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Northern Ireland chopper firm joins top flight

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Jason Porter admits starting the firm in 2008 as the downturn loomed was a brave step

He started off selling BMWs in a car showroom. And now Londonderry businessman Jason Porter is watching his dreams take flight as his firm Cutting Edge Helicopters gets set for a bumper year, ferrying tourists, corporate clients, VIPs and newlyweds all over Northern Ireland.

Cutting Edge is the only private hire helicopter firm in Northern Ireland with a valid Aircraft Operators Certificate and was recently also certified to fly in the Republic.

The company has one full-time pilot and two craft immediately available, and has access to other craft and pilots as and when required.

Jason admits starting the firm in 2008 as the downturn loomed was a brave step.

"I originally started it as a flying school," he said.

"I was a car salesman but I had a pilot's license and a passion for flying and I just wanted to turn my passion into my business.

"People did question what I was doing at the time but I had a plan in my head and I just went for it.

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"It was largely self-financed and I have poured a lot of my own money into the firm."

Jason cites a £50,000 investment in new premises – which includes a training area and flight planning facilities as well as walls full of training manuals and safety guides.

He also shelled out £80,000 on one of the current helicopters – each of which have a lifetime of around 12 years and have to be serviced after every 50 hours of flying time.

"Initially I was renting out other people's helicopters. There are lots of business people with helicopters and as their businesses were slowing down, they realised that a helicopter is an expensive asset when not in regular use and hiring them out was a win-win situation for us both," he said.

"As the recession continued I started looking at diversifying.

"With the City of Culture year approaching I thought it would be good to capitalise on that.

"So as well as offering people their pilot training, we branched out into offering guided flights, flight experiences and VIP flights.

"This year is shaping up to be very busy already – we're due to offer flights at events including the North West 200, the Portrush Air Show and Balmoral Show, the first time the show has ever been able to offer helicopter flights because of the new venue at the Maze.

"We've even had a wedding proposal and we recently flew a 90-year-old who had never been in the air before – she said it felt a bit like swimming!"

Cutting Edge is also scheduled to appear at the Dalriada Festival at Glenarm Castle.

"Helicopters are expensive to run and expensive to hire but we think it is important to offer the experience to everyone," said Jason.

"Our short flights at events start at £35."

Trial lessons range from £125 for a 40-minute flight experience to £305 for 90 minutes.

For tours, a 20-minute tour of Londonderry starts at £99 per person right up to £199 for a 90-minute tour of the North Coast, taking in sights from Inishowen in Donegal to Mussenden Temple, the Giant's Causeway, Dunluce Castle and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (above).

The main craft in use are a two- seater Robinson R22 and a four-seater R44.

"The R44 is a really good, popular, all-round helicopter, great to have fun in, if it was a car it would be a BMW 3 Series," said Jason, seemingly finding it tricky to step away from his previous life as a car salesman.

"It really is the best way to see some of our most beautiful landscape.

"Even if you think you've seen all there is to see, the views of the North Coast from a helicopter are just amazing, it looks like a different world.

"I never tire of seeing this country from the air, even our promotional videos, I watch over and over again."

The firm has also branched out into wedding day charters, transport to golfing and other sporting events, corporate days, and aerial photography and surveying.

As well as seeing Northern Ireland at its best, the Cutting Edge team has also seen it at its worst – but even the March snow storms offered an unexpected boost to business.

"We were used by the BBC and UTV to capture footage of the worst affected areas in the north Antrim area," said Jason.

"And we even assisted the communications company Arquiva, to help repair the mast on Divis Mountain – the area was totally inaccessible so we had to fly staff in to help them repair the mast.

"During the recent upgrades to the Belfast to Derry railway line our helicopter was used to photograph progress and make sure all the work was up to standard.

"We're already very busy this summer and with events like the BBC's One Big Weekend and the All-Ireland Fleadh coming to Derry as part of the City of Culture programme, we're hoping it will pick up even more with both tourists and VIP visitors.

"We do have a lot of VIP and corporate clients and it is a great way to show visiting investors the best that Northern Ireland has to offer.

"Transport to golfing venues is also becoming popular."

As well as capitalising on the City of Culture celebrations, the company has also recently partnered with Derry City Council as part of a tourism project entitled 'The Faughan Valley – Discover Rural Derry', which aims to grow visitor numbers, dwell time and spend in some of the lesser-known areas of the north west.

Activity will target local, national and international markets by exploiting the area's natural assets and promoting the rural tourism offering in key areas such as accommodation, activity tourism and rural leisure.

Cutting Edge Helicopters in one of the local businesses Derry City Council is working alongside to promote the positive contribution tourism can provide to the rural economy.

Jason said that while many firms may instinctively want to base themselves closer to Belfast, the beauty of helicopter hire is ease of movement.

"With a lot of firms, location is very important – we've always been based at City of Derry Airport, we have a good relationship with them and other firms in the locality and with a helicopter you can be at any corner of the country in no time," he said.

"That's one of our main selling points, especially for VIP or corporate clients.

"Having said that we are not ruling out expansion into other areas.

"We're delighted to have received approval to fly in the Republic and that will help expand our tours over some amazing scenery in Donegal and further afield.

"Things were quite hard for a while but now we're jam packed and I think it was really important for the business that we diversified.

"Despite the downturn, this is a really good time to be involved in aerospace and aviation, it's a growth industry and people will always have money to spend in this sector."

 

'Look! I can see my old house from here!'

 

"I can see my old house from here!"

In fact I can actually see four of my old houses – there truly is no vantage point like that of a hovering helicopter.

At top speed, we're going at 120mph, but you'd never know it – it feels like walking, and there is plenty of time to take in the sights and take a few photographs.

Above Londonderry, where I lived for the best part of a decade, pilot Paul Gerrard points out everything from the sprawling industrial powerhouses of DuPont and Seagate, to tourist hotspots like the City Walls, St Columb's Cathedral and the Guildhall.

We also get a unique view of the former Ebrington Barracks, now enjoying a new lease of life as the main venue of many of the City of Culture 2013 events.

The city's three bridges – the Craigavon Bridge, the Peace Bridge and the Foyle Bridge, rearing high over the river – look tiny all the way down there.

Further afield we see Inch Island, Lough Swilly and the Inishowen Penninsula and perched high on a hilltop, the ancient squat form of Grianan Fort.

On a clearer day, says Paul, Scotland and the Mull of Kintyre are visible.


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