Chief pilot at Chicago Helicopter Experience: The job is ‘never boring’
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The chief pilot at Chicago Helicopter Experience, who can go on as many as 20 tours in a day, said the job is never boring.
Mike Jansen, 39, is the director of operations and one of five pilots operating four helicopters at CHE, 2420 S. Halsted St. The company has logged more than 70,000 tours and charters since the company opened in 2012.
The pilots — who earn anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 a year, depending on their experience and responsibilities — fly between six and eight hours a day, five days a week. The helicopters share their airspace with news helicopters, police and fire department helicopters, etc., and use both Chicago Midway International Airport and O’Hare International Airport’s airspace.
Jansen, who lives in the South Loop, relocated to Chicago in May for the job. He has 15 years in helicopter aviation and throughout his career has flown on four continents. His resume includes air ambulance work in Texas and Oklahoma; defense contracting work in Afghanistan; wildfire fighting in California and Alaska; firefighting operations in China; tours and charters in New York City; and “moving scientists around the ice” for four years with the National Science Foundation in Antartica.
“I did a lot of wacky things in the past, but they involved constant travel, so I wasn’t able to put down roots, so I was looking for a job where I could be home every night, in my own bed every night, and this is the job that provides that for me,” he said. “I’m excited to get to know Chicago, explore and find out all the places I love and put down a better balance of work and personal life.”
A 15-minute helicopter tour — starting near McCormick Place and traveling along the lakefront to Wrigley Field and back — can seat up to six people.
Passengers arrive about 30 minutes before the tour, get weighed and assigned seats for weight distribution in the aircraft. Next up is a safety briefing and dry run of what it’s like to be aboard the helicopter. By the time the passengers reach the ramp, the helicopter is running, with the rotor blades turning, waiting for them. According to Jansen, “that typically generates a lot of excitement.”
“We like to provide a more tailored, personal experience, so I’m going to give a different tour for an aircraft full of people who are born and raised in Chicago than I am for people who are in Chicago for the first time,” he said. “Half or three-quarters of the time, people are completely ignoring what I’m saying because they want the selfie or the video out the window and they’re trying to take in their experience.”
In the instance of inclement weather, the passengers can relax in a lounge, equipped with televisions, games and a snack bar.
“Chicago weather is nothing if not unpredictable,” Jansen said. “We look for big weather systems, advanced storms, winter weather, low clouds, low visibility and anything that would impede our aircraft’s ability to fly around the city safely.”
During the flight, the pilot and passengers are all wear noise-canceling headsets, which play background music and allow everyone to communicate clearly.
When asked about the background music, Jansen laughed, “We’ve got our own Spotify channel called ‘CHE Vibes,’ and we’re looking for stuff that’s happy and fun and it changes monthly. I’d say … It’s definitely for the younger crowd; there’s some Bruno Mars; there’s way too much Kanye West on there for my taste; and whatever you’d find on your top hits playlists right now.”
Jansen said he’s got a “perfect record” and never had a passenger get sick, addingf that, “Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, when I get a nervous flyer, at they end of it, they want to go again.” He also said the pilots are regularly present for proposals and CHE has “cameras and go-pros and we help them capture that experience.”
In addition to the 15-minute tours, some of the other packages the company offers include the Holiday Lights Tour; Air and Water Package with Shoreline Sightseeing; Air and Land Package with Big Bus Tours; Date Night with the Duck Inn; Heli-Boat Package with Chicago Electric Boat; and the Top Flight Golf Package.
“One of the things I love about this job, I get to feed off the energy of the passengers,” Jansen said. “Everybody is always excited to get on our helicopters, they’re always happy, it’s always something that’s fun and new and interesting, it’s never boring.”