Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 43 seconds.
Photos by Brent Bundy
The story of Sweet Helicopters cannot be told without the story of Chuck Surack. His is a rags-to-riches tale that is the epitome of the American dream. The musical empire of Sweetwater Sound that Surack created has surpassed any aspirations he may have set, and it has allowed him to explore his deep-rooted fascination with aviation. While he has long held a passion for flying, Surack’s exposure to the vertical lift world 14 years ago was the catalyst for his most personal undertaking. To those who know him, it comes as no surprise that his latest enterprise would be a resounding success.
Surack hails from southern Ohio, which is where he first experienced flying. “My father owned an Aeronca Chief and that was my introduction to aviation,” Surack told Vertical. “He flew from a grass strip surrounded by powerlines that he had to sideslip between just to land. He didn’t even have a radio in that plane until we moved to Indiana.” That move was to Fort Wayne when Surack was in his early teens. He established roots in the northeastern Indiana city and it’s where his businesses are headquartered to this day.
After working as a touring musician for several years, Surack returned to Fort Wayne and laid the groundwork for his musical enterprise. “I would take my beat-up VW bus, which was my ‘recording studio,’ to various venues, churches, schools, and such, and record the performances,” he said. “Then I’d take the recordings home, edit them, and sell them to the musicians.”
Surack’s big break came in 1984, when he saw the Kurzweil K250. “It was the first synthesizer that could replicate other instruments. It was a game changer,” Surack said. He soon figured out how to make custom sounds with the K250, and word of his efforts quickly spread. Sweetwater Sound was born (taking its name from the Sweet Creek stream that ran behind his home).
What began with one man in a van over 40 years ago has blossomed into a $1.4 billion company that employs over 2,300 people, and is the largest online musical instrument and pro audio retailer in the United States. Many entrepreneurs would be happy to ride out this success. Not Chuck Surack. In hindsight, it may have only been the launch pad for what was to come.
Surack quickly understood the business benefits of aviation. “My first aircraft was a Cessna 414 twin-engine prop plane, before stepping up to jets,” he said. “I had a couple of Cessna jets, a Citation II and an Ultra, then a Bombardier Challenger 300.” He kept the 300 until recently, when he upgraded to a new Global 6500.
However, the aircraft that would truly change Surack’s life was an Enstrom helicopter. “I never really had an interest in flying planes, but when I was 50 years old, I was told of someone who had learned to fly a helicopter when he was 60,” he said. “I eventually wore down my wife and she allowed me to start my flight lessons.”
His entry into the world of vertical lift was secured. He owned piston and turbine Enstroms, then made his way to Airbus with the purchase of an EC130 B4. This would lead to several more from the manufacturer.
Surack knew there had to be a way to make money with his newfound hobby, and in 2011, he purchased a flight school in Fort Wayne, revamped it, and renamed it Sweet Aviation. The operation still exists as a helicopter and airplane training and airplane charter facility. It utilizes a variety of small planes, including Cirrus prop and jet models, Pilatus PC-12, and Hélicoptères Guimbal Cabri G2s.
Although Sweet Aviation proved to be quite successful, Surack longed for more emphasis on helicopters. By late 2017, he had acquired two helicopter operators: Fort Wayne-based Indiana Helicopters and Helimotion from Chicago, Illinois. Keeping with tradition, he combined the two and rebranded the new company Sweet Helicopters. In the five years since its inception, Sweet Helicopters has become the Indiana-based go-to for charter, commuting, tours, aerial filming, utility, and more.
“In addition to flying our local customers, we also provide transportation for several professional sports teams, law enforcement operations for Notre Dame, and we’re the number one helicopter transport to the Indianapolis 500 race,” Surack proudly stated. Much like his music business, Sweet Helicopters has become a household name in the Midwest U.S. aviation scene.
Director of operations Randy Sharkey shares a musical history with his boss, but it was the random sale of a helicopter that brought them together. Sharkey, an Indiana native, was running the Goshen Air Center — an authorized Enstrom dealer — when Surack became a client.
“We quickly became friends and I have been with Chuck pretty much ever since,” Sharkey said. As they shared a mutual appreciation of helicopters, the pair thought it would “be fun to own a helicopter charter company,” as Sharkey explained it. Surack then acquired the part 135 certificates of the two helicopter operators and Sweet Helicopters was up and running.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” said Sharkey. “In the beginning, it was just me flying a single aircraft on someone else’s 135 certificate. Now, we have a very successful business with several pilots and a fleet of helicopters. For me, this is the dream job.”
Traditionally, the team would fly around 800 hours per year, but, as with most other air charter companies, the pandemic brought slow times for Sweet. However, post-Covid has been a boon.
“It has been exciting, to say the least,” said Sharkey. “We are seeing increases of up to 40 percent across the board. We will easily exceed 1,000 flight hours this year. We have met the demand with additional staffing and will continue to add more as needed.”
Keeping the fleet staffed falls to chief pilot Jeffrey Schorsch, who brings a wealth of experience to the role, having flown for Toledo Life Flight for 30 years (28 of those as chief pilot). Like Sharkey, Schorsch’s meeting Surack was a serendipitous event.
“When Chuck was getting his ratings, I gave him his checkride in Toledo, and we maintained contact over the years,” said Schorsch. “Chuck is a very loyal man, to his friends and his employees. So, when the chief pilot position vacated, Chuck flew up to meet me and offered me the job.” Schorsch accepted and took on his new appointment on the first day of 2022. This meant that Sweet now lays claim to having two designated pilot examiners on staff — Sharkey and Schorsch — a rare arrangement in the charter world.
In his first year, Schorsch has taken on a multitude of assignments, including new aircraft acquisitions, looking into new business opportunities, hiring pilots, and continuing to fly clientele. “I still love to fly, I just don’t get to do it as much as I used to,” he said.
On the pilot front, the four full-time and four part-time positions are adequate for now, but if the current growth continues, additional aviators will be needed. “We have very good retention here,” said Schorsch. “We offer good pay and benefits and a great quality of life. I would like to add two more pilots and, if the need is there, Chuck will authorize it. We get amazing support from him.”
It takes the right person to keep this assemblage of helicopters airborne, and Sweet has found that in director of maintenance (DOM) Josh Powell. The former U.S. Marine spent the majority of his service working on helicopters, and followed this up with civilian experience working on Marine aircraft overseas, and then working in the air medical world. He joined Sweet part-time in 2014, and was promoted to full-time and the DOM role four years later. “By joining this group early on, I got to see the phenomenal growth we’ve experienced,” he said. “This is an amazing group of guys. Chuck is incredible. He takes care of his people like no one I’ve ever seen.”
Assisting Powell in the maintenance duties are four additional mechanics. “We could always use one more, though!” he said. His team tackles nearly all of the work at their facility, only sending out major jobs and engine overhauls. “We maintain a lot of repeat customers, and I feel that’s because of the quality of service we provide,” said Powell. “I want our name to be out there, and that can only happen with the high standard of work that Chuck insists on and we aim to provide.”
While Surack holds an affinity for Enstrom (as it was the first helicopter he personally flew), passenger capacity and luxury requirements demanded that the Sweet Helicopter fleet was stocked with other models. His initial EC130 B4 was eventually upgraded to the more powerful and comfortable EC130 T2 (H130) variant. “Once you get one, they seem to multiply!” Surack quipped. In the case of Sweet, that meant two more H130s and an Airbus H125. These, and subsequent models, replaced earlier aircraft including an Airbus AS355 TwinStar, an AS365 Dauphin, and an EC120 B, which had been used as a backup to the original 130.
The H130s and the H125 use a collection of Garmin avionics, including G500H TXi primary and multifunction displays, paired with GTN 650/750Xi, all of which are touchscreen capable. A Garmin portable Aera 796 is also installed for additional flight information.
A Genesys Aerosystems HeliSAS two-axis autopilot improves safety, reduces pilot fatigue, and makes for a more comfortable ride for passengers. Mid-Continent’s MD302 standby attitude module provides one more layer of in-flight assurance.
The single-engine offerings from Airbus play a key role in the operation, but some situations require two engines. That’s when the Leonardo AW109S entered the picture. “We have a number of clients that request the 109 because of the twin-engine platform,” Sharkey said. “These are typically the same customers that have become accustomed to chartering twin-engine jets as well. The demand has reached a point where the decision was made to add two more to the fleet.”
The latest models were both 109SP versions, with single pilot instrument flight rules, terrain avoidance and warning systems, and enhanced vision systems. This information is provided to the pilots via the Genesys IDU-450 electronic flight instrument system on dual four-by-five-inch full-color primary and multifunction displays. A four-axis autopilot makes for a reduced pilot workload.
For client comfort, all aircraft incorporate vibration absorption systems for a smooth ride, environmental control, and Bose A20 noise canceling headsets for all on board. Additionally, the 109SPs include refrigerated drink storage.
The new Sweet Helicopters facility opened its doors in June 2022, providing affirmation that Surack is in this for the long haul. Designated the Freedom Heliport 28IN and located on the western edge of Fort Wayne, this main base includes dedicated passenger reception and waiting areas, offices, a maintenance base, and a 12,000-square-foot hangar, capable of housing up to nine aircraft. With flight requests coming from around the region, the company also maintains a satellite location at the Goshen Airport, halfway between Fort Wayne and Chicago, that can accommodate five helicopters. “This gives us a good footprint to provide the most timely and efficient service to our customer base,” Sharkey said.
If history is any indication, this is just the beginning for Chuck Surack and Sweet Helicopters. More aircraft, more locations, and more personnel are assuredly part of the plan, but only if the company’s growth can sustain it. With a solid footing as the leader in helicopter charter operations in the upper Midwest, that growth seems to be inevitable.
It’s been a long journey from the back of a VW bus to the back of a Global 6500, but anyone who has met Surack knows he’s not one to rest on his laurels. He lives by a motto that has been part of the Sweet family of companies since their inception: “Do the right thing, every time.” With a man like that at the controls, Sweet Helicopters is clearly on the path to continued success.