ITHACA, N.Y. – You’ve seen the gorges from the rim trails. You’ve peered into Cayuga Lake from a paddle board. You’ve pedaled along the Black Diamond Trail. But Andrew Garcia is willing to bet you haven’t taken in the Tompkins County sights from a helicopter.
Garcia, an Ithaca College alum, is launching Finger Lakes HeliTours this spring in hopes of giving locals and visitors a new perspective on the region.
“We decided to combine our love of aviation with our love of the area,” he said of his family’s decision to settle down in Ithaca and enter the tourism sector. “There’s no better way to share that with people than in the air, combining two magical experiences.”
For Garcia, leading helicopter tours is a natural extension of his years operating commercial skydiving centers and serving as a U.S. Air Force Combat Search and Rescue Pilot.
After graduating from IC, Garcia moved to Boston to pursue a corporate career with Wayfair before moving to an international education company, but the aviation enthusiast soon shifted his focus skyward.
Garcia trained as a private pilot, and from 2013 to 2018 he owned and operated multiple commercial skydiving centers in Massachusetts. He found himself entrenched in a community of aviators, flying planes and overseeing drop zones.
“Unfortunately, in the sport of skydiving, accidents do happen,” Garcia said. In 2014, an instructor and client at Skydive Barnstable, which Garcia then owned and has since sold, were killed when they lost control during a parachute descent. Garcia said, “It was one of those situations where you can do everything right, and something can still go wrong.”
After an investigation, no fault was attributed to the company, but the loss of a friend spurred Garcia to shift his focus toward a new purpose.
“I wanted to do something with a higher aspiration – saving lives,” he said.
Garcia enlisted in the Air Force in 2015 and trained as a helicopter search and rescue pilot. He learned to fly a Pave Hawk, a search and rescue vehicle similar to a Black Hawk, often used for missions like hoisting people trapped on roofs after hurricanes or cut off from roads during wildfires.
“Going through flight school in the Air Force pushed me to fall in love with helicopters,” he said.
After eight moves to seven states over three years with the Air Force, though, Garcia said he is ready to settle down in Ithaca with his wife and two kids. He’ll be on reserve, allowing more time to focus on family and building community inroads while starting the business, he said.
Garcia said he and his wife, who is also an Ithaca College alum, “fell in love with the Finger Lakes from being IC grads and living in town for five years … so we figured let’s move where we want to be long term.”
Finger Lakes HeliTours will take flight on May 1, offering packages from a five-minute “micro-tour” to custom tours of up to two hours. Garcia said he expects the 15 to 20 minute “classic tour” to be the most popular option, treating passengers to a flight over Cayuga Lake with views of sights like Cornell, Ithaca Falls, Taughannock Falls and vineyards. Longer routes will head toward attractions like Robert Treman and Buttermilk Falls State Parks and the Meyers Point Marina and Lighthouse, highlighting a broader range of the area’s features.
The helicopter Garcia will be flying, he said, “comes with all the bells and whistles.” It can carry three passengers in addition to the pilot, and Garcia said its bubble windows “make every seat a window seat.” Kids are welcome, “and you can take grandma as well,” he said, noting that access to the helicopter is wheelchair accessible and that staff can provide help with boarding.
While limited flights might be available in the off-season, most tours will be offered in the summer months when inclement weather will keep fewer flights grounded. Strong gusts and thunderstorms are a no-go, Garcia said, noting the company will keep clients informed about weather delays.
“Being a search and rescue pilot, I think about risk every day,” Garcia said. “We won’t skimp on any safety issues.”
Tours will take off from Taughannock Aviation at the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, and Garcia will also offer flight instruction.
Featured image: A view of Cayuga Lake from South Hill (Jacob Mroczek/Ithaca Voice)