ATLANTIC CITY — Something clicked inside Bob Conti almost two decades ago — it gave him a yearning for the thrill and freedom of flight and made him take to the skies.

“It’s amazing,” he said, as he spoke about flying his single-engine 1997 Piper Archer to North Carolina and Florida with his wife, Cindy. “It’s just amazing. It took over my life.”

“I wanted to go out every day, every night,” he added. “All my time was spent learning how to fly and really master flying.”

Conti, 60, of Brick, Ocean County, owner of Steel Pier Helicopters, stood behind the counter in the company’s booth at the end of the pier — a small, blue building with a sign outside with “Helicopter Rides” painted in bright white letters against a sky. He welcomed customers who flooded in for the noon opening on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

Once they pick their tour, either of the shoreline or into the city to fly by the casinos, each customer has to be weighed before getting on the four-seater helicopter to distribute their weight properly.

Conti, a tall man who talks with the ease and confidence of a seasoned salesman, joked about not looking when women get on the scale, smiled and winked.

“If they got fright, or if they’re a little nervous about getting on the helicopter, we make them more comfortable,” he said, smiling at the customers and explaining how the ground crew lead them to their seats and get them belted in for flight.

And even though the business has a perfect safety record, he said, there are life jackets on board — just in case.

Out the back door of the booth, a wooden railing snakes around twice before leading onto the white helipad.

Conti stood in the middle of the pad, his back to the ocean, waving his arm toward the booth.

He said the railing can be packed with people waiting more than an hour for their turn to ride.

“I’ve never seen anybody get off this helicopter unhappy,” Conti said.

It was 18 years ago that Conti got his pilot’s license. His attitude switched from business to lighthearted passion as he spoke about invisible highways in the sky and navigating without GPS, relying only on instruments while flying through clouds.

“Nothing but you and the sky,” he said wistfully. “And you’re doing something that you really love to do.”

It’s an adrenaline rush, he added.

Over the 17 years that Steel Pier Helicopters has sat at the edge of the pier, Conti guessed they have given rides to 290,000 to 300,000 people.

And of those thousands of people, there have been highlights. One memory that stuck out to Conti was the time the ground crew was able to help a disabled person into the helicopter.

“It’s the most wonderful thing to watch,” he said. “To get somebody that would not normally be able to go on something like this, where our ground crew is able to get them into the helicopter and get them out there and experience a helicopter ride and see the sights, that’s really touching to me.”

Contact: 609-272-7241 Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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