Volume 76, Number 22 | October 18 - 24, 2006

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

From left: Brian Tolbert, vice president of the West Side Heliport for 21 years; Abigail Trenk, president of heliport; and Al Trenk, founder of Air Pegasus.

Heliport on Hudson still flying high after 50 years

By Jefferson Siegel

Fifty years ago, New Yorkers weren’t in such a rush. A subway ride cost 15 cents, the first transatlantic telephone cable was put to use and Elvis Presley’s first hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” rocked the radio waves. Around the same time, a Chelsea dock at W. 30th St. was converted into a landing pad for helicopters, full-scale production of the new aircraft having only started 14 years earlier.

In the intervening years, a subway ride increased to $2, tokens vanished, cell phones became ubiquitous and Elvis has left the building. The small dock on W. 30th St. is now Air Pegasus, one of the busiest heliports in the world, open around the clock, seven days a week. Earlier this month, the owners threw a party to reflect on the past half-century and look forward to the next 50 years.

The facility, one of three heliports on the island of Manhattan, is owned by members of the Trenk family. Al Trenk has run the W. 30th St. Heliport for 26 years. Last Wednesday he stood near a landing pad with his daughter Abigail, who has been president of the heliport for 10 years.
“Tonight celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first helicopter flight into New York,” Al Trenk said on the evening of Oct. 4 as sleek, stylized-looking craft maneuvered for liftoffs and landings along the pier. Fifty years ago that first commercial flight carried a load of mail. Today the heliport is used by businesses, the media, politicians and law enforcement, as well as movie and music stars. Tourists begin and end airborne sightseeing excursions at the West Side facility.

Abigail Trenk recalled some popular passenger sightings. “My favorite day was Henry Kissinger and Jonas Salk. My best day was Meg Ryan, John Travolta and [celebrity chef] Rocco DiSpirito.” However, she added, “We treat everyone the same, every customer is a V.I.P. It’s a very exciting place to work.”

The heliport sees as many as 250 operations a day, and usually has upwards of 45,000 operations a year. (One landing and takeoff is considered to be one operation.) Frequent destinations from the Chelsea terminal are the Hamptons, Atlantic City and the three New York-area airports.

An orange windsock on the south end of the pier hung limp in the calm evening air as several helicopters, barely visible in the western sky, lined up for landings.

As twilight fell, several other helicopters made a one-block hop from the northern pier to the southern strip to refuel. While drivers may have suffered gas pains recently, helicopters didn’t fare any better. Fuel costs $5.38 a gallon. A small craft fills up with 60 gallons, a large one tops off at 150 gallons.

Former Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey has passed through the heliport countless times.

“It’s one of the great resources of the West Side waterfront,” she said at the anniversary celebration. Speaking about the rapidly developing Chelsea area, McCaughey took a long view. “We can’t afford to lose this, this makes tourism and business more successful in New York.”

Vince McGowan, assistant executive director of the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, who also attended the event, spoke of the socially conscious aspects of the heliport.

“The Trenks were great partners in the concept of sharing open space with the public,” he said. Of the Chelsea portion of Hudson River Park now being completed, McGowan said, “They helped make it happen.”

Robert Balachandran, former C.E.O. and president of the Hudson River Park Trust, who also dropped by for the festivities, noted the symbiosis between the park and the half-century-old heliport.

“It’s hard to believe it’s that long,” he said of the heliport. “This park has been a kind of retrofitting. The beauty of the park and the park design is that it’s dynamic.”

As night fell, the frequency of takeoffs and landings decreased. As a helicopter circled in the distance, visible only by its blinking lights, guests continued to arrive at the party, as did some travelers for their flights. Steven Trenk, director of the family-run heliport, watched a far-off helicopter fly south.

“I’m delighted that we could be of service to the city for so long,” he offered. A pilot for 30 years, he added, “The thrill of being able to fly a helicopter.…” His voice trailed off but his enthusiasm was evident.

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