A love of aviation came naturally to Colombian-born Javier Diaz, owner of Wings Air Helicopters, who grew up flying in both his father’s and uncle’s planes. So it was no surprise when Diaz, a successful investment banker, purchased a small helicopter and hired an instructor to teach him how to fly. What was a surprise—even to Diaz—was how quickly the investment turned into a money-maker.
Diaz started utilizing the helicopter and instructor to offer flight lessons; then he purchased a larger helicopter and added charter service. Though it was still largely a passion project, he decided to take a year off from banking to see if he could make the business fly. “I liked it so much, I haven’t looked back,” Diaz says.
Officially launched in 2002, Wings Air Helicopters now operates a fleet of four helicopters and one airplane, logging 3,500 hours each year through four lines of business: flight training, charters, tours, and aerial photography/film production. That diverse lineup has been one of the keys to success for the business, which operates out of Westchester County Airport. “Part of the strategy is to have your fingers in different pies, so if one gets eaten up, you’re still alright in another one,” says Diaz, pointing to the 2008 financial crisis as an example. “My charter business really dried up at that time, so I had to look for other sources of income in the industry,” he explains.
The film “piece,” which Diaz added about five years ago, has been especially lucrative for Wings Air Helicopters, which is the only aviation company in New York to achieve gold certification from global aviation safety auditing firm Wyvern. The company’s helicopters, specially equipped for the demands of commercial production, have been used recently in the filming of movies like Shooter, Annie, Now You See Me, and Fast & Furious 7, as well as various Discovery Channel shows and TV commercials.
Diaz also gets the chance to interact with a lot of high-profile executives and sports figures (including “several Yankees,” he says) who frequently use his services. And though Wings Air is particularly subject to the whims of the economy, he categorizes the business first and foremost as fun. “It’s a happy and rewarding business,” he says. “Most people using our services are flying somewhere fun or learning how to do something they love.”