As the owner and founder of Jackson Hole’s first scenic helicopter tour operation in two decades, Tony Chambers has invited a good deal of controversy into his life.
Here’s a selection of a few recent headlines his business, Wind River Air, has generated in this newspaper: “Community contemptuous of coming clatter,” “Heli flights over Teton Park trigger complaints, investigation,” “Air tour biz rebuked, then gets permit.” The longtime Wyoming businessman’s so-far successful bid to take tourists aloft over Jackson Hole has been openly contested by Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole Airport’s board of directors, and the large majority of residents who have publicly shared their two cents. It’s reasonable to think Tony Chambers sits somewhere high on the list of Jackson Hole’s most notorious public enemies.
Yet, that’s not how the 53-year-old Hoback Junction resident feels.
“I’ve pretty much never had anybody get in my face,” Chambers told the News&Guide. “Never.”
“When people do bark at me or send me a nasty email, I’ll personally call them or email them,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you come up and check it out?’ And they never do.”
The son of a surgeon and grandson of a railway surgeon stationed at Rock Springs, Chambers grew up primarily in the Salt Lake City area, but his home away from home was Sublette County, where the family had a summer cabin on Fremont Lake.
Come college age Chambers stuck around the Salt Lake region and studied economics.
“But those days, my life was about skiing,” he said.
Chambers was a cross-country ski racer, and a very good one. He made it to the U.S. Cross Country National Team, was a three-time national champion and had a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah. At his apex as a ski racer he tried out for the Olympic team.
“I wanted to say I finished, like, 11th, and they took six,” Chambers said. “I wasn’t far off, but at the end of the day it was hard to be an athlete full time and a student. I got to a point about halfway through college where I thought, ‘I’ve got a full-ride scholarship and if I want to graduate utilizing this scholarship I better hunker down.’ ”
Chambers did give professional ski racing a shot. And for a year after school he went to live in Norway to race. When he came back stateside he was in his early 20s and dead broke.
“I started pounding nails in Big Piney, Wyoming,” Chambers said, “and I just never got out of that.”
Chambers enjoyed carpentry, and by age 27 he started his own business, Pinedale-based Chambers Design-Build Inc. He stayed with it for two decades, growing the business to 20 employees that would be building several homes at a time. Eventually he shifted into commercial building and won contracts to construct a couple of Sublette County senior centers, the Pinedale visitor center and ambulance barns for the clinic in town.
“Lived all through the gas boom down there, which was good and bad,” Chambers said. “The economy shifted in 2008. We had a couple years of work left under contract, but after that I basically retired from building and went to flight school.”
The desire to fly helicopters was almost lifelong, dating to when Chambers was a youngster.
“It never left me,” he said, “the desire to do that.”
In his early 40s, Chambers learned how to fly at a Logan, Utah, flight school. Then he tried to figure out how to make a living doing it. For the first six years he didn’t own his own helicopter but still pieced together work flying for others. In 2018 he made a large investment, purchasing a red Robinson R-44 Raven II.
“I do kind of the gamut,” Chambers said. “Survey work, instruction, pipeline patrol, powerline patrol, even some parachute jumps. Scenic flights is one of them, and I always envisioned that there would be a market here doing this.”
Wind River Air became Jackson Hole’s first scenic helicopter tour operation in two decades, following Vortex Aviation, owned by Gary Kauffman, who flew tourists briefly in the early 2000s before departing the valley.
As Chambers launched into his own business, at one point he tracked down Kauffman, who had a reputation as a combative businessman. His forerunner, Kauffman, told him he “kicked their ass,” referencing the fight with the community over taking sightseers up in his helicopters.
Chambers doesn’t relish the fight the same way. But he says he’s also not going to abandon the business because it’s controversial.
“What else am I going to do?” he said. “I’m not going to walk away from it.”
Chambers says that he, too, doesn’t want to see Jackson Hole become a noisy place, where the thwack of helicopters is omnipresent. The Federal Aviation Administration has maintained the sightseeing flights are legal, and with a tourism economy that attracts nearly 5 million people a year and a growing base of wealthy permanent and seasonal residents, there’s a real potential commercial helicopter clatter could become more of a fixture of Jackson Hole’s soundscape down the road.
“I don’t want to see that,” Chambers said. “But I think it’s unlikely that another operator would come in and do what I do. I can’t control the market, like another operator coming in, but I just think it would be very difficult for them, and I think that’s why it hasn’t happened before me.”