The first service to offer regular helicopter tours of Casco Bay is expected to launch at the Portland International Jetport this month.
“We were looking for ways to grow the business and Portland came to mind,” said Bruce Cultrera, president and CEO of Portsmouth-based Seacoast Helicopters. “It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, it is a population center and there are no helicopters.”
The company plans to offer tours and excursions around Portland by the end of the month, Cultrera said. It advertises a half-hour tour of the city and surroundings and longer trips to the newly renovated Halfway Rock Lighthouse on a tiny island 11 miles off the coast.
“We are really excited to kick this thing off, to get people up in the air and viewing Portland,” Cultrera said.
Seacoast is entering the Portland market with almost no competition. Maine Helicopter Tours, based in Portland, arranges custom trips, but contracts with Seacoast to use its helicopters and pilots, Cultrera said.
“We have a standing, open relationship with them,” he said.
Cultrera started Seacoast Helicopters in 2013 with one aircraft and a pilot. The company now has six small passenger helicopters, 11 pilots and three fixed-wing aircraft. It offers regular tours of the Portsmouth area, Isle of Shoals and Maine coast.
“When we started our business here in Portsmouth, it was kind of the same thing as Portland,” said Cultrera, who holds a pilot’s license in single-engine airplanes and helicopters, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. “The eye candy was everywhere and there were no helicopters at all.”
The company also has government contracts, runs a flight school and offers custom tours and charters. It also has taught a helicopter pilot training program at Great Bay Community College.
Lynn Tillotson, president and CEO of Visit Portland, said that in 15 years of promoting Portland tourism, she can’t recall anyone planning helicopter tours. The high tourism season for coastal Maine is from Memorial Day to mid-autumn.
“Nobody has ever even tried it,” she said. “Why, I don’t know. I think it’s a great idea.”
Seacoast’s Portland-area tours include a 30-minute flight around Portland for $129 per person, an hourlong trip to Halfway Rock for $249 per person, and a two-hour Halfway Rock tour and picnic lunch for $399 per person.
The company’s small Robinson helicopter can hold three passengers, and tours require a minimum of two people, Cultrera said. He is waiting for an FAA license before stationing a helicopter at the Northeast Air terminal at the jetport.
Having grown its Portsmouth operation, Seacoast Helicopters now can expand to Portland, a growing tourism hot-spot, said Paul Bradbury, the jetport’s director.
“I think it takes that level of critical mass to consider the opportunities for this kind of charter and tour operations for helicopters,” he said. “I think Seacoast, from their experience in Portsmouth, recognizes the market.”
Cultrera said he doesn’t know why no one has tried regular air tours from Portland. “It doesn’t really matter, the point is there is no one there now,” he said.
“I think there is an untapped market” with residents and tourists, he said. “We’re convinced it is going to work.”