Checking off another item on the birthday/bucket list

Feb. 18—PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Modern quandary: What do you get someone who's had pretty much every birthday wish imaginable fulfilled?

If you're my wife, you secretly set up a helicopter ride along the Gulf Coast from Panhandle Helicopter, who make good on their promise of "taking you to new heights."

Now if you're like me — and pray not — and you're pretty much scared of anything that takes you more than 10 feet or so above the ground (a fear instilled when I was somehow convinced several years ago to jump out of an airplane at 10,000 feet), the thought of riding in a helicopter is, well, not one that you'd ever even considered.

So, when informed two blocks from Panhandle Helicopter's 15726 Front Beach Road hangars that your surprise is said trip, there was almost a Southwest Airlines-like flight cancellation due to the chickenheartedness of the would-be passenger. But I survived an excursion of swimming with dolphins and a trip to a strip club (a first for me ... and probably a last), so I figured I'd see this one through as well.

(Funny sidebar: The procurer of said trip is perhaps as chickenhearted as I when it comes to flying, so when a set of circumstances pretty much forced her to take the flight as well ... I'll just say it was one of those funny-not-funny experiences that had her on the verge of upchucking and me happily chatting away like an adventurous 11-year-old. You know what they say about karma.)

The captain for our flight from the landing pad on Front Beach Road to Shell Island and back, Brandon Anderson, has been making the flights for the past three years. That means he's repeated the journey thousands of times, since in prime summertime hours he may make as many as 100-150 flights a day. (Yes, you read that right ... a day!) And even those of us with Kentucky Fried hearts feel safe in his hands.

"I'd gone through flight school and had commercial private instrument rating, so there was nothing else I wanted to do," the young pilot said. "Of course, my mom was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, so she was pretty much my inspiration."

Panhandle Helicopter owner JR Hott, who's also a pilot but admits he doesn't get to fly much these days after moving into the new digs just off the Gulf Coast only a week before, said he started the business in 2008 with one helicopter and "a little shed that we worked out of."

Hott now has six helicopters in his freshly built facility, 10 pilots and plans to start a flight school.

"They announced that Embassy Suites was planning to build close to our former location, and I knew that could cause some problems," Hott said. "We knew we couldn't do what we wanted to do if we had neighbors always pitching a fit.

"We started looking for a place a little farther away from residential areas and found this one. The more we looked at it, the more it grew on us. The shape of the land it's on is ideal for what we want to do, and we're already planning an expansion as soon as we get a little more settled here."

After an initial "hurrrk-inducing," heading-downhill-on-a-carnival-ride (something else I don't claim to enjoy but have done on occasion to meet the needs of kids I love), the flight was a wonder. Anderson, as much congenial host as pilot, gave a mini historical perspective of points of interest along the way, although I think he liked the looks of semi-terror on my face as he turned us almost parallel to the ground to get a better view of some of those sights.

Then there was the flora and fauna: some of the world's most beautiful beaches, nine dolphins lined up as if to perform for an audience, and boats of many persuasions, some with sails that were their own works of art. (And, oh yeah, there was one shark that the mostly silent passenger in the back of the 'copter managed to spot between bouts of eyes-closed horror and fear of revisiting that morning's breakfast.)

(I also must mention here that wearing the cool communications headsets while strapped into the vessel made me feel at least a little like a co-pilot ... or maybe more like I used to when pretending to be a radio deejay.)

Back on terra firma — much to my flying companion's relief — we talked with Hott, Anderson and some of their staff and did a quickie tour of the Panhandle Helicopter facilities before heading back to check out the Gulf from a more Earth-bound perspective. Did I completely lose my fear of flying? Pretty much, at least as far as helicopter flight goes. Will Tara get back on one any time soon? I'm guessing, given her reaction and reference to the 'copter as a "vomitorium," that's a no-go.

But saying I did it is a check off the bucket/birthday list that will keep me stoked for the next 360 days or so.