Glen Crawley and Kenny Garth, owners of ATX Heli Tours, could not have found more different paths into aviation.
For Crawley, it was the admiration of his brother, a U.S. Air Force pilot seven years his senior, that sparked his interest in flying. “You look at your big brother as a god,” says Crawley. But his brother admonished him not to go into the military because he would be likely flying low-altitude missions, and his brother worried he could get shot down on the job.
Garth is an aircraft mechanic who trash-talked his way into the air. “I work with a lot of guys who have a lot of time flying fixed-wing [aircraft], and one day I told them, ‘you guys’ job is not that hard. Being a pilot is not that hard. It can’t be that hard,’” he recalls. “So I did my research and found out that being a helicopter pilot is the hardest thing you could learn. … So I decided to get a helicopter license.”
The two were introduced in flight school as they were preparing to take their flight tests before receiving their licenses; their instructors thought they might pair up and split the cost of the flight. As it would turn out, that chance introduction would lead to something neither of them would have imagined: starting their own helicopter tour company, as owners of their own aircraft.
Crawley says the decision made sense because they were going to want to fly a lot since they had their new licenses. They decided “to bite the bullet and buy one,” he says. For Garth, true to form, the decision was a little more reactionary.
“After we got our licenses, we called the school — he wanted to take his wife on a flight, and I wanted to take my girlfriend on a flight,” Garth remembers. But the flight school wouldn’t let them rent an aircraft, because they didn’t have enough hours to fly alone.
That was all the motivation Garth needed. “I was like, I’m not going to ask somebody like I’m a kid asking my dad if I can borrow the car, so Glen, how much does a helicopter cost?”
But no bank would even consider financing a helicopter, says Garth. They finally met local businessman Ed Mouser, who was looking to sell his helicopter and allowed the pair to buy the helicopter on a gentleman’s agreement, without involving banks. After that, the decision to start offering tours so the aircraft would pay for itself only made sense.
Since its founding in 2016, ATX Heli Tours has flown nearly 500 passengers, from age 3 well into adulthood. Flights range from 10-minute intro-to-flight trips to hour-long tours all across the city. And now that they have met their original goal of getting the helicopter to pay for itself, Crawley and Garth are setting their sights on finding ways to get more people — especially young, Black people — to experience aviation.
Crawley said flying “has a tendency to change or warp your outlook on everything, if you can be exposed to it from an early age,” and reflecting on his own childhood, and his limited ability to even conceptualize that “things were possible for people of color, because I’d never seen anyone of color do these things.”
The pair realizes they haven’t done the best job of putting themselves out there to create that same kind of success modeling Crawley talks about. Part of it was just being busy launching a new business while still maintaining full-time careers — Crawley is still an engineer with NXP, and Garth still works on aircraft. But part of it, they admit, was a fear that the public, in general, might not respond with the same positive enthusiasm if they knew the company was Black-owned.
“A lot of times, Glen and I, when we go to take people up, and we’re getting them ready, we’ll just say we’re with the company, or we work for the company,” Garth says. “And they’ll ask, ‘well, who owns it?’ And we’ll kind of say, well, we do. And they’re pretty psyched about that.”
The pair are beginning to reach out to establish partnerships with schools, starting with minority schools, but they are intent on helping to instill a love of flying in all children. At the same time, they’re working on building aviation into a full experience for adults and children alike, to get more people interested. There is discussion around building an aviation-themed restaurant at ATX Heli Tours’ own hangar.
“Have you seen ‘Back to the Future’? That restaurant [Marty] pops into that Biff is at — it’d be kind of like that. An old school feel to it, with a jukebox. It’d be more like serving hot dogs and cheeseburgers, pizzas and stuff like that,” Garth says, adding that it would also be nice to have a stage to feature live bands and other local acts.
He admits that dream is a bit far-off, though. “We already have enough pressure on us running a helicopter company, I don’t even know what the pressures would be like, running a restaurant,” he says, adding, “Our next step is being off the airport at our own location, but we haven’t decided how far we’re going to go with the amenities.”
For now, the pair is focused on ensuring that whether one books a 10-minute, $60 flight, or a $300 hour-long flight, the passengers all receive the same high-quality experience, and the same customer service.
Flying is my escape. I just love it. I love it.
Their own individual passions continue to fuel their dreams for the business and their desire to provide a world-class experience for every individual they can get onboard.
“Flying is my escape,” says Crawley. “I just love it. I love it. I fly all the time, and I never feel as if I’m bored of it. I could do it every day, all day. And that’s what I’m working towards. I’d rather be doing that than anything else.”