The Hawai‘i helicopter tour business has grown over the years, and there are several reputable companies to choose from on each island. But on O‘ahu, there’s only one helicopter to fly if you want to feel like a TV star.
“Well, there’s actually four,” corrects Richard Schuman, owner of Magnum Helicopters and Makani Kai Airlines. “Our guests get to fly in the same helicopters they see on ‘Magnum P.I.’ and ‘Hawaii Five-O’ each week—doors on and doors off.”
Does Stephen Hill, who plays Vietnam veteran and helicopter pilot Theodore “T.C.” Calvin on Magnum, ever fly the choppers? “No,” says Schuman, “but he does like to bring his friends here and show where he ‘works.’ He was just here the other day.”
Today it’s hard to keep the Magnum Helicopters fleet on the ground given the demand generated by its iconic status and the company’s sterling reputation, but it wasn’t always the case.
“So many things have worked out right. Given all the twists and turns in my journey, I feel like a power greater than me opened these doors over time,” he says.
Schuman’s airborne resume dates back to 1996 when he left a comfortable career working in the family business, the Schuman Carriage Company. One of the largest auto dealerships in the state at the time, the firm dates back to 1893.
“My great-grandfather, Gustav Schuman, started a horse and buggy company, but when he attended the 1903 World Exposition he came back with a new mission—to supply Hawai‘i with the state’s first automobiles.
“My father, Dutch Schuman, was a great mentor, but of course I had to break some of the rules he had taught me. He said, ‘Don’t get into a business you know nothing about.’
“I was a helicopter pilot but knew nothing about the business side. I was always fascinated by helicopters and took a flying lesson on a dare. Flying over Diamond Head that first trip didn’t seem too difficult. When we returned to the heliport to land, I quickly understood how hard piloting can be. But I was hooked.”
In January of 1996, Schuman and a friend leased a helicopter and went into business. By October of that year, they were broke.
At that same time, the owner of Makani Kai Helicopters was looking to exit the business. “My father also told me, ‘Buy an existing business even if it’s doing poorly. There’s value in acquiring a customer base.’ This time I took his advice. I bought Makani Kai on a handshake deal.”
Business was so good by 2008 that Schuman bought two A-Star Helicopters at $1.5 million apiece and negotiated a 30-year lease with the state on their current 40,000-square-foot facility and built out the property. “That was 2008,” he says, “and we all know what happened to the economy in 2008.”
By 2009, Schuman was struggling mightily under the weight of the monthly debt payments and falling revenues. That’s when another door opened and Schuman walked through.
“Betty Ward from Pacific Air Cargo wanted to start a night cargo business, and Dorvin Leis, a local businessman who had been an investor in Mokulele Airlines, was left with three new Grand Caravan airplanes when they sold the company. The three of us made a handshake deal that I would pay Dorvin for the airplanes and fly the cargo for Betty.”
After a year of flying cargo, it became apparent that the freight business was not profitable enough, but by now Schuman had the airplanes. “We retro-fitted the planes to fly passengers and I won the federal contract to fly to Kalaupapa on Moloka‘i. From there, we found our niche in serving the Moloka‘i community, offering $50 flat fees one-way to fly to and from O‘ahu.”
Today Makani Kai flies 10,000 customers per month from O‘ahu to Moloka‘i, Moloka‘i to Maui, Maui to Kona, and O‘ahu to Princeville, Kaua‘i.
“A lot of things have worked out right for us to be in this position today. We still encounter challenges. One thing my father said that I’ll never forget: ‘If you’re the president of a company and it fails, it’s on you for not thinking far enough ahead.’ We’ve not only made it 24 years, we’ve never laid off an employee for lack of income.”
So when did Makani Kai Helicopters become Magnum?
“We acquired Rainbow Pacific Helicopters in 2001 and the Magnum name came in the deal. In recent years doors-off rides became more popular. We decided to ‘fire up’ the Magnum brand in 2017, complete with the original color scheme, but we had no idea at the time that the series was going to reboot.
“We’d already been flying for ‘Hawaii Five-O’ for 10 seasons. When CBS picked up ‘Magnum P.I.’ they asked us to be part of it.”
And what does Schuman, also a pilot, prefer: helicopters or airplanes?
“Definitely helicopters,” says the man with over 10,000 flight hours in choppers. “I’ve always been more comfortable flying helicopters.”
It’s a good thing for guests and employees that he’s also comfortable walking through doors that open up for him.
[A version of this article appears in print in the pages of This Week O‘ahu]