Q&A: Maverick Helicopters' Joe Munoz
Joe Munoz flew helicopters everywhere from glaciers to oil rigs before a friend told him a fledgling company in Las Vegas was looking for a pilot. Now director of operations of Maverick Aviation Group, Munoz started out flying over the Strip and to the Grand Canyon before Maverick caught on as the ultimate way to get to Electric Daisy Carnival. He spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about Maverick’s quiet flights.
Did you come on as a tour pilot?
Yeah. That was in 1997. I flew as a tour pilot for about seven years, then I took the chief pilot position, so I flew but I also did hiring, schedules, customer service, all that. I did that for about 12 years. Then I was given the director of operations position about three years ago.
What kind of flights were you doing in the early days? Was it mostly Grand Canyon?
Yeah, we started with mostly Grand Canyon, Strip tours of the city. Then we added tours of Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, an occasional flight to California.
When did the Strip tours start?
That started immediately. Maverick started around 1995 with Grand Canyon and flights over the Strip.
How many hours does the average Maverick pilot put in per week?
About 20 hours a week of actual flying. Four hours a day of actual flying, but a full four hours takes nine hours to do.
What kind of skill set does a pilot need to fly Maverick’s routes?
The biggest thing is situation awareness because there’s a lot of traffic in Vegas. There are a lot of helicopter companies, so situation awareness is the main thing. In general, a professional attitude, enthusiasm for work, clean cut. We deal with all the biggest hotel companies—MGM, corporations, all the biggest hotels we’re dealing with.
Are the principals who started the company still involved?
Yeah, it’s a husband and wife who still own the company. I’ve been around for 22 years. The other managers in the flight department have been there 15-plus years. Everybody’s been there for a while.
Did business take off right away?
It just constantly grew. When I got there there were two helicopters and they were just bringing a third on. We just kept growing and growing. Currently we have 47 aircraft. … Ten years ago I’d say we had a little over 30 aircraft.
I’ve taken your Grand Canyon flight, but I can’t recall whether it was a Wind Dancer or an Eco-Star.
The Wind Dancer is a flight, our most popular trip to Grand Canyon. The technical aircraft we have is an airbus, the EC-130. They call it the Eco-Star. They named it that because it’s the quietest helicopter that’s currently designed. It keeps the noise level down to disturb the environment as little as possible. It still makes noise, but it’s the quietest one they have.
How fast do you go?
Our average speed is about 135 miles an hour.
It doesn’t feel like that.
Yeah, it doesn’t feel like that.
It feels like you’re doing 50 mph in a car. How high are you above the ground?
In most parts of the desert we’re 600 feet above the ground. At our highest we’re about 4,000 feet above the ground.
You kind of know what to expect based on the description of the tours, having a little time here there and seeing a few different sites, but nothing gives you a sense of the expanse of the land like the terrain from overhead.
You see the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon in one flight. You really don’t appreciate Hoover Dam as much from the ground as in the air because you can actually see the whole thing.
And then you land in West Rim and it becomes a very different experience very fast. It’s like you have your own little piece of Grand Canyon. You are not aware of the expanse around you anymore. What came next, Hawaii or the Electric Daisy Carnival?
I think EDC came first.
How did EDC come about?
Insomniac contacted us and told us about this festival they wanted to do, and wanted to talk about transportation. At first we didn’t want to do the festival at all. We talked about the hours. The hours of operation of EDC are 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. We had not experienced flying at night, those hours, and we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, what the people were like, so we were kind of hesitant. So myself and Bryan Kroten, who’s a transfer from marketing—he’s in charge of the EDC project on our end of it—we started out with maybe 3 or 4 helicopters, and we had almost no bookings until the day before. And then word got out and it got busy, and then next year we got busier and had more aircraft. … When we started, our lobby was just a regular lobby. Fast-forward to now and we use 24 aircraft, and our lobby is like a pre-EDC party lounge before the passengers go it. We have a DJ, open bar, so before they even get to the event it’s already kind of a fun experience for the passengers to fly with us.
Do they appear markedly different on the way back than on the way there?
Yeah, definitely. You can tell they’ve been partying, having fun. When they start off they’re all bright-eyed and excited. Some of these people have never been in a helicopter. We have people that have flown with us every year since year one. We also have young kids that have never been in a helicopter. It’s their first time. You can tell they’ve saved all their money for this, and they’re excited. By the end of the trip, we’re picking them up and they’re all worn out and ready to go home. It’s a fun time.
I can’t handle the traffic, so it’s probably the only way I’d do EDC.
I’ll take that over a four-hour drive.
To go 20 miles. Have you piloted EDC flights yourself?
Yeah, I do it every year.
What was it like the first time you flew into EDC?
I thought it was just going to be a music festival but it was more like a carnival, party and music festival all in one. It’s quite impressive how much infrastructure they bring and set up in 30 days. It’s impressive what a task they have, and they do a really good job of it.
How were the sights and sounds? Was it like landing in Oz?
Like a neon-bright carnival on steroids.
Is there an EDC VIP experience?
You can charter the whole helicopter. It’s a private flight with up to seven passengers. You’ll have the whole helicopter to yourselves. It is open bar. We don’t have a separate VIP experience because everybody gets treated the same. Insomniac wants that. They want the kid who’s 18, or 21 and just out of college, to have the same experience as the guy who’s a millionaire.
And since you already have a flight plan to Las Vegas Motor Speedway the next natural step is NASCAR.
There’s two NASAR events a year. We fly them out there to that.
How did you wind up adding the Maui Rainforest trek and a permanent location on Kauai?
The owner of the company, his name’s Greg Rochna, he’s an ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot. When he got out of the army he flew tours of Hawaii. He had a house there, and he always wanted to go back to Hawaii. He looked for an opportunity and there was a company for sale. He bought that company and converted it to Maverick. We do get customers that g to Las Vegas and Hawaii, so they fly with us in both locations. It was an easy next step.
How often do you get requests for your tour of Monument Valley, which was an iconic setting for many John Ford and John Wayne westerns?
We don’t schedule tours but we do have custom charters. Monument Valley, Bryce Park and Zion are our most popular ones. We get probably a half-dozen of those a year. Zion and Bryce are a little over a half-hour out of Vegas, and they’re definitely a sight to see. The most popular tour we’ve done is we fly to Grand Canyon, then fly over Zion-Bryce. It’s about a three-hour round trip. That give you a taste of the whole Southwest, so that’s a really pretty flight.
Can you handle any customer’s request within legal limits?
Pretty much. I’ve had requests for Pahrump, to go to the brothels out there. We drop them off and wait for them. We have flights to Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles. We can do anything someone thinks of. We do weddings in the Grand Canyon. We do private catering. We’ll have food from the Bellagio, or they’ll bring a private chef, a sushi chef. Pretty much anything that’s legal, we do it. We’ve flown groups to the Grand Canyon with a whole band, acoustic band. Pretty much anything you can think of, we can do it.
What does the yoga tour entail?
It’s best during spring and fall when the temperature’s mild. We’ll fly a group out with a really good yoga instructor to Valley of Fire. There’s this rock that you can only get to by helicopter. It’s silent yoga. They have headsets on, and the instructor can speak to them but otherwise it’s quiet. We do that quite a bit.
How often to pilots find themselves flying celebrity passengers?
We get quite a few requests throughout the year, yeah. We get famous people from every category of entertainment, like if it’s sports teams we get all sports players. I couldn’t tell you them all because I can’t keep track of them anymore, but we’ve had Leonardo DiCaprio, Jude Law. We’ve flown Tony Robbins and his groups out to the Grand Canyon. He has private groups that follow him, flown them out. Flown Barbara Walters out, (Floyd) Mayweather. A lot of football, baseball, basketball players. It’s very common out here because of the reputation.
Does Maverick have anything new coming up?
We’re offering flights to Burning Man. That’s new. Last year was out first year we tried it out. It was really successful. We’ll be doing all the helicopter flights in and out of Burning Man.
How long does it take to fly to Black Rock?
We have helicopters and planes. It’s too far of a flight to go by helicopter because it’s not comfortable, so our helicopter flights go from Reno to Black Rock, back and forth. I believe we’ll be flying planes out of Henderson (Executive) Airport directly to Black Rock City.
Do customers ask if Maverick can help them gain entrance into the mile-high club?
I have had that request, yeah. I’ve never done it but I have had that request. … Most of the time we don’t fly that high, but it’s technically legal. It’s not something I think we want to advertise. (laughs)