The Alliance and 10 partner organizations wrote the following letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requesting they revoke Wind River Air’s authorization to operate scenic heli tours from the Jackson Hole airport. Thank you to our peer organizations in the community and to all of you who signed our petition to say HELI NO!
Learn more and find resources about this scenic heli tour issue here.
February 12, 2020
John Wood, GA Unit Front Line Manager
Denver Flight Standards District Office, NM03
26805 E. 68th Avenue, Suite 200
Denver, CO 80249
Re: Wind River Air, LLC, 14 CFR Part 91 Operations
Dear Mr. Wood:
We are writing in support of the Jackson Hole Airport Board’s (Airport Board) letter, dated December 27, 2019, requesting that the Federal Aviation Administration review the Letter of Authorization issued to Wind River Air LLC (WRA) for the operation of scenic helicopter flights based out of the Jackson Hole Airport.
We understand that, as described in 14 CFR Section 119.51, the FAA may amend the operations specifications if it “determines that safety in air commerce and the public interest require the amendment.” We wholeheartedly agree with the safety concerns expressed by the Airport Board, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Town Council, Teton County Commission, and Joe Albright (letters enclosed). Scenic air tours near Grand Teton National Park inherently require flying over high-altitude, rugged terrain in areas that frequently experience inclement weather, and we believe those safety concerns have not been addressed.
Furthermore, we have no knowledge of whether the FAA, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), or any other agency has ever evaluated the risk of wildfire following an aircraft crash, especially in a remote wildland area. This is particularly concerning given that post-crash fires involving Robinson 44s have been the subject of NTSB recommendations,* and that the Robinson 44 has been involved in 490 crashes** since it was first manufactured in the early 1990s. Given that the Jackson Hole Airport is proximate to 22 million acres*** of one of the most intact temperate ecosystems on our planet, that the proposed routes would fly over remote public lands every day, and that the mountain west is predicted to become hotter and drier, the impact of a crash and resulting fire could be devastating. The number of acres expected to burn from 2018 onward is predicted to be 1,700% greater than what burned from 1989 to 2017**** – a large enough threat to our community without the unnecessary added risk of scenic helicopter tours.
These safety concerns warrant additional review of WRA’s operations, as does the outpouring of public interest, tracing back to 2000 when Vortex Aviation first proposed scenic helicopter tours in Jackson Hole. The Conservation Alliance’s petition against the tours quickly gained 6,000 signatures, and the Jackson Town Council issued a formal resolution asking the FAA for a temporary ban on scenic helicopter tours until safety and environmental studies could be completed (enclosed). The FAA and the National Park Service never completed those studies. After operating for a summer, Vortex Aviation left Jackson Hole, in large part due to prominent hotels and businesses intentionally not advertising its services. Twenty years later, community opposition to scenic helicopter tours has not changed. When the Airport Board hosted an open house***** on December 16, 2019 for WRA’s proposal, more than 100 people attended. Jackson Town Council, Teton County Commission, the Airport Board, and WRA have received countless comments from former park rangers, backcountry recreationists, wildlife advocates, and others, expressing a range of concerns, from threats to public safety, wildlife, and wilderness character as well as enforcement difficulties. Some comments include:
“It’s fundamental to a wilderness area that you have quiet and tranquility, that you can hear birds, that you can just hear yourself think. Most of our world has a lot of noise in it. Why can’t we just keep this part of the world quiet?” – Beverly Boynton, resident
“The recommended height [for aircraft]…is pretty much continuously ignored…in Cascade Canyon I looked down into cockpits.” – Jim Springer, former climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park
“There’s legal requirements, statutory requirements, but then you’re confronted by your moral compass and what does your gut say. At least the sense that I have is that this is an incompatible and inappropriate use in any national park, adjacent to a national park, in the national forest, the refuge, in wilderness and over wilderness areas.” – Mary Gibson Scott, former Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park
Within one week of posting a new petition, the Alliance gained over 800 signatures (enclosed) supporting a ban on scenic helicopter tours in Jackson Hole, and that number is growing. As noted previously, both Jackson Town Council and Teton County Commission voted unanimously to send letters of opposition to WRA and the Airport Board. In addition to the local opposition, the National Parks Conservation Association, representing nearly 1.4 million members and supporters, has also formally opposed scenic helicopter tours, both in Jackson Hole and near other national parks.
Our community is not alone in opposing scenic tours, as evidenced by the proposed Safe and Quiet Skies Act. The Act seeks to: prohibit tour flights within a half mile of national wilderness areas, national parks, and national wildlife refuges, among other areas; prohibit tour flights from operating at an altitude of less than 1,500 feet; require tour flights over occupied areas to be no louder than 55dbA; and allows states and localities to impose additional requirements that are stricter than the minimum federal requirements. We support this Act and hope that the FAA will take stronger action for safety even before the Act passes.
We firmly believe that local, regional, and national partners have demonstrated public interest and safety concerns, and we respectfully request that the FAA revoke WRA’s Letter of Authorization in order to address them. We also request that the FAA complete the previously requested environmental and safety studies, in close partnership with the NTSB and Grand Teton National Park, before issuing any new Letters of Authorization for scenic helicopter tours.
Brooke Sausser, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance
Sharon Mader, National Parks Conservation Association
Chris Colligan, Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Peggie DePasquale, Wyoming Wilderness Association
Amy McCarthy, Teton Raptor Center
Gary Kofinas, Teton Backcountry Alliance
Ben Williamson, Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative
Penelope Maldonado, Cougar Fund
Kristin Combs, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates
Tim O’Donoghue, Riverwind Foundation
Lisa McGee, Wyoming Outdoor Council
* Christensen, Kim. (2018, Nov. 18). “With the Robinson’s safety issues, the FAA has taken a more hands-off approach.” Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/la-me-ln-robinson-heli2-20181118-story.html
** National Transportation Safety Board aviation accident database
*** “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” (2016). Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook, Yellowstone National Park. https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/upload/RI_2016_FINAL_Ecosystem_web.pdf
**** Koshmrl, Mike. (2019, Jan. 27). “Forecast: burn, baby burn; 1,700% jump expected in acres burned.” Jackson Hole News and Guide. https://www.jhnewsandguide.com/jackson_hole_daily/local/forecast-burn-baby-burn-jumpexpected-in-acres-burned/article_884d1930-7829-59cd-b71a-0f0f66d36dbd.html
***** Recording available from the Airport Board at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJEunC3HTqg&feature=youtu.be