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  Sky Wars
  The News ~ fall 1992

hen the National Parks Overflights Act was passed in 1987, many thought the last great battle over Grand Canyon air traffic lay behind. Since that time, however, the number of overflights has nearly doubled and Grand Canyon Airport now boasts handling up to 1000 flights daily. As the airspace nears its saturation point the FAA has been forced to break its own rules to reduce the risk of collisions. It comes as no surprise that, with profits topping $100 million a year, the air tour industry is pressuring the FAA to grant new routes. Recent acquiescence by the FAA in favor of the air tour industry has again brought the issue into hot debate.

   One practice which has come under fire is that Grand Canyon tower operators sometimes direct pilots to enter “flight-free” zones. When the traffic pattern becomes too congested, arriving aircraft are instructed to circle in designated locations outside the Airport Traffic Area. When those locations fill up, the traffic pattern is extended into the Bright Angel “flight-free” zone in order to accommodate more airplanes, in direct violation of FAA’s own rule prohibiting such entry. In a letter to Grand Canyon Trust, Park Superintendent Bob Chandler stated, “These incursions happen almost daily, with aircraft flying over Grand Canyon Village, sometimes as far as the Canyon rim, before being turned back toward the airport.”

   FAA officials insist that they try to limit such intrusions, but that at times it becomes necessary in order to safely separate traffic. Jim Dagle, Principal Operations Inspector with the FAA in Las Vegas stated, “We are very accountable. If somebody is given permission to fly through [the flight-free zones], they have a darn good reason.” We would not argue that tranquility should take precedence over safety, but if that choice must be made on a regular basis there are too many aircraft in the system.

   Although the FAA has considered limiting the number of flights, they show much more interest in other alternatives such as addition of a runway and installation of radar services. According to FAA officials, these improvements would solve many of the problems. However, the proposed projects are not listed in the 5-year plan of the Arizona Department of Transportation, the agency in charge of such matters. Also, these projects would effectively allow further unbridled expansion of the air tour industry, a decidedly unpleasant proposition for the Grand Canyon environment.

   These traffic patterns are purely a fixed wing problem, as helicopter operators are quick to point out. However, they have created quite a furor of their own lately by convincing the FAA to grant them additional routes.

   When the original aircraft routes were designed by the FAA in cooperation with the NPS, they allowed only fixed wing aircraft in Marble Canyon. However, without consulting the NPS, the FAA has recently granted a Marble Canyon route to Papillon, a helicopter tour operator.

   According to Jerry Gavette, an FAA Principal Operations Inspector, Papillon used to run an extensive tour to Havasu Canyon which he described as “the best helicopter tour you could get.” It was also rather pricey. “Papillon and the Indians got into a row,” he said, which was financially motivated. Papillon pulled out and began looking for a comparable tour to replace it, and set their sights on Marble Canyon and the remote North Rim.

   They requested, and were granted by the FAA, a route parallel to the existing fixed wing route, but as much as 2,500 feet lower. Gavette calls it the “longest, most interesting tour...in the form of a triple figure 8.” It heads up the east side of the river, crosses it at South Canyon, and continues on to North Canyon, dropping to within 2000 feet of the tree frogs’ tiny little heads. Helicopters will cross the river yet again and continue north. Rick Carrick, chief pilot for Papillon, claims that the North Canyon route won’t be used. “It’s not our idea to disturb the solace”, he said, “I’m an environmentalist.”

   For boatmen, perhaps the most disquieting aspect of the new route is that Marble Canyon has been relatively isolated from the heavy air traffic we had grown accustomed to in other areas. In addition, the Marble Canyon helicopter routes are as much as 2500 feet closer to the river. On a recent river trip, a series of helicopters flying 3000 feet above Redwall and Vasey’s left us feeling violated. Perhaps it’s partly the fact that they’re HELICOPTERS that offends us. Boatmen tend to associate the noise of rotary aircraft with negative events, such as evacuations and death notices. The mere sound sets us on edge, especially if it’s lower and louder than we are accustomed to.

   After the helicopters cross the river at South Canyon, there are ingress and egress routes to the west. This has opened the opportunity for Papillon to run a North Rim commuter service, another strong point of contention. Papillon announced winter helicopter rides to the Kaibab Lodge which would let tourists “experience the quiet and secluded winter beauty of the North Rim.”

   Much of the controversy has focused on the route, which some claim would pass 500 feet above the Saddle Mountain Wilderness Area. Such flights would violate FAA regulations against flights lower than 2000 feet over a wilderness area. However, Jerry Gavette insisted that helicopters would have to “climb like a fool” to accomplish that altitude, and that the route actually lies north of the protected area. Rick Carrick of Papillon stated that if they were unable to maintain 2000 feet above the wilderness area, they would go around it. “I terminate immediately any pilot I find deviating from those routes”, he said. The confusion about just where the routes ARE isn’t helped by the fact that current federal air charts still depict NO helicopter traffic northeast of Nankoweap.

   In his letter to Grand Canyon Trust, Bob Chandler expressed concern that the presence of a commuter service would detract from the solitude of the North Rim. “We believe that rim-to-rim flights are contrary to the philosophy that the North Rim provide a more pristine experience to the visitor than the South Rim.” He continued that “The North Rim may be more difficult to get to (especially in winter months), but that is part of the reason the public visits that location. Providing easy access would defeat this philosophy.”

   Part of the trouble is that, although Congress recognized in 1987 that “natural quiet” is one of Grand Canyon’s most valuable resources, FAA officials seem yet to be convinced that heavy air traffic creates significant impact. Jim Dagle stated that “with aircraft the only impact is noise; how much impact is that causing? There’s no impact on the ground.”

   Robert Trout, FAA’s Geographic Unit Supervisor in Las Vegas went further in a recent statement to the Southwest Sage, an independent newspaper. “There are one million people who want to fly over the Canyon, while the couple who go out there and actively hike these flight-free zone areas are a drop in the bucket.”

   A genuine antagonism has developed between FAA officials and those who would like to see overflights limited. Jerry Gavette makes no effort to hide his disdain for the boating industry, towards whom he vented his wrath at length for what he saw as their “chicken-@*#!” adversarial attitude against the air tour industry. “I’ve been in this war since ’75...”, he said, “...when Tri-State Air Taxi Association came out in support of motors [on the river].” His perception is that the boating industry has “turned on them”, although he admitted that Tri-State’s principal reason for speaking out then was the accurate assumption that their industry would be next to be questioned.

   Certainly boatmen are in no position to point fingers from our motor rigs at an airplane thousands of feet overhead. During any discussion with the FAA or the air tour industry, fingers are inevitably pointed right back at motor rigs, multiple trails, mules, Phantom Ranch and hiker’s fecal deposits. Certainly their point is valid; every form of visitation produces an impact. But the simple fact is that every other form of visitation is strictly limited in numbers as well as area of access. Although air space has become much more restrictive, the number of flights increases without restraint. We are not asking for an outright ban on air tours, rather that there be reasonable use limits.

   We would also hope that the air industry begin to shift their usage to the quietest aircraft available. Some operators have made efforts to reduce the noise they generate. The boating industry would do well to set the example by striving to reduce their own noise impact. All tourism industries must be acutely aware of public perceptions that they are profiting at the expense of the resource.

Jeri Ledbetter

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