Private jets are the ultimate symbol of our new Gilded Age: Ever more popular with the very wealthy, they have induced a sort of hand-wringing among more progressive-minded billionaires.
Abigail Disney now eschews them; famous environmentalists including Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry have been publicly pilloried for using them. Still, they’re selling better than ever — tax breaks passed by President Trump in 2017 helped with that.
Less glamorized, and for that reason perhaps less examined, is the other aircraft of the 1 percent: private helicopters. More often chartered than owned, helicopters (and their use by the rich and famous) have flown under the cultural radar.
That changed this past weekend, when Kobe Bryant chartered a private helicopter to take him from his home in Orange County, Calif., to his sports academy near Thousand Oaks, some 80 miles north. The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76, crashed in thick fog in a mountainous area, killing all nine people on board, including Mr. Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
Mr. Bryant’s tragic death at the age of 41 has turned a spotlight on the little-considered world of private helicopters, and on how V.I.P.s use them.
Those who didn’t closely follow the former N.B.A. star’s career with the Los Angeles Lakers may have been surprised to learn that Mr. Bryant used helicopters the way many people use a car. He commuted to work by copter, flying to Lakers home games and to practices, covering a distance in 20 minutes by air that could take two hours on the gridlocked streets of Los Angeles.
According to a 2010 GQ profile, Mr. Bryant viewed a helicopter like a whirlpool tub or his custom Nikes: as a way to preserve and care for his body. And, it got him home in time to pick up his daughters from school.
But if the private jet has become a billionaire’s toy (“a huge indulgence,” as Bill Gates called his $40 million Bombardier BD-700 Global Express), the private helicopter has long been regarded as more utilitarian. It has limited, specific applications — mostly, to beat traffic.
“It’s a tool for businesspeople to move quickly across the city,” said Dan Sweet, the director of public relations for Helicopter Association International, a trade group.
The cities with the greatest volume of helicopter traffic have two things in common: a concentration of wealthy residents and horribly congested roads. That’s why the loud whir of rotors isn’t a facet of daily life in Dallas or Miami, say, where the highways are relatively wide open. But in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Mexico City, the noise, and the machines making them, abound.
You could add a third factor: less regulation. London and Washington, D.C., to name two other clogged metros, have more restricted airspace, and therefore fewer helicopters zooming overhead.
Rich Brazilians in São Paulo have been flying from helipad to helipad for decades, making use of one of the largest fleets of helicopters in the world.
People who can afford it have been commuting by helicopter since the 1970s, according to Mr. Sweet. “It started with the Bell 206,” he said, referring to a model of small, twin-blade rotorcraft manufactured by Bell Helicopter. “Everybody saw it as a cool way to get across town. Then Sikorsky released the S-76” — a model that carries up to 12 passengers and costs $13 million — “and it was the sexy business machine.”
At some point in the 2000s, it became a thing for upper-income Manhattanites to take a helicopter out to the Hamptons instead of sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway in the very proletariat Jitney.
Along with tennis courts and 10-car garages, the homes of the rich and famous began to include helipads. Billy Joel built one on his Long Island waterfront estate to be whisked to gigs at Madison Square Garden. The tech titans of Silicon Valley are the latest to take wing, with venture-backed helicopter start-ups like Blade and Uber Copter.
On television, the private helicopter, like the Gulfstream, is a rich-guy prop. But the rotor blades spinning at 500 revolutions per minute add a bit of danger.
The opening credits of “The Apprentice” featured the Sikorsky owned by Donald Trump as he walked away, in slow motion, from it to the tune of “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays. The family of media barons at the center of HBO’s “Succession” seem to travel exclusively by helicopter. To prepare for his role as the heir Roman Roy, Kieran Culkin had to learn how to emerge from a helicopter without reflexively ducking like an amateur.
Still, real-life millionaires and billionaires tend not to fall for helicopters the way they do for jets, even if they can own one for a fraction of the cost. The fanciest ones, like the Airbus model with an interior by Hermès, resemble limos on the inside (though few, if any, can accommodate amenities like bedrooms and bathrooms).
And then there’s the matter of range. “The amount of time you’re in the helicopter doesn’t make it worth it,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation industry analyst. “In the high-end business jets, you could fly to Britain and even Asia. That’s why you see the customization. A helicopter, you’re doing your crossword for 30 minutes and you get off.”
Pete Peterson, the late billionaire investor, was one person who decided the cost to time-saved ratio was worth it. Mr. Peterson splurged on a helicopter to get to his Hamptons weekend house and kept a needlepoint pillow in his Fifth Avenue apartment that said, “You never know how many friends you have until you get a helicopter.”
Other helicopter owners include Michael Bloomberg, who pilots his own $4.5 million Agusta chopper, and the actor Harrison Ford, also a licensed pilot who in true action-hero fashion once rescued a dehydrated hiker in Idaho.
But most simply charter helicopters as needed, as Mr. Bryant routinely did. In the wake of the crash that killed him, helicopter charter businesses have largely steered clear of the media. Calls to several firms in New York and Los Angeles went unreturned or were met with “no comment.”
A woman who answered the phone at National Helicopter Service in Van Nuys, Calif., which bills itself as “the original helicopter service in L.A.,” took exception when asked to discuss the basic workings of the industry.
“I don’t understand why everybody is asking this question. I don’t understand what’s interesting about it,” the woman said, adding, “we don’t need more articles about how the peons are sitting down in traffic while the rich fly above them. It hurts our industry.”
If anything, private helicopter usage is set to grow, so long as bills like the one proposed last year by New York lawmakers to limit air traffic don’t pass. The helicopter start-ups are already aiming to turn a ride to the airport from an extravagance into a more within-reach splurge. Prices start at about $200.
Last December, one traveler discovered that through Uber it was cheaper for her to take a helicopter to John F. Kennedy Airport than a car, posting her incredulous reaction to Twitter. For $101.39 (a limited promotion), she could move through the world like one of the billionaire Roys, however briefly.