Steven Ungerleider is a busy man. His career spans four decades and includes holding various leadership positions with the United States Olympic Committee as a sports medicine doctor, authoring six books, and writing and producing two film manuscripts that have garnered him Oscar and Emmy Award nominations. His current film, At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal, debuted at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival before airing on HBO in May.
Oh, and one more thing: He founded Butterfly Aviation LLC (butterflyaviation.com), a luxury helicopter transportation company that can whisk you away from any Bay Area airport to the wine country and, well, anywhere you want to go within Northern California.
“I’ve always been fascinated by flying, but I moved years ago during doctoral training and held off on it,” says the Bay Area resident. “You have to be focused and carve out time for flying and do it right. I wanted to study it and be methodical.”
Ungerleider was so methodical that he began training with the Coast Guard and Navy seven years ago. Today, the company is comprised of experts in aviation safety and pilots with extensive military careers.
“Flying was fun for me,” says Ungerleider. “And then more people began calling saying they needed a lift to SFO and other places, so the business evolved organically.”
With increasing traffic in the Bay Area, Ungerleider says the service is a welcome one.
“If you leave the Bay Area and go to Sonoma or Napa, you know that you’re going to be on the freeway for a while,” he says. “If you’re in high-tech, the commute every Friday from Palo Alto can take seven hours round trip. So you’re spending a good part of your life in your car when you have finite time to enjoy your family.”
Butterfly also serves customers from across the country or overseas who are finishing long flights. For these customers, the company operates flights to and from San Francisco International Airport, San Jose International Airport, Oakland International Airport, Gnoss Field (Novato), Sacramento International Airport, Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, Ukiah Municipal Airport and Healdsburg Municipal Airport.
Beyond its practicality is the unique experience the service provides.
“What we hope to get is convenience, but also elegance,” he says. “It’s not just about transportation, it’s about an elegant, existential feeling about flying in the valley, one of the most beautiful places in the world. And in minutes, you have the ocean, Bodega Bay, where you can watch whales, the mountains. It’s just a beautiful way to experience the topography of this area.”
Have a favorite winery where you’d like to do a tasting? A favorite restaurant by the water where you’d like to eat fresh oysters? A trail in the redwoods you’d like to go before the sun sets? Ungerleider says it’s not only possible, but Butterfly can make it happen in one day, from the comfort of a luxury helicopter. The company operates two four-blade, single-engine, civil utility Bell 407 helicopters equipped with VIP leather seating, noise-canceling headphones and air conditioning.
“We try to understand our clients and their needs, and create something very special,” he says. To mark the holiday season, the company is offering “flightseeing” tours at discounted rates (limited time offer) for the person on your gift list who is impossible to shop for. “They are perfect for those seeking an exhilarating new way to experience the beautiful Alexander Valley, Russian River, Sonoma Coast, Salt Point, Lake Sonoma and more,” says Ungerleider. Customers purchasing tours will also be giving to charity, as a portion of proceeds from each flight will go back to local charities.
“Giving back to the community is a big part of my ethic and who I am,” says Ungerleider. “I have an amazing career, 15 Olympic Games, have met fascinating people and had some success, so part of the model of Butterly is not just to make money, but to provide service, have fun and give back to the community.”