Soaring over St. Louis: Dreams take flight for local men
In 1993, Brian Landgraf of Waterloo had a life-changing experience.
In the midst of the Flood of ‘93, which devastated communities throughout the area, he rode in an Army Corps of Engineers helicopter, flying over such sites as the Gummersheimer farmstead.
“Ever since then he wanted to fly helicopters,” Alex Landgraf, Brian’s son, said.
Brian worked to make that dream a reality, obtaining his pilot’s license a few years later.
Then, in 2008, Brian started working at Gateway Helicopter Tours in St. Louis. By 2009, he was the owner.
Brian now employs multiple local men at the company.
Jason Merz of Millstadt works as a pilot and office manager, starting at the company when he was 15.
“(Brian) has been a close friend of my family for as long as I can remember,” Merz said. “My dad went to high school with him. He offered me a job and I just started working and it created an interest for me.”
The job was Merz’s first, and he soon became enamored with helicopters.
“I was more than happy and pretty excited to come in and work here,” he said.
Alex also works for his father, serving as office manager and chief pilot.
Alex got started in the business young, flying with Brian at age 5, learning to fly himself at age 13 and getting his pilot’s license at 17.
Paul Zapf of Columbia also works at Gateway Helicopter Tours, serving as a member of the flight crew.
All three men said they enjoy the helicopters, but the best part of their job is the people they meet.
“Since we live here, you kind of take things for granted, like the Arch,” Merz noted. “It’s just like, ‘I live by the Arch. It is what it is.’ But they’re coming across the country and across the world to see it. It’s fun to talk to them and see how far they’ve come.”
The men said they have had people come from such places as California, Ireland, Germany, Colombia and Africa.
Merz said his favorite customers are the famous ones who want to see St. Louis from the air, such as professional baseball player Yangervis Solarte.
“Getting to meet people like that is always cool because it’s not someone everybody gets to meet,” he said. “It shows that even they want to come up and see the area from the air.”
Although the group has many positive memories from their work at Gateway Helicopter Tours, they have faced plenty of adversity.
In January 2015, Brian was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.
“It was definitely scary,” Merz remembered. “It was a big surprise to everybody. Just like with any other cancer diagnosis, it kind of puts a shock into people because at any time you can have something that’s life-threatening.”
“It was a time where I knew I was going to be taking over the rest of the responsibilities here because he needed to focus on his health,” Alex added.
Alex said the cancer was diagnosed as stage four because it had moved into Brian’s liver.
Brian underwent chemotherapy, then surgeons removed part of his colon to combat the cancer. They were going to do the same with his liver, but the cancer was nowhere to be found.
More rounds of chemotherapy followed, and Brian is now in remission.
As of July, he can fly again.
Inspired by Brian and breast cancer survivors in another employee’s family, the company is now participating in the fight against cancer.
During October, 10 percent of all tickets sold for the Botanical Garden and Deluxe Experience tours will go toward fighting cancer. Those are the two longest and most expensive tours the company offers.
“There were several employees here, including myself, who wanted to do something for breast cancer awareness month,” Alex said. “He (Brian) wanted to do something for colon cancer, so we both kind of went in on it.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, while March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Since Gateway Helicopter Tours is not fully open in March, it decided to do the fundraiser in October to raise more money.
A portion of retail sales will also go toward the fundraiser.
“It’s definitely a close cause for us,” Merz said. “It means a lot to us.”
Gateway Helicopter Tours is located at 50 North Leonor K Sullivan Boulevard in St. Louis. It is open 11 a.m. to sunset seven days a week, weather permitting.
There are no reservations for regular tours, though private tours do require reservations.
To learn more about Gateway Helicopter Tours, which also has a location in Branson, Mo., go to gatewayhelicoptertours.com or call 314-496-4494.