by Blake Herzog
John Stonecipher came to Prescott 22 years ago to launch a high-altitude helicopter flight-training school in 1998. Since then, he has pivoted and expanded his businesses throughout the years. The “Guidance” brand is the helicopter industry’s standard for training professional helicopter pilots. John Stonecipher was named Arizona and National Business Person of the Year by the United States Small Business Administration in Washington, D.C. in 2013.
Today, he and his wife, Cathy, have several companies serving Yavapai County from the air; the flight school in Prescott (Guidance Helicopters, Inc.), a tour and charter companies based in Prescott and Sedona (Guidance Air Services, Inc.), helicopter repair company based in Prescott (PWR, Inc.) and a helicopter powerline construction and repair company (HELIUS, LLC).
“In our decades of experience, we have learned that the only constant is change. We are consistently reinventing ourselves” John said.
John has been instructing pilots for more than 35 years. He identified Prescott as the ideal location due to its elevation, the surrounding mountainous environment, open spaces to perform off airport operations and the community – which has an extremely supportive aviation community.
In the past two decades since, Guidance has trained more than 400 helicopter pilots.
Changing economic conditions has resulted in the adaption of the flight training program from a group collegiate setting to individual one-on-one training sessions, utilizing a flight simulator to mitigate the cost of flight training and enhance the safety and well-being for the student and instructor pilot.
In the course of 9 months, full-time students can earn all five available certifications: private, instrument, commercial, flight instructor and flight instructor-instrument.
Guidance owns, operates and maintains their entire fleet which includes Robinson R22 Beta II and Robinson R44 Beta II. By being self-reliant, Guidance can ensure that every aircraft is meticulously maintained and mission-ready.
Guidance grads have served in all branches of the military, carried out search and rescue missions, flown air ambulances, fought wildfires and spread into just about every field within the industry. Some have become instructors for Guidance or gone on to work for the Stoneciphers’ other establishments.
John and Cathy Stonecipher have known each other for more than 14 years and have been married for 2 ½ years. Cathy’s background is in law enforcement, accounting and financial exploitation investigation. In her tenure, she has worked for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Cathy holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and human resource management. John and Cathy share four children whose ages range from 11 to 15 years old. “It is a full house, but I could not picture anything different” said Cathy.
One thing Cathy does not do is fly helicopters. “I keep us grounded by tending to the administrative side of our businesses as John tends to the operation side,” she said.
“It works out great for us,” John added. With a family of four children who are active in community groups in the quad cities, John and Cathy have created a family-centered culture within their team of employees. “With our country’s current challenging times, we not only want Guidance or HELIUS to be a place for our team to work, but we want to ensure they can be there for their children and families” Cathy said.
In September 2015, John was looking to diversify his business, so he opened Guidance Air Service, a helicopter tour business at the Sedona Airport. Working with City of Sedona leaders and community members, they created a “sustainable” tour business that wouldn’t disturb residents by developing a “Fly Friendly” program.
“In a nutshell, we fly at a higher elevation and farther away from populated areas to create an atmosphere where we could peacefully coexist with the community while showing our guests the beauty of Sedona,” Cathy said.
Guidance Air Service has been flying scenic tours from Sedona for nearly five years, flying visitors over the Southwest’s majestic scenery including the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon day trips, Prescott National Forest and charters to surrounding metropolitan cities.
Currently Guidance is only flying Robinson R44 Beta II helicopters for couples from the same household, with pilots wearing masks and sanitizing the aircraft thoroughly between flights.
The tours have quickly gained popularity and prominence. Guidance Air Service was named the No. 3 helicopter tour by USA Today in 2019 and remains an “essential” Sedona experience on TripAdvisor with a 5-star customer rating. Guidance Air Service is currently a strong contender for the #1 helicopter tour company for the 2020 pole.
Guidance Air Service recently added air tours over the Greater Prescott area, which so far have found an audience with visitors as well as new or potential residents to get an overview of the communities and the backcountry surrounding them.
“Our pilots live in the quad cities, so they are knowledgeable about the different geographic areas of our county. We’ve been successful in taking guests out toward Crossroads Ranch, Williamson Valley, Chino Valley and Las Vegas Ranch to properties they didn’t know are available when they came to town,” John said.
The Stoneciphers have a third helicopter company, HELIUS LLC, which transports utility powerline workers to remote towers to make repairs or upgrades and assists with powerline grid construction.
A month after John (as COO) and Cathy (who is CEO) took over the Glendale-based company in August 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico and destroyed most of its electrical grid. HELIUS spent the next 14 months as a utility subcontractor working to restore power to the island.
Its current contracts include PG&E and other utilities throughout the U.S.
Wherever else their companies are working, the Stoneciphers said they remain committed to Prescott as their hometown. Guidance donated a helicopter to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Department’s search and rescue program in 2012 and continues to maintain the aircraft for the department, which John said has saved nearly 50 lives since it’s been flying.
They’re also planning to offer their high school helicopter flight club for the upcoming school year, open to all students in the county who are 16 and older. It debuted for the 2019-20 academic year, and some students from charter schools have received course credit for completing the ground instruction required to obtain their first certification as a private pilot as their senior project.
In June, a 17-year-old member of the club became one of Guidance’s youngest graduates ever and is now headed for the U.S. Naval Academy.
Cathy said, “Instead of marketing the aviation club to outside of our community, we would like to cultivate that passion within our community and have local graduates from the Quad City area.
Our high school helicopter club is our outreach to the younger local aviation community and helps teens to put their toe in the water with helicopters.”