The Business Appeal of Infrastructure

By By James T. McKenna | November 1, 2015

DeSoto Heliport on the southern outskirts of Dallas is a testament to the adage, “If you build it, they will come.” SKY Helicopters developed the facility after a similar effort to the northeast in Garland, Texas, paid off. Now SKY is training FAA inspectors in the R44 at DeSoto.

Kevin Costner, the blackballed Chicago White Sox outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the New York Yankees and new heliports may well be inseparable, at least in the U.S.

Costner starred in the 1989 Hollywood movie “Field of Dreams” as an Iowa corn farmer haunted by a voice that leads him on a confounding quest in which he encounters the ghost of Jackson (played by Ray Liotta) and a host of historic and equally dead baseball players, including his estranged father (a fictional Yankees catcher).


The link to new heliports is in the voice’s mysterious enticement: “If you build it, they will come.” That has proven to be an inspiration of sorts to proponents of new heliports.

Mike Conklin might at first disagree with that. He is a former U.S. Marine Corps aviator whose flying career was capped by an assignment in the 1990s flying President Bill Clinton as a Sikorsky Aircraft VH-3D “Marine One” pilot with Marine Helicopter Squadron One. Conklin also is president of Vertiport Chicago, which opened in April within eyeshot of that Illinois city’s downtown. Its beginning comes as U.S. industry and government officials are taking a closer look at helicopter infrastructure and the contributions that improved infrastructure might make to better rotorcraft safety.

Conklin had a personal inspiration that sustained him through the nine-year effort to develop the facility. His wife’s recovery from a horrific waterskiing accident (which had doctors initially saying she would be lucky to walk again) was due mainly to Linda’s iron will. But it was aided by the air ambulance crew that transported her from a remote mountain lake in southwest Virginia to a medical facility in Roanoke.

Vertiport Chicago (top), about 3 mi from that city’s Loop business district, has several other advantages, including industrial surroundings and four hospitals nearby. Built for business, with conference facilities and office space (middle), it was designed with the civil tiltrotor in mind. Photos courtesy of Vertiport Chicago
SKY Helicopters’ original heliport in Garland, Texas, (bottom) also benefits from industrial surroundings. Photo courtesy of SKY Helicopters

“She just completed a half-marathon” in Toronto, Ontario, Conklin told R&WI when we visited Vertiport Chicago in late July.

His wife’s immediate care left Conklin with a personal commitment to support air ambulance operations. (The grounds of the new facility are leased from the Illinois Medical District, a partnership of the city, Cook County and Illinois that includes four hospitals. Helicopters serving them can use Conklin’s facility free of charge.)

But spend more time speaking with Conklin and those cornfield ghosts come a-hovering.

“Personally,” he told us, “I think this a field of dreams.”

If Conklin ever doubts that his dream of executives flocking to his facility for quick drives into the central business district, the Loop, will come to fruition, he can touch base with Ken Pyatt. The owner of SKY Helicopters, Pyatt more than 20 years ago took a gamble and agreed to operate a heliport for the city of Garland, Texas, northeast of Dallas.

Pyatt struggled through the process of developing and operating a successful heliport. He learned lessons about population and demographics considerations, road access, noise mitigation and the vagaries of dealing with local and state governments and the FAA.

Pyatt learned those lessons well. Not only did they come to Garland, where SKY Helicopters has several tenants in addition to its flight school and electronic newsgathering service, but Pyatt has also opened a second heliport.

Located in DeSoto, that facility is used by local law enforcement and air ambulance operators and is the site of SKY Helicopters’ new work training FAA aviation safety inspectors on the Robinson Helicopter R44.

Like Pyatt, Conklin started off right with a site that is surrounded by industrial activities, big-box stores and the medical district.

Part of Conklin’s dream is having the facility serve AgustaWestland’s AW609 when that civil tiltrotor enters service. Conklin had the facility designed to support AW609 operations (hence the name). He is working with AgustaWestland in Philadelphia to arrange an AW609 visit soon. Conklin says the Vertiport is the only U.S. civil heliport designed for a tiltrotor.

The Vertiport has some powerful backers.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended the facility’s opening.

“The new facility will help in our efforts to continue growing Chicago’s economy and attracting new investment and businesses,” he said at the event. Emanuel served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff before he became mayor in 2011.

The Vertiport helps fill a void created by the 2003 midnight raid on Meigs Field on Chicago’s lakefront, which served the downtown area. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered city workers to bulldoze Meigs runway, eliminating close-in flight options.

Critical to the Vertiport’s opening was the backing of leaders with the Illinois Medical District. The multi-government partnership oversees economic development in a 560-acre tract west of the Loop, and the commission that runs it has great latitude in managing activities within its bounds. The district’s four hospitals are the University of Illinois Hospital, Stroger Hospital, Rush University Medical Center and Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“The Illinois Medical District Commission is thrilled that Vertiport Chicago will provide timely, lifesaving operations to the hospitals, particularly when seconds matter,’’ an organization spokesperson said at the opening.

Of particular interest to the medical facilities in the district is the option for faster transportation of critical patients and organs for transplant operations. Air ambulance flights currently use an existing helipad in Pasteur Park, near the old Cook County Hospital, about 7 mi southwest of the Vertiport, officials said. Conklin is working with the four hospitals and air ambulance providers to make greater use of the Vertiport.

Conklin originally envisioned a 3-acre facility, but the district had 10 long-term vacant acres at the site and persuaded him to lease all of it. He said the facility was built largely with private funding.

The facility has a single take-off and landing spot, parking spots for eight VTOL aircraft, a 30,000-sq-ft hangar and an 11,700-sq-ft terminal with VIP entrance and private amenities for corporate users.

It also has underground fuel storage tanks with a capacity of 22,000 gal of Jet A.

The Vertiport is designed to accommodate executive charters, private helicopters, aerial photography and film work, and tourism operations. It recently began offering sightseeing flights on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with Joliet, Illinois-based HeliMotion.

HeliMotion also flies a Bell 206 for DHL Express between O’Hare and the Vertiport on weekdays, carrying documents for early-morning delivery downtown.

The Vertiport provides an obstacle-free approach and departure path, state-of-the-art airfield lights to maximize a pilot’s situational awareness and taxiways that lead to a dedicated entry point for ambulances. Conklin said the facility paid to relocate light towers in the industrial park to the south and southwest of the landing area.

In addition to the medical flights, Conklin expects the Vertiport to attract top executives flying in from out of town to the region’s commercial airports. The facility is 7 nm northeast of Midway International, 14 nm southeast of O’Hare, 22 nm southeast of Chicago Executive Airport and 22 nm northwest of Gary/Chicago International Airport (22 nm SE).

Of particular interest for Conklin is DuPage County Airport 40 nm to the west in West Chicago.

That airport has been developing corporate aviation business, and Conklin is thus developing a marketing partnership with it to offer rapid transfers of business aircraft passengers to downtown.

The flight between DuPage and the Vertiport is 12 min.

“This is a great opportunity to partner with a world-class aviation facility to offer seamless helicopter access to and from downtown for DuPage’s business clientele,” said Conklin. “The cost and time savings that executive users will experience can benefit the business community in Chicago enormously and connect it to markets worldwide.”

Conklin said that by teaming up with the Vertiport, the airport could become the region’s “Teterboro,” referring to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, 12 mi from midtown Manhattan.


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