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Intimate helicopter weddings take off during COVID-19 pandemic

Couples who couldn't have their weddings turned to helicopter elopements during the COVID-19 pandemic and helped the tour companies stay afloat during a difficult year.

Some B.C. couples forced to change wedding plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic still decided to go ahead with their celebration, albeit differently. 

Jane Kinoshita and Brian Ceelen were determined to keep their wedding date of Sept.19, 2020 but hit many hurdles along the way before their special day. 

“It was challenging,” says Ceelen. 

“I would say because it kept getting a bit smaller and smaller and the rules kept moving around and we decided to keep adjusting over the course of six or eight months.” 

Tofino has always been a special location for the now-married couple and originally their guest list had more than 150 people on it. 

“We wanted to get married no matter what it looked like on our date of Sept. 19,” says Kinoshita. "We were like, 'Who knows what life will hold in the future?'”

Taking matters into their own hands and with lots of help from their wedding planner Sheila Orchiston from Tofino-based Rare Earth Weddings, they decided to head to the sky in a helicopter to tie the knot.

“This option came up and it was like, ''OK, good. We don’t have to worry about anything else and we can just do this amazing thing on our own,'" Ceelen tells Glacier Media.

The couple headed to Atleo River Air helicopter in Tofino and went on an intimate flight to a secluded location. The only people on the flight were the pilot, their wedding planner, a photographer and them. 

“It was so awesome. It was so magical,” says Kinoshita.

Ceelen describes the flight as a scene out of Jurassic Park and says they travelled to a mountain top covered in mist and then to a beautiful hidden beach. 

They both agree it wouldn’t have been possible without their wedding planner. 

“Love is not cancelled,” says Orchiston. 

Multiple couples who still wanted to get married reached out to Orchiston. She says they were willing to try this style of wedding, which aligned with the COVID-19 pandemic rules and orders. 

“It’s been a year and a bit; really, it’s been sort of navigating the pandemic with couples,” she says. “We went from a lot of weddings that were looking to have those big celebrations and working with them to see how they could reimagine their day.”

She describes the helicopter elopements as beautiful and intimate with the option to go peak to surf. 

“It’s pristine wilderness all around them. It’s truly a completely unique experience,” Orchiston says.

The base manager of Atleo River Air Service says the elopements helped their business survive through the pandemic. 

“It has been just enough to keep the doors open. Just to have that little bit to keep the bills paid and have everything steady and running,” says Misty Lawson.

Helicopter elopements started to take off early in the pandemic and allows people to cut costs while having an intimate experience. 

“It is a special day for just you and this is one way to just really cut the fat on a four-passenger aircraft. You only have so many seats at your wedding,” chuckles Lawson. “It is so much less stressful.”

It’s a new businesses avenue that is also being done across B.C., in places like Whistler and Kelowna. 

"We were doing it very rarely before. We had a few of them [helicopter elopements] but definitely way more with the pandemic,” says Delwyn Boutwell, tour coordinator at Valhalla Helicopters in West Kelowna.

She says many couples tried for months to get married and finally ended up turning to the helicopter and going with a tiny wedding. 

Jordy Norris, sales and marketing manager at Blackcomb Helicopters Whistler, says they’ve also seen an increase in couples heading to the sky to get hitched.

“We’ve had a lot of elopements this year. It has been a pretty incredible part of the businesses to see that growth over the last two years,” he says. 

Wedding helicopter tours vary in price across the province; they can cost between $600 and $2,000 (that's just the tour and does not include all the bells and whistles of a photographer, wedding planner, etc.).

“With everything being shut down, it was a little bit of salvation for the tourism side of the business; really nice to see that and was just a lot of fun to host people and give them an opportunity to still have a wedding,” says Norris. 

Orchiston says the wedding season is in full swing, with many still choosing the helicopter option.

“If you’ve made it together through COVID, you’ve got this,” she says. “You’ve been through this journey and now we get to celebrate that. It [wedding season] is picking up and as the restrictions are loosening, we are seeing that change.”

For Ceelen and Kinoshita, they wouldn’t have changed a thing and say married life is great. 

“Married life is good,” says Kinoshita.