A Heli of an Adventure
Soaring above the Kansas City skyline with Johnny Rowlands.
You might find yourself with your significant other, overlooking the Kansas City skyline at dusk from a few hundred feet in the air in the sleek cockpit of a Robinson helicopter, or perhaps flying over I-70 and the Truman Sports Complex, or maybe even looking down on the Country Club Plaza lights during the holiday season. At the same time, you may also find yourself conversing with a friendly and familiar voice, that of Emmy Award winning KMBC-TV News helicopter pilot and reporter, Johnny Rowlands, as he points out the city's most notable sights as you pass by them from overhead.
You may have a quiet fear of air travel, but rest assured that you are in capable hands. An avid flyer who has always been fascinated with aircraft, Rowlands has accrued over 25,000 incident-free flight hours (spanning nearly 40 years) in both airplanes and helicopters.
Rowlands is the founder and CEO of Olathe-based KC Copters, and makes a point to pay special attention so that you will feel at ease while up in the air.
A Love for Flying
Rowlands can't remember a time in his life when he wasn't fixated on aircraft, and feels he was born with the "flying gene." No one else in his family's history was ever an aviator, and he explains his own fascination with flying by joking about a rumor he's heard that "his family's milkman had a pilot's license." Though they didn’t inspire him in anything flight-related, he does acknowledge his late parents as his personal heroes.
“My Dad was a Pearl Harbor survivor who was the most perfect gentleman you could ever imagine,” Rowland recounts. “There's a verse from a Dan Fogelberg song that goes, 'My life is but a poor attempt to imitate the man', and that's how I will always feel about him. My Mom was a Navy WAVE (Women’s Reserve) during the war, and that's where they met. They both had great hearts and an amazing sense of humor. Everybody loved them.”
Regardless of where he inherited his fascination of flight, he takes very seriously the never-ending challenge of trying to fly with precision each and every time in pursuit of the ever elusive perfect flight, he says.
"I've been looking up at airplanes in the sky since I can remember, so wanting to fly was just a natural progression," he says. "I was also a weather geek; just being off the ground, looking down at the view, experiencing the wonder of the weather and the atmosphere. I am perpetually in awe!"
Adventures in Entrepreneurism
“I am somewhat of a serial entrepreneur, albeit on a small scale,” Rowlands says. “I have started several companies over the years. With my passion for helicopter flying I thought it made sense to share that passion by introducing people to the thrill of vertical flight, and I founded KC Copters in 2011 with that very idea.”
Rowlands finds fulfillment in seeing how happy people are after they take one of the flights his company offers, so at the end of the day, he feels like he’s really accomplished something.
“As an entrepreneur, you either evolve or die, so you always have to be coming up with new ideas and strategies,” he says. “The key for me is to just try and stay focused and keep moving forward. I have always wanted my companies to have purpose, so as far as KC Copters is concerned, the fact that I am passionate about helicopter flying makes it easy for me to be enthusiastic about introducing it to others.”
In addition to his entrepreneurial ventures, Rowlands is a big supporter of the Kansas City community, and often donates his flying skills to help with fundraisers for local causes. Earlier this year in Merriam, Rowlands helped police find a suspect they were pursuing by following the man overhead in NewsChopper 9 to a hotel where he was trying to hide.
Rowlands’ company doesn’t just offer tours to sightseers in his fleet of six choppers, he also manages an FAA-approved flight school that trains students to be commercial pilots and certified flight instructors, and then helps them with career placement. For those who just want a taste of helicopter flight instruction, KC Copters features introductory where would-be pilots actually take the controls and fly with a certified flight instructor.
“KC Copters also operates the only Helicopter Flight Simulator in the Midwest, which consists of a self-contained, full scale, exact replica of the cockpit of our Robinson Helicopters and a theater size graphic display,” Rowland says. “I have a lot of guys who have gone through KC Copters who are enjoying great success in the commercial helicopter market. You wouldn't believe how many people walk through our door and tell us flying is something they've always wanted to do. So whether it's for a career, or just for fun, I say ‘Go for it!’ I promise you'll never regret it.”
He doesn’t train pilots himself, but has full confidence in his pilots who do. Rowlands is pursuing partnership programs for the flight school with local community colleges.
In the meantime, he remains busy enough with his reporting for KMBC, running his heli-tour/flight school business, as well as additional entrepreneurial projects, including a driving school he’s in the process of launching with his traffic reporting partner Major Miles, a real estate investment company known as Direct Home Buyers KC, and is soon to launch yet another venture known as BorrowMyTruck.com, which is just like what it sounds, and functions in similar fashion to Uber or Lyft.
Touring KC from the Air, with or without a Date
KC Copters, operating out of both the Johnson County and the Wheeler airports, conducts a variety of helicopter tours around the city, “offering magnificent views of the downtown skyline area, to the Plaza, all the way to Arrowhead and Kauffman Stadiums, or a combination of all three,” says Rowlands. All tours offer romantic package upgrades, featuring wine, roses and commemorative photos.
Rowlands and crew also offer aerial tours of Johnson County, and an "All of Kansas City" tour that hits all of Kansas City's most notable landmarks. New this spring, the company will also be offering “Wine Tasting Tours for Two” that will shuttle guests between the area’s most popular wineries, complete with VIP service and a complimentary bottle of signature wine from each vineyard.
“For those out to experience something new, exciting, different and unique, with friends or loved ones, a helicopter tour is the way to go,” Rowlands says. “I have great and professional people working with me, so expect a professional and enjoyable experience from beginning to end.”
Rowlands frequently flies guests himself, particularly when he donates flights for charity auctions, but for the most part lets his hand-picked crew of pilots take the lead with the tours. He has chosen his pilots, currently up to a crew of three besides himself, as well as his business manager, Ingrid, with care, not only for their expertise and professionalism, but also for their social skills.
“We keep working on our efforts to provide even more exciting heli-adventures, and I see KC Copters as poised for some significant growth on the commercial/tour side,” Rowlands says. “We’re looking forward to an exciting year for the company.”
For more information, visit kccopters.com.