Soaring like a Bird
Flying with Antilles Helicopter Services
Story by Daniel Mejía
The Beauty of the British Virgin Islands has been filling visitors with awe for a long time. Green mountains stand out sharply from the immense blue ocean dotted with sailboats. How amazing would it be to appreciate everything from above, like a bird? I remember discussing this with a neighbor of mine who was giving me a ride from Cane Garden Bay to town once. As fate would have it, that same day I got the chance to meet Ricky Dos Santos, owner of Antilles Helicopter Services. As soon as we met, I mentioned how much I envied the view from his "work place." He smiled and offered to take me around in the helicopter some time, "You won't be disappointed," he said in a friendly manner. I barely knew him at the time so I wasn't about to hold him to his promise so I laughed and forgot about it. Fortunately for me Ricky was serious in his offer.
He called me almost a year later to make good on his promise. We constantly had conflicting schedules and couldn't agree on a day. But we made it work and finally I went on my much-anticipated tour. We met at Beef Island airport, I passed through security, and walked with Ricky straight to the helicopter. The loud sound of the engines revving and the helixes spinning was dynamic and exciting. Ricky gave me a mandatory safety briefing and accommodated me in the front seat next to the young pilot. "Hi I'm Jay!" he shouted, and then proceeded to give me the headset. I hadn't realized how loud that machine was until the moment I put them on. I sat comfortably and anxiously, looking out the windows, not knowing what to expect. Then, soon enough, the helicopter took off. As we were gaining altitude I felt surprised at how steady it was.
We hovered gently over the ocean, making our way to Biras Creek. It was a short and beautiful ride. I saw the sea with the sailboats below us coming and going, gathering around Marina Cay and Scrub Island. Watching the beauty that characterizes the BVI from this angle was an impressive event – the white sandy beaches, surrounded by the blue hues; the transparent turquoise water over the lively coral reef. It was almost like you could see the mountains growing from the bottom of the ocean and surfacing into tiny islands. Nature's unbelievable beauty was in front of me in a very special way. Unlike a plane, the helicopter's flight is soft, gentle and everything looks closer. The islands made a composition that only nature could create so perfectly. In short, Ricky was right I was not disappointed.
We prepared for landing at Biras Creek; meanwhile, two couples who where waiting for the helicopter to take them on a scenic tour around North Sound, were taking pictures of us. They had ridden the resort's bicycle to the helipad and surely felt the same anticipation that I had just a moment before. The couples and I quickly switched places, now they were sitting in the helicopter and I was taking pictures.
Once the helicopter flew away, I had the chance to sit down under the shade of a tree, it was quiet again and Ricky talked a little about his company. I learned that Ricky Dos Santos has been flying privately since 1996, but doesn't fly commercially, he instead hires pilots who are kept on stand-by and are licensed to fly commercially in the BVI. I wondered what made him decide to start a company here in the BVI, and he told me: "I bought a yacht here in 2008 and just fell in love with the place and looking up in the sky I noticed there weren't any helicopters in the air, I thought it was strange since BVI is an island community. So, I looked into it." He had the initiative in 2008 to start Antilles Helicopter Company in the British Virgin Islands, but due to the worldwide economic recession he was forced to wait. Then finally in 2010 he started the process again and two and a half years later the company finally took off.
I asked him what was his main focus when he started the company. "Tourism is the cornerstone of our business plan, but is just one of the services we provide" he then elaborated on how they have collaborated with some local organizations and government agencies. For example they helped VISAR on some rescue missions and also the Ministry of Natural Resources, who they helped monitor some illegal game fishing boats in the BVI's waters.
They've also had their share of medical emergencies: "I don't know if we've saved lives but we've definitively saved some limbs." He told me about a guy who got stung in the foot by a stingray: "We flew him to Peebles Hospital's helipad to get medical assistance. We've also helped people with broken arms, legs, and ribs in Anegada who wouldn't come by boat because of the bouncing."
I quickly understood what he meant by saying that having a helicopter service in the BVI is more than a tourist attraction – it's indispensable. "I don't know what the BVI would do without it," he said. "I believe the helicopter service is certainly essential for an island community like the BVI, where there are only three airports of which two are restricted to the type of aircraft that can land on them." He added that some of BVI's visitors are people that enjoy the convenience of quickly flying from the airport to the private islands, clients like Leonardo Di Caprio, Bradley Cooper and BVI resident Richard Branson and many others.
The sound of the helicopter announced to us that it was approaching, then it got close enough for us to see the faces of the passengers, their expression confirmed to us that the trip was all they expected. We switched places again. Now they were waving good-bye to us with a big smile on their faces. We headed back to Beef Island. Once we landed at the airstrip, I felt grateful for another opportunity where the BVI has surpassed my expectations. And I knew that if I got offered to fly again, there wouldn't be any conflicting schedules.