Taking the controls

3 mins·10 Apr, 2024

Starting off with just one aircraft and only the vaguest idea of what he was getting himself into, Aaron Finn has built Nautilus Aviation into Northern Australia’s biggest helicopter operator. And it all started with a beer and a handshake at Townsville’s Seaview Hotel.


Aaron Finn knows more than most about building something from scratch.

Long before he had even learned how to fly a helicopter, the Nautilus Aviation CEO was building houses.

“I started out as a carpenter. I’d left school when I was 15 and nine months. The teachers sort of said I was better suited to a trade than causing disruptions at school,” he laughs.

“I was living in a small town in country Victoria with about 5,000 people called Kyabram and got a job with one of the local builders as an apprentice chippy. And that’s where everything started with my building career.”

Even all these years and a whole career change later, his love for building things has never completely left him. He’s still a registered builder and even led the construction of Morris Escapes’ luxury outback retreat Mt Mulligan Lodge.

When the Nautilus base in Cairns was damaged by the floods at the end of 2023, Aaron put his skills to work to get things back up and running again.

But despite this enduring love for his trade, when the idea for a change in direction presented itself he was all in.

The winds of change

“It all started with a joy flight in a helicopter with my dad over Kakadu,” he said.

“It’s hard to describe what it was exactly, but when you take off there’s just that feeling you get as you’re flying away. I just thought it was pretty cool at the time.”

Whatever that feeling was, Aaron was certain that flying helicopters was something he wanted to do. He just needed a bit of time and an extra nudge to make it happen.

Fast forward ten years or so to 2007, when Aaron was working on a building site in Port Douglas. Now in his mid-30s and at a major crossroads in his personal life, he was looking to make a drastic change.

“I was actually building (Flight Centre co-founder) Geoff Harris’ house in Port Douglas. I remember driving out the gate one day and there’s a helicopter landing on the helipads nearby,” he said.

“And as it landed, I don’t know why but I just thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to be. What have I got to lose?’ and I booked in to do my license the next day.”

A pilot’s life

What followed was 12 months of training which Aaron says came with many challenges.

“I was about 34, so I was a late starter compared to most pilots who’re starting when they’re in their early 20s,” he said.

“The practical training is challenging. You need to have good hand-eye coordination. One of the hardest aspects is hovering.

“You do 105 hours of flight time, and there’s also seven subjects and then exams that you have to complete. I failed some of the exams and I won’t lie, a lot of that was due to me being busy working at the same time.

“You had to book your exams in advance, and I’d set a reminder and then the day before I’d get a Outlook alert for an aviation exam tomorrow. So, I’d get the books out that night and try and do a whole subject in a night and try and sit the exams. I don’t recommend it.”

But in the end, it was worth the stress for the pay-off of being able to fly.

“I remember the first time I flew. Funnily enough the guy who was supervising is one of our pilots (at Nautilus) still to this day!” he said.

“We took off and went up over Barron Gorge and Kuranda and not long after we were airborne he gave me the cyclic and said ‘You’ve now got control of this thing’. It’s pretty daunting at the time, but exciting.

“You do about 20 hours of training before you go solo. That first time when you’re flying and you look at the empty seat beside you, it’s that’s probably the biggest moment in any pilot’s career.”

Perhaps another moment from his career as a pilot that Aaron won’t forget too soon was the time he ended up giving some tourists an unexpected diving trip.

“I’ve only crashed once, and that’s one time too many,” he says.

“In 2011, I had some Chinese tourists returning from a day on the reef, and I had an engine failure and had to ditch.

“We were only up 400 feet, so it was a matter of five or six seconds between the engine stopping and us hitting the water. I went for a swim that day, but everyone was fine except the helicopter.”

The incident serves as a testament to Aaron’s calmness under pressure – a trait he says is crucial to being a good pilot.

“I think the best pilots are the ones that are calm and easy going when you get into an emergency situation,” he said.

“If you come across a highly strung pilot that panics when you get to an emergency situation, you want somebody that’s calm and going to be able to manage it.”

New horizons

With a few solid years of flying under his belt, Aaron’s next challenge was just around the corner.

Unlike his former career as a builder, this new venture didn’t come with a blueprint. There was no clear plan. Just a vague idea to build something great. And it was all signed, sealed and delivered with a beer and a handshake at Townsville’s legendary Seaview Hotel.

That, according to Aaron, is a pretty accurate summary of first meeting Morris Group Founder and Executive Chairman, Chris Morris.

In 2011, Nautilus Aviation consisted of one helicopter and one pilot. The North Queensland region had just been battered by Cyclone Yasi, and Aaron found himself in the thick of it helping to transport people and equipment between Cairns and Townsville.

After a chance encounter with the then Nautilus pilot, Aaron found himself stepping in to assist some passengers heading to Hinchinbrook Island.

“The passengers were giving him a hard time because they had all this gear and they had to take with them, but he couldn’t fit it in. Luckily, three of my passengers didn’t turn up so I just went over and offered to take the gear over,” Aaron said.

“After that we got talking and I said, ‘If you ever need a hand flying, give me a call’, so we kept talking after the cyclone was all over, and he ended up getting me to come and fill in for him at one stage.

“It started off with a flight every couple of days, and then, as Orpheus Island got busier and busier I started doing two flights a day. I may as well be working full-time.

“Chris ended up calling me from the UK and just thanked me for helping out and offered to meet at the Seaview. So, we just had a chat there over a steak and a couple of beers that night and shook hands, and that’s just where it started.”

And with that, Aaron’s new career trajectory leading Nautilus Aviation had begun.

From little things, big things grow

Although the whole business consisted of himself, one helicopter, and a schedule full of transfers to Orpheus Island, it wasn’t long before Aaron could see a world of untapped potential.

“I just said to Chris, ‘We can do more than just island transfers. I want to go and have a crack at getting some other work.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, go for it!’

“He’s been supportive the whole way through and supporting my direction and the things that I wanted to go after with the business, and it’s worked really well.”

From there what followed was steady but consistent growth. A new helicopter here; another base there; acquiring the competition over here.

Today, Nautilus Aviation has over 120 staff members across eight bases in Cairns, Townsville, Port Douglas, Horn Island, Darwin, and Kakadu; and a fleet of more than 40 aircraft.

But despite the undoubted success, it hasn’t always been clear skies.

“Hands down COVID was one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through from both a business and personal perspective,” Aaron said.

“Having to personally tell over 80 employees that they no longer have a job is probably one of the most taxing things I’ve been through.

“But being able to pivot the business through that period to being more commercial focused gave us the opportunity to recover faster and rebuild our workforce again.”

Aaron chalks most of the business’ success to being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself.

“To be honest it’s all a bit of a blur, but I’m proud of what we’ve achieved,” he said.

“There was never a plan to be the biggest operator or anything like that. I just wanted to always do a good job, and to provide the best customer service that we could.

“I think what initially built the business was the customer service side of things and the relationships that you build. You can’t do it without having great people around you. Everything’s about people.

“It’s taken a lot of time and perseverance to make things what they are today and what we’ll make it in the future. We’re not done yet.”

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