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Gunship Helicopters: Aerial shooting adventures

By Dan Megna

Published on: August 4, 2023
Estimated reading time 19 minutes, 37 seconds.

Gunship Helicopters offers guests the ability to shoot military-grade weapons from the cabin of an Airbus AS350 B2. Vertical was invited to the company’s customized range near Las Vegas, Nevada, to get the story behind this niche operation.

Unless one has served in some specialized combat capacity in the military, few will have experienced the feeling of strapping into the open door of a helicopter behind an external mounted, belt-fed military weapon. This is only enhanced by then flying low-level across rugged terrain, engaging targets with bursts of automatic weapon fire.

Gunship chose the AS350 B2 as it said the aircraft’s analog avionics were less expensive to maintain than more modern versions. The company said the type’s hot and high performance was also a factor. Dan Megna Photo

While such an opportunity was long an unattainable “bucket list” item for many, thanks to Las Vegas, Nevada-based Gunship Helicopters, that’s no longer the case. For over five years, Gunship Helicopters has been offering guests truly unique airborne and ground-based shooting adventure packages found nowhere else in the world.

The company operates a private 71-acre (28-hectare) range located about an hour’s drive south of Las Vegas. The remote location provides steep, rugged terrain containing an assortment of static and reactive targets to challenge one’s shooting skills.

Guests booking a qualifying package can receive complimentary roundtrip shuttle service between their hotel and the range. For those seeking private transportation, Gunship Helicopters can assist with arranging private car service or even luxury helicopter transport for an additional fee. Of course, guests can also drive to the range themselves.

Bjoern, a visitor from Germany, is cleared to engage range targets with the full-auto M249 squad automatic weapon (SAW) rifle. Dan Megna Photo

They arrive at a reception center, where they meet the range safety officers (RSOs) and learn what they’re about to experience. The center has recently undergone a number of infrastructure improvements, including new concrete helicopter pads, a climate-controlled classroom, customer store, restroom facilities and courtyard patio, complete with a helicopter hull for guest safety briefings.

Guests can choose from a dozen shooting packages, most built around the basic “door gunner” experience — firing the M249 squad automatic weapon (SAW) rifle. The weapon is pylon-mounted on an external platform on the company’s Airbus AS350 B2.

The basic individual package includes 100 5.56mm rounds. Guests can, however, purchase additional ammunition before they fly or during the flight. The most popular package, Battle Buddy, gives two guests the opportunity to fly and fire 200 rounds apiece.

The company recently completed infrastructure improvements at their private range facility (top) near the community of Sandy Valley on the California/Nevada border. It is co-located with the Battlefield Vegas mechanized and artillery stock (bottom). Dan Megna Photo

Other packages provide a similar airborne experience but with 300 rounds each plus an opportunity to fire other military weapons on a traditional rifle range. There, guests can shoot the M4A1 assault rifle, the MP5 submachine gun, and a sniper favorite — the .50-caliber Barrett M82A1.

Realizing a dream

Gunship Helicopters was conceived by three Las Vegas-based gun enthusiasts, all with roots in aviation and each providing the operation with different specialities.

Bob Fahnestock has four decades in helicopter and fixed-wing aviation as a pilot, and worked as an A&P mechanic at the Boulder City, Nevada, airport. His son Matt was a young helicopter pilot who had just graduated college, and dreamed of making flying his career. Randy Saenz was running the BFE FBO at Boulder City Airport, and was an avid hunter and competitive shooter. He also possessed expertise in other areas that would become key to the success of Gunship Helicopters.  

For Gunship Helicopters, the biggest expense and maintenance burden isn’t their single Eurocopter AS350 B2. Instead, it’s ammunition costs and the man-hours required to maintain the guns. Dan Megna Photo

During a conversation between the three men, Matt’s future became the topic, and he expressed his desire to fly for a living. Perhaps offhandedly, the concept was floated to combine everyone’s passions to offer people the opportunity to shoot machine guns from a helicopter.

“We knew we enjoyed doing it, and we thought anybody else would obviously also enjoy it,” said Fahnestock. “But we had to refine it to where you could take someone who had never been around guns before, and people who have never been around helicopters, and then go out and do it safely. Everybody said we couldn’t do it. So, that just made us that much more determined.”

In 2016, the men set out on their quest to begin pulling together all the necessary elements to have a shot at realizing their dreams. Creating a business plan was just the start. They also needed to find a location and navigate the layers upon layers of permits and approvals from various government and community entities.

Gunship Helicopters places a high priority on safety and emergency preparedness. Here, the Gunship Helicopters range safety staff stand alongside the AS350 after concluding hands-on, scenario-based EMS training with training cadre from the Academy for Professional Development (AFPD), the contracted training provider. Dan Megna Photo

Choosing an aircraft, however, was a relatively easy task. “In 2016, there were probably 100-plus AStars being operated by tour and commercial operators throughout the valley, which means there were lots of parts and lots of mechanics,” said Fahnestock. “We stuck with a B2 because we didn’t want any of the digital [components/instrumentation]. We’re playing in the dirt all day long, it’s super hot and super cold. We wanted all analog stuff because it’s much, much less expensive to maintain.”

He added that the B2’s hot and high capabilities also played a role in its selection. “Our range is between 4,500 to 5,000 feet [1,370 to 1,525 meters] elevation. And when it’s 115 F [46 C outside air temperature], you’ve got to be into the wind and really paying attention to DA [density altitude] and temps and NG [gas generator speed]. We only have two people in the back seat, and we’re really never hovering — we’re always moving forward. But we’re always right at the limit.”

Once all the pieces were in place and they finally earned the green light to operate, the challenges were not over. “When we got into this, we realized our competition was super steep — both gun ranges and helicopters,” said Fahnestock.

Blaine Conrey (left), Gunship Helicopters’ director of operations and a line pilot. provides a safety briefing to guests prior to beginning flight operations. Dan Megna Photo

“If you google ‘helicopters in Vegas,’ you get all the operators that have been flying here for years — and we were on something like page 15. People didn’t know to google ‘shooting machine-gun from helicopter.’ So back when we started, if you googled ‘helicopters’ or ‘gun ranges,’ you couldn’t find us.”

Perhaps the biggest name in Las Vegas gun ranges is Battlefield Vegas. Located just one block off the Strip, the company owns an enormous collection of U.S. and foreign military weapons and provides guests the opportunity to fire these weapons on its indoor range. It is also a museum, with a large number of main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) on outdoor display.

In 2018, Battlefield Vegas began making some of its tanks and APCs operational, and sought an outdoor range to test the vehicles. After utilizing the Gunship Helicopters range, the two began a cooperative business arrangement, where Battlefield would co-locate with Gunship Helicopters and base some of its military hardware there for guests to experience.

Battlefield Vegas now offers its guests a number of packages at the Gunship Helicopters range. One can choose to drive one of the tanks or APCs, including firing the vehicle’s weapon. Other military weapons are also available, from small arms to the AK-47, a Soviet-made assault rifle, an M134 Minigun, an M9 flamethrower, or perhaps a 60mm mortar. They even have a 155mm Howitzer artillery piece that fires a 100-pound (45-kilogram) non-explosive steel projectile. And many of these packages can be integrated with Gunship Helicopters’ offerings.

An emphasis on safety

Today, Gunship Helicopters operates seven days a week and averages 6,000 to 10,000 guests annually. A small cadre of five RSOs are responsible for greeting guests, briefing them, and ensuring safety throughout their experience. Three additional off-site staff handle sales, marketing and guest transportation.

Blaine Conrey is Gunship Helicopters’ director of operations, and is responsible for the day-to-day running of the range. He is also one of the handful of full- and part-time pilots. He and his RSOs are committed to guest service and safety during their time at the range, with the inspection and maintenance of the weapons requiring constant diligence. 

“On average, we’ll shoot around 31,000 to 35,000 rounds per month through these five or six guns,” said Conrey. “Just like any machine, they have a tendency to break. And we just can’t run down to your local gun store and pick up replacement guns. So, we have to know how to troubleshoot and determine whether to inspect if something is worn out. Because the time to find out isn’t when we’re up on the range.”

At the conclusion of the shooting evolutions, Gunship Helicopters staff always make time for photos with their guests. Dan Megna Photo

When guns break and parts are scarce, the experience of Gunship Helicopters’ co-owner Saenz has proven to be invaluable. “My background is a bachelor’s degree in engineering and manufacturing and a minor in business administration, along with a technical college degree in welding and fabrication,” said Saenz. “Designing and implementing unique solutions to our application was exciting. There was only so much we could use that was off the shelf.”

In the short term, Gunship Helicopters is working to enhance the guest experience and expand the capabilities of its helicopter operation. It has replaced the workhorse M249 SAW with the 7.62 caliber M240 — a simpler weapon with less moving components, expected to be more reliable.

The company is also acquiring its own M134 Minigun — a six-barrel rotary machine gun with a rate of fire up to 6,000 rounds per minute. This will be available to fire from the helicopter or ground. Gunship Helicopters will also introduce the tremendous firepower of the “Ma Deuce” — a .50 caliber Browning M2 machine gun — for a ground range shooting experience.

The company recently completed its part 135 certification and is finishing up its part 133 for external load operations. Dan Megna Photo

Since the beginning, Gunship Helicopters has operated under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 91.147 (conducting passenger-carrying flights for compensation or hire). Just recently, however, it has completed its part 135 certification and is finishing up its part 133 for external load operations. The company expects to bring on another pilot to service these new capabilities. It may also need to consider adding another aircraft. 

“We are here to give people an experience and we get people from all over the world,” said Conrey. “It is for pure enjoyment purposes only, and we get to have people come off that aircraft and they’ve got the world’s biggest smile across their face. They tell us: ‘This was the best experience ever. I didn’t even know this was on my bucket list because I didn’t know it existed.’ ”

“So having that kind of joy…. It’s a big motivator, being able to provide that, getting the feedback from the customer on what an awesome organization [we have], and even more important when they tell me how my guys are the most professional… But they’re only seeing the front of the house — they don’t see what goes into making the experiences successful and safe. So I’m very proud to be part of the team.”

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