By Ralph Olson
Visitors to Las Vegas were always lured by its casinos, stunning shows, golf and a multitude of other attractions. But not everyone was familiar with its surrounding areas, especially in the neighboring state of Arizona with one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In fact, Las Vegas advertises itself as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon”.
Air Vegas Airlines was one of the oldest and most experienced charter air tour operators based in Las Vegas, having begun operations at McCarran International Airport (IATA: LAS/ICAO: KLAS). Serving two of the most exciting destinations, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, Air Vegas was a very successful company. Early operations were conducted with a variety of light aircraft, including single-engine Beechcraft A35 and A36 Bonanzas. As demand increased the fleet expanded to 25 airplanes comprising light twins such as the Cessna 402 and Beechcraft Baron. But with the continuing air traffic growth at McCarran, Air Vegas began to look for a new location.
In 1988 the company moved to nearby Henderson Executive Airport (IATA: HND/ICAO: KL15), a single runway airport with no instrument approach, located south of McCarran but still close to the Las Vegas “Strip” and downtown areas. Air Vegas was the only resident scheduled carrier at the airport that otherwise hosted a handful of general aviation flight schools.
Continuing to expand at its new location, early in the 1990s the Air Vegas fleet was supplemented by the Beech C99 Airliner. Obtained from a variety of commuter airlines around the U.S., the Beech 99s were completely refurbished and maintained at Henderson Airport by Air Vegas-certified mechanics.
The new type proved an instant hit with customers because of its speed, comfort and large windows. Dubbed the “Tourliner” by Air Vegas, each B99 seated 15 passengers and was flown by two pilots. It was the fastest aircraft in service between Las Vegas and Grand Canyon Airport (IATA: GCN/ICAO: KGCN}, with a one way trip taking a little under one hour.
By 1993, Air Vegas was operating only the Beech 99s, with a total of nine aircraft, and the company soon had more than 100 employees at both Henderson and Grand Canyon.
The events on September 11, 2001 had a most definite impact on air travel and tourism throughout the world. Air Vegas was not spared; the company was forced to park several of its B99s due to a huge slowdown in demand. During 2002, the company moved its operation once again to North Las Vegas Airport, (IATA: VGT/IACO: KVGT), due to major construction at Henderson.
When air travel and tourist demand recovered, the fleet of ten Beech 99s flew four roundtrips to the Grand Canyon each day for a daily average of 36 flights. A typical Air Vegas passenger tour includes a pickup at a Las Vegas hotel, check-in at North Las Vegas Airport and a souvenir photo of each passenger with the pilots. Once airborne, passengers enjoy a spectacular tour courtesy of the Beech 99, with every seat adjacent to a window.
All flights were conducted under visual flight rules (VFR), the routes affording views of Lake Mead and Hoover Dam to the accompaniment of multilingual recorded commentaries designed to inform as well as entertain. Upon arrival at Grand Canyon Airport, passengers have the option of a number of tours, including a helicopter from the canyon rim descending 4,000 ft. (1,200M) to the canyon floor.
Air Vegas Airlines was, during its heyday, the largest operator of the Beech 99 passenger flights in the world. Its final Beech 99 acquisition was a low-time airframe that was operated mostly on military and FAA contracts. The airline ceased operations on September 30, 2004, sixteen months after the death of its owner and founder.
The airline flew over 200,000 passengers a year between its North Las Vegas base and the Grand Canyon Airport, 80 per cent of which were foreign visitors to the Las Vegas area. Air Vegas Airlines bridged the gap between pure entertainment and the awe of nature at its most breathtaking.