The AW609 Tiltrotor, a helicopter-plane prototype, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants.
Among all the high-flying toys that a billionaire can buy, the futuristic AgustaWestland AW609 Tiltrotor, a hybrid helicopter-plane, is as coveted a trinket as they come. Forty people have lined up to buy the aircraft, which is modeled on the V22 Osprey used in the military. It maneuvers like a helicopter, but with the speed and altitude of a plane.
It will not be ready until 2016, and the price has not even been established — though estimates place it between $5 million and $30 million. And near the top of the ultraexclusive waiting list is one Michael R. Bloomberg.
Private jets have practically become de rigueur among the elite; everyone who is anyone either owns one or charters one regularly. Mayor Bloomberg is no exception: his trips to Bermuda aboard his private jet often fill in the blanks on weekends when he has no public schedule.
But his passion for flying and owning helicopters puts him in a rarefied circle, occupied by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford and Gisele Bündchen.
Mr. Bloomberg, it turns out, is a fan of copters: he does not merely enjoy flying in them, he is obsessive about piloting them himself. His fellow pilots have seen how he delights in a helicopter’s mechanical quirks and how quick he is to compare notes about the latest gadgets or a trusted mechanic.
“People who experience this, it’s a dance,” said the crime fiction writer Patricia Cornwell, who flies her own helicopter and has talked with the mayor about the joys of flying one around New York. “It’s not take off, go straight and land.”
“You take someone like the mayor, this is a really handy thing,” Ms. Cornwell added. “It’s a bird’s-eye view of America from your cockpit.”
Through his company, Mr. Bloomberg owns a $4.5 million, six-seat Agusta SPA A109S helicopter, which he keeps at the Morristown Municipal Airport in New Jersey with his private planes, according to records.
There is no public data for how often the mayor flies his helicopter, but those familiar with his travel patterns said he had taken it to Albany and the Hamptons, among other destinations. His up-in-the-air celebrity is such that other pilots recognize his tail number, but Mr. Bloomberg has blocked public aircraft-tracking systems from tracing his exact aerial whereabouts. He is typically accompanied by a pilot, Toby Wilson, whose primary job is to fly the helicopter to New York to collect the mayor, or fly it back to New Jersey once the mayor has gotten off.
The helicopter can come in handy during the work day.
On the morning of March 16, a thick fog shrouded the city, causing huge delays at La Guardia Airport, where the mayor and several lawmakers were waiting to travel to Albany for a news conference on state pension reform. So Mr. Bloomberg offered to fly his guests, who included James P. Molinaro, the Staten Island borough president; Thomas M. Roach, the mayor of White Plains; a mayoral aide, Micah C. Lasher; and a security officer, in his helicopter instead.
As the mayor took the controls and steered north, he pointed out the Catskills and asked his passengers if they felt airsick. Mr. Molinaro, who previously flew Navy helicopters, said he was impressed with the mayor’s skills, especially during the landing.
“He came down nice and slow,” Mr. Molinaro said. “It was like you were just sliding. There wasn’t even a bounce.”
When Mr. Molinaro told Mr. Bloomberg how much smoother the flight was than some he had taken with the military, the mayor replied: “It’s not the plane. It’s the pilot.”
Things have not always gone perfectly. Back in 1976, when Mr. Bloomberg was training to become a pilot, he nearly encountered disaster as he flew alone off the coast of Connecticut.
“I wasn’t sure what was going on in the engine compartment behind me, but I certainly knew I was falling and couldn’t breathe. I was going down,” he wrote in his autobiography. He landed on an island and ultimately put out the helicopter fire himself.
“Was I scared?” he wrote. “Well, there’d been no time for any emotion when I was in the air, and on the ground I was safe. So the answer is no — unless of course you count the internal shaking I couldn’t stop for the rest of the day.”
There have been other hiccups.
In October 2004, officials with the Meadowlands Sports Complex denied Mr. Bloomberg’s request to fly his helicopter to a Jets game and encouraged him to take the bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In January 2002, when he was criticized for taking the controls of a police helicopter to attend Adolfo Carrión Jr.’s inauguration as borough president in the Bronx, he defended himself, saying, “I fly helicopters more sophisticated than that all the time that I happen to own.”
Mr. Bloomberg declined to be interviewed for this article. But Ms. Cornwell, the crime author, said he “made it very clear to me that he doesn’t like to give up the controls to anyone else.”
Some public officials, like Representative Jerrold L. Nadler, fear that Mr. Bloomberg’s passion could cloud his judgment on how he handles issues of helicopter safety in the crowded New York airspace. After a fatal crash in the East River in October, the mayor defended the safety record of helicopters.
“There’s three or four deaths in automobile accidents every single week in this city,” he said then. “Nobody’s suggesting you’re going to ban automobiles.”
Mr. Ford, the actor, said the mayor once lent him his AgustaWestland helicopter to pick up his daughter from summer camp; the favor was in return for once borrowing Mr. Ford’s Gulfstream jet.
Mr. Ford and Mr. Bloomberg also shared a relationship with Mr. Wilson: the mayor’s frequent co-pilot had given flying lessons to Mr. Ford. (Mr. Wilson also has flown Malcolm Forbes’s helicopter off his yacht.)
The mayor is a gracious host aboard his helicopter. One passenger said that on a flight, the mayor asked his passengers if they wanted coffee, and then proceeded to pour some from a Thermos into a Styrofoam cup. He then said, “Do you need milk with that?” before returning to speaking flight jargon with his co-pilot.
A sense of superiority can creep into the way the mayor speaks about helicopter flying versus other forms of travel. Hours after he arrived in Albany last month with Mr. Roach and the other passengers, he held a news conference and thanked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for signing the pension reform legislation. He then singled out two people on his staff: Mr. Lasher, who accompanied the mayor on the helicopter, and Timothy F. Mulligan, the mayor’s fiscal director, who did not.
Mr. Mulligan, the mayor dryly noted, was “still, last I checked, No. 44 in line at La Guardia to try to get off and come here.”
Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.