When he was in high school, Braveen Mahendran spent his spare time flipping burgers at the local burger joint in his hometown of Viborg, Denmark. While many of his friends had no idea which direction their lives and careers would go in, Braveen was focused. He had only one goal: save his hard-earned money to attend flight school in Florida.
Fast forward to 2020 and Braveen now regularly hovers over the world’s most famous skyline, shuttling tourists and private customers to and fro in his helicopter. That’s right: today, Braveen is one of the elite helicopter pilots soaring above the Big Apple’s bustling streets and vertiginous skyscrapers.
“I feel like it’s a privilege flying over Central Park, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and so on a daily basis,” he explains. “What’s amazing about New York is that it’s such a big city, the skyline and being able to fly over it all and seeing it from above — far from all the chaos and traffic on the ground — is quite amazing.”
Denmark in New York caught up with Braveen Mahendran to hear about his journey, being a Dane in New York, and his plans as he continues to pursue his passion.
Denmark In New York: When you are born and raised in a small town in Denmark, becoming a helicopter pilot in New York City isn’t the most obvious career path. Can you explain how you ended up here?
Braveen Mahendran: It’s been quite a journey. When I was in high school back in Denmark, I was thinking about my future and what I would like to do with the rest of my life — and which kind of life I would like to live. I looked into flying and there was only one way to find out if that was the path I wanted to go down: take flight lessons. So, I did that while I was in high school and also after completing high school — and then, on the side, I was flipping burgers at the Danish fast-food chain, Sunset Boulevard, to save up money. One day, I had one introductory flight in a helicopter from an old friend, actually in our hometown of Viborg, and that opened my perspective and made me realize that helicopters are “something else” and it became something I could see myself doing for many, many years.
So I saved up money and started flight school in Florida where I took all my European certifications and decided to also take my American certification as I wanted to work over here for a few years. The industry is bigger and there are more opportunities within aviation over here. I had one year in Florida, then one year in Portland, Oregon, finishing my American flight training and the certification that goes along with it. I then landed my first job in Florida, which only lasted a few months since the company shut down, which — at the time — seemed frustrating but it ended up being a good thing. It was a great push in my career as I landed a good job in Boston in terms of a lot of experience in a short amount of time, flying in a different terrain and climate — and in a different helicopter. That opened up the opportunity for me to go to New York where I have been for the last one and a half years.
Honestly, I never imagined that I would be doing what I’m doing — at least not within the timeframe it happened. It has always been a dream flying in New York but I never thought it was realistic until I actually got the job interview.
What is your favourite thing about your job?
Braveen Mahendran: There are many things I love about my job. One of them is definitely just being in a helicopter — being in a hover in a helicopter, standing still in the air — that’s always amazing. What’s amazing about New York is that it’s such a big city, the skyline and being able to fly over it all and seeing it from above — far from all the chaos and traffic on the ground — is quite amazing. I feel like it’s a privilege flying over Central Park, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and so on, on a daily basis.
But also the fact that I get to see a lot of people from all around the world. Most people are very excited to come out and fly in a helicopter. For most, it’s their first time: they’re nervous and excited. That’s a great atmosphere to be in every day.
Does ‘being Danish’ mean something to you and does it affect your daily life in New York?
Braveen Mahendran: Yes, I would say so. I don’t have a Danish community over here or anything like that. I don’t see Danish people on a daily basis but I think the fact that I’m from Denmark tells a lot about me — in terms of values, the respect of other people, the way we talk to people, how we treat other people — in terms of these things, there is definitely a part of Denmark that has settled in me. Also, the fact that we learn English from a very young age. It has been tremendously helpful instead of moving here and not know any English. In that sense, we are somewhat ahead of most other nationalities when we move here. It has prepared me for the journey.
Over here, I always get questions on life in Denmark. Because Americans appear to usually travel only within the United States — not everyone but most. A lot of Americans are curious about other places, especially a small country like Denmark, which they might not even have heard of. They have never been and will, probably, never go there.
COVID-19 hit New York very hard. How has the crisis affected your daily life? And how do you see the city emerging from this crisis?
Braveen Mahendran: I have been here before, during and “post” COVID-19 — it is obviously still going on but not the same way as during lockdown. COVID-19 hit the aviation industry quite hard. But New York is also just a very big area that has been hit because it is densely populated.
COVID-19 has changed a lot of things. The streets are not empty but there are less people compared to before. When you think of New York, you think of all the things you can do here. When you take all those things away from New York, I don’t think it’s the same. I am just fortunate that I have been able to keep my job despite a pandemic. It’s has been tough on a lot of people.
Lastly, what does the future hold for you?
Braveen Mahendran: Since I started in aviation, my plan has always been to one day fly a medical helicopter. I used to watch those helicopters back in Denmark. It’s the fact that you can pick somebody up in a helicopter and get them to a hospital. Make a difference. It can be life-changing. In terms of challenges, it is something I have always had as my long-term goal. But within my journey, I have also seen so many more opportunities. That’s also why I have been staying in the United States. I like to challenge myself. There are a lot of things that I want to do before I pursue my long-term goals. I would like to — within the next few years — fly bigger helicopters. There’s still a lot more to explore in New York as it is the busiest sky in the world in terms of air traffic.
Frederik Tronier Kapper is the Strategic Communications and Press intern at Denmark In New York.