Look. Up in the Sky...


   We have to earn silence… to work for it: to make it not an absence but a presence; not emptiness but repletion. Silence is something more than just a pause; it is that enchanted place where space is cleared and time is stayed and the horizon itself expands. In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink below our selves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows.

Pico Iyer

   The passage above is printed at the beginning of the National Park Service Report to Congress on the effects of aircraft overflights on the National Park System. The 1987 Overflights Act directed the NPS to design flight rules which were to substantially restore natural quiet, then report back to Congress as to whether or not the flight rules worked. The study determined that, although there has been improvement since the flight rules were put in place in 1988, natural quiet has not been substantially restored in Grand Canyon.

   According to the report, preservation of natural quiet “is an integral part of the mission of the NPS. This is confirmed in law, policy, and the beliefs of NPS managers.” However, a concurrent goal of the NPS is protection of aerial viewing of Grand Canyon as a viable form of visitation, particularly for the elderly or disabled. The problem, then, is determining how to keep this one form of visitation from overly impacting all others. According to Park Superintendent Ron Arnberger, the target range is to have 50 to 80% of the Park naturally quiet 75 to 100% of the time.

   Looking to the future and using computer modeling to make acoustical projections, the report suggested that without modifications to the flight rules, the “loss of natural quiet will accelerate to an unacceptable level.” In order to keep the noise levels from getting completely out of hand, the report made recommendations concerning all national parks, as well as specific recommendations to improve the situation in Grand Canyon.

   Recommendations on a national level include voluntary agreements, incentives to encourage use of quiet aircraft, spatial zoning (such as the flight corridors used in Grand Canyon), altitude restrictions, time limitations, and treatment of air tour operations as concessions. The report also suggested that the FAA develop an Operational Rule which would allow the NPS to force them to take action when sound levels became too great.

   Grand Canyon National Park recommendations include a variety of methods to preserve natural quiet.

   Require quiet technology

   With computer modeling, the NPS found that the most effective method of reducing noise impact was to emphasize the source. Therefore, they recommend that over the nextin 15 years, all tour operators gradually convert to quiet commercial aircraft. This restriction would apply to NPS aircraft as well. The FAA and the NPS would develop a noise-based definition of “quiet aircraft” and identify the list of aircraft that would qualify for use in the flight rules area. The plan is “to offer an incentive for air tour companies to convert to quiet aircraft, and to reward those companies which have already converted.” Presumably, the retrofit version of the deHavilland Twin Otters already used by some tour operators would qualify. The Notar helicopter (no tail rotor) would also meet the “quiet aircraft” standards; however, due to its high price tag and limited seating, it is not currently being used by operators in Grand Canyon.

   Elling Halvorson of Papillon Helicopters, frustrated by manufacturer’s lack of vision in designing quieter technology, pursued the development of a quieter, high capacity helicopter on his own. He has been financing a retro-fit design of an old Sikorsky, (a 1950’s Army helicopter), to make it substantially quieter. Seating capacity is 8-10, and preliminary demonstrations of the prototype have been impressive. Halvorson hopes to have it certified by the FAA in the next few months. “This aircraft can hover overhead at 500 feet, and you can have a normal, quiet conversation; you can hear birds chirping,” he claims.

   Recommended changes to the structure of the flight rules area:

   1) Enlarge the boundaries of the flight rules area to encompass nearly all of Grand Canyon National Park.

   2) Enlarge all four flight free zones, as well as create a new flight free zone in Western Grand Canyon. These zones would encompass nearly 82% of the park. The report also suggested increasing flight free ceiling to 18,000 feet from its current level of 14,999 feet.

   3) Reduce and restrict flight corridors. Dragon corridor would immediately be closed to all but quiet commercial aircraft, then permanently closed in 5 years. In 5 years, Fossil Canyon corridor would be closed to all but quiet technology, and in 10 years, Zuni corridor would follow.

   Adjust commercial routes

   The number of routes, (currently 29), would be reduced and made one-way where possible. Whitmore routes would be treated the same as other commercial tour routes, and noise abatement procedures would be instituted. Commercial use of the routes would continue unless results from the NPS acoustic monitoring programs indicate a need for a change.

   Restrict Aircraft Operations

   1) The report recommends a “curfew” on flights between 6 pm and 8 am each day.

   2) APIMS (Aircraft Position Information Monitoring System) would be required on tour aircraft to track compliance, numbers of flights, etc, to develop a database which could be used to develop more effective noise abatement techniques.

   3) High altitude commercial jets frequently seek clearance to drop to a lower elevation for sight-seeing purposes. It is recommended that the FAA no longer authorize such deviations for reasons other than safety. (This is already happening. Last summer Air Force II requested a clearance to descend lower to see the Canyon; permission was denied.) The report suggested an FAA study on jet routes (above 18,000 feet) that may also have impacts on Natural Quiet.

   4) Where the FAA allows commercial tour aircraft to land and take off on lands adjacent to the Park, the FAA should require those aircraft to be at the minimum sector altitude prior to crossing over park lands. This should apply to the helicopter picnic tours into Quartermaster Canyon which have been flying through the Park well below published minimums.

   The key to making the recommendations work is long term monitoring and adaptive management, much like the Glen Canyon Dam EIS process. The NPS intends to initiate an acoustic monitoring program with “trigger levels.” When the sound generated by aircraft exceeds a specified level it will “trigger” action by the NPS and the FAA to see that the levels aren’t exceeded again. The action must be completed within six months of meeting or exceeding the trigger. At that point, it may be necessary to limit the number of flights.

   Response from the Air Tour Industry

   Some representatives of the Air Tour Industry have been warning of dire consequences to their operations should the NPS recommendations be followed. It must be remembered that they also claimed dire consequences if the 1987 Overflights Act were passed. Since those restrictions were put in place, the industry has more than doubled. There is no reason to believe that the industry won’t continue to thrive, as has the river industry since growth was capped in 1972. Also, the recommendations don’t suggest outright reduction of flights to start with, only a move towards quiet aircraft. This shift has been made successfully by several companies with no detrimental affect. Using quieter technology shouldn’t effect marketability.

   Air Tour operators seem to feel that the quest for Natural Quiet has gone too far. In a press release, Grand Canyon Air Tourism Association President Dan Anderson said, “We believe that Congress intended for the regulations to restore quiet to visitors, not just to attain quiet for quiet’s sake in all areas of the park, especially in areas where no people ever go.” He feels that the report places priority of land visitors over people who choose to visit the park by air. The air tour operators are quick to argue that their form of visitation imposes the least physical impact on the Canyon. “We leave nothing, not even footprints, behind.”

   Jim Santini, who served 4 terms in Congress for Nevada, is now acting as general counsel for the National Air Tour Association. He was quoted in the Las Vegas Review on December 14th complaining that the proposals are based on the concept of “natural quiet,” which is difficult for some to grasp. “Visitors come to Grand Canyon to see it, not to hear it..... What in the heck is ‘Natural Quiet?’ And how do you measure restoration? We certainly understand that plants are a resource, that water is a resource, that animals are a resource, but now suddenly the lack of noise is a resource.”

   Still other operators recognize the industry must adapt. Halvorson’s efforts to design his own quiet helicopter should be applauded. He feels that, in general, the NPS recommendations have merit. However, he feels that closing the most popular route, Dragon Corridor, in five years, even to quiet technology, is short sighted. “It would have a serious impact on the industry...it could conceivably make the tours unaffordable. He pointed out that, “Why would anyone invest in quiet technology when the corridor is going to be closed?”

   The Down Side

   Upon inspection of the new layout of the flight free zones, it would seem that Marble Canyon and the reservations surrounding the Park have become “sacrifice zones,” shifting the noise rather than reducing it.

   At the Overflights Workshop last spring whenever I mentioned Marble Canyon, I was told that, according to the acoustical study, it was not designated a “problem area” and therefore was not open for discussion. Why wait until it does become a problem? It makes more sense to protect it so that a bad situation never arises. Marble Canyon, with its quiet stretches of river, narrow walls and low rim elevation seems particularly vulnerable to noise intrusions. The Park’s computer modeling doesn’t project increased noise levels in Marble Canyon in the next 15 years, at which time quiet technology would be required throughout the Park. In addition, if the long term monitoring is instituted, the “trigger levels” would hopefully protect Marble Canyon from excessive impact.

   Much of the airspace over the reservations is largely unprotected. The NPS and the FAA have been hesitant to impose restrictions over Native American land. Presumably if the Tribes perceive a problem, they could pressure the FAA to impose whatever restrictions they deem appropriate. It’s a touchy issue; in the past the Government has made too many decisions based on its perception of what is best for the Tribes. It would be far better for Native Americans to take the initiative in the process of protecting their airspace.

   It has been disappointing to some who have been involved in the issue that the plan doesn’t call for a halt to the unbridled growth in the number of flights. The industry has doubled since the Overflights Act was passed in 1987, and is expected to double again by the year 2000. Air tourism is the only form of visitation to Grand Canyon that is not currently limited. Perhaps the current level of up to 10,000 flights per month during peak season is sufficient.

   What Next?

   According to Mike Ebersole of Grand Canyon National Park, the next step is for the FAA to analyze the recommendations for safety considerations, then issue a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), to allow a period for public comment. If that opportunity presents itself before the next newsletter, we will probably send out an action alert to let you know whom to write to express your views.

Jeri Ledbetter