beneath your feet in the glass bubble – we caught a glimpse of how big Aquidneck Island really is.

Heading southeast from the airport toward Easton’s Beach, we could see from Sachuest Point in Middletown in the east to Newport and Jamestown bridges in the west. St. George’s School looked like a medieval castle high on a hill in Middletown, while the Breakers, a 70-room stone mansion nestled on 11 acres of manicured grounds on Ochre Point off Bellevue Avenue, looked even more majestic from the sky. As we flew past Gooseberry Island and Brenton Point, we could see Point Judith off in the distance, as well as the Beavertail Lighthouse. We also had fabulous views of Hammersmith Farm and Fort Adams and Newport Harbor. A regatta of small sailboats under the Newport Bridge looked like little more than a gathering of seagulls on the waters below.

Evan Smith, vice president of marketing for the Newport Convention and Visitors Bureau, said most people are surprised to learn that Aquidneck Island is about as big as Manhattan, in terms of square miles.

Smith said that “people who take the helicopter tour of Newport love it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.” The only reason there aren’t more companies doing it is that the cost is so much higher than the city’s other attractions: “It’s not a $15 Breakers tour,” he noted.

Codman is licensed to fly within a 25- mile radius of Newport Airport with limited exposure over the ocean, because of safety concerns.

As for safety, he noted that traveling by helicopter is considered far safer than by traveling by small plane. Even if the engine quits, the helicopter can slowly and safely drop to the ground and land virtually anywhere. But that’s never been an issue, he noted, even though he’s careful to teach budding helicopter pilots the proper emergency landing techniques. He prides himself on the safety of his machine.

Still, it’s a little nerve-wracking for the first-timer strapping into the front seat of the copter – which is so small that it makes for a cozy ride for three on a bench-like seat in front of the bubble, which offers clear views out the front, sides and bottom. (It was even more harrowing for a newspaper photographer, since Codman removed both doors of the copter to allow him to take unobstructed photographs.)

But most people are content to look out from behind the safety of the fully enclosed bubble, with Codman describing the scene below, whether pointing out well-known landmarks or sharing rumors about the owners of some of the more extravagant private estates.

And though he makes this pass nearly every day, often several times a day, Codman says he doesn’t mind doing the same tours over and over again. After all, he said, “I like Newport. You never get tired of looking at it.”