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 FAAs 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 wont be used. Its not our
idea to disturb the solace, he said, Im 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 Vaseys left
us feeling violated. Perhaps its partly the fact that theyre
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 its
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 isnt helped by the fact that current
federal air charts still depict NO helicopter traffic northeast
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
Part of the trouble is that, although Congress recognized
in 1987 that natural quiet is one of Grand Canyons
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? Theres no impact on the ground.
Robert Trout, FAAs 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
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. Ive
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-States
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 hikers 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.