If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I visited New York on an impromptu trip earlier this week, and along the way, I booked an even more impromptu airport transfer experience with BLADE Helicopters.
The Story of Me & Helicopters
Like any kid who played action video games in his youth, I had always been somewhat fascinated by helicopters and wondered what it would be to ride on one.
But somehow, the right occasion never seemed to come around – for example, helicopter tours at popular destinations would strike me as far too expensive, and I’d always shrug my shoulders and think “next time”.
That was all supposed to change on my birthday a few years ago. I told my girlfriend Jessy that I’d love to do a helicopter tour around Toronto for my birthday, and she was happy to make all the arrangements.
I was so excited to finally be stepping onboard a helicopter and experiencing the sensation of a vertical lift-off. The chaos of the rotors disappearing from view as they gain speed, the roar of the spinning blades, and indeed, the element of danger in the fact that whereas a fixed-wing aircraft can still glide to safety in the case of critical engine failure, the same occurrence onboard a helicopter would most likely spell certain death.
I was giddy with excitement in the build-up to my first helicopter ride, and I talked to Jessy about it all the time in the months leading up to my birthday.
You can therefore imagine the emotions I went through when we showed up at FlyGTA at Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport, and were escorted out onto the tarmac to board…
…a fixed-wing aircraft!
Jessy had tried her best and had genuinely thought we were booking a helicopter tour, but somehow, I don’t know what happened, but it ended up being a regular plane instead.
Of course, I didn’t want to make her feel bad, so I still had a great time flying around Toronto and taking in the skyline views, but I can’t deny that a part of me was silently thinking “but… but… this is just a normal takeoff roll like all the other times! I wanted a vertical lift-off!”
Anyway, Jessy and I can laugh about that nowadays 😉, but it still left me craving my maiden ride onboard a helicopter.
So as I was making plans with a friend in New York and talking about how I’d be cutting it close on my way back to LaGuardia in the afternoon, I half-jokingly said, “Maybe I’ll take one of those helicopters.”
And then I remembered One Mile at a Time writing about BLADE Helicopters and thought… “Hey, why don’t I take one of those helicopters?!”
Booking My BLADE
BLADE is like the Uber for helicopters. They charter helicopters from the various NYC-based operators for one full day at a time, and then allow their customers to make on-demand bookings on the various routes they offer.
BLADE started out offering journeys between Manhattan and the Hamptons, but then expanded into the airport transfer market. These days, they operate three routes serving New York’s airports both-ways:
New York JFK (JFK) to W 30 St Heliport
New York LaGuardia (LGA) to Downtown Manhattan Heliport
Newark (EWR) to E 34 St Heliport
Their schedule typically begins around 7am in the morning and ends around 5pm in the evening. Since I was planning to head back to LaGuardia around 6pm, it turns out I couldn’t make it for the afternoon return journey as I originally wanted.
Sitting at the departure gates at Montreal Trudeau International Airport at 5:30am in the morning, I therefore began planning an impromptu helicopter ride for the morning. I could catch the 8:40am service from LaGuardia to Manhattan, and then I’d have plenty of time to make it to my commitments in town.
It all seemed like it would work out very well, so once I boarded the plane, I immediately set out to confirm my booking before I lost my data connection.
On the BLADE website, I chose my desired route (LGA to Manhattan) and entered my flight arrival time and flight number.
The next page allows you to choose from a few add-ons. BLADE’s airport transfers begin at US$195 one-way per person, and you are limited to a personal item (like a backpack or laptop bag) as well as one carry-on bag of up to 25 lbs or 11 kg.
Things get tricky if you’re travelling with heavier luggage – you aren’t able to bring the heavier bags onboard the helicopter, so BLADE offers an expedited luggage pick-up and drop-off service which begins at US$350, which is a hell of a lot of money. The service is definitely most suited to those who are travelling light.
The other add-ons included an uncharge for a flexible ticket at US$85, a personalized meet-and-greet service at US$125, and a sedan transfer from the BLADE Lounge in Downtown Manhattan to your final designation at US$100. Needless to say, all of these felt like they were geared towards people with far higher disposable incomes than myself, so I skipped through to the next page.
You are presented with a summary of your itinerary, and also given an offer for 20% off your return journey if you pre-book now.
Finally, it’s the checkout page. I ended up using a referral code for US$50 off my first journey, which brought the total down to US$145. If you’d like to try BLADE out for yourself and get US$50 off as well, you can use my referral code RichardZ978 to sign up for an account!
Boom, right before we pushed back from the gate, I entered my payment information and got the job done. Given the short-notice nature of the booking, I was especially curious how the airport transfer experience would play out…
The BLADE Helicopter Experience
I didn’t have any checked bags and had already pre-cleared US customs in Montreal, so I proceeded straight out to baggage claim at LaGuardia airport. Unfortunately, I had some trouble locating my driver, since I was supposed to receive a text from him and my Canadian phone number wasn’t in use at the time (I was using my KnowRoaming number instead).
Thankfully, my driver Hazem and I were able to get in touch via email, and we found each other after wandering around Terminal B for a little while. Hazem, who works as the BLADE dispatcher in LaGuardia, immediately escorted me to the private driver who was waiting curbside. This was starting to feel very real very fast!
It was only about 8:15am by this point, so Hazem informed me that he’d drop me off in BLADE’s waiting shelter by Terminal A as he went to collect another passenger for that morning’s flight. I sipped on some of the complimentary Fiji Water and made use of the phone charger on the brief inter-terminal ride.
BLADE uses the SheltAir lounge as its pre-flight shelter here at LaGuardia Terminal A. The shelter had a small seating area, some snack vending machines, and a complimentary coffee setup. The staff there were also very kind, welcoming me to the lounge and asking if I wanted anything to drink.
I waited in the lounge, simmering in excitement and scarcely able to believe that I was finally about to board a helicopter.
At 8:40am, when Hazem still hadn’t showed up though, I began wondering whether something had gone wrong. I was certainly not about to let my first helicopter ride slip from my grasp this time!
I asked the staff if they could give BLADE a call, and it turns out that the flight had simply been delayed due to weather, and that the pilots were very close to arriving on the inbound flight. Indeed, a few minutes later, the staff member escorted me out and we linked up again with Hazem and the other passenger.
I expected that we’d be entering some kind of airport terminal to board the flight, but nope – we made our way to a nondescript chain-link fence, where the SheltAir staff member unlocked the gate for us…
…and we were invited to board a private car across the tarmac!
Wow! Memories of the private car transfer from the Lufthansa First Class Terminal came flooding in, except it felt even more private and intimate this time given that we were being driven to a two-person helicopter ride into Manhattan.
Note that I was absolutely bursting with excitement by this point, but I tried not to let it show too much, since my fellow passenger was the dressed-up businessman type of guy and I didn’t want to act like too much of a man-child.
Our drive across the tarmac took all but 30 seconds. I almost didn’t even see the helicopter as we approached it – it looks like a tiny little grasshopper against a backdrop of airplanes and jets!
The pilots had already revved up the engines by the time we arrived, and Hazem told us to just get off the car and proceed straight onboard.
Hazem raced ahead us and helped open the door to the helicopter, and before I knew it, I was stepping onto the dock of a helicopter and then into the cabin for the very first time!
This was an Xcel Bell 407 helicopter, with capacity for two crew members and five passengers. On this flight, it was just me and the other passenger, so we took up the forward-facing seats on either side of the windows.
Hazem went back to the car to retrieve the other guy’s carry-on bag, and then helped us strap in our seatbelts and put on our headsets. As soon as we had done so, the captain turned around to speak to us, although of course we could only hear him through the headset amidst the whirr of the rotors overheard.
The captain informed us of a flight time of seven (7!) minutes to Manhattan, and also gave us some necessary information in the case of an unplanned stop on the East River – specifically, we were instructed to open the windows using a lever by our seats and then make our way to the front of the helicopter no matter what happens, because the spinning tail rotor can easily result in an untimely death.
With that, he turned around and revved up the motors another notch. As I heard the rotors spinning into a higher gear, so too was my excitement ratcheting up even further and further, and it took every fibre of my being not to turn to the stone-faced wealthy person sitting next to me and shout “OMG isn’t this so awesome?!”
The rotors spun at top speed for what seemed like ages, and then, just like that, we were hovering a few inches off the ground, then a few feet, then a few hundred feet.
Vertical lift-off, complete.
The views… oh man, the views were out of this world. We had birds-eye views of LaGuardia Airport as we left it behind, and then we drank in the views of the East River. The best was still yet to come, though.
At first we were flying in a westerly heading, so the buildings of Manhattan were on our left-hand side. I momentarily thought that I should’ve sat on the left side of the cabin instead, regretting that I was so hasty in my excitement during the boarding process and hadn’t really considered where I should sit.
But then, just a few minutes after takeoff, we banked southwards and began flying along the East River in the direction of Downtown Manhattan, so I was treated to all the killer views of the Upper East Side, and then Midtown, and then the East Village.
On this journey from LGA to Manhattan, sitting on the right side of the cabin is definitely the way to go, whereas you’d choose to sit on the left side if you were flying in the opposite direction.
The buildings absolutely flew by, I tell you. Oh, there’s the UN Headquarters! And it’s gone. There’s the Brooklyn Bridge! And it’s gone.
In the distance, I could make out the Chrysler Building, the Empire State, and One WTC as they meandered by the skyline at a slower pace.
It felt absolutely surreal when we approached the very tip of Manhattan and our landing pad came into view, a thin strip of a few helipads jutting out into the water.
We banked around and approached the helipad from the south, our pilots executing a smooth landing on the tarmac to bring the seven-minute journey to an end.
Those seven minutes had been gone in a flash. BLADE is no doubt an incredibly efficient way to travel from the airport into the city, but part of me wishes they’d do a few go-arounds of the island just for fun!
Anyway, we were escorted into the Downtown Manhattan Heliport facility, where BLADE has a dedicated lounge for departing and arriving passengers.
We were greeted by a friendly BLADE representative who was available to help us make onward transport arrangements, although I was content to simply relax in the lounge for a bit, enjoy some of the complimentary snacks, and upload my Instagram stories of the helicopter experience.
After that, I stepped out of the doors on the other side of the heliport, and found myself face-to-face with the fast-moving traffic on FDR Drive. I could scarcely believe that I had been in LaGuardia Airport only about 20 minutes ago!
After taking a moment to get my bearings straight, I embarked on the 20-minute walk to my WeWork office for the day, and I remained on a high from the BLADE experience for the rest of my day in New York.
My first helicopter ride was riveting, thrilling, exhilarating – everything I had imagined it to be. I’m so happy that I got to check this little item off my bucket list. And the fact that it was booked on such an impromptu basis, and that it gave me the unbelievable convenience of getting from the airport into Downtown Manhattan in the space of seven minutes, was only the icing on the cake.
It will be very difficult not to make a habit out of taking BLADE every time I’m in New York, although I know deep down that I can’t really justify the cost beyond merely trying out the experience (yet!) If you’re already comfortable paying for Uber rides to the airport, then I could see scenarios in which taking BLADE might make sense (such as on a day with particularly bad traffic), although the value proposition quickly falls apart if you have any checked luggage. And of course, there’s always the more prudent option of taking public transit as well.
But hey, you know what they say – time is money! If you’d like to give BLADE a try, whether for its unbeatable convenience factor or simply to experience a helicopter ride for yourself, feel free to use my referral code RichardZ978 to book your first ride for US$145.