From Kobe Bryant to the Kardashians: Inside the Lives of People Who Travel By Private Helicopter
On Sunday, January 26, a helicopter carrying basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven other passengers went down in the hills of Calabasas, California, killing everyone on board.
The helicopter planned to fly a short distance — from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County — so that the passengers aboard could get to Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball tournament.
This was far from the first time Bryant had traveled by helicopter. According to the LA Times, the former Los Angeles Lakers player was known for leaving a chartered helicopter at John Wayne Airport for his use. Bryant previously shared that he began using helicopters while he played for the Lakers as a way to spend more time with his family — and less time stuck in traffic.
Although his tragic death has brought speculation about the safety of this mode of transportation, it’s more common than many might think among celebrities and others.
In the wake of the accident, PEOPLE spoke to experts in the field about how typical private helicopter travel is among stars and in general. Here’s what we found out.
Who travels by private helicopter?
Private helicopter travel is typical among celebrities and the über-wealthy for traveling short distances,” Eric Spitzer, the President of Spitzer Helicopter Leasing in Woodland Hills, California, tells PEOPLE. “Longer trips are always in private jets,” he says.
Many celebrities have posted photos of their travel on helicopters on social media, including Beyonce and Jay-Z, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, Bella and Gigi Hadid, Selena Gomez, Billie Eilish, Madonna and the Kardashian-Jenner family.
Kylie Jenner, in fact, shared in an Instagram story that she had actually flown with her niece Dream Kardashian on the exact helicopter — and with the same pilot — that went down in Bryant’s crash, a Sikorsky S-76B decorated with Bryant’s Mamba logo.
The New York Times reported that actor Lorenzo Lamas and singer Ashanti have both posted photos in the helicopter in recent years.
That said, helicopters are not exclusive to the rich and famous — helicopter travel is becoming more common among average consumers in larger cities as a way to beat traffic and save time, says Dr. Hassan Shahidi, the President and CEO of the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation (FSF).
“We’re starting to see more of those operations,” says Shahidi. “And not only celebrities, but regular people use them.”
Where is helicopter travel most common?
Helicopter travel is most common in larger cities in the U.S., like New York and Los Angeles — especially those known for having lots of traffic. These metropolitan cities have various companies that charter helicopters, and various helipads/airports for flying in and out.
Island Express Helicopters, the company that owned Bryant’s ride, is just one of many helicopter operators that charter flights in L.A.
Even on-demand ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft have been getting in on helicopter travel in recent years, especially to and from busy airports.
Why would you choose to take a helicopter over a different type of transportation?
Typically, people choose to use a helicopter to fly shorter distances, while a regular airplane is used to fly longer distances.
“You can’t take an airplane very short distances. It’s very difficult,” says Shahidi. “They take off and land more often; they’re for very short distances, like 10, 20, 30 miles. They fly at very low altitudes and they’re basically on demand, meaning they’re not scheduled. You want to go somewhere, you get a charter helicopter and you go.”
What are the costs associated with private helicopter travel?
“The cost of [purchasing] a helicopter can range from $300,000 to $40 million depending on its size and age,” says Spitzer. “Leasing is lower than purchasing because the cost of entry is much lower, similar to a car lease versus a car purchase. Chartering will cost as low as $400 an hour and as much as $4,000 an hour, depending on the ship.”
Do you need to hire a pilot if you’re flying by private helicopter?
If a passenger charters a helicopter, the cost of the pilot’s service is typically included in the price, and a licensed pilot will be assigned to them. If a passenger were to lease or purchase their own helicopter, however, they generally have to hire a pilot.
According to Spitzer, pilots usually charge by the day — typically between $300 and $1,000.
What are the differences between owning, leasing and chartering a helicopter?
When one charters a helicopter, everything comes included — riders simply board the aircraft and go from point A to point B.
Owning a helicopter means the buyer is in complete control of the use and maintenance of the aircraft — and all the costs that come with them.
When someone leases a helicopter, they sign a longer term contract with the leasee, allowing them full use of the aircraft until the lease term ends. While the initial cost will be less than if they were to purchase a helicopter, they still incur the costs of maintenance that come with owning a helicopter. “Leasing doesn’t get you away from the headaches of owning a helicopter, it’s just a lower cost of entry,” Spitzer says.