Story By Hannah Goldfinger
Photos By Robert Noles
Did you know you can soar over Jordan-Hare stadium? Or get a birds-eye view of Samford Hall? Did you know that located in the Lee County community is a helicopter program available for tours or flight school?
In September 2022, Tier-1 Helicopters came to Auburn. At the time, it was known as South Atlanta Helicopters.
Tier-1 has two aircraft that it uses for both flight trainings and tours. It operates out of the Auburn University Regional Airport but is not affiliated with Auburn University.
Mark Estrada, one of the instructors through Tier-1, completed his flight training with the company, as well.
“[We teach] typically 50 to 60 hours a month on the aircraft so that’s at least an hour every day of flight training,” Estrada said.
Flight training is definitely the main goal of the company, Estrada said, with tours on the side.
“A lot of times, we get a lot of people during the weekends and we get 34 lessons a day on the weekends but sometimes the weekdays are a little bit more sparse, [because] people work,” he said.
Estrada said the company also works with students at Fort Moore, as well.
“They’ll come over here, they get their FAA certificates, we work with them and then there’s the Auburn school over here so it’s like an alternative to them because the helicopter career path is very different than the airplane,” he said. “Airlines aren’t for everybody. Flying helicopters is a little bit more dynamic, like it’s more mission based.”
Options in helicopters include air ambulance, fire suppression, tours and more.
“But there’s a lot larger variety of jobs,” he said.
Estradas said about two-and-a-half years ago he was on vacation in Oregon and his family took a helicopter tour. And that was it, he was hooked, he said.
“I could do this every single day,” he said.
For the next two years, he worked on getting in his flight training. Now, he’s teaching others.
A couple of his students are Auburn University students in the aviation department that are just wanting to earn other ratings, he said.
“We have people who are looking for a recreational private license for themselves and our primary … [is the] career base people who come in there like ‘I wanna get a commercial license … and make this a career.’ So we get a large variety of different people from different backgrounds.”
Estrada said its a lot of fun to take new students or people who have never flown in a helicopter before.
“If you watch movies and TVs there’s a lot that happens in there that doesn’t happen in real life and so it’s exciting to be able to get into the dynamics of helicopter limitations, differing from public perspective,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges of teaching is how sensitive the controls are on a helicopter, Estrada said.
“The controls are very sensitive,” he said. “It can be hard to get a grasp of hovering. That’s what almost every student has trouble with so … like it’s exciting and fun, so I have to be pretty aware and responsive to what’s going on, right? So, it’s a fun mix. That’s a lot of pressure … about keeping everybody safe, including yourself.”
Estrada said that the helicopter is never out of his control.
Anyone interested in taking lessons can do so, right here in the community.
“There’s no commitments,” Estrada said. “Just one hour of ground instruction or safety helicopter instruction, we give them as much time as possible [in a] helicopter.”
He said that after that one lesson, there doesn’t have to be a commitment and if the student isn’t interested, they don’t have to come back.
“[But] they might realize [it’s] something they love as well,” he said.
In the four-seater helicopter, lessons to get the lower rating is going to be between $16,000 to $24,000 or for commercial rating, $50,000. For anyone interested in becoming a private commercial flight instructor, it’s looking to be $80,000 to $100,000. But, Estrada said, this can be a great cost-effective option in comparison to a four-year degree. And this also provides a career.
“On the front end, it sounds like $100,000 is a lot of money, but if you think of it versus a college career you can be done with this in [a] year,” he said. “College tuition is probably gonna cost the same but then you have three additional years of housing, food, insurance, vehicle expenses, so really, as far as a career, it could be less than college.
“It’s a passion thing if you love helicopters, right?”
Find more about Tier-1 Helicopters on its Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Tier1Helicopters.