Entrepreneur plans copter shuttle service Helicopter shuttle preparing to fly Road avoidance: That's what Internet entrepreneur Steve Walker plans to offer with his helicopter service.

January 07, 2001|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

When you're doing business at Internet speed, there's no time to sit in traffic.

So naturally, one of the region's high-flying Internet entrepreneurs keeps a helicopter handy when it comes time to meet with distant clients or attend industry conferences in Northern Virginia. By air, Steve Walker can avoid Maryland's overburdened highways and travel from his western Howard County home to just about anywhere in the Baltimore-Washington area in less than half an hour.

"I kind of got hooked on it," said Walker, who runs a Glenwood venture capital firm, Steve Walker & Associates, which invests in start-up technology companies.

Convinced that he has stumbled onto something, the 56-year-old is applying his entrepreneurial skills to a new helicopter shuttle service that would link the Baltimore and Washington metro areas and extend into Virginia and Eastern Maryland. Walker expects to establish a network of helipads, or landing sites, throughout the region and have the new company, called Capitol Rising, operating by spring. One potential route would ferry passengers from Baltimore's Inner Harbor to Tysons Corner, Va.

More than just a plaything for the rich, Walker says, "vertical flight" could prove a savior for time-pressed executives, consultants, lawyers and bankers who propel the region's economy. Business clients could save, too, by footing the bill for a roughly $200 copter ride instead of paying their lawyer or consultant $350 to $600 an hour to sit in traffic.

While conceding that the idea won't put a dent in increasingly onerous beltway traffic, Walker says he hopes that his airborne shuttle service could serve an influential niche in the corporate community and eventually allow companies to open rural satellite offices, which would be just a 20-minute flight away from their urban headquarters. That way, managers could occasionally check up on their distant employees without having to spend hours on the road.

Ideally, such a scenario could alleviate some of the crowding in metro areas while giving technology workers the option of living closer to rural recreational areas.

"For the people who want to live in the outlying areas but still have their high-tech jobs, man, this is perfect," said Walker, who is described by business associates as a disarming, soft-spoken man with a keen eye for industry trends.

Walker is a veteran of the computer industry, having taken a job with the federal government after earning an electrical engineering degree from Northeastern University in the 1960s.

He later supervised the Pentagon's contract with the company that built the ARPANet, often described as the precursor of the Internet.

An expert in computer security, Walker left his government job in the early 1980s and went on to found Trusted Information Systems Inc. The Glenwood software company later went public and was sold in 1998 to Network Associates Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., in an all-stock deal valued at $300 million.

These days, Walker invests in technology companies by day and pushes his helicopter business by night. Already, he has received expressions of interest from fellow venture capitalists and other associates.

"I can't have a meeting on any subject without at least spending 10 or 12 minutes on helicopters first because everybody is excited about this," Walker said.

While helicopter charter services are commonplace, only a handful of companies worldwide provide regularly scheduled helicopter service, say industry experts. But observers describe it as an "up and coming" trend, in large part because of increasing congestion in major metro areas. The one thing holding back the industry is a shortage of places to land. The general public is often wary of having noisy helicopters taking off and landing near homes, or in some cases, even businesses.

"It's often an uphill battle," said Stuart Price, a spokesman for the Helicopter Association International. The trade group is leading efforts to educate the public about the safety and potential economic benefits of establishing helicopter routes in congested communities.

Walker tangled with neighbors in the spring after asking Howard County officials for permission to put a helicopter pad on the roof of his office building along Route 97. The pad was meant for personal use and was not a part of his planned shuttle service. Insisting that he doesn't want to force his love of helicopters on a skeptical public, Walker withdrew the request in the face of neighborhood objections.

Walker faced similar opposition after he proposed a landing site in Reston, Va., close to the types of high-tech business executives he is targeting with Capitol Rising. Again, he backed down, but he has continued to work with local officials in an attempt to work out a solution.

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