I’ve been lucky enough during the past decade to explore the Channel Islands in myriad ways: by boat, of course, but also by plane, jeep, raft, kayak, snorkel, and on foot. So when I heard there was now a company offering helicopter tours of the national park—and the surrounding wonders of the Santa Barbara Channel—I was duty-bound to investigate.
On a windy afternoon in November, I found myself at the Oxnard Airport chatting with Channel Islands Helicopters owner Dan Casey, who studied engineering at San Jose State and is certified as an aircraft repairman—and pilot, of course—by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “We’re the only helicopter tour company going out there,” said Casey, who moved to our area less than two years ago after running a successful chopper maintenance business in Burbank, where he watched helicopter tours crisscross the Los Angeles basin.
Not that there isn’t room for more commercial chopper offerings out of Santa Barbara, apparently, because FAA’s license for tour operators—as compared to airline carriers—only grants Casey permission to cover a 25-mile radius, which allows him to fly from, roughly, Malibu to Carpinteria (where he lives) and out toward Anacapa and the east end of Santa Cruz Island. He offers a number of trips, none of which are cheap, but all of which are enhanceable with a $25 champagne boost.
Once we loaded into his “ship”—which is specially enhanced with floats in the event of an emergency water landing—Casey fired up the propellers, joked that he was a “better mechanic than pilot,” and explained that his model was “one of the smoothest helicopters there is.” Minutes later, we were floating above the Oxnard plain and toward the coast, where the only signs of wind inside the cockpit were the blowing trees. (Save for their airspeed, I learned that helicopters aren’t very fazed by wind.) Although the sensation is impossible to describe, flying in the front seat of a chopper is probably a lot like a magic carpet ride—you’re able to move with agility in whatever direction you choose while cutting effortlessly through the sky with the Earth appearing close enough to touch below.
Above the channel on this clear day, we could see for miles and miles, but whitecaps—which started at an invisible border near the oil rigs—obscured possible whale and dolphin spottings, which are another highlight of Casey’s tours. “Oftentimes, there are so many dolphins that they change the color of the water,” said Casey, who promised that he usually sees both whales and dolphins on his flights. “And we can see the whole whale from above.” He said that when he recently flew over a massive blue whale, “It felt like we were flying over a submarine.”
Aside from a couple coastal dolphins, we struck out on the marine-mammal front, but there was plenty of bird activity in the ocean to keep my eyes occupied. And then there were the jaw-dropping views of the islands—after soaring toward the gap between Santa Cruz and Anacapa (which I once crossed on a kayak), we perched above the arch on Anacapa’s eastern tip (which I once paddled through), and drank in views all the way to Santa Rosa Island (where I got engaged) and beyond. It decimated the otherwise world-class views afforded by a hiking day-trip to Anacapa’s Inspiration Point.
On the way back to the airport, we scoped the Channel Islands Harbor, Mandalay Bay resort, McGrath State Beach, Ventura Harbor, and Surfer’s Point before doing an inland turn over Two Trees, the landmark peak overlooking Ventura. It had only been about 30 minutes, but I’d been transported to helicopter heaven and back.
Channel Islands Helicopters offers tours ranging from Surf & Whale (about 20 minutes costs $350 for three passengers) to the Two-Island Tour (40 minutes at $550 for three passengers). For more details and reservations, see channelislandsheli.com or call 512-1371.