The South Coast Insider - The Skies Less Traveled

Imagine lounging on the balcony of the 40th floor of a big city high rise, enjoying the view below. Now imagine the balcony being magically whisked away from the building, staying at basically the same level, and transporting you about 25 miles in any direction that you want to go. Imagine all that you could see.

That’s roughly the feeling I had recently on a helicopter tour of southeastern Rhode Island. And the things I saw! The beauty of Blithewold Gardens. An aerial view of the Mount Hope Bridge, traffic flowing in both directions. Sakonnet Point, flanked by a lighthouse and lobster boats.

Bird’s Eye View, a helicopter tour and aerial photography business in Middletown, RI, has been offering such tours for the past four years. Although the company’s standard tours include the Newport mansions and their coastal environs, Bird’s Eye View will take you in any direction you want to go.

Jeff Codman, the company’s owner/pilot/tour guide/maintenance manager/booking agent/ receptionist and all-around good guy, bought out an existing business in 2000.

The previous owners specialized in providing helicopter rides at air shows, festivals and fairs. Codman, a licensed pilot since 1988, expanded the operation to include aerial photography, the standard Newport tours, and customized tours throughout the region.

The aerial photography phase of the business includes pictures of houses, commercial properties, building sites, boats, regattas, weddings and graduations. He says he’s “getting more calls from people who just want to fly over their homes,” to get a different perspective on their property.

He either flies with a photographer, or takes pictures himself with a Canon 10D, 6.3 mega-pixel digital camera with image-stabilized “L” series lenses. Passengers have included photographers from “National Geographic” and “Sports Illustrated” (shooting the Boston Marathon).

Besides the tours and photography, additional assignments include one that Codman inherited from the previous owners. He takes an annual deer count on Block Island after the first snowfall, as part of a deer population control effort. He has also escorted skydivers to their 5,000-foot destinations, dropped off one groom at this outdoor wedding. “The guests really looked surprised.”

Codman adds that “at least half a dozen guys have proposed to their fiancés in mid-flight.” He says they all came prepared with rings, and fortunately each woman said “yes.” His favorite proposal flight involved taking an engaged couple to Brenton Point in Newport, where the man had painted on the lawn, “Will you marry me, Kristin?” Again, the bemused bride answered in the affirmative.

Over Rhode Island

My flight begins with a visit to the Colonel Wood Airport, a/k/a the Newport Airport, on Forest Avenue in Middletown. After chatting for a while in Codman’s office, we walk out to the adjacent field, where an Enstrom 280c Shark helicopter is parked. After fueling the bird (it holds up to 40 gallons of 100-octane gasoline), Codman thoroughly inspects it from nose to tail, dusting off any residue as he goes.

We then climb into the cockpit and don headsets with small microphones. Codman explains that the headsets serve a dual purpose – “to muffle the sound and talk more easily.”

He then starts the engine. While it is a sunny, 70-degree day with low humidity and a light wind, I’m nervous as hell. I haven’t flown in almost 10 years, and I’m not sure I’ve taken a strong enough sedative. It’s a good thing I have a lot of confidence in Codman, who assures me that the flight will be smooth. “Choppers”, he says, “handle wind better than airplanes, because the rotors absorb a lot of turbulence.”

We fly over Middletown and Portsmouth, with Prudence Island and the East Passage of Narragansett Bay on our left. We pass over the Mt. Hope suspension bridge (somehow you admire the engineering and construction more from the air) into the airspace over Bristol. Several landmarks are easily recognizable, including Linden Place and Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum (home of the largest giant sequoia east of the Rockies).

Maintaining a height of about 800 feet, we hover over Mt. Hope Bay and Tiverton. An architect buff, I especially admire the beauty and grace of the colonial-era homes.

Continuing south to Little Compton, we pass over the Sakonnet Vineyards en route to Sakonnet Point. It is a treat to view from the air the jetty where I’ve walked many times, with lobster boats anchored in the adjacent inlet and Sakonnet Lighthouse on the other side of the point.

On the return trip, we pass over the Sakonnet River and back to Newport County. Along the way, a skydiver glides past our copter, and we observe a color guard, with its multiple hues, practicing on an athletic field. By this time, between the beautiful scenery and my incessant questions, nerves are no longer a factor. The fascinating 20-minute flight culminates with a smooth touchdown at the airpark.

Editor’s Pick

Codman says his annual revenue is about equally divided between helicopter tours and aerial photography, with a small percentage derived from flight instruction. (He received his flight instructor’s license in 1994.)

As mentioned earlier, Bird’s Eye View offers two standard tours. The “Mansion Tour”, lasting 15 minutes, flies over Newport’s famous “summer cottages” of the Gilded Age, and costs $95 for two people. The “Exclusive Island Tour,” lasting 25 minutes, includes the mansions, as well as the Newport coastline. This tour also features lighthouses, an aircraft carrier, and Hammersmith Farms, once Jacqueline Kennedy’s summer home. It costs $165 for two people. Not surprisingly, Codman sells about twice as many of the latter tours.

Customized tours, such as mine, are prorated at a fee of $325 an hour. The minimum fee for a customized photo shoot – regardless of the elapsed time – is $325. The rates are commensurate with comparable services nationwide. One caveat – there’s a 425 pound combined passenger weight limit. Fortunately, I just made it.

Helicopter flight is a unique experience. It’s just the right altitude so that people don’t look like ants; they still look like people, albeit little people. Distant sites become distinctive miniatures. From the vantage point of a chopper, the Taunton River looks like a bluish-green ribbon on wrapping paper, Horseneck Beach looks like a small lake, and swimming pools shrink to oversized bathtubs.

Codman, who took his first helicopter flight at the age of 8 and has flown regularly since he was 14, puts it more prosaically: “The unlimited freedom of movement, exceptional visibility, slow and low flight are all intoxicating to me.” It’s little wonder that the 2002 Yankee Magazine’s Travel Guide to New England selected Bird’s Eye View as an “Editor’s Pick”.