When Ian Briggs started helicopter pilot lessons, little did he know it would give lift off to a new and exciting venture where the sky is not the limit, but more an opportunity. Working alongside wife Marilyn and son Daniel, it was the launch pad for an enterprise that would not only mix his own business with pleasure, but provide the flexibility for his clients to do the same.
The Briggs family first took over the running of Central Helicopters in October 2007, when they purchased the company where Ian had first learned to fly and quickly set about transforming it into a multi-faceted operation that has expanded to offer a wide range of services across an increasingly broad geographical range from a conveniently-located Midlands base.
Up until mid-October last year, the business was based at Nottingham City Airport in Tollerton but now flies out of its own purpose-built heliport (Nottingham Heliport) based outside of the city on the A46 Fosse Way in Widmerpool. An old farmhouse and outbuildings on an 11-acre site have been painstakingly adapted for purpose and brought with it extra capacity that will enable further expansion in the future.
After starting out life predominantly as a flying school, Central Helicopters still trains students to gain both private and commercial licences but in addition, now also offer pleasure flights, trial lessons and a broad selection of charter services using three different types of aircraft. That’s not to mention the attractive meeting room and corporate hospitality facilities when back on terra firma, including catering, if required.
“We have come a long way from the single Portakabin we first operated out of at Nottingham Airport,” reflects Marilyn, the company’s Finance Director, with Ian acting as Managing Director and Daniel as Operations Director. “Nowadays, whether it’s a trip for Father’s Day, getting someone to that vital business meeting on time or helping someone learn how to fly, we are pleased and able to help.
“When Ian first started flying, he found it quite exciting and was wondering if he could take it on professionally because he enjoyed it so much. We have a busy printing business that is still running now in its 26th year (Croft Printing) and he didn’t know whether he could dedicate the time to studying and flying to obtain his private pilot’s licence, but he did.
“It was later mentioned in passing that he would be interested in purchasing Central Helicopters where he learned to fly, even though it wasn’t for sale at that time, and in the end the owners agreed to sell and we’ve been developing the business ever since.”
From March until the end of October, mainly at the weekends, a key tranche of business comes from the pleasure flights operated from locations across the Midlands and north of the country, namely Nottingham, Selby, near York, the Lake District, Preston, the Peak District and, as of this spring, popular seaside holiday destination Skegness.
Flight duration and therefore prices vary meaning anything from a short six-mile experience through to tours of a chosen area is a possibility. Children are welcome, so long as they are accompanied by an adult and comfortable with the prospect of flying.
Flights can be purchased through Central Helicopters website or by telephone and Marilyn adds: “The offer of short flights means it is affordable for anyone who might only want a taster flight, starting at £39. Our Dambuster and Chatsworth House flights over the Peak District of around 30 minutes and including lunch, for example, are a very popular choice.
“We also offer bespoke flights and people particularly enjoy flying over their own homes where you can see a lot more from a helicopter than from a fixed-wing plane. When people return from their flights, they are usually absolutely thrilled by the experience, which makes it such a lovely business to be involved in. We have had bookings for people as old as 97 who have never flown before and it is quite touching to see their reaction.”
The versatility of a helicopter means a number of charter flight opportunities are also available, including aerial photography, heli-dining (arriving in style for a restaurant meal), VIP transport to sporting events and, of course, those in the cut and thrust of business.
“The fact is that time is so precious to people who hold prominent, busy executive positions and we are very aware of that,” explains Marilyn. “Business people want to get around in double-quick time, and do not want to be stuck in traffic on our busy roads.
“We also have facilities at our new heliport for people to hold business meetings and networking events. There is also the provision for incoming pilots to drop in for fuel, have a bite to eat and make themselves comfortable in our pilot’s lounge before they take to the air again.”
As for the future, Central Helicopters looks set to continue to soar, with plans to widen its scope still further. “In the future we want to secure more charter flights and really make the most of the facilities we have now put in place,” says Marilyn. “We have free parking and people are welcome to come and watch their loved ones on their flights from our viewing balcony.
“Ideally we would also like to offer one or two more sites for pleasure flights going forward. It’s about flying from the right places where we believe the level of interest would make it sustainable, but there are possibilities we have in mind and it promises to be exciting times ahead.”