Jackson resident Eugenie Copp had her reasons for taking the time to type up an email urging officials to ground a helicopter pilot who wants to add scenic flights to the skies over Jackson Hole.
It was unjust for Jackson Hole Airport to press forward with heli-tour application at a time when the public can’t weigh in by showing up in person, Copp wrote. Wind River Air owner Tony Chambers’ Robinson R-44 helicopter is the “wrong ship,” with a high fatal accident rate and too low of a flight ceiling, she wrote. Moreover, she worried about how wildlife like wolves, elk and bighorn sheep would be affected by the sound of chopper clatter, based on her experience assisting with National Park Service research.
“I know the difference an animal [perceives] when they hear a helicopter, as opposed to a plane,” Copp wrote. “There is a big difference. It means business. It stresses them. It is harassment. The park animals are habituated to planes, but the sound of a helicopter means they’re going to be chased and/or shot at, even if it is only a dart gun.”
“I am not in any way in favor of scenic flights in Grand Teton National Park,” she ended her email. “It is a bad idea for so very many reasons.”
Copp’s comment was one of 366 that were read into the record Friday before the airport board unanimously approved a one-year operating agreement for Wind River Air to base out of Jackson Hole Airport. The exercise was executed by airport staff who read in a rotation, and it took over six hours. Listening in on a livestream, the widespread and often vehement opposition was obvious. All but 13 of the commenters — over 96% — resisted bringing back helicopter tours to the valley, an activity absent since Vortex Aviation departed in 2001 after a protracted community fight.
Naysayers this time weren’t all the usual suspects. Opposition was sweeping, with people from all walks of life taking the time to weigh in with personalized emails and letters.
Dozens of airport neighbors lambasted the plans, including residents of some of the wealthiest Jackson Hole neighborhoods. Critical letters filtered in from professional skiers, conservationists, pilots, poets, real estate agents, medical doctors, town councilors, tourists, safari guides, biologists, botanists, acoustic ecologists, small-business owners, federal land managers, military veterans and climbing guides. One 8-year-old resident wrote in urging a “no” vote.
Jackson Hole Airport Board President Jerry Blann said that his fellow board members were personally in line with the commenter but felt that it was in the airport’s best interest to grant Wind River Air’s request to avoid violating Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Those rules bar airports that use FAA money from discriminating against different types of aircraft and aviation. Airport attorney Mike Morgan confirmed the airport has no legal footing to deny Chambers’ application, because the airport, town and county have signed off on assurances tied to $85 million worth of FAA grants over the past decade.
“These commitments last for a period of 20 years,” Morgan said.
Board member John Eastman worried that defying the FAA could ultimately jeopardize commercial air service into Jackson Hole, and his board counterpart, Bob McLaurin, agreed.
“As a fiduciary of the airport I’m going to vote for this,” McLaurin said. “It’d be easy to vote against it. It’d be a very popular thing to do. My friends have asked me to vote against it; my family’s asked me to vote against it.”
Legally barred from telling Chambers to go away, Blann asked him if he wanted to do so voluntarily after hearing six-plus hours of oppositional public comment. He declined.
“I’d like to be given an opportunity to prove that I can do what I say I can do,” Chambers said.
Wind River Air’s founder and owner, who resides in Hoback Junction, has said repeatedly that be believes he can create a helicopter tour business that works for Jackson Hole. Despite overwhelming opposition from those who took the initiative to weigh in, he says evidence is lacking that the community is opposed to his business.
“I don’t agree that it’s the majority who are against it,” Chambers told the News&Guide. “It’s a very small sample who weighed in.”
Supportive residents, he speculated, refrained from speaking up.
“It’s a small town,” Chambers said. “They’re not going to go on the record for that.”
“I’m excited to see this wonderful activity return to Jackson Hole,” Shepard Humphries wrote to the airport.
People, he said, will get views of the valley from new perspectives and in a way that’s been absent for a long time.
But for every remark like that of Humphries, 25 more letters were read by airport staffers rallying against the addition of air tours over places like the National Elk Refuge, Gros Ventre Wilderness, Leidy Highlands and Togwotee Pass.
Matt Mikkelson, an acoustic ecologist who dwells in Jackson, worried about the unintended consequences of running routine helicopter flights over wild places.
“While the proposed flight paths remain mostly outside National Park Service boundaries, we know that the health of these ecosystems doesn’t rely on these boundaries,” Mikkelson wrote to Chambers and the airport board. “Sound travels and can be harmful to wildlife regardless of altitude or flight path.”
“Without the health of the wilderness areas in the proposed flight paths,” he wrote, “our surrounding ecosystems would suffer greatly.”
Chambers is permitted to take off and depart from the airport’s helipad, located on leased Grand Teton National Park land, but he’ll be barred from flying over any other “noise-sensitive areas” of the park, which are essentially everything west of the Snake River. When he first filed an application with the airport board in June 2018 he included three flight paths — two along the east end of the valley and a third running along the west slope of the Tetons through the heart of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest’s Jedediah Smith Wilderness.
Chambers has since voluntarily tweaked his planned routes.
“The opposition letters I got really had problems with the Jed Smith route on the other side of the Tetons,” he said, “so I listened to that, and I removed that.”
Ahead of the meeting Chambers also agreed to participate in the airport’s under-development “Fly Quiet” program and equip his helicopter with an ADS-B transponder so the air control tower can track his movements around the valley via GPS.
On Friday the airport board asked if he’d engage in a voluntary air tour management plan, vetting his flight plans with the National Park Service, Bridger-Teton National Forest, National Elk Refuge, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the FAA. Chambers agreed, and the contract was amended. The board also amended the permit by snipping its duration from three years to one, a decision that means the airport must abridge all similar contracts going forward.
But legally, Chambers can fly almost wherever he pleases other than over noise-sensitive areas of the park — a requirement of a 1983 airport-Department of the Interior agreement, said Morgan, the airport attorney.
“Other than that the board cannot lawfully prescribe the routes of aircraft that leave the airport,” he said. “That’s not something that you can do.”
Chambers said he would not deviate from the two remaining routes that he’s voluntarily shared. Both flight paths pitched would cut over the Bridger-Teton on the valley’s east side, overflying a portion of the Gros Ventre Wilderness and Slide Lake on their way to a turnaround point in the forest just south of Spread Creek.
The main divergence between the two flight paths is that one route would cut over the southern end of the National Elk Refuge while the other would be more of a straight-shot sticking to the north.
If a client asks for a divergence, say a mountaintop tour of the Gros Ventre Range, Chambers says he has the flexibility to do so.
“But I can’t really see that happening,” he said. “I can see myself sticking to those routes, the bread and butter.”
Wind River Air’s permit approval means that for the first time in two decades, helicopter sightseeing tours will be offered out of Jackson Hole Airport. The last time was in 2000, when San Diego businessman Gary Kauffman and Vortex Aviation won a legal and political battle with the airport and community.
Kauffman and Vortex faced stiff opposition, running into petitions and a “Heli No!” campaign from the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Then U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, entered the fray, joining conservation groups in asking the FAA to study potential environmental, economic and safety hazards associated with helicopter tours in Teton County. That study never happened even though the request was reiterated by elected officials late last year, Jackson Town Councilor and Snake River boatman Jim Stanford said at the meeting.
“We have not got the study,” Stanford said. “We got a one-page, very curt letter from the FAA saying that they knew best about safety, and to follow their procedures.”
Stanford urged insubordination to an agency that pulls a lot of airport purse strings. Also last week, the airport board opted to spend $2 million to start engineering work on a $40 million runway overhaul, which will be funded primarily by the FAA.
“Wyoming has a long history of not simply taking federal government mandates and swallowing them without putting up a fight,” he said. “This is one issue where I think the community has your backs.”
The board felt otherwise, deciding unanimously that defying the FAA and continuing to put off or deny Chambers would hurt the airport.
Writing in a News&Guide Guest Shot last week, Blann suggested that one strategy for stymying Chambers’ success would be for the public to keep up the fight.
“Scenic tours will not be flown in Jackson Hole if the public doesn’t support them,” he wrote, “and they are therefore not economically viable.”
When Vortex Aviation’s Kauffman got off the ground, sign-welding protesters greeted his clients. The business fizzled and flew back to San Diego after half a season or so.
But Chambers says he’s not worried about the market. His commercial tours are on hold, pending the COVID-19 crisis, but he said the headlines Wind River Air has generated have attracted “tons and tons” of inquiries from folks who want to fly Jackson Hole.
“It’s actually sparked an amazing amount of interest,” Chambers said. “The power of the press.”