““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Add a heliport to your home
For most private fliers, the ability to drive to a nearby airport and board a waiting business jet affords sufficient convenience. But what if the nearest airport isn't all that near and you often need to take off on short notice, perhaps for places that are themselves not near airports? In that case, adding a heliport to your home could make sense. Here's what you'd need to consider before undertaking such a project.
First, you'd have to determine whether you have the right kind of property. While helicopters are designed to operate from relatively tiny spaces, climbing straight up and landing straight down requires extraordinary power and leaves little margin for safety, especially when a full load of passengers and baggage is aboard. It's far safer to climb out at an angle or approach to land along a descending slope because the extra speed improves the odds of a successful power-off touchdown in case of engine failure.
Generally, a heliport needs an eight-to-one sloped approach and departure flight path, according to attorney Ricarda Bennett, who owns Heliport Consultants of Thousand Oaks, Calif., and chairs the Helicopter Association International's heliports committee. Bennett recommends reviewing the detailed information on heliport design and on how to meet federal regulations in FAA Advisory Circular 150-5390 (available at www.faa.gov).
The FAA doesn't prohibit helicopters from operating most places, so you should be able to land one in your backyard if you can do so safely. And no law says you have to build a helipad to land. The regulations do, however, "require notification to the FAA for any permanent landing area; private versus public use does not matter," according to FAA airports airspace specialist Angie Muder. City, county and state requirements may present greater obstacles, so be sure to check these, too.
If you can afford a helicopter, you can probably afford a helipad. The cost of building a lighted concrete pad large enough for a four-seat, piston-powered Robinson R44 starts at about $15,000, according to Tom Schuman, vice president of sales and marketing at FEC Heliports in Cincinnati. However, he added, an aluminum rooftop pad designed for a turbine-powered executive helicopter and equipped with snowmelt and fire-suppression capability could run $500,000.
You might be able to keep costs down by using what's already on your land, as did a man who built an FAA-approved helipad on his 25-acre property in the Northwest U.S. An existing building designed to house a recreational vehicle and the adjacent concrete pad turned out to be the perfect size for his piston-powered helicopter. The man (who asked not to be named) made his helipad FAA-compliant by constructing a fence around it and showing that the approach and departure flight paths met federal requirements. Luckily, no local rules prohibited this home-based operation, and the nearest neighbors live on 10-acre plots and aren't concerned about the man's relatively infrequent flights.
For other would-be home-heliport owners, however, neighbors' objections can present a formidable obstacle. One excellent way to mitigate such objections, according to Bennett, is to figure out a way to make the helipad benefit the neighborhood.
In areas like Los Angeles, where earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides threaten, a neighborhood helistop might make sense, for example. A helistop is basically a cleared area with safe flight paths where helicopters can operate when necessary. So many Los Angeles neighborhoods in disaster-prone areas are hard to reach by emergency vehicles, Bennett said, that a helistop would allow much faster rescue. And the neighbors might be persuaded to tolerate occasional private helicopter operations if they can see the benefit of having a helistop, especially if it could be used not only as an emergency landing facility but as a staging area for emergency vehicles, she said.
Lacking local approval, if you have the right kind of property, you could always do what Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen did. Allen couldn't get permission to land his helicopter in his Mercer Island, Wash., backyard, so he simply docked his helipad-equipped yacht behind his house.
Attention, Home Shoppers
Don't want to bother with helipad construction, land and legal requirements and addressing neighbors' concerns? If you're in the market for a new home, look for one that already has a helipad. Such properties aren't exactly common but they're out there. The 123-acre Hummingbird Nest Ranch in Simi Valley, Calif., for example, includes a helipad and was still on the market at press time for $75 million. Meanwhile, a condo development in Atlanta called W Atlanta Residences features access to what its marketers claim is "the Southeast's only high-rise residential helipad."