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.

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(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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