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Know the West

The key player: Elling B. Halvorson


Born St. Paul, Minnesota, 1932

Education Oregon's Willamette University, 1955 bachelor's degree concentrating in economics and engineering

Big break Founded a construction company specializing in work in difficult locations, such as remote mountainsides and the Alaska bush. That led to him building a water pipeline from the North to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the early 1960s, using helicopters to lower pipes to the bottom. He realized the bigger opportunity and began selling canyon air tours in 1965.

Commercial empire He's chairman of Papillon Airways Inc., which calls itself the world's largest air-tour provider, flying about 450,000 people through the Grand Canyon in helicopters and airplanes each year. His daughter, Brenda Halvorson, is CEO of the privately held Papillon, which also sells bus tours and river-rafting trips through the canyon. He's built up more than a dozen other family-owned businesses, either Papillon subsidiaries or separate companies, mostly based in the Las Vegas and Seattle areas, including Grand Canyon Airlines/Scenic Airlines; Grand Canyon Helicopters; Rainier Heli International, which uses helicopters for logging and other heavy lifting around North and South America (his son, Lon Halvorson, is CEO); the Best Western Grand Canyon Squire Motor Inn;  a water company and an IMAX theater in Tusayan; Monarch Enterprises, which leases aircraft around North and South America; a Washington real-estate company called Halvorson Boshaw Properties; a 3,000-member Washington camping club; and various shopping centers.

Why "Papillon"? His best-known company got its name from the French for "butterfly." Halvorson's website says, "The butterfly symbolizes beauty and freedom" as well as "the helicopter flight and ... the splendor it reveals."

Government contracts The family companies, which have at least 60 helicopters and airplanes, often sell firefighting and other flight services to the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and other federal, state and county agencies.

Technology Helped develop somewhat quieter helicopters that use five-blade rotors instead of three, as well as a turbine engine called the "Whisper Jet."

Politics Rotor Magazine calls Halvorson "an energetic advocate for the industry (who) has very actively pursued pro-aviation regulations and legislation in many political forums." He's held leadership positions in the Helicopter Association International for more than three decades and has been a member of the key federal advisory groups considering regulations on flights in the Grand Canyon (he advocates against regulations). He and his family have donated more than $85,000 to Ariz. Sen John McCain since 1997, according to federal records, the bulk of it ($79,600) in the last five years. He and his daughter, Brenda, have given nearly $10,000 to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid since 1998 (nearly $9,000 of that since 2006). Those senators have tried to block National Park Service regulations on canyon flights in the last couple of years. The Halvorson family also contributes to many other politicians, mostly Republicans, including $2,400 to Nevada Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle.

Sources include Halvorson press releases, Rotor Magazine stories and the Federal Election Commission.

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How developers and businessmen cash in on Grand Canyon overflights