“Let’s go play in the clouds,” pilot Dan Casey said with a grin as he lifted our helicopter above the Santa Cruz Island mountains, zipping past Painted Cave and breaking through the misty marine layer to see the Forney Cove, outlined below with the amber tinsel of late-afternoon sun. After hovering over the historic Christy Ranch and peering all the way down the coastline at Pt. Conception, we tracked and chased pods of feeding dolphins, watching from a respectful height as they wove through the Santa Barbara Channel like bunched flocks of aquatic birds.
The 50-minute trip to the islands and back is one of four specific journeys offered by the newly operational Santa Barbara Helicopter Tours, including flights above wine country and Neverland Ranch, along the South Coast from Rincon Point to Naples, and farther inland to Lake Cachuma and the Santa Ynez Valley. Custom routes can also be worked out.
Co-owned and operated by Casey — who ran Channel Island Helicopters based at the Oxnard Airport before he sold it two years ago — the tour company is the only such biz headquartered at the Santa Barbara Airport and, as Casey puts it, offers passengers the chance to see the South Coast from a perspective no one else can offer. “I like the role of being an aerial ambassador,” he said, noting that some of the landmarks his helicopter passes over — like the Reagan Ranch and Clark Estate — are only viewable from above.
Casey, with 10 years of flying experience under his belt, takes serious pride in the company’s professionalism and neighborly relations. After a couple of minor Montecito-based noise complaints when tours started last month, he reworked their flight paths, and it’s been smooth sailing since. He and another pilot even trade spotting tips with whale-watching companies so their paying customers don’t miss humpback and blue whales cruising through the channel.
And though Santa Barbara Helicopter Tours’ Eurocopter AS350 A-Star, a 900-horsepower machine with seats for six guests, is one of the more nimble and powerful aircraft out there — the same model recently landed on top of Mt. Everest — Casey and crew like to “fly friendly,” he explained. “We don’t yank and bank.” Before he bought it, the company’s chopper worked as a film ship in Europe, covering the Tour de France and other major events.
As we made our way back to the mainland at a quick 130 mph — which felt more like a mild 20 mph — Casey spoke through his headset about everything from island settlement history to ecology of the National Park to Santa Barbara folklore, ancient and recent. He also talked about the satisfaction he gets from taking his guests sky high and showing them this slice of the world from 500-1,000 feet up. “It fulfills kids’ dreams,” he said, “and lets adults cross an item off their bucket list.”
Santa Barbara Helicopter Tours offers flights seven days a week, and reservations should be made at least five days in advance. To book a flight, call (805) 845-4500 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit helicoptertoursofsantabarbara.com.