Helicopters offer bird's-eye view of lights

Fundraiser draws more than 300 people on airborne tour of holiday decorations

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2007

Juneau has an affinity for twinkling Christmas lights. What better way for 5-year-old Jaz Zuiderduin to see them than from the air?

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Eyes big as quarters and with both hands clapped firmly over his ears, Jaz was ushered out to the tarmac and loaded into a helicopter Friday night, bound for the sky over Mendenhall Valley and a unique perspective of the city.

Neither Jaz nor his 13-year-old brother, Taz, had flown in a helicopter before participating with their parents in the fundraiser for two local organizations.

Hundreds of people waited in the Juneau International Airport seating area for a turn to ride in three helicopters that circled over the airport and the valley, allowing passengers a peek at the community from the air.

"The grandparents sent us Christmas money, so we're using it to do this," said the boys' mother, Gina Zuiderduin. "It's a good chance to experience something we haven't tried before."

Craig Loken watched as people peered through glass windows and anticipated their rides.

The event was started about 15 years ago by Jim and Dot Wilson to help Loken's son, Kenneth, battle neurofibromatosis, a nervous system disorder.

"Juneau's reputation as a giving, caring community is really deserved," Loken said. "It's really amazing."

Past fundraisers helped his son, now 22, attend camps but especially helped because they let him know he had support, Loken said.

The event sponsored by Coastal Helicopters and the Mendenhall Flying Lions Club raises several thousand dollars as each passenger gives a suggested $25 donation for the ride. Half the proceeds benefit the Neurofibromatosis Foundation, while the other half is used by the Lions Club to pay for eye exams and other vision needs throughout the community.

Everything is donated for the event, from flight and pilot time by Coastal Helicopters to fuel from Coastal Fuel and Petro Marine. Volunteers give time to organize the crowd and collect donations.

About 325 rides were given Friday. The event is billed as a chance to see Christmas lights, but many people said they would go any time of year.

As pilot Dustin Carroll gently pulled back on the controls and the helicopter lifted off, Jaz screamed, "Weeeeee!" from the back seat, where the family sat four-abreast, holding hands.

In minutes, the bird circled around so they could see their neighborhood and Taz pointed out familiar landmarks to his little brother. Originally nervous to fly, Taz answered with a big affirmative nod when his father, Will Zuiderduin, asked if he liked it.

The ride was over in about 10 minutes.

On the ground, Jaz declared the ride "Fun!" then in typical 5-year-old fashion, turned to his parents and asked, "What are we going to do now, Mom?"

• Contact Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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