The most convenient and cheapest parking spot in downtown Fort Lauderdale may also be the most scenic and expensive ever built.
It won't cost you a penny to park there, but you will need a skilled pilot like Adam Hammond to guide your whirly-bird above the heads of startled condo and office dwellers and through a maze of tall buildings.
"We get to fly between skyscrapers and land on a heliport 120 feet in the air," said Hammond, a flight instructor with West Palm Beach-based Ocean Helicopters. "There's not much like it out there."
Surrounded by upscale offices, restaurants and shops, the Fort Lauderdale downtown helistop comes with a 360-degree panoramic view of downtown. Built almost 10 years ago, it had a price tag of $3.6 million.
Hammond and his students are not the type of users city leaders hoped for back in the 1980s, when they floated the idea of putting a helicopter landing pad on the ninth-floor rooftop of the Central Park Mall Parking Garage at 201 SE Second Street.
City leaders dreamed of an endless stream of international tourists mingling in the heliport's posh lobby with local businessmen for whom travel time is money.
Critics back then said the 14,500-square-foot facility was over the top and a foolish luxury for a small city.
Today, on the eve of the helistop's 10-year anniversary in 2012, city officials call it a success, with about 200-300 operations a year. The port is staffed part time and funded through revenues generated by the nearby Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.
Officials concede jet-set tourists and corporate elites make up only a fraction of its users — but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
On most days, the helistop is a training ground for pilots. It has been a scenic location for countless television shows and music videos, including the second-season finale of USA Network's "Burn Notice" and P. Diddy's "I am On You" music video.
It has also served as a strategic landing spot for police and rescue workers during emergencies.
"For us, it's a good example of forward thinking," said airport spokesman Chaz Adams. "Back then, none of all these buildings and businesses were here. They've all grown around the helistop. Now it makes perfect sense."
A helicopter hovering into view can be an alarming sight for the thousands who work or live in the bustling downtown.
To protect the passengers above and people living and working below, pilots follow Federal Aviation Administration rules. The pilots must check in with local air-traffic controllers, said assistant airport manager Mark Cervasio.
Permits for nearby high-rises, such as the Florida Atlantic University tower on Las Olas Boulevard, must be reviewed by a committee including FAA members. The structures are built in a way that doesn't interfere with the helipad's several protected pathways, he said.
So far, city officials say, the helipad has operated with no mishaps.
Still, flight instructor Hammond said a landing pad between skyscrapers has inherent dangers — that's part of its allure as a training ground.
"There is no room for error," he said. "If you come in long, you can slip off the building. If you come short, you go into the building.
The city does not keep a log of who comes and goes, said airport manager Clara Bennett. Reservations are needed only for helicopter stays longer than four hours.
Most landings are during major events such as the annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and the Winterfest Boat Parade. National events like the Super Bowl and NASCAR races in Homestead also create demand for the helistop.
Then it almost needs its own air-traffic tower, with an average of 20-30 helicopter drop-offs and pick-ups daily, Bennett said.
But during the rest of the year, the heliport can go days without any rich, powerful or famous visitors.
Travis Smith, a charter pilot with Fort Lauderdale-based Heliflite Too, said the heliport is the ideal launching spot for his clients, most of whom are commercial photographers looking to shoot aerials of downtown and the beach.
"Just the act of landing on a rooftop is amazing," he said. "You can't do that in places like Miami and Los Angeles. It's the perfect spot."
The executive types who do use the facility tend to be from South Florida, and they want to avoid the hassles of Interstate 95 traffic, Smith said.
Doug Turner said the helipad is an integral part of his Internet-based business, MillionairesConcierge.Com. Turner provides "experiences" for the wealthy, or those who want to feel rich for a day.
One involves picking up a client with a limousine and dropping off the client downtown at a luxurious helicopter. A pilot takes the customer south along the shoreline to ritzy Palm Island in the Florida Keys for dinner, then returns to the helipad.
The cost: $6,800.
"The skyline adds to everything," Turner said. "It's far more thrilling than taking off from an airport."
The thrills aren't confined to pilots and riders, either.
Adam Steinberg, a lawyer whose ninth-floor office in Museum Plaza faces the heliport across the street, said helicopters are part of the fascinating spectacle of the downtown workplace.
"It still startles me every time one shows up out there," he said. "It's a bit scary, but it's pretty cool to watch."
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