The Real Helicopter Parents

Families are paying big bucks to put their kids behind the stick.

Mark Robinson takes 16-year-old Dominic Puntoriero on a training flight in an R44. (Courtesy Mark Robinson)
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Becoming a “den leader” to kids in choppers is not how Mark Robinson foresaw his career, but that’s what the chief pilot of Revolution Aviation has been since opening his helicopter flight school in 2013. The school operates at John Wayne Airport, which caters to the wealthy in Orange County, California—where super-yachts dominate the harbor, Ferraris and Bentleys tool up the Pacific Coast Highway, and parents wanting helicopter lessons for their kids can easily front up to $1,000 an hour.

Robinson, who was raised in a mud hut by missionary parents in the African country of Cameroon, finds the new kind of clients surprising. Take the 14-year-old whose parents have budgeted over $100,000 for weekly lessons. “As soon as he gets his pilot’s license, his dad wants to buy a helicopter so his son can chauffeur him around,” says Robinson, a former safety helicopter pilot. “Instead of sports after school, parents are putting their kids in helicopters. They think having a helicopter pilot’s license on an application will help their kids get into college.”

To be eligible for a license, kids need 40 hours of flight time at 17. But they’re starting as young as 12, which means, if they fly every week, costs quickly soar. “If they waited until their kid was 16 to start lessons,” says Robinson, “a pilot’s license would only run about 12 thousand.” But parents don’t wait, so you have pre-pubescents logging years of pricey flight hours in Robinson R22s, R44s, and R66s. Parents end up spending almost as much on junior’s flying lessons as they would for his college education.

For the kids, there’s no glamour in fixed-wing flying. They belong to the verticraft generation (most have toy quadcopters at home). Beyond that, they aren’t interested in thinking as far ahead as their parents do. “They don’t know what they want,” says Robinson. “They want everything!”

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