Flying "Into" the Grand Canyon

A dialog about the idiosyncrasies of flying helicopters in certain parts of Arizona.

I just spent the last 30 minutes or so cleaning up my e-mail in box. I have the nasty habit of not filing or discarding messages as quickly as they come in, so there were over 300 messages to wade through. I’d read all of them and flagged some. I wound up deleting about 1/3 of them, filing another 1/3 of them, and leaving the rest for another day.

Among the e-mail messages I found was a dialog between me and another pilot, Robert Mark of JetWhine. He’d e-mailed me to ask a question and although I normally don’t answer questions sent to me by e-mail — I prefer using the Comments feature on this site so the exchange of information can involve and possibly benefit others — I did answer his. Although I’d like to get the exchange out of my e-mail in box, I want to share it with readers, since I think it has some interesting information.

So here’s the exchange. I’ve mixed Robert’s questions with my answers to make the exchange easier to follow.

Robert:

As a helicopter pilot out west, I wondered if you might be familiar with this Grand Canyon topic.

Do you know if it is correct that tour copters operated through the tribal reservation run to different standards than those that are based elsewhere?

The Chicago Tribune ran a story about the Canyon Sunday and claimed the tribal-operated copters can dip well below the edge of the cayone on a tour where others can not.

It sounded pretty odd to me.

Me:

Helicopters operating on tribal lands with appropriate permits can actually LAND at the bottom of the canyon. This, of course, is on tribal land belonging to the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes in the western part of the canyon — not in the main National Park area.

Please send me a link to that article if it is online. I’d like to read it.

Robert:

Just happen to have that link to the Tribune handy.

So then as a tribal copter, do their pilots train to different standards if they only fly there?

Me:

No, they’re not owned by the tribes. They’re owned/operated by other companies, like Papillon and Maverick, both of which operate in Vegas and at the Grand Canyon.

I worked for Papillon at the Grand Canyon. Training for GCW (Grand Canyon West) consists of spending a day or so with another pilot, learning the route and getting the feel for the density altitude situation. It’s hotter than hell down there in midsummer. Anyone can do it, but they don’t normally train women because of limited housing out there. That’s one reason why I never learned.

Don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s not. Each flight is about 6 minutes long and you’re doing ups and downs all day. The canyon isn’t as deep there as elsewhere in the park. And it isn’t as if you’re cruising up and down the canyon all day. You’re not. Just ups and downs on a preset route. Tedious stuff. Flying the South Rim is far more rewarding.

Thanks for the article link. I’ve flown out there in my old R22. The article describes the place pretty well. It’s unfortunate that many Vegas tourists think GCW is “The Grand Canyon.” It’s just a tiny part of it — and not even the good part.

Robert:

Sorry, but I’m kind of dumb on Native American issues.

Me:

Don’t feel bad. A lot of people are.

The reservations are self-governing bodies within the U.S. In a way, they’re like they’re own countries. They make their own rules, but do have to answer to the U.S. government for some things.

Robert:

So these are regular helicopter tour operators that ALL get a special exemption to do whatever this writer was talking about then? And that comes from FAA or is FAA essentially not involved because it is tribal land?

Me:

Yes, the helicopter operators get permits from the tribes. When I say operators, I mean the companies, not the pilots. They pay a fee to the tribes that’s based on operations (takeoffs/landings), facilities (like landing zones next to the river), and other stuff. Theoretically, my company could apply for (and get and pay for) a permit to do the same thing Papillon is doing. But since GCW is a 2-hour flight from where I’m based, I haven’t tried.

Closing Note:

Since the opening of the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West, I’ve gotten a number of calls from people interested in flying out there. It’s a two-hour flight from the Phoenix area and I’d have to charge about $2K round trip (for up to 3 people; not per person). But the alternative is a 5-1/2 hour (each way) drive. For folks with money to spend, I can turn a two-day excursion to the middle of nowhere into a pleasant day trip. Still, I don’t expect many takers. Not many people are willing to blow $2K+ on a single day of fun.

2 thoughts on “Flying "Into" the Grand Canyon

  1. I have seen many movies/commercials/Documentaries & other films where there have been fly throughs of the Grand Canyon. I don’t know if these were done by Helicopter or Fixed Wing. One fly through I know was shown at many IMAX theaters around the country.

    What permits are required for this type of flying in & around the Grand Canyon?

  2. I’m sure the footage you’ve seen has been done from everything from an ultralight (as in the Grand Canyon IMAX film) to fixed wing plane to helicopter. It depends on the kind of footage the filmmaker wants.

    I don’t know what permits are required. I do know that the park is administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service and that would be a good place to start going through the permit process.

What do you think?