Air Apparent


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Calvin Dorn’s Paradise Helicopters initially began as a small tourism business. It’s now one of the state’s largest helicopter tour companies

Nearly 40 years in the aviation industry have taught Calvin “Cal” Dorn, that no matter how high you climb, it pays to stay grounded.

Over the past two decades, the 61-yearold Dorn has seen Paradise Helicopters, a small tourism business that he founded with a friend, take flight to become the state’s second-largest helicopter tour company. Dorn and his friend got their start in 1999 after borrowing $20,000 from an owner, who wanted to sell her small single-helicopter business.

“The initial idea was two helicopters,two guys, an easy life with afternoons off sitting on the beach. It’s Hawai‘i. But that’s never happened,” Dorn says during a recent interview from the Barber’s Point Naval Air Museum ready room.

Dorn, who began his aviation career after he was selected for a U.S. Marine Corps flight program in 1978, looks at home in the ready room, the place military pilots go when they aren’t in the air. After all, he spent nearly seven years of his four decades in aviation flying for the U.S. Marine Corps.

He looks less comfortable reflecting on being sole owner of a rapidly accelerating helicopter company—a role he took on in 2001 when he bought his friend out. He says that he and his wife, Stacey, who serves as the head of the company’s human resources and accounting, have been on a wild ride to grow the company ever since.

“A lot of people probably assume that my parents, Clifford and Grace, gave me my start, but there weren’t any entrepreneurs in my family. I still don’t consider myself the big boss,” Dorn shares. “I’m a pilot at heart.

“When we started, our kids were very young,” Dorn says. “It was very challenging trying to balance raising a family and running a business.”

The couple’s children now range in age from 19 to 28. Like any parent, Dorn still can’t believe how quickly they’ve grown. It’s the same with Paradise Helicopters, his other baby.

The Kailua-Kona headquartered company has since expanded its operations to include Hilo, another Hawai‘i Island location, and they’ve also established two O‘ahu locations, including Turtle Bay Resort and Ko Olina/Kalaeloa Airport.

There are 100 employees, 11 helicopters and one airplane, a circa 1944 Pearl Harbor War Bird.

“There are about eight tour companies, and we are the second largest behind Blue Hawaiian. We started with four seats now we have 50,” he says. But I always say, ‘If you aren’t changing, you are falling behind.’”

While the company is primarily a tourism company, Dorn reveals utility operations have grown to 15 to 20 percent of the business. They’ve assisted with recovery efforts after Hurricane Iniki and worked to reconstruct the Waimea and Hamakua ditches after a 2006 earthquake on the Big Island.

While many of these assignments are paid, Dorn is always quick to volunteer, says long-time friend Mike Gomes.

“He’s the kind of guy that will drop everything to donate his time and his talent,” says Gomes, who is the former land manager of Surety Kohala, a real estate development company that utilized Paradise Helicopters services. “The center of his values are centered in his Christian faith, and he’s just a good person.”

Dorn, whose parents became missionaries in Papua New Guinea in their retirement, says they taught him the importance of giving back.

To that end, he’s also is in the process of expanding a partnership with the nonprofit Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative. Paradise Helicopters transports initiative customers to plant trees. The helicopter company also gives their own clients the chance to offset their carbon footprint by purchasing initiative trees.

“He’s not at his company to make a profit, he is there to make a difference,” says Jeff Dunster, executive director of the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative. “If we had 1,000 people like him on the planet, we could change the world.”

The partnership with Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative is a good fit for Dorn, who started his professional career as forestry major working for California’s park system. In fact, he took his first helicopter ride when the forest service was fighting a fire from a lightning strike.

“We were called back almost immediately, but that five-minute ride gave me the bug,” he says.

Dorn worked for the park service throughout college, but left to join the military after the quest for a winter job brought him into the clutches of a recruiter.

“I answered an advertisement for a job with a one-month vacation and overseas travel,” Dorn says. “I almost hung up when I found out it was the military. I’m glad that I didn’t. I loved the Marine Corps. Overall, it was a bunch of people trying to do a good job.”

Dorn could easily say that about Paradise Helicopters, too. Most of his pilots have former military experience and all are on a mission to bring joy.

Bruce Omori, photographer and owner for Extreme Exposure Fine Art Gallery, said the team takes their cue from Dorn, who is a top-notch pilot and leader.

“You can’t help but like the guy. His integrity level, his honesty and his personality are very impressive. He’s the best pilot that I know on the island, but he’s very humble,” Omori says. “He’s always trying to do the right thing. He makes everyone’s day better.”

Dorn said he loves all aspects of his feel-good job, but that it’s a particular kick to assist with wedding proposals. He remembers one where the emotion of the moment cut the ride short.

“We used white fertilizer to spell out the proposal in a pasture and then flew over it,” Dorn says. “She was so excited that the couple ended up wanting to skip the last part of the flight. That was my only regret. I wanted to keep flying.”

The partnership with the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative has made some rides even more poignant.

“We took a father and his kids to plant a tree,” Dorn says. “He only had a short-time to live. They planted the tree for me and put in a monitor so they could see the tree’s growth.”

Dorn counts it among his blessings that someday that family will be able to look at that tree and see how far they’ve come.

He and his team at Paradise Helicopters can use it to measure their progress, too.

They are a fast-growing helicopter company, but Dorn has seen to it that they’ve put down roots and are grounded in their community.

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