Not many high school students have their own helicopter, let alone one they fly for business.
But Jonathan Woodruff, a senior at Upper Columbia Academy in Spangle, bought himself a chopper two years ago.
He’s not a millionaire. And he’s not a pilot. His helicopter stands 2 feet tall and stretches 4 feet long.
And by strapping a digital camera to his radio-controlled aircraft, Woodruff made about $8,000 last year. In 2005, he founded Mountain SkyCam, an aerial photography company he runs from his home on the South Hill. He sells photos mainly to homeowners and Realtors.
“I was wanting to put a tiny, little wireless camera on a plane,” Woodruff said. “But when I researched that, I came across people taking still photography from helicopters, and so I decided I wanted to do that, too.”
He went into his endeavor intending to start a business. They only way he could afford to buy a $3,000 helicopter, he said, was if he could make money with it.
Woodruff’s work has paid off. This month, the 19-year-old won a $40,000 college scholarship from the McKelvey Foundation, a New York City-based organization that recognizes high school entrepreneurs.
When he travels to Walla Walla College in the fall, Woodruff will get up to $10,000 a year for tuition. He said he was “super excited” to learn he was one of the 52 national scholarship winners.
“None of our applicants has had anything like this. It’s a very unique business,” foundation President Christine McKelvey said.
Last summer, Woodruff had a job about every week and a half. He charges $200 a job, plus transportation costs if it takes him outside Spokane County.
His one employee — his brother Michael, 17 — edits pictures and runs the company’s Web site.
Jonathan Woodruff’s first clients were his neighbors, interested in photos of their homes or just supporting a local high school student.
“People in general like aerial photographs,” Woodruff said. “So if they have one they might put it up in their house, just to show off their house, I guess.”
His commercial clients — and his favorite ones — are mostly Realtors, including Condron Homes LLC, Kestell Co. Realtors and Windermere Real Estate.
“He runs his business very professionally,” said Jack Kestell, owner of Spokane-based Kestell Co. Realtors. “He did a first-class job. I was very impressed with him.”
Kestell hired Woodruff in the fall and winter to take aerial photographs of some of his properties. Woodruff showed up on-site with his helicopter, snapped some photos, prepared them at home and then delivered them to Kestell.
He went “above and beyond on everything,” Kestell said.
But simultaneously flying a helicopter and taking photos is no easy task. Woodruff spent the better part of a year learning how to pilot a radio-controlled chopper using a computer flight simulator, he said.
After buying his electric helicopter in March 2005, Woodruff started investing his business earnings into upgrades, he said. He purchased lithium batteries — at $700 a pack — and a $650 wireless video downlink so he could aim his airborne camera by watching a black-and-white monitor on the ground.
Woodruff can fly the helicopter and control the camera all from his eight-channel controller. But radio-controlled copters are much more complicated than radio-controlled cars or airplanes.
“These things, man I’m telling you — there’s a lot going on in there,” said Chris Spirawski, a machinist from Post Falls who also owns Helivision, an aerial photography business for which he uses gas-powered radio-controlled helicopters.
Spirawski said he didn’t know of any other commercial businesses in the area that do radio-controlled helicopter photography. And once Woodruff leaves for college this fall, Spokane will have one fewer.
Woodruff chose Walla Walla College because of its mechanical engineering program. However, he said, he is now thinking of studying business.
He probably won’t do as much photography in Walla Walla, but he sees a future for the company, he said. His dream, however, is to start a robot business that makes helpful products, such as iRobot Corp.’s robotic vacuum Roomba.
“My main thing is I don’t want to get out of college and have a job for life, per se,” Woodruff said. “I want to create my own jobs.”
He seems to be headed that way, said Corey Condron of Condron Homes in Spokane. Though Woodruff is young and seems unsure of himself as a businessman right now, Condron said, he already has won over his clients.
“He’s got a jump on his classmates, that’s for sure,” Condron said. “I would say he’s got a good head on his shoulders to be successful in life.”
Staff writer Nick Eaton can be reached at (509) 459-5446 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.