The FAA’s Time Warp

(click on image to view blogpost at AVweb.com)

(click on image to view blogpost at AVweb.com)

The first major event of the new year for general aviation is going on right now, the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo. It is happening on January 14th-17th, at the airport in Sebring, [KSEF] in the heart of Florida. The first expo was in 2004.

This is a big event for those who enjoy recreational flying. A chance to do some flying (to Florida, in the middle of winter!), meet up with old friends, learn about new products, and listen to a few speakers. It is also a chance to discuss aviation politics.

A blog by Mary Grady at AVweb.com generated some interesting reader comments. Ms. Grady expressed concerns about how sluggish and ineffective FAA has been for decades, and how this is hurting general aviation. Here are four of the comments posted after her blog…

“Check any aviation magazine of the past couple decades and you will see the same discussions we see today, 3rd class medical reform, unleaded avgas, easier certification for GA. It never changes. These issues have been ongoing since the 80’s at least. Will it ever change? Probably not. No bureaucracy will purposefully and voluntarily give up any of it’s rules or regulations. It will add more layers on top of existing layers and create situations where you must have A to get to point B but you cannot get A without the paperwork obtained at point B. The FAA is supposed to be there to support and further aviation but ends up merely restricting it and the front line troops who work so hard are impeded by confusing rules from the head office.”
“Sadly, the FAA today is doing to GA what Detroit did to itself in the 1970s. It is making American GA irrelevant. Once that “Mission Accomplished” banner gets hung in OKC, there will be no way to recover – ever.
Remember the old “doomsday clock,” back during the Cold War? Lately I’m reminded of it by every action – or instance of inaction – taken by the Agency. Pass the Prozac!”
“Time warp indeed. Why are the simple details of 3rd Class medical reform that Commissioner Michael Huerta told everyone about at Airventure still “top secret” some six months later? People need to know this stuff in order to get on with life. It’s totally ridiculous and childish to treat this information like it’s the nuclear defense codes.”
“So long as the FAA (and I have my own, unprintable words for that acronym) can just ignore mandates from congress with impunity, nothing will change (well, not for the better). Reducing regulations and making things simpler is not in their DNA so you aren’t going to see the changes we want here unless someone at the FAA fears losing their job over it and congress has not shown any backbone in enforcing their laws.
They jumped on the ill-concieved changes to ATP and First officer qualifications so that demonstrates they CAN do something fast if they feel like it. In that case it ADDED to the onerousness of regulations so they liked it.
Congress mandated action on the 3rd class medical and the FAA just gave them the finger and said they couldn’t get to it. If we look at the FAA as a corporation and congress as the BOD, in what private sector company could the CEO and other officers blatantly ignore directions from the BOD and expect to keep their jobs?”

See also:

Helicopters: the Wrong Way to see Grand Canyon

Five days ago, a pilot employed by Papillon was killed when his/her helicopter rolled over while being repositioned on the floor of Grand Canyon. [article] The air tour passengers had already been off-loaded, so none of them were injured when the fatal accident happened. In the five days since, there has been no new information; neither FAA nor NTSB has released the gender, age or name of the pilot, nor have any weather conditions or other pertinent facts been presented to the Public. We are left to wonder why this tragedy happened, and could it happen again.

There have been many fatal air tour crashes around Grand Canyon. In fact, a careful analysis of news stories and the NTSB accident database reveals thirty significant accidents since 1980, some fatal and some non-fatal. A few were horrific, killing six, ten, and as many as twenty-five. Even the minor accidents hint at air tour practices that add unnecessary risk:

  • crowding too many helicopters together at remote landing spots,
  • parking helicopters too close to picnic tables,
  • worker fatigue, due to long workdays for the pilots and mechanics,
  • lack of maintenance oversight,
  • lack of FAA safety oversight, etc.

Here is a link to a list with short summaries for each of the thirty accidents. Each dated event has further links to online news articles and NTSB reports.

Passenger photo taken minutes prior to the 9/20/2003 crash. (NTSB)

Passenger photo taken minutes prior to the 9/20/2003 crash that killed seven. Analysis of this and other photos showed reckless flying and endangerment by the pilot. (source: NTSB Report)

One accident that really stands out happened in August 2001. A tour group from New York filled twelve seats in two Papillon helicopters. The flights had flown outbound from Las Vegas, spent around an hour in the canyon area, and they had taken off from Grand Canyon West Airport for the flight back to Las Vegas. Just a few miles west of their last departure point, the helicopters crossed Grand Wash Cliffs at roughly 5,500 feet, then quickly descended a thousand feet into the space below the tall cliffs. One of the helicopters crashed, and six were killed. The one survivor lost her husband and both legs, and eventually won a $38 Million settlement. A subsequent NTSB report noted there were no local recorded weather observations. In fact, the nearest official weather reporting station is nearly fifty miles south of Grand Canyon West Airport, and is not adjacent to the canyon; the only known weather fact is that it was a very hot day, around 106 degrees Fahrenheit.

The NTSB compiled a detailed investigative report, which included the following insight into the helicopter air tour industry:

  • Investigators interviewed many, including the Papillon manager at the South Rim (Tusayan), who told NTSB: “The mechanics said that Kevin was the only pilot that they felt comfortable with on test flights.” (underline emphasis added)
  • The report suggested that pilots may be motivated to add more ‘thrill’ to the flight to earn larger tips.
  • One passenger from an earlier air tour flight with the same pilot shared her concerns, and backed them up with a copy of her air tour video. She described what air tour pilots call the ‘Thelma & Louise Descent’, in which the pilot crests low over the top of a ridge, then dives into the empty space on the other side. In her testimony, the passenger said her pilot did the ‘Thelma & Louise Descent’ at Grand Wash Cliffs, a classic location for this maneuver. She testified the pilot asked them if they wanted to do the descent, and they all said ‘no’, yet he did it anyway.

There are many professional aviators who have no love for those who make money using aircraft as a form of ‘thrill ride’. For example, the Sundance helicopter pilot who crashed into a canyon wall in September 2003 (killing all seven on board) was known by the name ‘Kamikaze’, and pilots interviewed in that NTSB investigation expressed many concerns about his long history of risk-taking. There is even an online pilot discussion, where a British tourist seeks feedback, with the title: Helicopter over Grand Canyon – which company won’t kill me?

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Grand Canyon is an extraordinary place, but it is certainly not an appropriate venue for aerial thrill rides. We can only hope that the latest tragic fatality will precipitate reform and bring an end to this dangerous form of flying.
GCNP Grandview Trail hike pic

What should YOU do if you are coming to Grand Canyon?

One of the facts gleaned while reviewing more than thirty years of air tour accidents is that very many of the fatalities are from Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world. It appears that Grand Canyon vacations are planned to be very special trips. It also appears these tourists may have been sold the idea that an air tour is necessary to experience Grand Canyon.

In fact, this is completely wrong. Just your first view of Grand Canyon will amaze you.

And, frankly, the helicopter ride is thrilling and scary when you first take off, but after that it is mostly just a lot of monotonous flying. And the noise you have to hear while crammed in the helicopter cabin…? Yeah, all air tour passengers are issued headsets, to help block out the loud noise. Too bad for those in the park below, as the ‘thump-thump-thump’ noise carries everywhere, for many miles.

So, please DO NOT book an air tour before you embark on your vacation. Please wait until AFTER you arrive and see the place, to confirm if you really want to give so much of your money to an air tour operator. And even then, please ask yourself one more time, ‘do I really want to make this noise that diminishes the experience for so many other visitors?’

GettingAroundGCNPMake it your first priority to stand at the edge of the Canyon and see how incredible it is, right there. Then, check with the Grand Canyon National Park maps and just walk some of the miles of flat rim trails (or hike below the rim, if you are more adventurous). The views will amaze you. Ride the free shuttle buses, and get out and find your own quiet vista point while enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. Spend a few bucks and enjoy tea or a beer or a pleasant meal at a lodge on the South Rim, while gazing at the view. The experience is so much more rewarding without the noisy helicopter, the stuffy cabin air, and the bouts of flight-induced nausea.

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…if you would like a quick video tour, please see page two of this
Post, which has embedded links to four different videos….

Hey, FAA, Get Out of the Way … Let the Drones Fly

1958 was a very important year in U.S. aviation, when today’s FAA really took form, as the sole federal authority regulating U.S. civil aviation. That was 56 years ago. Now, as happens too often, this ‘agency’ has evolved into an over-matured bureaucracy: a large, bloated organizational structure, burdened with internal fiefdoms, onerous and arbitrary rule enforcement, and an enormous aversion to individual accountability. On top of that, since most of FAA’s real work was accomplished in the 1960’s, and thus the agency has matured onward for two more generations since, there are literally thousands of FAA cubicle-occupants who scramble each year to find new projects to stay busy and on track building their retirement pensions.

drone, 4-rotor (image- Don McCullough, Flickr)

A typical lightweight drone used as a camera platform. Easily carried with one hand.

One of those new projects is ‘drones’. Just to be clear, though, understand that there are two key classes of drones: those hand-held versions that weigh in at roughly ten pounds or less, versus those that weigh more and are essentially real aircraft but without onboard pilots. This appeal to FAA is about the first group: those lightweight drone systems that offer extraordinary potential for low-altitude, low-impact aerial photography, to aid journalism and other important social services.

19810609.. FAA AC91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards, 400ft guideline

FAA’s 1981 Advisory Circular on model aircraft.

There are so many beneficial uses of drones, yet FAA has heavy-handedly stepped forward to grab control of all drone uses. This is weird because FAA set up policies to manage small drones way back in 1981. Thus, for more than thirty years, FAA has accepted small drones as just a form of hobby aviation that, if kept below 400 feet and away from larger aircraft, was not a safety threat and could be properly self-regulated by radio-control (RC) hobbyists. In just the past two years, though, FAA has issued dozens of ‘cease and desist’ letters and threatened $10,000 fines against hobbyists who shoot aerial photos or aid searches. And their primary justification: FAA asserts a burning need to ‘control’ the commercial (as in, ‘for-hire’) use of drones. Of course, as always, FAA says the words ‘aviation safety’ over and over again while over-asserting their authority, but, in the full analysis, this is simply about two FAA objectives: first, FAA making work to sustain the overburden of FAA employees ‘needed’ to allegedly ‘manage’ a nascent industry that is arguably entirely outside of FAA’s safety purview; and, second, FAA protecting older aviation commercial activities, such as full-scale, fuel-intensive helicopter aerial tourism and aerial photography services.

So, here’s a quick example.

A small company based in Dallas, HawkeyeMedia.com, accumulated the expertise and  some specialized gear (a small 6-rotor drone, and an SLR camera), then shot an award-winning video highlighting a mountain bike ride through a scenic natural area in arid west Texas. ‘Palo Duro Ride’ was edited down to just two minutes, filled with stunning aerial photography, and paired with some nice music. Beautifully done, and worth watching. (see also the video about how ‘Palo Duro Ride’ was created)

But, the video is just a hint of the potential. Just as beautifully, this photography did not require the loud intrusion of helicopters. Nor did it involve clouds of dust stirred up by massive helicopter rotor wash. Nor were any lives placed at risk flying low to the ground to capture the images. The energy consumed to produce this video: virtually none (far better than if done by full-sized, manned aircraft). The noise intrusion on wildlife and those who love the silence of grand natural areas: wonderfully, again, the impact approaches zero.

And here is another huge improvement brought by drones: the video itself now offers anyone and everyone a chance to experience Palo Duro up close, dramatically, while imposing absolutely zero impact on others who savor the opportunity to hike, run or ride in this place — today, tomorrow, and forever. Contrast that with the tens of thousands at Grand Canyon who are awed each day by the views and the grandeur and the natural quiet, then have the experience marred hearing yet one more noisy helicopter zipping nearby to serve a tiny handful of air tourists. Today, tomorrow, and forever — or at least until the National Park Service and FAA get their act together and put an end to the noise impactful air tourism at places like Grand Canyon.

Consider, too, that there are some aerial photographic images that cannot be safely shot using a manned helicopter, yet can be easily and safely obtained via small drones. Check out this short video tour of the campus at Baylor University, and pay particular attention to the low-altitude fly-overs. Some incredible close images, shot between the trees, gliding over the tops of spires.

The bottom line:

Drones can be an exceptional improvement upon current aviation technologies. FAA needs to get out of the way and quit pretending to manage model airplane uses in the bottom few hundred feet of air, far below the safe airspace needed by larger, manned aircraft. Let the drones fly. And, let other federal agencies (NOT FAA!) properly manage the aspects of drones that are not part of FAA’s aviation-safety authority: especially, commercial applications, civil liberties invasions, and personal privacy intrusions. These aspects can and will be managed, but they are clearly far beyond FAA’s ability and track record.

FAA’s Culture of Unaccountability (PIX11 Investigative Series, by Mario Diaz)

This looks like a solid news investigation, and something sorely needed to bring accountability to FAA. Reporter Mario Diaz conducted a four month investigation which has now aired as a series of news stories at PIX11 TV (New York). He found fifteen cases where air traffic controllers were found partially responsible for fatal air crashes, yet the controllers were never held accountable … and some returned to work in just days. He also notes that FAA paid out more than $100 Million to settle the fifteen identified cases, in which 54 people died.

Mr. Diaz reported a lack of cooperation from many aviation officials who declined interview requests during the initial investigation. This included the controllers’ union (NATCA), the main pilots’ union (ALPA), Senator Jay Rockefeller (who chairs the senate committee that oversees transportation), Representative Frank LoBiondo (Chair of the House Subcommittee on Aviation), and most significantly the FAA. Those who did speak (and thus appear more devoted to real transparency) included: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (NJ), U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (NY), and Representative John Mica (FL).

After Part One aired on April 28th, both FAA and Rep. LoBiondo provided brief responses. FAA’s response was incredible, in that the agency declared FAA’s dedication to ‘safety’ while ignoring their own failed safety record, as evidenced by this investigative series. FAA added a declaration that they investigate “…every accident and incident that occurs in the system to determine whether it could pursue further improvements to continue to enhance aviation safety.” This is patently false, as evidenced by the concealment of the 7/25/2010 controller error at Camarillo, CA, which FAA continues to pretend did not happen.

FAA’s statement went even further, citing ‘Due Process’ concerns in defense of their failure to take accountable action against rogue controllers. Those who are aware of FAA’s terrible history of retaliation against Whistleblowers will find this especially galling because, in nearly all Whistleblower cases, FAA has done everything in their power — including lying repeatedly — to obstruct Due Process. So, there is a disturbing double-standard: destroy the Whistleblowers, while supporting those who participate within the corrupt culture. Want to see an example? See the extensively documented Lewis-FAA WB Case, related to the TV set pictured below.

As one aviation attorney said in the PIX11 news series, “…this is the government’s stonewalling … what amounts to incompetent behavior that can, does, and has resulted in death.”

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20140428.. Mario Diaz article, FAA ATCS still employed after deadly crashes4/28/14, Part One:
Reporter Mario Diaz presents his extensive investigation into the lack of accountability by FAA and air traffic controllers. He identifies cases where FAA air traffic controllers were found to have contributed to fatal air crashes, yet are still working in FAA’s control towers and en route radar facilities. In two examples, fatal accidents in both Texas and Florida, all pilots and passengers were killed after the controllers knowingly failed to advise pilots of lines of severe weather. Comments are mostly by controllers, and are ‘unappreciative’ of Diaz’ report.

20140429.. Mario Diaz article, HEMS accident, Andrews AFB4/29/14, Part Two:
The sole survivor of a 2008 medevac helicopter crash is interviewed, and is surprised to hear that the controller who refused to provide an ASR approach is still working. She had heard the controller was fired. That controller was assigned to work the tower at Andrews AFB, but FAA had failed to train her to conduct ASR approaches. NTSB found significant FAA failures at two towers as well as at the Potomac TRACON radar facility. A former FAA attorney noted this criticism: “The NTSB categorized the FAA’s actions in this case as casual and sloppy. I’d say it was casual and sloppy at its best.”

20140430.. Mario Diaz article, FAA probe soon by Maloney4/30/14, Part Three:
Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York found FAA’s response was unacceptable, and vowed to send FAA a letter, demanding answers.
Congressman John Mica, former Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, as well as the former Chairman of the House Aviation Sub-Committee, suggests that controllers are being improperly shielded. “This pendulum has swung I think too far in the direction of protecting people who should be held accountable and should be dismissed.” The article also discusses the failure of the ATSAP program, which is effectively burying safety information into a black hole (and thus protecting FAA personnel — and FAA — from accountability)

20140505.. Mario Diaz article, Maloney letter to Huerta5/5/14, Part Four:
U.S. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney discusses the reason he has sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. The letter presents his concerns and asks specific questions, including “What transparency measures exist when the FAA investigates an accident?” The letter was also copied to Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Maloney sits on that same committee, which oversees FAA.

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caused a near-midair collision in March 1989

Same Culture of Unaccountability, but two decades earlier. This is the TV set in an Oregon tower cab that caused a near-midair collision and led one FAA air traffic controller to become a Whistleblower. When he spoke up, he became a target of retaliation by FAA officials. [click on image to read more]

The aiREPORT: [2013Q3, week-12]

aiREPORT is a weekly collection of notes and links to news items relevant to aviation impacts and FAA reform. It is provided as a research tool…

Third Quarter, Week #12: September 15 — September 21, 2013

summary:

Top AvNews Story: a major PR greenwash, in FAA’s announced plan to spend $40M to develop fuel cells and hydrogen technologies. Given the large energy requirements of aviation vs. the relatively low energy potential of hydrogen, these fuel cells appear to be entirely impractical for aviation.

QUICKlooks:

  • 9/16/13: The Department of Energy (DOE) is opening a National Fuel Cell Technology Evaluation Center to further development of fuel cells and hydrogen technologies. [article]
  • … NY Senator Charles Schumer called on the FAA to choose an alliance known as NUAIR as one of the six drone test sites. NUAIR is said to include forty organizations in New York and Massachusetts. [article]
  • 9/20/13: Allegiant Air Travel reportedly grounded half of its MD80 fleet on Friday, after discovering they had failed to do annual inspections of their emergency evacuation chutes. [article]
  • 9/21/13: An emergency helicopter transporting a patient had a forced landing near Canton, MS, injuring the pilot’s back and sending the two medical crew members and the patient on to the hospital. The helicopter was operated by MedStat, which has bases in Winona and near Columbus. [article]

Airports in the News:

  • New Orleans, LA (Lakefront Airport [KNEW]): a ribbon-cutting ceremony will happen on 9/28, for the dedication of the restored art deco Terminal Building. It was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina flooding in 2005. The 1933 structure was vastly ‘modernized’ in 1964, and many of the early architectural details were removed. They are being restored in the reconstruction. [article]
  • Birmingham, AL (Shuttlesworth Airport [KBHM]): FAA is awarding $8.8Ma part of the $201M airport terminal expansion aprojects. The local Congressperson quickly praised the awards. $6M will go toward security upgrades, while $2.8M are ‘VALE’ funds, to go toward low emission ground vehicles. The busiest airport in Alabama, KBHM has an FAA tower open 24/7 and averages one takeoff every ten minutes. [article]
  • Wiley Ford, WV (Greater Cumberland Regional Airport [KCBE]): FAA has awarded a grant worth $2.3M, to be used to acquire six parcels of land, remove obstructions, and relocate some taxiway threshold areas. The airport has a $59M development plan, with a goal to complete it by 2017. FAA funds are expected, at the current 90% subsidy rate. This airport in western Maryland averages twenty takeoffs per day, mostly for local pattern traffic. It is the home base for 55 aircraft (42 single-prop, five twin-prop, two jets, one helicopter, and five gliders). If the full airport plan is developed, the FAA will have invested nearly one million dollars per private plane at the airport, and most of this money will be from airline passenger taxes. [article]
  • Boston, MA [KBOS]: A flood of noise complaints in Milton has prompted FAA to spend an extra six months studying the impact of a flight path change out of Logan Airport.The NextGen change, implemented in June, sends more departing flights from Runway 33L over Milton and neighboring towns. The routes are concentrated more precisely, this magnifying noise impact for those who live under the routes. Thus, in the first month, complaints increased six-fold. [article]
  • Chatham, MA (Chatham Municipal Airport, [KCQX]): an FAA Deputy Regional Administrator speaks at a town meeting where roughly a hundred residents expressed opposition to the noise impact of local parachute operations. An ongoing conflict at this location, right at the elbow of Cape Cod. [article]

Links to Articles:

9-18-2013FAA rule change will make things more noisy
A blog by and for residents of Queens. They are impacted by noise from both LaGuardia and JFK Airports…. “You can’t hear yourself think because every time it stops, it starts again,” one resident said. The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to change its rules so it can change flight plans without any environmental review. The rule change will lead to more noise pollution for Queens and Nassau County, Rep. Steve Israel said. “This is a bad rule for our quality of life, it’s a bad rule for our environment, it’s a bad rule for people who live in the vicinity of New York’s airports,” Israel said. The congressman also relabeled the FAA “The Federal Arrogant Administration.”
9-18-2013Risk of Flight Delays Returns as FAA Weighs Controller Furloughs
Alan Levin at Businessweek writes about what various aviation officials are saying, in anticipation of the new Fiscal Year. Levin notes: “Seventy-one percent of the FAA’s operations budget — a $9 billion pot that pays for air-traffic control, safety inspections and aircraft certification — goes to salaries, according to CRS. Air-traffic controllers are among the highest paid government employees, earning an average of $108,000 per year, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Huerta has told Congress it will be difficult to reach spending goals without furloughs. The FAA employs about 45,000.” Actually, FAA salaries may average much higher than that. Controllers at the slowest ATC facilities top out around $100K, but controllers at the biggest facilities and the busier towers top out well over $120K/year. In fact, hundreds of controllers max out on the federal payscale at ~$180K. And, and even higher percentage of managers are maxing out their federal pay.
9-16-2013Tax cut spurs job growth in Indiana
Officials from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and top Indiana Senate and House leaders gathered inside the expansive hangar of Eagle Creek Aviation Services here Friday to mark the nearly-instant success of a tax reduction for general aviation businesses. The bill passed earlier this year and eliminated a gas tax that can save aircraft owners about 40 cents per gallon, as well as a 7% tax on aircraft parts and labor. The taxes were stifling Indiana’s aviation businesses, as aircraft owners bypassed the state to avoid hefty fuel and repair taxes, according to GA officials. [Note: Pennsylvania passed similar legislation, too; what happens when all states give all aviators tax breaks?]
9-15-2013FAA cuts red tape for UAS at Yosemite Fires
GANews posts an article that has FAA working hand-in-hand with the military, NPS and California authorities to approve use of a drone to help in the fires. Not discussed is why NPS and Interior are not simply allowed to tell FAA they have an emergency, have shut down the airspace, and will fly drones if they need to.

The aiReport …a link to the full report…

The aiREPORT: [2013Q3, week-11]

aiREPORT is a weekly collection of notes and links to news items relevant to aviation impacts and FAA reform. It is provided as a research tool…

Third Quarter, Week #11: September 8 — September 14, 2013

summary:

Top AvNews Story: FAA reports that controller errors in 2012 more than doubled over the number of similar errors in 2011 … Flying Magazine posted a good article (and reader comments) about the fact that, despite many pleadings and other efforts by both FAA and NTSB, the accident history for Summer 2013 turned out very poorly … and, the same old background noise related to FAA funding of local airport projects and the claimed enormous economic benefits thereof; appears to be that time of year, again (end of FY) …

QUICKlooks:

  • 9/9/13: Aviation NGO leaders are commending the Governor of Kansas for proclaiming September is ‘Aviation Appreciation Month’. (Note: He is doing so as part of an organized campaign to generate proclamations and build positive news releases; that campaign comes from those same NGO’s … sort of a PR vortex). [link]
  • … Europe’s air traffic controller unions are urging their members to take strike action against fresh Single European Sky legislation. The ATCEUC is calling on it’s 14,000 members to join a pan-European action day on 10/10/13. They want to call attention to their concern that the European Commission is attempting “…to deregulate every profession that ensures the passenger safety.” This is very reminiscent of the relationship between FAA and NATCA, during the dark years 2005-2009 (when  FAA imposed a split payscale and dress code). [link]
  • 9/10/13: GA blogger Bob Collins posted that his many efforts to renew his medical exam have failed, as FAA just delivered their decision. Sadly, his flying days are over. Bob goes on to discuss that he came down with Meniere’s Disease, how it impacted his flying, and his effort to gain a fresh new look, including his need to eventually sell the RV-7 he built and loves to fly. [link]
  • … Senator Tom Harkin in Iowa announced that $3.2M in FAA/AIP funds have been awarded for two projects at two airports, in Davenport and Ankeny. Iowa is famous for pork production (pun intended). IowaPork.org says that in 2008 there were 8,300 hog operations in the state, accounting for nearly a third of U.S. pork production. [link]
  • … an article details the advantages a Connecticut realtor is finding by using drones to produce aerial images. He believes he can fly up to 400′ above the ground,. FAA has expressed concerns in two areas: altitude of flight (which seemingly is fine at 400′, unless he is close to an airport), and the possibility that the drone imagery is a commercial activity. (note: it is not clear why FAA should want/need to control low altitude drone use on the basis of whether or not it is a commercial activity). [link]
  • 9/13/13: yet another article (this one at GovExec) about the sequester budget stalemate, filled with quotes by FAA officials, NGO leaders, and Rinaldi at NATCA. [link]
  • … Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington issued a news release talking up the groundbreaking of a new Center of Excellence to be based at WSU Tri-Cities. A quote: “This landmark investment will help the jet biofuels industry take flight … From farms to airports, green jet fuel means jobs for Americans. This investment impacts every sector of the American economy. It secures and grows our aviation competitiveness by controlling the costs of jet fuel, protects our environment by reducing carbon emissions, and keeps our nation safer by reducing our dependence on foreign oil….” [link]

Airports in the News:

  • Destin, FL (Destin – Ft. Walton Beach Airport [KDTS]): FAA has grounded Timberview Helicopters from conducting air tours, due to multiple safety violations. The company can re-apply if/when they correct their violations. [link]
  • Norwood, MA (Norwood Memorial Airport [KOWD]): the airport manager sent a letter to his two senators and one congressman, urging a plan be expedited to restore certainty to FAA funding and prevent any further sequester threats … and to keep the contract tower at Norwood open past 9/30/13, which is the end of the current Fiscal Year. Norwood’s tower is open 9-hours per day, and the airport is said to average 273 operations/day. However, there are many airports around the country that have 200- to 500+ daily operations and function just fine without a control tower. [link]
  • New York City (LaGuardia Airport [KLGA]): Janet McEneaney, president of Queens Quiet Skies, said the group is now working on establishing itself as an advocacy group for all of Queens, not just the northeast sector. Seeking help from the Governor, in the problems she and others are having with FAA, she added, “The airlines and the Port Authority do not vote — we do.” [link]
  • Gulfport, MS (Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport [KGPT]): The Airport Authority Chairman announced a $4.7M FAA/AIP grant for various projects, including drainage, fencing, taxiway widening, and terminal improvements. He thanked both the FAA and the Mississippi Congressional delegation. [link]
  • Farmingdale, NY (Republic Airport [KFRG]): FBO Atlantic Aviation filed a complaint that upstart FBO Talon Air is getting preferential treatment from state officials. Talon owner Adam Katz is a real estate developer and reportedly a generous political donor. FBO’s provide fuel and other services at airports. Needless to say, monopoly FBO’s have an easier road to profits, so it is not uncommon for FBO’s to try to manipulate FAA and/or other officials (and the rules) to protect their turf. [link]
  • Le Roy, NY (Le Roy Airport [5G0]): an FAA grant was announced by U.S. Representative Chris Collins, a successful business entrepreneur who also served as the Erie County Executive (an elected office) from 2008-2012. The fatal Colgan crash at Buffalo happened in early 2009, during his term. The announced FAA grant provides $137K for removal of trees at Le Roy Airport. This airport has a single 3,800′ runway, is home to 19 aircraft (17 single-props and two twin-props), averages only 20 takeoffs per day (mostly for local pattern traffic), and is 14-miles west of the Rochester Airport. […Q: why is FAA funding being used for this tree removal, and why so much money? Can’t little airports like this exist without FAA handouts?…] [link]
  • Greencastle, IN (Putnam County Airport [4I7]): FAA is granting $3.55M, mostly for the removal of a hump in the single runway. This airport averages 19 takeoffs per day, and is home to 28 aircraft (19 single-props, three twin-props, two jets and five helicopters). It is less than 30-miles from two large controlled airports, at Indianapolis and Terre Haute. [link]

Links to Articles:

9-12-2013FAA reports increase in air-traffic mistakes
A USA Today article by Bart Jansen, providing statistics showing the number of errors by controllers in 2011 more than doubled in 2012. There were 4,934 events where aircraft got too close to each other. ATO COO David Grizzle says no problem: he believes ATSAP and newly introduced technologies are the reason for the increase.
9-12-2013Remember Huerta’s Summer Safety Plea? How Did We Do?
Stephen Pope blogs that Mr. Huerta’s plea and many other efforts (including by NTSB) produced no apparent improvements. Two quotes: “…it appears that, in general, we failed Huerta’s test – miserably … our poor safety record is one of the undeniable factors hamstringing the entire GA community – more so than the high price of avgas, government TFRs, outdated certification standards or a host of other negative factors – although these certainly don’t help either. But if we don’t solve our safety problem first, there’s not much hope for the future of GA – at least not the vibrant, thriving GA so many of us yearn for.” Kudos to Flying Magazine for posting the facts. Let’s hope FAA and pilots everywhere will fix this problem, so we can truly have a thriving GA sector that enriches our lives, with far fewer accidents and far fewer impacts as well.
9-12-2013FAA’s GPS Satellite Plan for Friendlier Skies
A video interview of Pam Drew of Exelis, a contractor with an award of $1.8B to participate in the $40B NextGen project. Essentially, this interview is a sales pitch that seeks to explain NextGen and justify the cost. She notes that the radar systems refresh the image every 12-seconds, but the new NextGen will update roughly every second, allowing for ATC to pack in more airplanes per mile, which should reduce delays, too. In the middle of the interview, the reporter makes reference to FAA’s old radar technologies, dating back to WWII. This implies the present radars are clunky, which is a very erroneous misrepresentation. They are vastly updated and supplemented with extensive systems for managing flight and weather information, detecting hazards, etc. And every one of these improvements was grandstanded before Congress and the Public, to gain support to spend billions every year … a decades-old pattern.
9-12-2013FAA grants Lockheed contract extension
Three days after announcing a $221M contract extension to Lockheed Martin for GA Flight Services, FAA made a very similar announcement: the Lockheed Martin contract to support Oceanic ATOP has been extended. The extension is worth as much as $500M for eight years.
9-11- 2013FAA uses faulty single-variable model to make air traffic control tower repair decisions
This is a brief analysis of a recent GAO Report, which found FAA was not being diligent when deciding which ATC facilities needed repairs. A quote: “In 2012, a consultant for the ATO developed the statistical model based on inspection results of 134 inspected facilities. The model ‘uses one variable–age of the facility–to estimate the facility’s condition,’ the GAO report says. In one instance, eight air traffic control towers, each 17 years old, were identified as having the same condition, including the Los Angeles International Airport tower.”
9-11-2013FAA, Industry Continue Push to Eliminate Sequester
A short article touching on recent speeches and statements by Huerta, Blakey, Heinrich (Rockwell Collins), and NATCA, all united in pursuit of FAA protection from possible future sequester cuts.
9-9-2013FAA extends Lockheed GA flight planning role
FAA awarded $221M, extending for two more years the contract to provide services formerly provided by the Flight Service Station personnel. Lockheed Martin has held the contract since 2005, when the FSS function was first contracted out, and the FAA personnel either retired, went to work for Lockheed Martin, or found jobs elsewhere at FAA.
9-9-2013Hawaii Awarded $23 Million From FAA and FTA for Airport Projects
A Hawaii Senator announced seven grants, mostly from FAA, including numerous airport projects and a statewide airport system study.
The aiReport …a link to the full report…

The aiREPORT: [2013Q3, week-9]

aiREPORT is a weekly collection of notes and links to news items relevant to aviation impacts and FAA reform. It is provided as a research tool…

Third Quarter, Week #9: August 25 — August 31, 2013

summary:

Top AvNews story: the DoT-IG report, connecting controller fatigue to FAA staffing practices. Also, there is still lots of posturing by FAA and elected officials, to win support from taxpayers by announcing recipients of this years rounds of billions of AIP dollars…

QUICKlooks:

  • 8/26/13: NBAA, AOPA and other alphabet groups commended the Governor of South Carolina for her recent declaration of  ‘South Carolina Aviation Week’.
  • The state of Pennsylvania announced that $5.4M in mostly Federal funds will be invested in fifteen small airports across the state. Much of the money will go for obstruction removal and/or studies to studies and designs related to future obstruction removal.
  • 8/27/13: GA News reports that Cessna made their first test-flight of their newest bizjet, the Citation M2, being produced in Independence, MO
  • A GA News article reports: Arkansas Governor, and a few Arkansas mayors, declare August is ‘GA Appreciation Month’.
  • 8/28/13: Some American Pilots Make A Measly $20 Per Hour. A BusinessInsider article that lays out how much pilots are paid for the various regional/commuter lines, and the major airlines too. It breaks down pay at first year, after five years, ten years, etc.
  • 8/30/13: The President of the National Air Transportation Association, Tom Hendricks, spoke at a town hall sponsored by the Napa Air Center, at [KAPC]. An article in the Napa Valley Register covers some aviation lobby concerns.

Airports in the News:

  • Moline, IL (Quad City Airport [KMLI]): Elliott Aviation has petitioned the courts to be allowed to intervene in a lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed after the state granted a property tax exemption to the company leasing facilities at the airport. The tax exemption effectively reduces tax revenues for local schools by $150K.
  • Mobile, AL (Mobile Downtown Airport [KBFM]): Airbus is making progress on development of its first U.S. production facility, intended to do final assembly of the A320 model. The plant has a planned opening of 2015 and will hire 1,000 workers.

Links to Articles:

8-29-2013FAA takes up Hudson County complaints about low-flying tourist helicopters
Elected officials continue to pressure FAA to clean up the noise problem created by helicopters in the New York City area. In this story, the lead advocates are Senator Robert Menendez and Congressman Albio Sires.
8-29-2013Quiet Air-Traffic Towers Should Be Closed Nights: Report
A Bloomberg article by Alan Levin, summarizing the DoT-IG report issued on 8/27/13, discussing controller fatigue and the potential to close down some towers during the very slow overnight hours.
8-29-2013New FAA Rule Gives Embry-Riddle Students Advantage for Airline Jobs
Embry-Riddle announced that FAA granted their students special status, so that they may promote into airline pilot jobs at 1,000 hours, instead of the new minimum 1,500 hours. Prior to these new minimums, pilots with only 250 hours were eligible. One consequence of these new rules is that flight training will tend to become more concentrated at those 4-year aviation institutions with intensive training programs. Embry-Riddle has major campuses at Daytona Beach, FL and Prescott, AZ.
8-28-2013Op-Ed: Why We Need a National Airline Policy
A short opinion article by Sean Kennedy, a Senior VP at Airlines for America (A4A). He notes that ten major airlines reported $1.6Billion in profits during the first half of the year, and these funds are being reinvested. But, he warns, the rate of taxation in the U.S. commercial aviation system is too high, and needs to be reduced. The comments lean against Mr. Kennedy, but the article is well worth reading in that it provides all sides of the larger debate.
8-27-2013FAA Investigates After Drone Crashes In Virginia
Three spectators at the Virginia Motor Sports center are injured when a hexacopter drone used for capturing video images crashes, after losing its battery power. FAA has been aggressively shutting down university programs and drone aerial photographers, while giving oil companies approval to use drones in Alaska. Oddly, riskier activities near crowds have been ignored until accidents happen. Q: since drones operate so low to the ground, should the authority to manage their use be taken away from FAA, and given to a different agency, perhaps one more focused on public safety?
8-25-2013Remembering Paul Poberezny
A tribute piece by Kent Misegades, at GA News. Mr. Poberezny passed away on  8/22/13, at age 91. He founded the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1953 and was a legendary advocate (as well as respected father figure) for those interested in building their own airplane.

The aiReport …a link to the full report…

FAA Grounds Low-Altitude, Radio Control Aerial Photographer in Minnesota

On March 14th, FAA ordered a Minnesota business to cease the commercial use of drones in their low-altitude, radio-controlled aerial photography business. The immediate question to any thinking person is: WHY?

Here are some questions and answers, compiled from quick research…

What is a typical radio-controlled, aerial photography unit today?

The technologies that have evolved in recent years enable a person to attach a digital SLR camera to a platform, and use radio control (RC) to go airborne, maneuver within a reception-distance of the RC unit, align a shot while looking at a video image transmitted from the camera, and thus capture HD DJI Spreading Wings S-800aerial photos. A common platform is a helicopter format, using six 15″ diameter carbon-fiber rotors attached to tiny (5-ounce) electric motors. The entire unit, with camera attached, typically weighs 6-15 pounds. A system such as this is all but silent, uses virtually no energy, and eliminates the need to fly a large aircraft burning leaded fuel and endangering lives. The heaviest solid component of these radio-controlledDJI S800 4114-11 320Kv Motor aerial photographic systems is the camera, which weighs in at under a pound (for comparison, a typical goose weighs 7-20 pounds). Online research indicates that a professional-quality, 6-rotor aerial photography platform and camera requires an investment of $5,000 to $10,000.

Are these drones a hazard to aircraft?

Not at all. These aerial photography platforms are necessarily light and minimally constructed, hence relatively fragile. When Captain Sullenberger force-landed an Airbus on the Hudson River, both engines had been taken out by impacting at least one goose, each with a weight of feathers and flesh comparable to the total weight of carbon and plastic in the heaviest aerial photography platforms. If commercial aircraft flew at altitudes under 500′ above the ground level, there might be a hazard. But, air regulations do not allow such low-altitude flying, not even by small General Aviation aircraft, and for a variety of reasons: the obvious larger safety hazard posed by buildings, antennas, wildlife, etc., as well as the enormous impact on people having to hear flight activity and breathe aviation fumes so close to their homes.

How about the Privacy Impact of ‘Drones’?

Two points to consider:

  1. Hopefully, we will soon sharpen our definitions and quit referring to this type of unmanned SWAT-drone-heloaerial photography platform as a ‘drone’. The public has come (quite reasonably) to associate ‘drones’ with aerial assassinations and other military or law enforcement purposes. Real ‘drones’ are much larger unmanned vehicles (in this photo, the SWAT unit helicopter is on a full-scale helipad, and appears to be roughly quarter-scale). And, real drones shoot to kill, not simply to capture an image.
  2. Privacy is an important consideration, and an impact of aviation often overlooked. These silent RC aerial photography platforms can be misused by citizens or corporations, but they have also been very powerfully used to identify environmental hazards and violations such as the piping of slaughterhouse blood into a Texas creek, or factories causing massive fish kills in a Chinese river. And, the technology exists and will be used, with or without regulation. So, to best protect privacy, we need solid regulations and an effective regulatory body to apply and enforce. This can happen, but it requires that the authority must have a clear, uncorrupted heart, and must not be captured by narrow, cronyistic interests.

What is the story with this business?

Eidecom is in the Minneapolis area, and grew out of two childhood hobbies enjoyed by owner Charles Eide, merging radio control flying with professional photography. Common products of his business include aerial video of events (such as parades or marathons), residential real estate photography (to enhance marketing), and industrial/manufacturing sites (such as a recent shoot of the Swiss Miss Cocoa factory in Menominee, WI). As a hobbyist, Eide could fly his radio controlled airplanes up to 400′ above ground level (AGL), but as a commercial aerial photographer, FAA now says he is not allowed to fly to 50′, 100′, or 200′ AGL, typically the highest altitude at which he shoots his aerial photos. Oh, wait, he IS allowed to fly the same object for ‘non-commercial’ use (such as to recreationally spy on somebody – FAA will ignore that), but he IS NOT allowed to do valuable work that helps sell houses and eliminates old-fashioned aviation impacts. Hmmmmm.edited swiss miss production facility

So, Why is FAA Grounding this Commercial Activity?

It clearly is NOT for safety reasons. Nor for privacy reasons. In fact, it appears to be solely for commercial reasons. In yet one more example of regulatory capture, FAA is again misusing its authority to benefit a few established aviation interests (the tiny few actually making money in aviation) while destroying new competition that is clearly superior — less impactful, far more efficient, and indisputably safer. If this were happening a hundred years ago, we would be watching the FAA protecting the powerful horse-and-buggy industry by shutting down the use of newfangled motorcars on roads, on the basis that a Model T might hit a cow in the stall of a dairy barn. I.e., there was and is no real probability of collision, and no real hazard, yet ‘safety’ is today being used to ground the superior new method of capturing aerial photography.

A Proposed Solution…

Just a thought: maybe FAA should relinquish their regulatory authority at altitudes below say 2,000′ AGL (with the obvious exception of necessary transitional flying to climb and descend through these lower altitudes). The authority that FAA seems unable to handle today, could be reassigned to a new entity, with an emphasis on managing and limiting the aviation impact on people. This better-focused authority would then be responsible for telling Mr. Eide whether he can or cannot do RC commercial aerial photography, and would specify the rules he must comply with to minimize his noise, air quality, and privacy impacts.

How might this solution mitigate other aviation impacts? Here are two quick examples …

Air Tour impacts at Grand Canyon: The National Park Service (NPS) would be solely in charge of developing a plan appropriate to their ‘parks’ goals, which tends to focus on quality of the environment and the visitor experience. NPS would work with the new authority, which would have no conflict of interest (no connnection to the air tour industry) and thus would not improperly delay and deny restrictions at Grand Canyon, as the FAA has done for decades. FAA would still have an important role, but it would be reduced to simply signing off on the safety aspects (and only the safety aspects) of the proposed air tour management plan. FAA would NOT advocate on behalf of air tour operators, and would NOT press for more aviation access.

Intensive Flight School Airports: The training of new pilots can cause activity in the local flight pattern to skyrocket, which can mean much greater adverse impact on airport neighbors. One of the most common flight training activities is to fly touch-and-go operations, ’round and round the pattern’, normally at altitudes of 1,000′ AGL or less. There are a few airports around the country where one flight school on the airport (or, sometimes a few) is aggressively recruiting students from throughout the world. They seek to profit from the fact that many other countries have much higher fuel prices and greater restrictions to protect airport neighbors. So, when foreign students are well-recruited, an otherwise quiet airport in a U.S. community can become an impactful, noisy beehive. The local citizens must endure much more noise and air pollution, while the benefits are narrowly gained by a single flight school owner. And, current FAA regulations support this, while blocking any effective expression of citizen concern; that is, the neighbors can complain, but the FAA and the airport owner will just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘sorry, we are not allowed to put limits on air commerce’. This is clearly unacceptable.

The same new authority formed to regulate low-altitude RC aerial photography should reasonably be in charge of ALL low-altitude, non-essential aviation activities. This would include air tours, and it would include ‘excessive/nonessential’ local pattern flying. Air Tours are going to happen, and they should be allowed when not overly impactful, but they should be a managed program, with clearly defined limits. As for airports with intensive flight training, obviously aircraft owners and a few local students are going to fly the pattern for proficiency, and this new authority would not work to curtail such normal and limited activity. But, when a flight school starts to recruit widely, it becomes appropriate for an authority to mediate the conflicting goals and values between airport neighbors and airport operators. A properly functioning authority would effectively advocate on behalf of airport neighbors, and ensure that excessive local training flights are balanced against quality of life in the airport neighborhood.

An authority such as this would be VERY helpful at HIO, the airport in Hillsboro, OR, dominated by the flight-training of foreign students.

Just a thought….

Grand Canyon NP Air Tour Revenues (data FY1994 to FY2012)

A FOIA request was submitted to the National Park Service on 10/2/2012. The objective was to collect data that would aid in producing a clear/factual analysis of the air tour industry at GCNP. A FOIA response was promptly produced, and received on 10/30/2012. It included a 3-page FOIA response letter, and 19-pages of responsive data (spreadsheets for each fiscal year, from FY94 through FY12).

More analysis will follow, but for now, a few highlights include:

  1. based on a $25/flight fee assessment, this data provides an approximation of the numbers of air tour flights each month.
  2. the air tour operators may tend to under-report, as that reduces the fees paid to NPS while also diminishing the numbers that correlate with air tour noise impact.
  3. Operators have exited, and new operators have emerged. Eagle Jet Charter appears in FY02 (associated with Scenic Airlines). Maverick Helicopters Inc. appears in FY04, and is associated with Air Star Helicopters by FY05. Grand Canyon Airlines was purchased by Scenic Airlines / Eagle Jet Charter in 2008. 
  4. there has been significant consolidation in the past eighteen years, from 23 air tour operators in FY94 to only 7 air tour operators in FY12.
  5. The vast majority of air tours are conducted by three major players: Papillon, Maverick/Air Star, and Scenic Airlines. Two other prominent players today include Sundance and Westwind.
  6. For reasons that appear to be related to seasonal accounting practices, many operators would report July or August data in the next year’s report.

 

Grand Canyon National Park Air Tour Noise: Some Background, and a pre-DEIS History

Stand alone at the edge of the ocean. Soak it all in: the finite pittance of your small frame and your feeble thoughts, against the mass of eternal water. The unrelenting waves, crashing upon fragile cliffs and washing beaches of docile sand. Those grains of sand: so many of them, so small, like you in the universe. The sounds of fresh wind and seagulls; the subtle, steady confirmation of the complex simplicity of life. The ceaseless struggle to survive; and maybe, if you are lucky, you thrive through that struggle.

hello

(photo from flickr.com)

Stand alone at the edge of the Grand Canyon and you soak in the same awe, rendered upon a very different canvas. The visual becomes more about fluid color and hard lines: strata and scarp. The dryness of a very parched land is felt, and draws contemplation of the harsh struggles by past human inhabitants. The time-sense is slowed. And, there is a big bonus, a new sound not found at the edge of the oceans: a silence that touches the soul. This is Grand Canyon, a place for contemplation if ever there was one. Grand Canyon also happens to be ground zero for a war against unnecessary aviation noise. And the record suggests, FAA is doing their damnedest to ensure we fail in this war. By ‘We’ meaning the Public, while a small handful of air tour operators make a pile of money.

A Little History:

In 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited Grand Canyon, he said:

“The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world… Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it….”

In 1919, Congress bestowed National Park status upon this incredible place. In 1927, the first company to offer air tours formed. Growth was slow for decades. It was not until the mid-1960’s, when helicopter air tours began, that air tour noise impacts became a serious problem. In 1985, Grand Canyon Trust was formed.[1] Based in Flagstaff, they work to protect the solitude and stunning quiet in Grand Canyon National Park. They were instrumental in passage of the Overflights Act in 1987 (see below). On June 18, 1986, twenty-five people died when two air tours collided air over Grand Canyon.[2] This was not the first air tour fatality, nor the last. It stirred Congressional hearings and legislation to accomplish management of both air safety and aircraft noise at Grand Canyon National Park. On August 18, 1987, Public Law 100-91 was enacted. This is the National Parks Overflight Act of 1987.[3] Here is some key text: 

Within 30 days after the enactment of this Act [Aug. 18, 1987], the Secretary shall submit to the Administrator recommendations regarding actions necessary for the protection of resources in the Grand Canyon from adverse impacts associated with aircraft overflights. The recommendations shall provide for substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience of the park and protection of public health and safety from adverse effects associated with aircraft overflight.

The ‘substantial restoration’ never happened; not in 30-days, not even in 25-years. Congress had mandated a specific goal, and National Park Service (NPS) worked toward achieving that goal. But, Congress also recognized FAA as the true ‘authority’ on air traffic matters, so they ordered NPS to share their plans and get FAA concurrence. The problem, though, was that Congress was essentially requiring cooperation between NPS and FAA … but FAA was not interested in restricting air tours at Grand Canyon. Instead, FAA just dragged it out for decades. Unfortunately, the result was no real progress; in fact, the number of air tours has grown and continues to erode the Park’s serenity.

Your very own Free Air Tour, with zero-impact! Thanks, Youtube!

Here are links to three videos that inform about the air tour problem at Grand Canyon:

  1. A 5-minute video by Jim McCarthy and Tom Martin, defining the Noise Problem.
  2. A 15-minute video by an air tourist, compiling his memorable experience in a helicopter ride from Las Vegas to the canyon and back. It is a good documentary of what helicopter touring looks and feels like, from the airport lobby, to the destination filled with other other helicopters), to the fuelstop on the return. Nice background music on the second half, too.
  3. A 3′ video with a helicopter air tour from GCN Airport in winter. Looking at the trees and rocks and snow reminds me of my first visit to GCNP, when I hiked to Phantom Ranch in February 1998, right after a blizzard. It was incredibly peaceful, quiet and absolutely spectacular. Honestly, top of my list of all-time favorite hikes – and it was the scenery/silence combination that made it such a profound experience.

Air tour videos consistently suggest that the attraction of Grand Canyon helicopter flights is as much about the helicopter as it is about the canyon. Essentially, the edge of the canyon is being used as a backdrop for a thrill ride; think of the helicopter as a roller coaster minus the rails. The problem, though, is that this thrill ride sucks the thrill out of the experience for so many others who enjoy the Natural Quiet of this great place. Other than riding in a helicopter, what else is gained during the rattling and shaking of a Grand Canyon helicopter flight? Not much… …likely a few aerial views that are not too different than you will see on the ground, but you get to pay more and strap yourself inside a plastic bubble and breathe cabin air. Plus, you get to hear the pilot’s ‘narrative’ through the headset clamped onto your ears … and hope he or she is not distracted from the duty of avoiding other air tour flights. Not much of an experience, seeing one of the greatest wonders of the Natural World.


[1] Here is a link to Grand Canyon Trust’s ‘Natural Quiet’ issues page.
[2] See the NTSB report (PDF). See also the letter from NTSB to FAA Administrator McArtor, with recommendations to improve safety.
[3] See this PDF copy of Public Law 100-91. Grand Canyon is covered in Section 3.
 

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