The Jackson Hole Airport’s board of directors wants the Federal Aviation Administration to take another look at a permit that would allow Wind River Air to fly scenic tours out of the airport’s helipad.
Previously, the airport board had not openly resisted the scenic tours, trumpeting the view that they legally have to accommodate the business, which is owned and operated by Hoback resident Tony Chambers. But on Dec. 27, Airport Board President Rick Braun took the step of formally asking the FAA to reconsider its authorization, contending that public safety may be in jeopardy.
Braun pointed to a chapter of the Code of Federal Regulations that allows the agency to “unilaterally amend operations specifications” if it determines a safety issue warrants a second look. He also cited research from Jackson Hole dude rancher and retired investigative journalist Joe Albright, who has called into question whether Chamber’s Robinson R44 helicopter is a safe vessel for scenic flights in the high-elevation valley.
“As Mr. Albright’s current letter points out, the routes proposed by Wind River Air would originate at 6,451 feet above [mean sea level], and overfly mountainous terrain between 8,000 and 9,200 feet,” Braun wrote to the FAA’s Denver Flight Standards District Office. “At these altitudes, the R44’s normally aspirated engine would develop only between 76.2% and 73.5% of the horsepower it would produce at sea level.”
The airport’s board president went on to point out that Robinson lists the “hover ceilings” for the R44 between 7,500 and 8,950 feet.
“This would appear to give this aircraft very little, if any margin of safety for commercial scenic tour operations based at the airport and over the proposed routes,” Braun wrote.
Chambers, who has been pursuing his business plan for a year and a half, has acknowledged that there are legitimate safety concerns related to flying an R44 at high elevation, but he insists that he knows its limits and never veers from maintaining a “large safety margin” in the air.
“[Joe Albright’s] concern is legit, totally legit,” Chambers told the Jackson Hole News&Guide in December. “He is on point, but so am I, because I’m going to fly that aircraft safely.”
The Jackson Hole Airport Board is exploring options for how to handle Wind River Air’s bid in the wake of a public meeting that filled a conference room with residents nearly unanimously opposed to the idea, which has a controversial history in the valley.
Chambers has said he wants to tailor his flights so they have the least amount of impact possible, but many people who spoke contended no version of a scenic helicopter flight business has an appropriate place in Jackson Hole.
The letter to the FAA, Braun said, is in keeping with promises made to the public at the meeting.
“We said we’d do everything we could, and the FAA is one of the obvious stakeholders,” Braun said. “We know that there are performance issues [with R44s], but the FAA is the one that makes the decision.”
As of Friday, Braun and the airport board had not received a response from federal aviation officials. The airport, he said, is also keeping tabs on House Resolution 4547, the Safe and Quiet Skies Act, which imposes safety requirements on commercial scenic flight tours.
The Jackson Hole Airport Board’s letter to the FAA is attached to the online version of this story, which can be found at JHNewsAndGuide.com. Chambers’ application is expected to come up at the Feb. 17 airport board meeting.