Family-owned Maverick Helicopters shares how it grew into a tourism powerhouse

Owners Greg and Brenda Rochna are having their Maverick Helicopters 20th anniversary, standing with one of their aircraft at the Henderson Executive Airport.

Army veteran Greg Rochna, 67, walks through Maverick Helicopters’ new $5 million terminal, peering through the giant windowpanes at his fleet.

The 47 choppers — ECO-Star 130s — are among the best touring helicopters on the planet, and with a $3.2 million price tag, they’d better be.

Maverick makes dreams a reality three hours at a time, as the helicopters swoop guests through the Grand Canyon, land at the bottom of the gorge and fly over the Strip — all in one tour.

With the company celebrating its 20th anniversary, Greg and his wife, Brenda, have been reflecting on its modest beginnings and roots in his childhood.

Rochna’s father was an airplane mechanic, and they often separated parts together after school.

“When you’re a mechanic, you’re always dirty, but then I would see the pilot walk out with his white shirt, start up the aircraft with a beautiful girl on his arm and fly off,” he said. “I told my dad, ‘I don’t want to be a mechanic; I want to be a pilot.’ ”

Rochna and many of his high school friends joined the Army and piloted helicopters in Vietnam.

After a long career serving his country, Rochna wasn’t done piloting.

Popular tours

Tours range from the $124 Vegas Strip — an aerial experience of Las Vegas Boulevard, day or night) to the top-selling Wind Dancer Tour — a three-hour, $544 jaunt over the Hoover Dam and through the Grand Canyon before landing at the bottom and flying over the Strip upon return. For $644 per person, the Maverick Rafting Tour adds a raft adventure down the Colorado River.

By the numbers

• 5 consecutive Diamond Awards from the Federal Aviation Administration

• 7 consecutive Concierge Choice Awards from Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association

• 6 years as the exclusive helicopter operator for Las Vegas Motor Speedway

• 21 helicopters used to fly to Electric Daisy Carnival

• 47 helicopters in the fleet

• 82 windows overlooking McCarran International Airport’s runways in the new Las Vegas Boulevard flagship terminal

• 84 pilots

• 412 total employees

• 1,500 Pilot in Command hours new Maverick pilots are required to have

• 200,000 passengers flown last year

• 400,000 total flight hours logged since the company’s inception

• 2 million passengers flown during 20 years of operation

He ventured into the touring business as a pilot for a company in Hawaii. Flying a tour group through the mountains of Maui when his engine failed, Rochna was forced to make an emergency landing in a swamp.

“I stayed so calm while landing the helicopter that they thought it was part of the tour,” Rochna said, laughing.

Shortly after, he and Brenda moved to Las Vegas, where there was plenty of competition in the field but nothing like the visions of grandeur swirling through their minds.

“I had the first vertical window-covering company in Las Vegas, and when we decided to start the helicopter company up, I sold it to get enough money for a down payment on a helicopter,” Brenda Rochna said.

Next, they needed a name.

“I was at a lawyer’s office, and they wanted me to sign a noncompete statement. I was already starting up this company so I said, ‘There’s no way I’m signing that.’ He looked at me and said, ‘What are you, some kind of maverick?’ ” Greg Rochna said. “I replied, ‘As a matter of fact I am, and that’s the name of the company I’m about to start.’ I got up and walked out.”

From the beginning, the Rochnas decided they weren’t going to cut corners. They would do things their way, the best way they could.

Brenda answered phones, scheduled tours and worked the register while Greg mopped the floors, hosed off the helicopters and flew the tours. Greg would even pick up customers from their hotels and drive them to the terminal.

“When they came to market with their one helicopter, they came with the VIP approach,” said Bryan Kroten, Maverick’s vice president of marketing. “They didn’t try to undercut anyone with prices, or do the 99-cent shrimp cocktail approach. They went the opposite direction, with a boutique company with quality service and the best maintenance and safety standards.”

There are plenty of cheaper options when it comes to helicopters, but the Rochnas chose to invest more than $85 million over the past 20 years in quiet-technology helicopters.

The choppers seat seven and have wrap-around windows for maximum external visibility during flights.

After each helicopter is purchased, Rochna said, Maverick puts in $500,000 in upgrades before it leaves the ground.

Unlike many touring companies at the time, the Rochnas wanted all of their helicopters to be equipped with air conditioning and headsets with microphones for everyone on board.

That way, guests could talk to each other and the pilot throughout the flight without having to scream over the roar of the engine.

“Brenda called me one time when we had only been in business for a few months. She got a package in the mail that was just three brass screws for the engine. It cost $23,000,” Rochna said. “She couldn’t believe it, and I looked at her and said, ‘Aviation isn’t cheap.”

Rochna said Maverick holds to that approach, with the strictest maintenance standards in the industry.

“The Federal Aviation Administration came here for an inspection and asked me what one thing I would do to make the company safer,” Rochna said. “I just laughed at them and said, ‘If I found one thing safer, I’ve already done it.’ ”

But the helicopters are only part of what makes a touring company special; a pilot can make or break a tour for guests.

“I never thought the company would get even close to this big,” said Joe Munoz, 43, the third pilot hired by Maverick. “Back then, the pilots washed our own helicopters and we did everything. We slowly just increased helicopters and then because of our reputation, we kept getting bigger through word of mouth.”

Munoz has flown helicopters for 24 years, but his piloting duties were recently dialed back after he was promoted to director of operations. He wouldn’t dream of leaving the company, he said.

“It’s nice working for the Rochnas because it takes a lot of stress off of the pilot,” Munoz said. “It’s easy to attract quality employees with the best equipment.”

Maverick now has 84 pilots based at five terminals — Las Vegas (at McCarran International Airport), Henderson Executive Airport, Grand Canyon South Rim, Grand Canyon West Rim and its latest, Maui, Hawaii.

Rochna not only bought out the touring company he used to work for in Hawaii; he also purchased the land where he made that emergency landing.

He stopped flying the tours about three years ago but still flies in his personal time. Brenda flies as well, and the two will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next February.

“We didn’t have outside investors,” Rochna said. “Every dime we made went back into the helicopters. That’s how we ended up like this, because we all worked hard and paid our bills. We just knew how to run a business, and that’s the key to success.”

Maverick has soared above anything the Rochnas imagined, and they want to keep flying higher. the goal is to expand the fleet to 100 helicopters.

“It’s so exciting,” Rochna said. “That’s the problem. We’re not ready to retire yet because this is too much fun.”