Alpine Aviation offers helicopter tours
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
A Carbondale native, and fifth-generation scion of the Sewell ranching family, is hoping to make his mark on the Roaring Fork Valley from above — specifically, from the pilot’s seat in a helicopter taking leaf-peepers, search-and-rescue personnel, real-estate buyers, environmentalists and other interested parties on rides that give a new meaning to the concept of “high altitude touring.”
Alex Sewell, 32, and his business, Alpine Aviation, are now up and running with a relatively small, four-seater helicopter called a Robinson R44, operating out of the Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport under the motto, “Helicopter Tours For Business Or Pleasure.”
Sewell, who with his brother also runs the family ranch along Thompson Creek just south of Carbondale, told The Sopris Sun recently that it his new business represents a long-held dream.
“I always wanted to fly helicopters, ever since I was a little kid,” he said, explaining that while flying was the basic motivation, he really was intrigued by the very complexity of piloting a “chopper.”
“Helicopters take a lot more than a fixed wing plane,” he said. “With a fixed wing, taking off and landing are the hard parts, when you’re up in the air it’s pretty simple — depending on what you’re flying, of course.”
But, he continued, “With a helicopter, you’re using both your hands, both your feet, and there’s just a lot more going on all the time.”
He tried working at various jobs around the Roaring Fork Valley, he said, but couldn’t find anything that really grabbed his attention.
“I went and worked a bunch of jobs where it wasn’t what I really wanted to do,” he recalled, so he started looking around for ways to do something he knew he would love. And he found it in a flight school in Boise, Idaho, which was recommended to him by some friends who had gone through the training.
So to Idaho he went, and after a year’s worth of training he got his license to do certain types of flying, and went to work for a flight-school training business he started with some friends and financial backing from an investor, as well as doing some contract work outside the flight-school duties.
The flight school ultimately folded when the investor backed away, but in the meantime Sewell had been busy with other contacts and contracts.
It was while he was flying a leased aircraft in the state of Washington, he said, that he got his big break.
He was doing what is known as “cherry drying,” which involves hovering over drenched cherry orchards after a heavy rain to drive away any lingering moisture that might be absorbed into the trees and “split” the fruit.
He became friendly with the Idaho-based owners of the helicopter he was flying, and when he expressed his desire to bring the bird down to his home valley and see if he could make a living with it, the owners gave him their blessing and a contract to use their helicopter for six months on a trial basis.
“What better place is there to do tours than the Roaring Fork Valley,” he asked rhetorically. “I think this (business) will do well, and I’m flying around the place I love, doing what I love. I couldn’t ask for much more in life.”
He also met his girlfriend, Hayley Soito, while he was in the Boise area, and the two recently relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley together.
Another reason for trying his luck here in Colorado, Sewell said, was his perception that there is a need for his type of service and it is a need that currently is not being filled following the death in 2014 of longtime local helicopter pilot Doug Sheffer.
Scheffer died while conducting routine aerial inspections of some power lines near Silt, and had often worked with law enforcement agencies and rescue organizations, doing search and rescue operations and other tasks.
“I never got to meet Doug Scheffer,” Sewell said, “but I knew there was a gap (in helicopter services in this area). I mean, there was nobody offering these services.”
Currently, Sewell is limited by his type of license to conducting “non-stop tours … that means I have to pick up and drop off at the same airport.”
A more advanced license would allow him to fly “charter” services, meaning he could fly to other spots in the region beside his base airport, ferrying passengers and dropping them off in remote locations, for instance.
And that is a license he plans to obtain if the business takes off (so to speak) and appears to be viable in the long term.
For now, though, he has been taking tourists on rides to see the fall colors, worked with some videographers seeking birds-eye images of the valleys, and has gone on cattle-finding missions for local ranchers.
“They know I’m a Sewell, our family knows all the other ranchers around the valley, so they called me,” Sewell said. “I can find cows a lot faster than someone on horseback. It makes it cost effective for them, and I get to fly.”
In particular, he hopes do such things as search-and-rescue operations, and flying environmentalists and other observers over some of the terrain that has been subject to controversial oil-and-gas exploration, such as the Thompson Divide.
“I want to do what I can to help,” he said of the effort to keep energy drilling out of the Thompson Divide area. “That’s our back yard, and it’s very important to us.”
Currently, he said, the half-hour tour is the most popular with his customers, who pay $120 per person for the ride.
“You can see a lot in half an hour,” he remarked.
The pricing is based on an hourly rate of $700 per hour for a maximum of three people, and he’ll take people up for 15 minutes.
Alpine Aviation can be contacted by phone at 214-790-8997.
Published in The Sopris Sun on October 15, 2015.