By Kent Coules, Publisher
“We had a great life; we rented a little house on the beach and owned a sailboat charter business. We were good. And then my son got accepted into Chapman College in California.”
Chapman College can take partial credit for starting one of the most successful air tour companies in Hawai‘i, Sunshine Helicopters. Except that the founder didn’t attend the school—he just paid for it.
“I was in good shape financially, except for the $28,000 a year I was going to have to come up with. This was 1985. That wasn’t going to happen from our boat tour business. So I leased two helicopters and started Sunshine.”
Of course, he did. Doesn’t every Chapman College parent do that?
“I knew helicopters,” Scott says. “I have 18,000 flying hours, and there weren’t as many companies doing tours on Maui in those days. I leased two helicopters from my former company in Anchorage, Alaska, flew them to Seattle, had them crated up and shipped to O‘ahu. I flew one over to Maui and my son and I started up the business with one Jet Ranger helicopter.”
For three years Scott and wife Anna were working both businesses. “Two days on the boat, two days on the helicopter, and three days of maintenance work.”
The hard work eventually paid off and the Scotts sold off their boat to focus exclusively on Sunshine. Today, Sunshine Helicopters operates ten “ships” on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.
For Ross and Anna Scott, the journey to being named the Small Business Administration of Hawaii’s 2019 Entrepreneurial Success of the Year began during the Vietnam era.
Attending the University of Washington, the couple settled in Seattle. Ross’s work as a design engineer aid on the Boeing 727 was interrupted by a draft notice from the U.S. Army. Not wanting to be a foot soldier, he signed up for the Army Helicopter Flight Training Program.
“My love of flying was instant.” Scott became a gunship pilot, and during his one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Purple Heart.
After Vietnam, the Scotts moved to Anchorage, Alaska where Ross managed a large aviation company with 50 airplanes and 30 helicopters. Anna worked in personnel for Carr’s grocery store chain. After 11 years, the Alaska Pipeline was completed and businesses like Ross’s were challenged.
“Then one morning I receive a notice in the mail from Maui County that I needed to cut the weeds on a piece of property we had bought here,” Scott says. “That same morning I’m reading the local newspaper and saw an ad that read, ‘Own your own business in paradise. Sailboat charter business for sale.’”
Ross hopped on a plane to Maui, cut the weeds, and bought the boat business, Alihilani Yacht Charters. “We were perfectly happy running our boat business and living an island lifestyle.”
Then Chapman College sent that fateful acceptance letter.
Today, Sunshine Helicopters employs 100 people. “At this point, it’s really not about me. I have an amazing team of people who are dedicated to treating every guest like family.”
“Most important to all of us is safety. Our pilots have full discretion to determine whether it is safe to fly. We only take our guests up when we feel that they will be as safe as humanly possible.”
When asked to choose his favorite tour, Scott replies, “If I had to choose one tour it would be the Maui to Molokai tour. The sea cliffs and natural beauty of Molokai is unparalleled. Sometimes our Haleakalā flights are canceled due to weather conditions on the mountain. Many guests who opt for the Molokai tour as an alternative come back saying they’re glad it happened.”
For 1.5 million Sunshine Helicopters “veterans” who have safely taken to the Hawaiian skies over the last 35 years, they’re glad Ross and Anna Scott got that letter from college.
[A version of this article appears in print in the pages of This Week Maui]