Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera says the city doesn't regulate helicopter rides and doesn't charge Oregon Helicopters anything for using the landing pad—meaning that motorists who park for an hour ($1.80) in the city-owned SmartPark garage beneath the heliport are contributing more to city coffers than Oregon Helicopters is.
"PBOT has no contracts with any helicopter companies," says Rivera. "The Portland Downtown Heliport is a public heliport. Therefore, any appropriately licensed pilot is allowed to utilize the heliport."
Oregon Helicopters also benefits from what amounts to a loophole in Federal Aviation Administration regulations: Because Oregon Helicopters' tours depart from and arrive at the same spot, the flights, in regulatory terms, don't actually go anywhere. That means the company does not need to obtain commercial air carrier certification.
Joe Mullihan, a spokesman for the FAA, says that's standard for sightseeing helicopters, which aren't allowed to travel more than 25 miles per flight. "They take off from the spot," he says, "they give them a quick tour, then back to the same spot they took off from."
So what's it like? We bought one of the shorter trips: the 10-minute, $75 "City Parks Helicopter Tour."
An elevator carries Oregon Helicopters' passengers to the roof of the garage at Northwest Naito Parkway and Davis Street. The aircraft looks small against the sweeping backdrop of the Steel Bridge and Convention Center spires rising in the distance. We'll be navigating that expanse and more in something about the size of a compact car.
Before boarding, our pilot demonstrates how to open the helicopter's door in case of an emergency; even if you mimic his movements, an anxious flier could be forgiven for forgetting everything he says a few minutes later. What does stick in the brain, however, are his instructions about which direction to head if things go wrong: Walk to the front of the chopper, never the back, which is where the tail's rotor is spinning, effectively acting as a human-sized food processor if you don't pay attention.
Once we're buckled into our seats and have headsets on, the giant blades above our heads begin spinning, slowly, then pick up speed, and the fuselage starts to rattle. It's jarring. But as we begin to lift off the patch of concrete, everything smoothes out. A burst of adrenaline kicks in as we buzz over bridge after bridge. The pilot prepares us for our first sharp turn, and when we take that deep dip to the left it feels like riding a roller coaster. The route then veers above the rolling acres of Forest Park, a seemingly endless shag rug of evergreens from this vantage point. Pittock Mansion might as well be a doll's house about to be swallowed by the wilderness.
Soon, we're laughing at traffic on Highway 26, because all of our lanes are wide open, while down below us is a ribbon of red brake lights. Ten minutes in a chopper feels more like two.