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Retired cop flies high with her one-plane airline

Claudia Childs learned to fly before she wore a gun.

Now that the former Buffalo chief of detectives has hung up her holster, she has opened Little Bird Airways, a one-plane airline offering scenic flights over Western New York.

While she enjoyed being a police officer, she loves flying.

Childs doesn’t like to use the word, but she can’t help describing flying as “heavenly.”

“Sometimes it’s a lot of work when you’re flying and it’s bumpy. I did a circuit over the Falls last week. I said, ‘I love flying!’ It’s so cool, sometimes beyond words.”

Little Bird, flying out of the Hamburg Airport, is the latest addition to a small number of commercial firms offering scenic flights in the area.

Western New York Helicopters flies out of Woodlawn Beach State Park in Hamburg, and Rainbow Air offers helicopter rides in Niagara Falls. Prior Aviation and Bob Miller Flight Training give aspiring pilots a seat at the controls while they soar over Buffalo Niagara.

It’s the view from above that hooks them, and then pilots want others to see what Western New York looks like from hundreds – or thousands – of feet in the air.

Childs got her pilot’s license in 1979 and her instrument rating and commercial pilot’s license in 1982. That’s the same year she joined the Buffalo Police Department.

She was a radio dispatcher and officer in the old Precincts 9 and 15 for 15 years. She was promoted to lieutenant in 1997, worked for internal affairs and became the department’s third female captain in 2001. She spent time in the Police Academy and the Northeast District before becoming the first female chief of detectives in 2002. She retired in 2007.

She said running her own airline takes some of the same qualities as overseeing police officers, including good organization.

“I am very structured,” she said, adding, “For both professions you need good people skills.”

In the air, that means calming people who might be nervous 2,000 feet above Earth. She said nervous passengers sometimes just need an explanation of what’s going on during the flight to feel comfortable.

As the ice disappears from Lake Erie and the snow melts from the hilltops, Childs and her Cessna 172 will fly two passengers for $175 an hour. The standard route includes Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Grand Island, the Peace Bridge, downtown Buffalo, the Lake Erie shoreline and Dunkirk.

Bob Miller Flight Training charges $99 for one person to get introduced to flying for 30 minutes out of the Lancaster Airport.

“We’re trying to excite people about the prospect of becoming a pilot. We have them fly in the pilot seat,” he said, adding the flight instructor sits next to them and has control of the plane on takeoff and landing.

Jacob Ventura of Western New York Helicopters satisfied his dream of learning to fly a helicopter and now works for the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office’s Starflight medevac helicopter. He also operates his helicopter business, which has a flight school and offers scenic flights. He charges $70 per person for a 20-minute ride around the waterfront.

All the companies offer longer flights, too.

Childs’ venture into the business side of flying came after she retired and bought an airplane.

Childs, 55, also earned a master’s degree in strategic leadership from Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester and a graduate certificate in executive coaching from the University of Dallas.

“When I got my master’s degree I started looking at things differently,” she said. “I think my perspective changed from ‘Wow, that’s hard,’ to ‘Don’t tell me not to do it.’ ”

That may have helped her as she navigated the array of Federal Aviation Administration regulations in setting up the company in the last year. She had to obtain commercial insurance, take random drug and alcohol tests, and buy life preservers for the four-seat plane because she takes people over Lake Erie.

Now that her business is up and running, she has one more goal for her future. “On my 90th birthday, I’m going to fly,” she said.