Steve Ahler is a longtime fixed-wing pilot, but he always had a desire to build a helicopter. He finally did so in the late 1990s, taking three years to assemble an experimental Glasair two-seater from a kit.
Little did he know that the completion of that ambitious, but leisure-time undertaking would evolve soon thereafter into a full-blown business undertaking for him and a career for his son, Brett.
I made a mistake of taking Brett for a ride, and he decided thats what he wanted to do, Ahler says.
Brett Ahler now is an instructor for Inland Helicopters Inc., though just 21 years old, and his father owns the Spokane Valley company, which occupies the top floor and glass-enclosed observation lounge of the Felts Field terminal building, at 6105 E. Rutter. The only other employee is veteran instructor David Valenti.
Inland Helicopters offers services that range from private-pilot, commercial-pilot, and certified-flight-instructor training, to charter photo, scenic, agricultural, and special-event flights.
It has been hired for birthdays, weddings, Christmas-light tours, electronic news media support, and drying out cherry orchards.
It also does wide-ranging contract work for governmental agencies, such as transporting law-enforcement officials who are monitoring illegal drugs and fish-and-wildlife agents who are surveying and capturing wild animals.
It operates three helicopterstwo Robinson Helicopter Co. R22 two-seaters and a Robinson R44 four-seater.
The business was founded here in 1996 by Rex Menke and Peter Allen under the name Inland Northwest Helicopter, says Valenti, who joined the venture as an instructor the following year. It initially had just one helicopter, and focused mostly on flight instruction, he says.
It added a second helicopter about two years ago.
Steve Ahler, a longtime Walla Walla resident who owns a vineyard and is part owner of Three Rivers Winery there, took lessons and obtained his private pilots license from Inland Northwest Helicopter so he could fly the helicopter he had built.
Brett, following that initial flight with his father, began taking lessons from the Spokane company in August 2001 and in less than a year had obtained his private, commercial, and certified flight instructor ratings.
He had been attending Washington State University, in Pullman, at the time, but says, As soon as I started flying helicopters, I dropped out. I was hooked.
The younger Ahler began working as an instructor for the Spokane service in the summer of 2002 after another instructor who had been working there left.
His father then bought the companys assets in February 2003.
Since then, Steve Ahler has added a third helicopterthe four-seaterand has begun seeking to expand the commercial side of the business.
For now, though, flight training still provides the bulk of the companys revenues.
One of the allures of helicopter flying, compared with fixed-wing flying, he says, is, The whole world is your airport.
Local-governmental regulations limit where helicopters can set down, but Federal Aviation Administration rules dont impose heavy restrictions on landing sites.
For that reason, helicopters can be used for a lot of different leisure- and business-related activities, Ahler and his two instructors say.
Brett Ahler says one of the things he most enjoys about flying a helicopter is that, Youre sitting in a giant bubble with just about a 360-degree view. Also, compared with a fixed-wing plane, Youre going a lot lower, a lot slower, he says.
A typical cruising altitude is 500 feet, and a comfortable speed for the helicopters that Inland Helicopters flies is 90 to 110 knots, which translates to about 100 to 125 miles per hour.
For scenic rides, Inland Helicopters charges $40, $100, and $200 for 10-minute, 30-minute, or 60-minute rides, respectively, in one of its two-seaters. In the larger helicopter, the three-passenger rate for those flight durations is $20, $60, and $120 per person, respectively.
For flight instruction and rental, the company charges $190 an hour with an instructor and $160 an hour solo for its two-seaters and about double that for its four-seater.
The FAA requires a helicopter student pilot to have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time to obtain a private pilots license and 150 hours to obtain a commercial license, but most applicants need more hours of training than that before theyre ready to seek their licenses, Valenti says.
The FAA requires applicants to pass an oral and flight-proficiency exam, or check ride, and a written examination before they can receive a private-pilot rating.
The typical total cost to obtain a helicopter private pilots license is $10,000 or more.
Even at that expense, Valenti says a lot of Inland Helicopters flight-training customers recently have been younger men in their 20s and 30s, some of who want to become commercial pilots or flight instructors and others who want to do it for reasons that arent career-focused.
Once they start, almost all of them will finish up and get their licenses. Its good fun, a good challenge, so people tend to stick with it, he says.
Steve Ahler says the companys revenues doubled last year, and he adds that he expects them to continue to climb strongly this year.
The company will look at acquiring a fourth helicopter and hiring another instructor, he says, if revenue growth warrants it.
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