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Helicopter tour business finds new home at RiverWorks

Mike Campbell has a new plan for flying helicopter tours out of the City of Buffalo.

Campbell has reached an agreement to base his new aerial photo tourism business out of Earl Ketry's RiverWorks operation on Ganson Street, pending the approval of federal regulators. It would mark the first such heli-tour business in Buffalo, although there are operations in Niagara Falls.

Campbell and Ketry said they hope to launch the new operation by mid- to late November. The goal is to operate seven days a week, all year – even during the winter.

Both said the plan – Campbell's third attempt to locate a helicopter tour business in Buffalo – is still awaiting a decision from the Federal Aviation Administration, expected within 45 days.

"As long as the FAA gives us the blessing for where we want to put it, we're good," Campbell said.

However, the project also requires a special-use permit from the Common Council, and a review by the Buffalo Planning Board, which would make a recommendation to the Council, said South District Common Councilmember Christopher Scanlon.

Plans call for constructing an elevated platform adjacent to the concrete "bunker" building that is part of the silo complex at RiverWorks. The two-story-high platform and helipad would connect to an office that will be built inside of the bunker, accessible from the entrance at ground level.

The pad will be large enough for one chopper for now, but it could be expanded to handle a second, Campbell said. Or another pad could be erected nearby as a base for additional tours or for refueling.

"It's a big undertaking, but by having this new location and the new partnership, people will be able to see the city from a different vantage point," Campbell said. The proposed site pad, he said, could eventually get moved, but he plans to see how the location does and then "continue to brainstorm and potentially expand."

In the meantime, Campbell said he could start flying with 10 landings a day, for three days a week, before the FAA grants final approval or the helipad is constructed.

"Right now, I can operate out of the facility tomorrow if I want," he said. "I can land in the parking lot."

The agreement with Ketry came soon after an attempt to locate the helipad and maintenance facility near Silo City failed amid neighborhood opposition, including from Silo City owner Rick Smith III. That property, a 5.9-acre site at 20 Buffalo River, is owned by Benderson Development Co. and William Paladino's Ellicott Development Co. Ellicott had submitted the proposal to the city Planning Board and Common Council, but pulled it from consideration when it became apparent it would never fly. Campbell had previously attempted a site on the Outer Harbor as well.

This time, Ketry said they've already held "preliminary discussions" with city officials and vetted the proposal in advance.

"We have a lot of exciting ideas that will connect with all this, pending FAA approval," Ketry said. "It'll be a wonderful new asset to the downtown renaissance."

But Scanlon, whose district includes Riverworks, said he didn't know who Ketry had talked with. "I don't know who that would be," he said. "I don't see why, two weeks after we were going to be willing to deny it, they can open up down the road and it would change anyone's mind. You wouldn't believe the emails and phone calls I received when the previous applicant applied."

Campbell owns FlyBuffaloNY, which began operating tours and a flight-training school last April from the Buffalo-Lancaster Regional Airport in Lancaster and from the Niagara Falls International Airport in Wheatfield.

The Buffalo native has been flying for more than 10 years, handling emergency medical services, news coverage, tours and charter flights. He operated a heli-tour business in New York City and Miami before returning home to start his new business.

The company offers its Grand Niagara, Taste of Buffalo and Roaring Niagara Falls tours, as well as a combo package, for up to 55 minutes, with prices ranging from $210 to $510 per person. Campbell flies a Robinson R44 Raven II, which can carry up to four passengers, for a maximum range of 400 miles.

He will offer tours in winter, weather-permitting. "Buffalo's beautiful covered in snow, and if the price is right, people will pay it and go up," Campbell said.

He said he is still evaluating how many flights he'll run per day from his new base, and how much they will cost. He still plans to offer the existing packages, as well as charters. But now that he'll be flying out of downtown Buffalo instead of Lancaster, he can also provide lower-cost options to attract a broader customer base.

"It's a better location. It's better pricing. It's going to be more economically friendly for every demographic," Campbell said. "The duration may not be as long, but they're seeing the heart of the city and the main attraction points that we point out, and there's not that dead space with the back and forth from Lancaster."

Campbell said he had always planned to operate the tours from RiverWorks. Silo City, he said, was supposed to be only a maintenance facility, so he wouldn't have to fly back and forth to Lancaster and Niagara Falls.

He said he had reached out to Ketry about hosting the project "a while back," but it took time for "back and forth" discussions.

"We both have the same vision for what we want to do," Campbell said,  "so this is a perfect fit."

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