Donald Trump’s luxury helicopter charter plans fail to take off

Donald Trump departs his Turnberry resort aboard his Sikorsky S-76B helicopter. Picture: Scott Heppell/AP
Donald Trump departs his Turnberry resort aboard his Sikorsky S-76B helicopter. Picture: Scott Heppell/AP
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It was billed by Donald Trump as an “incredible” way to tour his golf resorts in the UK and Ireland, with well-heeled guests being whizzed back and forth across the Irish Sea and all around Scotland while revelling in the kind of opulence to which the US president has long been accustomed.

But Mr Trump’s bold vision of bolstering business at three of his loss making courses by exporting one of his luxury helicopters across the Atlantic to woo wealthy golfers has failed to take off.

A US Congressional committee investigation is scrutinising US Defence Department payments to President Donald Trump's Turnberry resort and Glasgow Prestwick Airport. Picture: John Devlin

A US Congressional committee investigation is scrutinising US Defence Department payments to President Donald Trump's Turnberry resort and Glasgow Prestwick Airport. Picture: John Devlin

The Scotsman can reveal that a little known subsidiary of the Trump Organisation tasked with overseeing a high-end helicopter charter service has quietly shipped back a multimillion pound Sikorsky helicopter to the US amid falling demand and “anger” at the Trump brand.

According to multiple clients who booked the Sikorsky S-76B, the charges were “eye watering” even in the high-end world of luxury helicopter charters, with fees reaching as much as £15,000 for a “couple of hours.”

Despite that, the Trump family firm, DT Connect Europe Limited, which is overseen by Mr Trump’s adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr, shows profit and loss reserves of nearly minus £1m.

The director of a charter company which operated the helicopter on the Trump Organisation’s behalf told The Scotsman that custom suffered after Mr Trump became president.

Richard Stubbs, a pilot and co-owner of Cardinal Helicopter Services, which had a contract with Mr Trump’s firm to fly the Sikorsky, said a decision was subsequently taken to offer wealthy clients - including US and Russian nationals - the option of flying without the ‘TRUMP’ insignia that had been prominently emblazoned on the aircraft’s tail boom.

“In America, Trump is a brand,” he explained. “Obviously over here, it’s the focus of people’s anger, sometimes, so we operated with or without the name.”

The decision to export the S-76B back to the US - where the rest of Mr Trump’s ageing air fleet is based - followed a short-lived stint during which the aircraft was primarily rented for use by an array of private clients who were not necessarily golfers. They included upmarket tourism firms who cater to rich clients from the US, Russia, and further afield.

The director of such company said he never flew with the ‘TRUMP’ name visible, reasoning that it would have turned off potential customers.

The Sikorsky, one of the world’s most sought after helicopters, is favoured by air forces around the world as well as celebrities who covet its executive travel credentials. Mr Trump owns three..

One was shipped to Scotland via Liverpool’s Seaforth Docks in June 2014, just two months after Mr Trump’s purchase of Turnberry, the historic hotel and golf course.

At the time, he promised the “incredible helicopter” would “connect the three dots” between his new flagship Scottish business in South Ayrshire, his inaugural resort in Scotland, Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire, and Trump Doonbeg in Co Clare, which he purchased that February.

READ MORE: Scottish ministers urged to launch review into Trump and Prestwick

Together, Mr Trump referred to the three businesses as the ‘Trump Triangle’, a term employed to this day by the Trump Organisation in its marketing material, and said the twin-engine Sikorsky craft would bring in a “tremendous amount of business.”

But records compiled by the Civil Aviation Authority, the UK’s independent aviation regulator, show that the helicopter has been deregistered from its database.

Under the note sections of the entry, it states: “Transferred to another country or authority. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” Mr Stubbs confirmed the helicopter had been exported to the US.

The helicopter’s transfer is also referenced in Mr Trump’s latest filings to the US Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which provides a breakdown of his assets.

The financial disclosure forms also show that DT Connect Europe Limited generated income of as little as $50,000 (£40,000) last year.

Companies House records show its most recent profit and loss reserves stood at a negative of £967,000. The figures in the 2016 and 2015 filings state negative values of £706,000 and £448,000 respectively.

A sequence of Mr Trump’s filings to the OGE also confirm the falling value and income of DT Connect Europe Limited.

In his 2017 disclosure, the company is listed as having a value of between $1m and $5m (£800,000 to £4m), with “rent” income in the region of $100,000 to $1m (£80,000 to £800,000). The filing notes that it was fully owned by Golf Recreation Scotland Limited, the UK-registered parent company of Trump Turnberry.

The details remained unchanged in Mr Trump’s OGE disclosure in 2018. However, in his most recent filing, made on 15 May this year, DT Connect Europe’s value dropped dramatically, listed at a mere $1,000 to $15,000 (£800 to £12,000), with a rental income of between $50,000 and $100,000 (£40,000 to £80,000).

Whereas previous filing described the company’s underlying assets as “aircraft,” the latest iteration confirms the helicopter has since been transferred, and that the firm’s value reflects its “bank account holding only.”

Mr Trump purchased the Sikorsky helicopter in question in March 2012, after which it was “out with the old, and in with the gold,” as one source at one of Mr Trump’s businesses put it to The Scotsman.

Prior to being shipped from the US to Scotland, the helicopter was painted in Trump style by a Philadelphia-based firm, Sureflight, and fitted with expensive upholstery and gadgets, with identical specifications to his other S-76B helicopters in the US.

The source said that before Mr Trump struck an “official partnership” with Glasgow Prestwick Airport in November 2014, he wanted to build a dedicated heliport at Trump Turnberry in order to transfer guests to and from Prestwick, Aberdeen Airport, and Shannon Airport, near his Doonbeg resort.

READ MORE: Congress probe as US military spending increase at Prestwick Airport linked to Trump Turnberry

However, the demand was never there to make such a proposal feasible, the source added. In October 2017, The Scotsman revealed how the helicopter charter service was envisioned by Trump Turnberry as a way of countering its geographical constraints and attracting US tourists to a relatively rural corner of southwest Scotland. However, the uptake then was described as “muted,” with one staff member noting that “it is not significant enough to really drive revenue.”

That prompted staff at Trump Turnberry to place greater emphasis on attracting domestic customers in Scotland and the rest of the UK, with the resort becoming a merchant on popular voucher sites such as Itison.

The day to day running of the aircraft was the responsibility of Blackpool-based Cardinal Helicopter Services, which has a track record in operating Sikorsky craft for other VIP clients.

Mr Stubbs countered suggestions that falling demand was solely to blame, but said that “the timing of [Mr Trump] becoming the president probably did more to that than anything else.”

Asked what the typical customer base was for the service, he replied: “All sorts. American tourists, Russian tourists, you name it. Whoever wanted to charter it.”

Mr Stubbs also explained why the helicopter’s appearance had been changed after The Scotsman referenced a series of images posted to social media and aviation websites which showed the large ‘TRUMP’ insignia had been removed, echoing a trend seen in the US, where the Trump name has been taken off several buildings.

“Sometimes it’s sensitive,” Mr Stubbs said of the ‘TRUMP’ branding. “Some people do want it, some people don’t want it. In America, Trump is a brand. Obviously over here, it’s the focus of people’s anger, sometimes, so we operated with or without the name on the back.

“We always offered the client the option of whether they wanted the Trump name or not. It was pretty straightforward to cover it up or put it back on.”

Regardless of which option customers plumped for, the aircraft’s UK registration number, ‘G-TRMP’ remained visible in smaller letters, just below its rotor mast.

Mr Stubbs said that the passengers who made use of the helicopter did not include members of the US armed forces, amid ongoing scrutiny of US Air Force patronage of Prestwick Airport and Trump Turnberry.

The House Oversight Committee revealed this evening that the Pentagon has spent more than £140,000 at the resort between August 2017 and July this year, the equivalent of more than 650 rooms, or “more than one room every night for more than one and a half years” as Democrats Elijah Cummings and Jamie Raskin put it.

Uploads to social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter show the clientele who chartered the S-76B attended an array of exclusive functions, including horse racing meetings at Royal Ascot and York, during its time in Britain.

It was also pictured at Prestwick Airport, Aberdeen Airport, and Shannon Airport, as well as hubs in Perth and Belfast.

Mr Trump personally used the helicopter during visits to Trump Turnberry in July 2015, June 2016 and again during his weekend-long visit to the resort last July, but around the same time, the aircraft was rented by other parties for uses that were altogether more esoteric than straightforward airport transfers.

READ MORE: The growing scandal over Donald Trump and Prestwick Airport – Martyn McLaughlin

They included Sandgrouse Travel & Expeditions Limited, an Auchterarder-based firm which arranges bespoke travel experiences for some of the world’s wealthiest individuals, with the costs for its trips coming in at as much as £25,000 per person.

The firm’s website features a photograph of Mr Trump’s Sikorsky helicopter. Beneath the ‘G-TRMP’ registration, a logo for the Sandgrouse company is visible in the image. The company is owned by Jonny Stage, who previously ran a tourism business in Africa. His Linkedin page notes that Sandgrouse’s clients hail predominantly from the US, Russia, India, and France

His firm last chartered the helicopter last autumn, and Mr Stage told The Scotsman that the majority of his clients were not interested in playing Mr Trump’s golf courses, and would not have been aware they were flying in his aircraft, given he covered up the Trump branding.

He said: “I always took the TRUMP name off, we always blanked it out. We didn’t want to be flying around with that on the side of the helicopter.

“To be honest with you, if some of my clients had known it was his helicopter, they probably would have chosen another chopper.

“Most of my clients wouldn’t have known it was anything to do with Mr Trump - it was typical people with that kind of budget who wanted to fly around Scotland.”

Mr Stage added: “In terms of the chopper, it was magnificent and second to none, really - it’s the civilian equivalent of a Black Hawk.

“The feedback from clients was that it was fantastic, and the service we received from Cardinal was awesome. I haven’t got anything negative to say about that, it was a very professional outfit who were very well run.”

It is not clear how much the helicopter, manufactured in 1990, is worth. DT Connect Europe’s most recent accounts specify its tangible fixed assets are worth more than £1.2m. Its latest accounts, covering the 12 months to 31 December 2018, are due at the end of this month.

Neither is it clear where the helicopter is now based. The Trump Organisation’s website still states that the S-76B in question is based in Scotland, while the two others Sikorsky crafts are based in New York and Florida respectively.

It adds: “The helicopters serve as an exclusive amenity for our executives, members and VIP guests. Each helicopter is outfitted with high end comfortable interiors, refreshment centres and live map displays.

“The helicopter can easily be spotted in the sky as its buzzing off with its signature black, white and red design, complemented by the TRUMP aviation logo on the exterior of all three aircrafts.”

An aircraft registration inquiry database maintained by the CAA’s US counterpart, the Federation Aviation Administration (FAA), shows that a Sikorsky S-76B with the exact same serial number - 760362 - as the one based in Scotland has had a reserved US registration number since August 2017, indicating that plans to return it to the US have been in place for more than two years.

The fee for the reserved registration was paid by a firm called DT Connect II LLC, the address of which is given as Oxford, Connecticut. A firm of the same name, based in Palm Beach, Florida, owns another of Mr Trump’s Sikorsky helicopters, based at his Mar-a-Lago resort. It has reported the same value to the OGE for three years’ running, suggesting that the helicopter from Scotland has not been transferred to its ownership. A member of staff at Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort said the S-76B that had been used at Trump Turnberry had not been seen in Florida.

In a sign of the dense and complex corporate structure set up to accommodate Mr Trump’s various business interests, DT Connect II LLC is in turn part owned by an entity known as DT Connect Member Corp, which itself is fully owned by a New York-based revocable trust with just two trustees - Mr Trump and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organisation’s veteran chief financial officer.

A spokeswoman for the Trump Organisation told The Scotsman: “Given that the travel of the first family has changed substantially in the past three years, the Trump Organisation moved the helicopter back to the US, knowing that it will receive more use.”

READ MORE: Donald Trump’s Turnberry firm paid £11,000 by US State Department for rooms over summer