It's all about the aircraft, not the Grand Canyon

by Jon Kovash

Thanks to successful lobbying by Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, with some help from Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, aircraft will continue to swarm over the Grand Canyon and are even likely to increase in number in the future.

Tour operators are being offered more flights as incentive for adopting “quiet technology” for their aircraft. At the same time, non-tour aviation won’t be considered in official noise calculations. According to the Arizona Daily Sun, noise will no longer count if it comes from jetliners, military and delivery flights, thousands of flights into Hualapai Indian lands, or even the flights from Las Vegas to Tusayan that bring in most of the air tourists.

As Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International, put it, “We could not have asked for a better outcome.”

Language squelching the Park Service’s modest reforms was inserted without debate into a huge transportation bill that President Obama signed July 6. Afterward, McCain proclaimed that “hundreds” of jobs had been saved, adding that choppers and Cessnas are the only way for “the elderly, disabled, and our nation’s wounded warriors” to see the canyon.

If you were to watch people board the Grand Canyon helicopters, you’d see few if any doddering seniors or disabled veterans. Alan Stephen, a lobbyist for the industry, said that 70 percent of air tour passengers originate from Las Vegas and mostly consist of “wealthy foreign tourists who don’t have a lot of time to spend in one place.”

This characterization is reinforced by the advertising for Grand Canyon air tours, which promises that their Eco-Star choppers will “lavish you in luxurious comfort” and headphones will mask rotor noise and provide narration in multiple languages. Another ad invites tourists to “land on the Hualapai Indian territory on the canyon floor for a champagne toast with nature.” There’s also a chopper wedding at Grand Canyon Ranch for just $3,950.

For now, the status quo remains in force: No audible aircraft are allowed in 50 percent of the park for 75 percent of each day. The FAA, however, has admitted that this goal has never been met, and critics calculate that Grand Canyon is now only “37 percent natural quiet,” a far cry from the National Park Service’s 1987 congressional mandate for “substantial restoration of natural quiet” to the park. The Grand Canyon Trust says the net result will be that half of the park can now have unlimited aircraft noise.

There are no Hualapai chopper pilots, but a large number of the flights are contracted directly through the tribes. It all adds up to 240 aircraft from 20 companies in five states, doing 130,000 over-flights a year. They carry 650,000 passengers on 19 authorized flight paths over and into the canyon, which the Park Service says are “used almost continuously from sunrise to sunset.” During high season in the summer, the Grand Canyon Airport conducts close to 100 takeoffs or landings per hour.

Flash back to January 1975, when President Gerald Ford “gave back” title to a vast portion of the west end of the park to the two small tribes indigenous to the park, the Havasupai and Hualapai. Since then, it has been the Hualapai, whose lands extend down to the river’s edge for much of the canyon, who have most aggressively pursued tourism, with their extraordinary Skywalk, and their willingness to chopper you into the canyon and back for a picnic or a half-day raft trip.

Old pictures of Ford Trimotor sightseeing planes remind us that the history of air touring in Grand Canyon goes back almost as far as aviation itself. By the 1950s, pilots of large commercial airliners were straying over the canyon in what was then “uncontrolled air space” to give their passengers a thrilling view.

Then came 1956, when two airliners collided directly over the canyon, killing 128 people and leading to significant reform of the U.S. air-traffic control system. A similar collision in 1986 of a chopper and a twin-engine plane -- both commercial sightseeing craft -- killed 25 and resulted in the current flight zones that riddle the park.

Conservationists who have worked for decades to make the government keep its promises and quiet the noise say they feel betrayed, with some charging that the Western senators have become too cozy with the air-tour industry.

In 2011, Pam Wilson, then acting superintendent of the park, told the New York Times some of the sounds you can no longer hear in much of the Grand Canyon: “The descending trill of canyon wrens, winds rustling through tall pines, the roar of the Colorado River, and silence.”

Jon Kovash is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a Moab correspondent for Utah Public Radio and writer for the Mountain Gazette.

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