MIAMI – Here’s a confession. I know NOTHING about helicopters. Though, I’ve been fortunate to indulge in many a rotary driven trip as a tourist or on my day job. In fact, if I don’t secure a whirly bird excursion on a vacation for a bird’s eye view… well, then it wasn’t a holiday done right!

At Airways, we are fortunate to receive many invitations for inaugurals and special flights. We partake in these not for our own indulgence but in service to our hundreds of thousands of readers. Well, now that’s not completely true. We do enjoy what we do, otherwise why would we do it? 

A few weeks ago, just before President’s Day an invite crossed my email inbox that I couldn’t resist. Instead of traveling across the globe for a long haul flight, this trip was an hour long flight tops and would depart just a few minutes from my house. As you can probably deduce, the conveyance wasn’t a shiny new thing with wings, but a single engine rotary bladed aircraft. 

In this case, our flying machine was a Leonardo 119KX. The itinerary was pretty appealing: A VIP flight from Opa Locka Executive Airport to the Miami International Boat Show on Key Biscayne. Or more effusively: “You step off your Gulfstream G5, ACJ, or BBJ onto a Leonardo Helicopters AW119Kx at the Fountainbleu FBO at Opa Locka Airpot. Then strap in to revel in rotary aircraft glory of the spectacular view of the Intracoastal Waterway, glamours Miami Beach, the teaming aqua marine Atlantic Ocean and finally descending into the Miami International Boat Show landing on a floating helipad just off Key Biscayne… just like an aircraft carrier. You are then whisked via tender shuttles directly into the heart of the boat show as if you were Jeff Bezos. OK. That was my over-hyped interpretation of the invite.

How does one say no to that? This VIP-only experience is a marketing cross-promotion between Leonardo Helicopters, ILandMiami, and HCB Yachts fashioned together just for the Boat Show – Miami’s busiest weekend of the year! Do you think Art Basel’s a big deal? The annual Miami International Boat Show, along with the Coconut Gove pumps Super Bowl type dollars into our local economy to the tune of $500 million. Visitors from around the world flush with excessive disposable income arrive in South Florida in search of their next aquatic toy.  

HCB Yachts is the Bentley of fishing boats – supremely elegant yet brutally powerful.  The boat maker’s flagship 65’ Estrella is the  world’s largest center console boat. It weights in at 65,000 pounds with five outboard motors. When the top center console boats typically max out with four outboards and 39’ in length, this sublime beast is in a league of its own. 

HCB Estrella
Image from: HCB Yachts

And who is ILandMiami ? Given the high price and paucity of real estate in South Florida and heck, climate change driven sea rise, their “bespoke landing solutions for our clients including rooftop helipads and temporary helistops” start to make sense. ILandMiami also has an eye to the future with VTOLs (vertical take-off and landing) and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles)’s exiting the realm of science fiction into the realm of reality.

IlandMiami Heliboat®
Image from: ILandMiami

Leonardo Helicopters’ 119KX as it turns is one of the most popular single engine VIP, Corporate, EMS, law enforcement and utility choppers in the world.  Military operators such as the Finnish Border Guard and Portuguese Air Force employ a similar sister ship. The Italian manufacturer has produced over 300 units since 2000 at an average cost apiece of USD $3 Million at its Philadelphia factory. Why is an Italian aircraft assembled in the U.S.? Simple, the United States is the largest market for this type of helicopter. 

The cumbersomely named 119KX owes alot of its success to its Pratt & Whitney Canada  PT6B-37A turboshaft engine, producing 747 kW (1,002 hp). Pilots tend to refer to the Boeing 757 as overpowered. Well, this Leonardo fits that bill in the single-engine rotary world. To whit, peruse these metrics.

  • Seating (including pilot): 8
  • Cruise speed: 244 km/h (152 mph; 132 kn)
  • Range: 954 km (593 mi; 515 nmi)
  • Endurance: 5 h 20 min
  • Service ceiling: 4,572 m (15,000 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 9.1 m/s (1,790 ft/min)
  • Max takeoff weight: 2,850 kg (6,283 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6B 37-A turboshaft engine, 747 kW (1,002 hp)

Leonardo obviously placed some significance on this promotional event. Our pilot, Jim Kruger ferried the chopper down from Philly in eight hours of flight timesmaking three stops for fuel in Norfolk, Charleston, and St Augustine. The Leonardo has incredibly reached a 20,000’ altitude ceiling, but Kruger flew it between 2,500-4,500 feet to maximize winds and ATC conditions. Had it not been for weather in Florida, he could’ve easily made it down in one day!

Kruger, who has over 5,000 hours flying Chinooks for the Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, is now a test pilot for each Leonardo coming off the line in Philadelphia. He considers shaking out these newly born choppers and training new pilots and customers a “dream job”. Every chopper delivered to a customer must receive his team’s blessing after rigorous test flying prior to delivery.

On our flight, we were joined by two passengers for the quick sortie. Instead of traversing an hour of maddening bumper to bumper holiday traffic, we would make our journey each way in under eight minutes. Our “pelican’s eye view” would reach no higher than 500’ and faster than 130 knots per hour. This combination afforded us a stunning view of the urban paradise that is the coastline of South Florida. 

Kruger confided in me that even though our helicopter was equipped with pontoons, he’s “more used to landing on the ground since it doesn’t move but as long as we don’t get wet this will be pretty cool.” This was Kruger’s first landing on a floating helipad, or Marine Utility Vessel (MUV), but you’d never know it. With winds light and seas calm, he had it down to perfection. The blades kept turning so we didn’t good swimming. 

Upon landing on the MUV, our two passengers quickly exited to their waiting tender which shuttled them to the boat show. And just like that in a five minute quick turn that would make Southwest Airline envious, we were airborne again in under five minutes.

This was Kruger’s first time flying in South Florida so we went on a brief sight-seeing soirée, including over my house, and in less than 15 minutes we kissed the tarmac back at Fountainbleu Aviation at Opa Locka. 

Video: A gorgeous adventure over South Florida from Opa Locka Executive Airport to the Miami International Boat Show and back in a half-an-hour.

Upon landing, my car was valeted for me – airside! I could get use to this. Before I even had a chance to thank Kruger, he was on to his next flight with real VIPs. Though helicopters are far out of my purview, it was fun to channel my inner Kardashian.