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….

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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