'Pealtnägija': The exclusive club of Estonian private helicopter pilots

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A privately owned helicopter in front of Lihula Manor. Source: Urmet Kook

There are more and more private helicopter enthusiasts - including a former prime minister - in Estonia over recent years. ETV's investigative journalism show "Pealtnägija" took a look at what and who are behind the controls of privately owned helicopters.

"I do not know if it comes from free time or available money, but that is how it goes: the more there are, the more they are seen, the more people get the idea," said pilot and trainer Tõnis Lepp.

"Perhaps people finally reach that point where they want to do something special and set some goals and assess their own time and actions," said Raivo Hein, a helicopter owner.

"Going somewhere with a helicopter just five-six years ago would have caused an uproar, even a birthday or visiting someone - a group of people would always gather. Now it is almost like people will smoke a cigarette and call you for a beer from a distance, nobody even wants to come see the helicopter. It has extended to the masses in that sense," said Erko Kundla, another helicopter owner.

The number of licensed chopper pilots has gone from 29 to 52 in 10 years. The two helicopter enthusiasts - Raivo Hein and Erko Kundla - are friends and former business partners from founding Estonia's largest job portal CV Keskus. Kundla had a pilot license from before, but the two friends took up helicopter training together seven years ago.

A large part of private pilots in Estonia have come from the school of former Copterline CEO Tõnis Lepp, who has put together a course for potential helicopter pilots - 45 hours in the air, a whole bunch of theory - all for the price of €45,000.

Money plays an undoubtedly crucial factor in the hobby. The prices of used helicopters start from just under €100,000 and there really is no ceiling. The Robinson 44 Raivo Hein acquired four years ago costs €500,000 as new and an hour of flight costs €300-400. He is looking to replace his vehicle in the near future, but the owner of homes in Tallinn and Saaremaa said it pays off.

Erko Kundla bought an Enström 480B type helicopter, which costs €1.2 million new, but he was able to get it for €600,000 on the secondary market. He said he uses the helicopter to fly out for business from his home in Kakumäe.

Most private helicopters are registered under a company, but quite a few prominent figures pop out. The Sõnajalg brothers, well-known wind turbine businessmen and entrepreneur Oleg Gross, founder of the Grossi Toidukaubad store line, are a few names. The latter's company owns two machines, one of them is a Eurocopter 130, which has an estimated cost of €3 million.

Väino Kaldoja, one of the founders of Silberauto, is the newest member of the exclusive club. Kaldoja is the owner of the most expensive privately owned helicopter in the country - a Eurocopter 135, which costs around €7 million.

"Half of that price is the avionics, electronics, control automation, autopilots. That it has leather seats and AC is pocket change in the whole set. This is an extremely safe machine that is used to save people in the mountains of Germany and Austria," Tõnis Lepp said.

Many who own helicopters or fly them do not wish to speak on the topic publicly. According to "Pealtnägija", former prime minister Taavi Rõivas is also undergoing training to become a helicopter pilot. He did not wish to make comments on it, however.

The pilots say the hobby often gets its first steps from jealousy. "For example, I went to visit a friend in Tartu a few years ago and landed in their yard. Then, a furious neighbor came with a broom and said I had gotten leaves all over the front of their house and that they had just raked yesterday. That is when I thought, well, you know. I told them that I do not have the time for that, but I will turn off my helicopter, pack some things up and my wife will come and rake the leaves up," Erko Kundla said.

At the same time, the group of enthusiasts have developed something of a bond and have convened in Raivo Hein's Saaremaa home over recent summers and have also gone out for dinners.

"The Keila-Joa Castle, for example - we have gone out for lunch there sometimes, with a few choppers, actually. And I will tell you, I have never been to Hiiumaa in my life than the previous year or the year before, when we flew through all of Hiiumaa's beach restaurants and had lunch," Hein said.

Kundla noted that in addition to his friends and relatives, he has seen quite a strangers flying for different goals. "My secretary just had a wedding on Saturday, I gave them a little wedding surprise. Well, I had agreed with her, but her husband did not know. They were at a photoshoot and had to go to the party in a limousine and we agreed that I would land where they are taking photos, they get in the helicopter, the limo will go to the reception, but nobody is in it. Then we come in the helicopter a few moments later and they were very pleased," Kundla explained.

Status, saving time, or a passion for flying is one thing, but flying through the air in a helicopter comes with its risks. Tõnis Lepp was the head of Finnish helicopter company Copterline in 2005, when one of its vehicles crashed in Tallinn Bay, killing all 14 people on board. Just within the last year and a half, the world has seen the deaths of Petr Kellner, the wealthiest person in the Czech Republic and Kobe Bryant, a legendary basketball player.

"Human errors are the main cause of helicopter accidents, there are very few times where technical faults are at play. But it all happens between the ears: what you do in the air, how you act and what the weather is, for example," Raivo Hein noted.

Tõnis Lepp added: "It is possible to go beyond limits with everything and with helicopters, accidents come easily when going beyond limits. Many things have happened because owners have demanded flights from their pilots. There are enough examples of that in world aviation."

The pilots noted that if the pilot is in good physical shape and the vehicle is properly maintained, a helicopter is safer than a scooter, but the experience is unlike anything else.

"The magic of it is the freedom, the danger, the wisdom and caution, but it is an extremely joyful activity. Meaning, the people who are flight-crazy and regular people. Regular people do not go for pilot's licenses," Tõnis Lepp said.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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