Last Updated on September 8, 2021 by Jeremy
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It really is hard to beat any view you can get of the Pittsburgh skyline. We've found views of our gorgeous city from just about every angle you can think of from on the hills, along the river trails, on the water, and more.
But there is one view that is hard to get without some extra assistance, and that is seeing the skyline from the air. When we fly in and out of Pittsburgh International Airport, we always hope for a quick flyby of the city to capture some photos, but the quality of which is often hit-or-miss from our cell phones (and of course, a flyby is never guaranteed, either).
Thankfully, in 2021 a new tour company opened offering customized helicopter flights over Pittsburgh- Vortex Helicopter Services operating out of Finleyville Airport. If you are looking to capture a unique vantage point over the city, this tour is a must.
Note: I was invited to fly as a guest of Vortex Helicopter Services as part of a 30-minute media tour over the city. As always, all opinions are my own.
What to Expect on a Pittsburgh Helicopter Tour
When it comes to a helicopter tour of Pittsburgh from Vortex, their process is not much different than other helicopter tours if you've been on one in other cities. You arrive at the airport a bit before your flight, receive the safety briefing and sign liability forms, and are quickly whisked into the helicopter to begin your tour.
Within moments of buckling up, our pilot was asking for clearance to fly, and off we went for an incredibly smooth flight over the city on an absolutely stunning day.
While tours with Vortex Helicopters can be customized a great deal, we only made a few requests for our route (more on that below). But apart from those, we really asked to just do a general tour around the city to see all of the highlights. Over the course of the ride, we were able to see many landmarks like the following:
- A complete loop around Downtown Pittsburgh to see the city from 360 degrees.
- Heinz Field and PNC Park from the North Side.
- Neighborhoods like the Strip District, Bloomfield, Oakland, and Highland Park.
- The Cathedral of Learning, Heinz Memorial Chapel, and Phipps Conservatory
- …and more!
If this sounds like a lot to take in for just a 30-minute tour, you are right. Every few seconds we had a new vantage point of some highlight, and I set my camera on rapid burst mode in order to try and get as many shots as possible (650 at final count) while also taking some time to appreciate all the scenery outright.
As it turns out, 30 minutes is only just enough time to really soak it all in. The views and changing scenery of Pittsburgh kept our attention, but somehow the 30 minutes flew by faster than just about any other experience we've had. This certainly speaks to how enjoyable the helicopter tour is, but with views like these you can imagine why we all wanted so much more- you'll be hooked after the first flight!
Don't Skip the Customized Flight Options
Prior to heading out on my flight with Vortex Helicopters, we were told that the tours are customizable and were asked if we had any highlights we wanted to see. As long as it is doable within your chosen flight time and pending any air traffic restrictions (a common one is no fly over the stadiums near game time), they may be able to accommodate it.
When they found out I lived in the North Side, they offered a flyby of our house (which was quite awesome to see so closely from above). From there, we were told that one of the biggest requests they get is to fly around the Pittsburgh Zoo.
Naturally, we wanted to do that too.
When we heard that the zoo is a popular request, at first I didn't really believe it. I assumed you'd still be high to appreciate the views of the animals. But while that is indeed partly true, you do get some pretty amazing views all the same.
During our visit we were able to spot the larger animals like elephants, giraffes, gorillas, and even the sea lions in their tank. It was only after we got home and edited our photos that it was pointed out that you can even see the zebra in our shot above too (to the right of the giraffe and just above the central elephant)!
Suffice it to say, this was a really cool aspect of the flight and was something I never would've thought to request had it not been suggested to us by our pilot.
A Few Practical Tips Before Flying With Vortex Helicopters
To end this one, we have a few more tips that you may want to keep in mind before booking your Pittsburgh helicopter tour.
First off, Vortex offers many tour length options including 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes, or even longer flights outright. While you may be tempted to book the shortest flight as a cost-savings measure (as helicopter tours are always a premium excursion), keep in mind that you must book a minimum of 30 minutes in order to see the city.
The shorter, 15-minute flights are solely reserved for local flyovers in the South Hills as it takes about five minutes to reach the city each way. You get to see a lot of great things from the air when transiting (the approach to the city is amazing), but this is an important caveat all the same.
Next up, it is worth reiterating that flights are often at the mercy of air traffic control approval. We saw a care flight chopper landing at Allegheny General and had to give it the right of way, and were also told that airspace restrictions come in to play over the stadiums on game days (as well as in other scenarios). As such, you may want to avoid booking a flight around a scheduled baseball or football game to have the best views if that is important to you.
Likewise, by extension of this, it is worth reiterating that Vortex flies out of Finleyville Airport- not the international airport nor even the county airport. This is located about 40 minutes (pending traffic) south of Pittsburgh and is something all guests should be aware of prior to heading out for your flight. When we flew over the main roads in the South Hills returning to the airport and saw the traffic, I knew I would be in for a bit of a drive home (it ended up being an hour). As such, allow yourself a lot of time when heading to flights- the South Hills traffic is no joke.
Finally, it is worth noting that flights are priced per person and require a minimum of two people per flight and a maximum of three (for a slight price break per person). Solo fliers can request to see if there is an opportunity to get on board with an existing scheduled flight, but Vortex only seems to host these if the original duo is okay with it as a means to not interrupt a special experience (say, a pending marriage proposal). As such, if you are wanting to enjoy this one but are solo your best bet is to find a friend to join you to ensure you can get a ride!
Overall, I was thrilled with my experience flying on Vortex Helicopter Services. Not only did we have some pretty stellar views of Pittsburgh landmarks, I loved how they could customize the route to take in highlights pending air traffic approval. Flying over our house and seeing the zoo was just as exciting as some of the more well-known landmarks outright!
Have you flown over Pittsburgh in a helicopter? What did you think? Comment below to share!
Vortex Helicopter Services operates out of Finleyville Airport at 196 Airport Road in Finleyville. I was a guest of the company on a media tour for this flight. As always, all opinions are my own.