Posted 32 days ago ago by jhadmin
Combine an AS350 with doors off, an automatic machine gun, and an open desert range with your own tourist trigger finger and you've got “The Ultimate Thrill Ride In Las Vegas,” also known as Gunship Helicopters.
For many, just flying through the Mojave Desert mountains in a helicopter is a thrill. Add a military M249 SAW (squad automatic weapon), zombies, and AR500 reactionary steel targets, and you’ve got Gunship Helicopters’ next-level exhilaration and firepower.
The partners at Gunship Helicopters are a living testimony that there’s glory in overcoming obstacles. Gunship Helicopters is owned by father-and-son duo Robert and Matt Fahnestock, partner Randy Saenz, and managed by Brad Scanlon. This adventure tourism company was built on hard work, determination, and
only taking yes for an answer.
Meet The Team
The dream all started with the father, Robert. His crazy idea of combining machine guns and helicopters began at Pacific Helicopters in Hawaii, where he gained experience using helicopters for animal control. There, helicopters were used to euthanize certain animal species harming the Hawaiian habitat. He says this experience first allowed him to see helicopter operations with a shooting component.
Because of his father’s career, Matt grew up with an understanding of the helicopter industry. With his father in the industry, Matt quickly learned that it was an all-or-nothing career track. In college however, Matt diverted his attention to a degree in art studies, with a minor in small business. There was even a brief stint when he saw an opportunity with the airlines. In the end, it didn’t take long for him to follow in the footsteps of Dad. He realized that his ultimate passion was flying helicopters. The son says, “It's been a crazy road getting here, but I am really glad I got back into it.”
At times, every father-son duo may need a middle man. Partner and co-owner Randy Saenz was the perfect complement to the team. Jokingly, Robert describes him as the “gunsmith, fabricator, logistics guru, and father son third vote to keep the peace.” On a more serious note, Matt attributes much of Gunship’s success to Saenz. “He’s been there since the beginning with us and there’d be no Gunship without him,” says Matt.
Now meet Scanlon, the general manager of Gunship Helicopters. He’s the final member of this tactical team. After going to school on an Army scholarship and earning a degree in Organizational Leadership and Supervision, he spent time in Iraq, specializing in logistics and supportive maintenance. In Iraq, he was introduced to helicopters. After getting conditionally released from his unit and accepted into a rotary program, Scanlon started his flight career. In flight school, he says he did everything in his power to be a Kiowa pilot. During a portion of his training in Boulder City, Nevada, Scanlon met Robert Fahnestock in passing. He recalls their first interaction, saying Fahnestock was humble. “He was giving 100% effort, had 37 things to do, and only time to do four of them,” says Scanlon. Even though he was very busy, Fahnestock graciously took the time to provide some career guidance to the Army man. That fateful meeting ultimately landed Scanlon a spot on the Gunship Helicopters team. He praises the Fahnestocks by saying, “I’ve never been set up for success at such a level.” He attributes this to Robert’s mentorship and Matt’s mastership of the aircraft.
Before 2015, Gunship Helicopters was merely a pipedream. With the father retired and the son having had flight training, the two realized there was an opportunity to make up for lost time together. Eager to generate revenue, in January of 2016, they started flying canyon tours in an AS350. Both knew their long-term vision was to create an experience where ordinary people could fire a machine gun out of an open-door aircraft. They realized this concept would come with many hurdles and safety concerns. In the summer of 2016, the Fahnestocks discontinued their routine tours to focus on their greater adventure idea.
“We went through hell…we literally went through hell for about eight months,” says Robert. The concept of flying through the air while shooting a machine gun is foreign to many, so getting their plan approved was no easy shot. “We got a lot of noes from a lot of people,” says Robert. Matt confirms their early regulatory challenges by saying, “Basically they (regulators) gave us a hard no to almost anything they could hold us up on.” Keep in mind, the team had no source of revenue and were expending mass amounts on the business startup, all while fighting an uphill battle with the feds.
At every step of the way, from the FAA to the permitting process, there was resistance. This resistance was mostly to the unnerving fear that Gunship Helicopters brought to the table. Robert says, “Anybody that we would go to for permits would all have that ‘look’—the look of are you really asking for permission to do this? Everybody believed they knew what was and wasn’t legal.” The father says he knew they would be the first business with this idea, so they wanted to set the standard of how to do it safely. The father and son dynamic duo remained undaunted. “We knew we could jump past the obstacles by doing it right the first time,” says Robert. The team agrees that the early adversity they faced ultimately sharpened their procedures and standards.
Success and Safety
Near the end of 2016, the regulatory clouds finally lifted for Gunship Helicopters. After a stormy battle, the team finally reached a resolution with the FAA. Their plans were approved, they purchased the perfect plot of land for operations, and the Part 135 operation was moved to Las Vegas. In 2017, Gunship Helicopters was ready for business.
As anyone would imagine, there are many different aspects to keeping operations safe at Gunship. This is where general manager Scanlon comes in. He describes his job as “Identifying the vision of the company, quantifying and standardizing that process, and then training the entire force on it.” In short, find a process that works for the company and standardize it. All staff must be properly equipped to handle any situation that comes their way. Luckily, the Fahnestocks and Scanlon are already experts on the subject. Gunship Helicopters was built on anticipating and overcoming adversity.
Scanlon says perhaps the most important concept to teach staff is how to handle stress, whether it be stress from another staff member or stress from clientele. He says, “You must remember what they are going through and how they are feeling.” We all know how passengers in a helicopter can get, especially those who are not familiar with the setting. There can be odd mishaps or events. In an operation that involves a helicopter with no doors and a machine gun, the stress level needs to be at a minimum. Scanlon efficiently equips the Gunship Helicopters team to minimize hazards and risks.
While Gunship Helicopters’ clientele varies, daily operations typically consist of everyday tourists in search of a unique experience. However, the goal is to make the operation open and known to everyone. Scanlon says, “You name it; we do it.” Gunship offers an accessible setup for ordinary civilians, military academies, professional training units, and even those just interested in media or photography opportunities. The company’s dedicated staff makes these opportunities possible and strives to provide an exceptional experience.
Gunship Helicopters has maintained continual success despite challenges. “The biggest problem we had when we opened was getting people to know we existed. They don’t Google it, because they don’t know about it,” says Robert. “What everyday person intuitively Googles ‘shooting machine guns out of helicopters excursion?’” Regardless, from 2018 to 2019, Gunship Helicopters nearly doubled their business. “On average right now, we are shooting about 50,000 rounds of ammunition a month. That equates to about 120 people a month,” says Robert. They even had one January day where they flew almost 50 people. Most business that comes through the door is by word of mouth.
The story of Gunship Helicopters is about overcoming obstacles. They prove that persistence can pave the way for success, although the road may not start out smooth. Management and staff have set a good, safe example for their industry.
In closing, Brad sums up what an experience at Gunship Helicopters truly is: “No matter who you are, whether you are a millionaire renting out the range with five helicopters to fly out here because you don't want to drive, or if you are a dude who is hanging drywall all year just to shoot 100 rounds from a helicopter, you are both going to have a great time.”