RANTOUL — Aaron Wozencraft said his helicopter business has been “up and down” during the coronavirus pandemic.
And he wasn’t making a joke.
Business with his Summer Skyz company is starting to take off again (pun intended) as restrictions have been eased and people are able to get back in the pilot’s seat and additional services have been made available.
Summer Skyz owns seven helicopters and employs four pilots, has facilities in Rantoul and suburban Chicago and teaches pilot wannabes how to fly.
“From mid-March until about a month ago we were affected” by the quarantine, Wozencraft said. “We’re still being incredibly careful ourself.”
He estimated business has returned to about 70 percent of what it should be.
Friday afternoon, pilot Jennifer Tremblay of Urbana took a reporter up on his first-ever helicopter ride.
With no doors (they were taken off because the copter doesn’t have air-conditioning) and little to hang onto, it was a white-knuckle experience as Tremblay flew over the former air base, including golfers enjoying a round on the links at Willow Pond Golf Course.
“Don’t worry, you won’t fall out,” Tremblay said.
She was right.
Tremblay and other pilots employed by Summer Skyz give lessons to young pilot wannabes as well as do golf ball drops, tours and ag services, including corn pollinating.
“We do tours up in Chicago or around here,” Wozencraft said. “Sometimes farmers will want to jump in one and tour their fields before or after they plant if they fear some of their crops have been damaged by hail or strong winds. A lot of them ... want to be up in the air so they get a closer ... look for mapping and plotting.”
For flight instruction, Wozencraft said the pilots were able to do some of the education via the internet during the quarantine.
“We’re a unique kind of business,” he said. “All of our instructors have been able to switch their lesson to online stuff” and then fly when they’re safe and everyone feels comfortable doing so.
It takes a bare minimum of 40 hours of flight instruction, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, to become a pilot, which, to Wozencraft, sounds too short.
“It typically takes 50 hours to do your driver’s lesson,” he points out.
The 39-year-old Wozencraft is himself a student. The Summer Skyz owner does not have his pilot’s license, but that doesn’t deter him from being a successful businessman.
“I enjoy it, and I’m learning,” he said. “I’m a guy who saw an opportunity and saw a good company I could partner with. I liked the opportunity to base it out of Rantoul. My idea behind any business I’ve done for it to be successful, you need to add value to a community. Rantoul is sort of a forgotten community. Our hope was to entice some of these younger people to train. They can get in here and make a difference.”
Wozencraft said he would like to educate more people about aviation.
He also has a background in home construction. He has earned both his masters in psychology and his doctorate in business administration at Capella University.
Wozencraft also operates a small heating and air-conditioning business and owns rental properties.
He bought Summer Skyz from founders Bob and Amy Summers, who continue to work in the business.
Business is going well, especially on the ag side. (“Right now, we’re packed,” he said.)
Summer Skyz doesn’t have a crop-spraying service. But pollination services are in great demand.
The pollination work involves hovering over areas of the field to make sure the copter takes care of what the wind might not have — creating a whirlwind effect and blowing the pollen where it needs to go.
“Airplanes used to do this,” Wozencraft said. “Helicopters are definitely a lot more effective. They create more downwash.”
Pilots have to be ready to jump in their machines at a moment’s notice.
“If (farmers) say, ‘It’s been kind of dead (wind-wise) the last few days. I need you in 10 minutes,’” you have to be ready.
Tremblay, originally from Van Nuys, Calif., who moved to Urbana because there is more helicopter work here, said a helicopter can cover 100 acres an hour pollinating. Summer Skyz provides the service through much of Illinois and Indiana.
The company’s helicopters are service-rotated for maintenance purposes.
Summer Skyz rents an office at the airport and stores two of its helicopters in outdoor hangars.
“Once we can get inside the primary hangar, then we’ll start operating more full force out there,” Wozencraft said.