OCEAN CITY - Bill Colangelo has been the administrator at Ocean City Municipal Airport for about 18 years, and he said it seems like people ask every year if they have helicopter sightseeing tours.
Now he can finally say yes.
In May, City Council approved a contract for Liberty Flight School, a company based in West Chester, Pa., to start operating helicopters out of the island's airport, making it the only such operation in the county.
"That was one of the reasons we wanted to come here - we couldn't believe no one else was doing it," said Carl Bianchini, Liberty's chief pilot and chief instructor.
The Council also formalized a deal with Aerial Skyventures, which has operated Red Baron Air Tours out of Ocean City for the past three years. The company gives aerobatic and sightseeing tours in a historic open-cockpit bi-plane and a closed-cockpit propeller plane.
"The open cockpit is more of a bucket list thing," said Aerial Skyventures owned David Dempsey, of Upper Township.
The two deals will not only provide a combined $3,700 to the city each year as part of their lease agreements, but they should also add to the tourism accommodations in the city, Colangelo said.
"I think it's a good thing in the sense that it gives people something else to do while they're here," he said.
Despite the conceivable demand for such relatively unusual attractions, both companies were the only bidders on the contracts the city advertised this spring.
Locally, the Steel Pier in Atlantic City has one of the few other helicopter sightseeing tours based in the area, with a helipad at the end of the Boardwalk amusement park. Steel Pier owners Anthony Catanoso said this is the 12th year for that operation.
That and Ocean City's are also unique because they are based on the islands where tourists are already visiting, as opposed to others based at inland airports that then fly to the shore.
For Bianchini, he joked that being able to fly out of Ocean City was almost selfishly motivated.
"I love the beach and I love Ocean City," he said. "I thought, 'I would love to work at the beach."
Dempsey said the trips offer a variety of manmade sights, from massive beach houses to historic sites to boardwalks, to natural beauty, like dolphins and sea turtles and undeveloped coastal landscapes.
"Once you get up in the air, you get to see the Pinelands and marshland," he said. "You get to see it a lot differently than you would think."
Both sightseeing operations in Ocean City will mainly operate during the summer season, through at least Labor Day and likely into September, based on bookings.
For Liberty, rates range from $100 total for a 15-minute tour to $325 for an hour-long ride.
For Aerial Skyventures, rates depend on the type of plane and type of trip, with sunrise, sunset and aerobatic tours all costing more. A 10-minute ride on the bi-plane starts at $99 for one person and $175 for two, while a 15-minute ride on the Cessna ranges from $40 to $60 a person depending on whether three or two people are going.
Aerobatic rides, which include loops and rolls, start at $325 for 30 minutes.
By comparison, Steel Pier's helicopter ride rates are $54 a person for a 10- to 15-minute ride.
Bianchini and Dempsey met with Colangelo on Thursday at the airfield to discuss the specifics of the new agreements, including where they would be stationed, what signage they could use and how they would advertise. Both are now operating, and customers can call to schedule tours daily through the season.
The aircraft will primarily fly along the Ocean City coast for shorter trips, but can be customized to go farther distances for longer trips. A hour-long tour can travel as far south as Cape May and back.
For now, Colangelo said Ocean City is charging a flat lease rate but may modify that in the future to charge a percentage of the activity. At the very least, that revenue should help pay for repairs to the airport after Hurricane Sandy, which ruined the runway's lights.
"Those lights were a year old," said Colangelo.
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If you go
Both Aerial Skyventures and Liberty Fight School will be offering daily plane and helicopter sightseeing tours from Ocean City Municipal Airport through Labor Day. To schedule tours, contact Aerial Skyventures and Red Baron Air Tours at 609-861-4111 or go to RedBaronAirTours.com, and contact Liberty Flight School at (610) 696-2382 or go to LibertyFlightSchool.com.