See the Big Apple from the Air with 5 Top NYC Helicopter Companies
A Guide to New York’s Newest Tour Trend
Here is a statement I don’t think many of you will find controversial: New York is the quintessentially American city. Now, the United States is an incredibly diverse country, no doubt about it. From the rain-soaked forests of the Pacific Northwest to the vastness of the Grand Canyon, the muggy low country swamps of South Carolina to the breathtaking expanse of Lake Michigan, the nation contains an amazing assortment of geographical features and surprising subcultures. But the Big Apple holds a special place in pretty much everyone’s heart.
Beholding the Empire State Building. Strolling through Chinatown. Seeing the Statue of Liberty. Enjoying (and debating over) the best pizza the city has to offer. New York offers countless experiences that every American and engaged tourist should enjoy. But one of the newer traditions is a New York helicopter tour.
With paths that take passengers over some of the most well-known landmarks, such tours provide a perspective on New York that you could previously only get from the top of a skyscraper. And not every chopper ride involves lines and crowds and struggling to get a window seat. High-end services have cropped up, some offering luxury versions of standard tours and others even serving as super-speedy taxis.
However, visitors looking to take a helicopter tour in NYC would do well to choose carefully. Read on to learn about the best helicopter tours you can take in New York City.
Basics about NYC Helicopter Trips
As more and more visitors have discovered the draw of viewing New York from the air, scores of helicopter tour companies have sprung up. Each outfit has its own marketing focus and level of service, some offering inexpensive jaunts and others providing white-glove service. Yet most of them share a number of commonalities that you should consider prior to booking a tour.
A large number of operators begin their tours at Downtown Manhattan Heliport (Pier 6, East River; 212-248-7240). Also known as the Wall Street Heliport, it’s a high-traffic area that serves numerous executives, as well as police and medical flights. It has even hosted the president of the United States multiple times.
It’s no wonder that most tour flights originate from this helipad — and that you’ll have to pay an additional fee in order to use it. Be forewarned that each passenger will need to pony up $35 to $40 in addition to the cost of the tour.
Don’t expect the majority of tours to last for lengthy periods of time. They often run anywhere from 12 to 60 minutes, although private rides can offer more flexibility. Most helicopters can accommodate six or seven passengers, and you should expect for those seats to be filled on a public tour.
Such public tours offer the added benefit of lower costs, price guarantees and occasional last-minute deals. Of course, they also have a distinct downside: you could end up sandwiched between two people and without a coveted window seat. For that reason alone, many people opt for a private helicopter tour.
Keep a few more fundamentals in mind as you plan your aerial sightseeing. The city doesn’t allow helicopter tours when games are played in Yankee Stadium or when the president is in town. Additionally, New York banned open-door flights in 2018, so don’t expect to feel the wind whipping around you as you peer down at the Big Apple.
And while operators charge on a per-person basis, they also take weight into account. If you weigh 300 pounds or more, you may need to pay double.
Which Sights Will You See?
Perched as it is right on the tip of Lower Manhattan, the Heliport offers a unique opportunity to visitors and tour operators alike. Those tour times mentioned above might sound somewhat short. But their central location allows you to soak in plenty of sights in a short period of time.
Some tours begin by doglegging west and then north up the Hudson River. They can head as far north as where the Harlem River and the Hudson meet. Some, though, will only draw even with Central Park. Eventually, they bend south, threading their way around Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty before buzzing over Governor’s Island and heading back to the Heliport. A few of the lengthier tours will head further down to Lower New York Bay.
That might not seem like a lot of space to cover, but the density of New York makes it so you’ll see plenty of sights. Those include the following:
The Brooklyn Bridge
Constructed in the mid-19th century, the Brooklyn Bridge hardly qualifies anymore as a world-class suspension bridge. Still, its cable-strung expanse remains an iconic part of NYC and often serves as a backdrop for countless images of downtown proper.
The World Trade Center Site (aka Ground Zero)
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that felled the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center has gone down in history as one of the horrific moments in American history. The soaring pair of buildings no longer graces the skyline, but seeing the memorial site from the air lends it added emotional impact. Two fountains stand in the towers’ foundational footprints, water forever pouring into dark pits.
The Neighborhoods of Soho, Tribeca and West Village
Known for their simultaneously charming and expensive ambiance (Soho), artistic cachet (Tribeca) and bohemian vibe (West Village), this trio of neighborhoods is pure New York.
Located on three historic piers, this historic structure stands (or, rather, floats) in the neighborhood of Hoboken, the legendary birthplace of American baseball. How fitting, then, that Chelsea Piers now serves as a sports-themed entertainment complex. Additionally, NBC Universal has used the location in filming television shows.
The USS Intrepid
Once a World War II aircraft carrier that participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the USS Intrepid has survived longer than any might have imagined. Struck four times by kamikaze pilots during the conflict, it survived both the Second World War and continued on until its decommissioning in 1974. Since 1982, it has served as the centerpiece of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.
The Lincoln Center
The Lincoln Center regularly hosts some of the world’s finest musicians, singers and dancers. Its 16-acre complex boasts a who’s who of architectural stars as part of its pedigree.
Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument
A temple-like edifice that recalls ancient Greece, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is the result of a late-19th century architectural competition. It has played an integral part in New York’s Memorial Day celebration.
The General Grant National Memorial
The largest mausoleum in North America, the General Grant National Memorial (aka Grant’s Tomb) serves as the final resting place for America’s 18th president and his wife. It’s also surrounded by the picturesque environs of Riverside Park.
This historic Episcopalian building is almost as synonymous with high finance as New York’s iconic bull. Standing at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, it rises in its Gothic Revival splendor, a tribute to the nation’s religious heritage that stretched back before its founding.
George Washington Bridge
The George Washington Bridge doesn’t have quite the same cachet as the Brooklyn Bridge, but it has plenty of historical significance. It once could claim to be the world’s longest bridge and is currently the busiest bridge. What’s more, it became the focal point of a 2013 scandal that severely damaged the political fortunes of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty
What more can we say than has already been said? Millions of Americans can trace their heritage back to these two icons, an administrative way station and an icon of hope. Few things are more American than Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and few sites are as “must see” on a trip to New York as they are.
Combining historical significance with outdoor attractions, Governor’s Island serves as a stark contrast to the rest of the city. This one-time military encampment during America’s Revolutionary War period now is more than 170 acres of garden area.
Of course, just because numerous helicopter tour companies visit these sites doesn’t mean they’re all essentially the same. Read on to learn about some of the most common and some of the best outfits in New York.
Best Heli Tours
With tours ranging from a brisk 12 to 15 minutes or a relatively leisurely half an hour, HeliNY provides a wide arrangement of flights for visitors of all interest levels and budgets. The company launches its helicopters from both Downtown Manhattan Heliport and New Jersey’s Linden Municipal Airport.
Founded in 1985 by two veteran pilots with more than 60 years combined experience, Helicopter Flight Services flies Bell 407GX and Airbus EC130-T2 choppers. Additionally, HeliNY is certified with numerous professional and safety-relation flight organizations.
For fliers primarily interested in a quick jaunt, The New Yorker Tour ($189 USD per person) hits the high points in about the time it takes to watch a YouTube video from your favorite influencer. A lengthier Deluxe Tour ($319 USD per person) hits more sites, but the VIP: Air and Sea Show ($279 USD per person) splits the difference, combining the New Yorker Tour with a harbor cruise.
Sign up for the City Lights Experience ($229 USD per person) to enjoy a nighttime flight that visits different areas of the Big Apple.
Wings Air Helicopters
When price is no concern, Wings Air Helicopters has high-end options for those with discriminating tastes. Unlike other companies, its standard public tours of New York ($290 USD per person) launch from Westchester Airport in nearby White Plains.
Although these tours hit many of the sites listed above, they don’t reach lower Manhattan and entirely skip the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Private tours flying the same routes cost $695 USD and can accommodate a maximum of three passengers.
30-minute private tours launching from Manhattan ($1,750 USD) get even more posh, taking in familiar sights with a guide and featuring a champagne toast. Want to propose midair? You can by taking a tour that starts in Westchester ($695 USD). The champagne comes complimentary and add-ons include a “Marry Me” sign, professional photographer and round-trip transfer back.
Those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city can arrange for a private trip for the family to the 150-year-old, upstate Mohonk Mountain House.
Zip Aviation combines the luxurious options with standard tour offerings. Its Liberty Harbor Helicopter Tour ($209 USD per person), Big City Helicopter Tour ($289 USD per person) and Grand Island Helicopter Tour ($349 USD per person) offer familiar experiences at competitive rates. However, Zip Aviation also adds another element to its sky-high options: point-to-point chartered flights.
Yearning to make a hop out to the Hamptons? Zip can get you to Westhampton ($2,600 USD one way, $3,100 USD round-trip), Southampton ($2,900 USD one way, $3,850 USD round-trip) and Easthampton ($3,250 USD one way, $3550 USD round-trip). The company also offers flights to Atlantic City ($3,250 USD one way, $3,550 USD round-trip) and Philadelphia ($3,100 USD one way, $3,450 USD round-trip).
Additionally, Zip has airport transfers, promising that “we can get you to JFK, Newark, LaGuardia, or Teterboro in 15 minutes or less!”
Substituting a helicopter for a car or taxi might sound more than a little extravagant. But outfits like BLADE serve as a testament to just how ubiquitous air service has become in the Big Apple. BLADE provides travel from Manhattan to the Hamptons (approximately $800 USD per seat) and to JFK, Newark and LaGuardia airports (starting at $195 USD per seat).
The service has other point-to-point travel options across the country. In addition to New York, BLADE sells flights in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Florida, the Bahamas, Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
On paper, BLADE is simply a transportation company, not a tour company. However, it offers such flexibility in booking and chartering that there’s no reason you can’t make your own tour flight. BLADE Anywhere Charters let users create their own custom routes. They can purchase use of the whole helicopter or crowdsource out a particular flight so they don’t have to foot the entire bill.
Just to show the popularity of short-range air travel, Uber is planning to launch its own on-demand helicopter service in New York starting July 9. It’s name? Uber Copter.
New York’s largest helicopter tour company may also be its most economical. Its Harbor View Tour runs a relatively inexpensive $149 USD per person, as does its City Lights Ride (please note that the latter only flies during autumn and winter). Tours that take in the George Washington Bridge ($204 USD per person), as well as Central Park and Grant’s Tomb ($285 USD per person), are similarly inexpensive. Liberty Helicopters also offers experiences beyond aviation.
A Soar and Sail tour combining a helicopter ride with a harbor cruise will set you back $229 USD per person. Other options provide a double-decker tour bus ride along with your chopper tour ($273 USD per person). Like many other outfits, Liberty Helicopters allows for custom charters. The company prides itself on permitting pets and luggage in addition to allowing passengers to bring food.
The company states that it will fly to any destination within a 300-mile radius of New York City (Boston to Washington, D.C.).” Other service options include transport to all New York and New Jersey airports, flights to gold courses and trips to casinos. Charter flights also fly 24 hours a day.
It’s easy to understand why the more-than-30-year-old company has a large slice of the NYC helicopter tour pie. However, Liberty Helicopter’s safety record has made some take pause. As of 2018, USA Today reported that Liberty had suffered three crashes within 11 years, two of them with fatalities. That leads to another topic: safety.
How Can You Determine If Your Tour Operator Is Safe?
The overwhelming majority of helicopter flights in New York are safe, including those with Liberty Helicopters. However, different customers have different tolerances for risk, and it makes sense to suss out a company’s safety record prior to booking with it. So how do you do that?
Go Visit Hawaii has a worthwhile guide on how to vet any helicopter tour company. Start with a National Transportation Safety Board search. The NTSB maintains a database that lists all accidents in the United States and Canada. Begin by entering in a date range and specifying the city and state. Then set the category to “Helicopter.” (Note that the NTSB allows you to investigate craft as ordinary as an airplane and as exotic as a glider, blimp, dirigible or gyroplane.) Leave the the operation type set to “All,” then “Submit Query.”
There’s another simpler step you can take. Make sure that the tour company operator is an FAA Part 135 Air Carrier. This certification holds companies to higher standards, and those with it are likely safer.
Other suggestions are a bit more common sense. Newer helicopters tend to have fewer accidents, while newer pilots generally make more mistakes. Pay attention to safety demonstrations, because they could mean the difference between life and death during an emergency. Finally, never fly during bad weather.
Here’s some good news for those suddenly worried about that their helicopter might inexplicably plunge to earth. Fortunately, our inquiry from 2009 to 2019 only turned up four incidents. So enjoy your bird’s eye view of the Big Apple! It’s the experience of a lifetime.