My daughter wasn’t the only one to get a “Dad Adventure” this summer. My son opted to go visit Catalina Island which is a mere, as the song goes, 26 miles across the sea. I’m not one to write up a boat ride on this site, but part of his adventure was getting to take the helicopter service one way. Even though helicopters are unnatural beasts that I don’t generally trust… I was totally down for this plan.
There is scheduled service from Long Beach to Catalina by IEX Helicopters. It’s $179 per person one way, which was more than $100 more than the Catalina Express boat. The helicopter takes 15 minutes while the boat takes a little over an hour. Is it worth the extra cost? Probably not. But it was a lot of fun.
IEX you may know better as Island Express. Still not familiar with the name? That’s the company that was operating Kobe Bryant’s doomed flight. I honestly can’t quite figure out what the story is with this company. Many of the flights, including ours, are operated by Maverick Helicopters which you probably know as that annoying company buzzing around your hotel room on the Strip in Vegas. (They also do Grand Canyon and Maui tours.) One person told me Maverick was buying IEX, but I can’t find that mentioned anywhere. For what it’s worth the IEX Instagram account says IEX is “powered by” Maverick. So something clearly happened there.
Booking the service is not as straightforward as I’d have liked. You pay online, but you just have to select a window of time. They say they’ll call you within a day to set the exact time.
Since we were just doing a day trip, we wanted to get there early. I entered the “Early Morning” window, and I received a call just minutes later to schedule the exact time. Our options booking only a week out were the 8am trip or not until after 10. We opted for the 8am flight. The agent sent us the confirmed tickets via email with baggage rules, not that we needed them for our day trip. We were told to arrive half an hour before departure.
IEX has its main offices at the Long Beach Airport, but the scheduled trips to Catalina depart 10 miles to the south from the Queen Mary Heliport (CL07), right next to the old Spruce Goose Dome (now home to Carnival Cruise Line’s check-in facility) and the Queen Mary itself. The pilots report to LGB and then fly down to pick up passengers.
My wife drove us down at 7:30am since we would be returning to a different location by boat later that day and couldn’t easily just park the car. We walked into the small terminal to find one person manning the desk. He checked us in and told us to grab some coffee if we wanted. The TV was on and there were plenty of seats for us.
We hadn’t been told in advance what kind of helicopter we’d be flying. I was kind of hoping for the big ole’ Sikorsky S76, but it wasn’t to be. We were the only paying passengers that day — the person manning the desk was also flying over with us and, of course, the pilot — so they didn’t need a big one. Instead, we would be on an Airbus H130.
While we waited, I decided to pull up Flightradar24 and look for any helicopter heading south from LGB. Sure enough, N852MH popped up as started making its way toward us. Being the avgeek that I am, I did a double take and thought jokingly… is this a Delta 767-400? But alas, the last Delta 767-400 delivered was N845MH, apparently leaving the higher numbers to Maverick Helicopters.
The man staffing the desk had us strap on life vest pouches which we wore like fanny packs and then had us watch a quick safety video which kept referring to the IEX employees as handsome or attractive or something else similarly weird.
As we finished up, the helicopter appeared and we were ushered out to board.
July 9, 2023
From Queen Mary Heliport
➤ Scheduled Departure: 800a
➤ Actual Departure: 806a
➤ From Gate: um, there was a door we walked out of
➤ Wheels Up: what are wheels?
➤ From Runway: runways are for fixed wing losers
To Pebbly Beach Seaplane Base
➤ Wheels Down: no wheels to be found here
➤ On Runway: nope
➤ Scheduled Arrival: 815a
➤ Actual Arrival: 819a
➤ At Gate: just kind of walked away
➤ Type: Airbus Helicopters H130
➤ Delivered: April 28, 2008
➤ Registered: N852MH, msn 4356
➤ Livery: Black with Silver Stripes
➤ Cabin: Coach in Seat, let’s call it, 1B
➤ Load: 67% Full
➤ Flight Time: 13m
The helicopter is pretty cool-looking with panoramic windows all the way around. There are three abreast in each of the two rows onboard. The pilot was obviously in the front left, but I took the middle and my soon took the other window while the man behind the desk had the entire back row to himself. The legroom is pretty great up front on the side.
We powered up and headed into the wild… gray yonder. There was a low marine layer, but it wasn’t low enough to ruin our plans. We were only cruising at 400 ft above the water anyway. The pilot told me they usually stay under 1,000 feet since there is very little airplane traffic that low.
We swung around the end of the Port of Long Beach, looking at towering cranes and massive ships as we inched out toward the breakwater, and then sped up over the open channel. Here’s a video of the start of the trip.
After announcing his plans over an open frequency, there was no chatter with air traffic control at all. We spent the ride asking the pilot questions and hoping for a whale sighting. (We didn’t see a whale, but we did cackle maniacally at the peasants on the Catalina Express down below. We also passed over a giant sunfish.)
Forward visibility was fine but the marine layer did enough to obscure the island until we got pretty close. For those who haven’t been to Catalina Island, you’re missing out. The only city on the island is Avalon which sits on a protected bay. For baseball fans, this is known as the home of Chicago Cubs’ spring training for 30 years ending in 1951.
The helicopters head to Pebbly Beach Seaplane Base (L11), about a mile southeast of town. The pilot asked if we needed a taxi, but we did not. We’d walk it. He made a call to air traffic control and soon we were on the ground. Here’s a video of the arrival.
There is a small terminal and restaurant in the arrival area, but we didn’t need to go in.
Instead, we just started walking toward town, where we had breakfast. Later, we took a semi-submersible tour, had lunch, and took a tour of the interior of the island where we saw bison and foxes before stopping up at the island’s “airport in the sky.”
We headed back and took the Catalina Express back home, completely and totally exhausted from a unique adventure.