Helicopter service gets permit despite criticism

JACKSON — Jackson Hole Airport Board President John Eastman showed Tony Chambers a map of where he said he’d fly his helicopter alongside overlain lines that displayed where he actually flew.

Clear as can be, the web of promised and actual flight tracks differed dramatically, with lines from a GPS device mounted onto Chamber’s red Robinson R-44 helicopter painted all over eastern skies of Grand Teton National Park.

Eastman wasn’t happy about it.

“I’m not sure, Tony, what you were thinking,” he told Wind River Air’s owner at a Wednesday morning meeting. “This isn’t behavior that is anywhere near consistent with what you told this community, this board and our park partners that you were going to do. It shows that the majority of the air tours are inside the park boundaries, and they’re under 2,000 feet.”

Wind River Air’s track record through its first year of operations was “just not acceptable,” and showed what Eastman called “bad faith” and “indifference.”

“You have put yourself and Wind River Air in a really compromising position,” the airport board president said. “I am putting you on notice that continued, verified overflights of the park, we are not going to wait another year to address this.”

The haranguing took place at a Jackson Hole Airport meeting where board members later voted 4-to-1 to give Chambers another one-year permit to continue his scenic flights while basing out of the commercial airport in southern Teton park. Bob McLaurin voted against the permit renewal in an exceedingly rare split vote about an airport board affair.

Although Wind River Air’s operation has been broadly unpopular with the community, the subject of complaints and investigations, and opposed by the airport’s landlord, Grand Teton National Park, the outcome was predictable. The Federal Aviation Administration’s Northwest Mountain Region manager, John Bauer, explained what would happen if the permit were revoked.

“For denial of service, the FAA has taken a very, very narrow view of that and acts very quickly in those types of situations,” Bauer told the board. “We would issue a notice of investigation. The ramifications of being found in noncompliance would include suspension of current grants that were on the books and a suspension of future funding from both a discretionary and an entitlement viewpoint.”

The “nuclear option” would be requiring the airport to pay back federal grants that were awarded in recent years.

Jackson Hole Airport currently has about $32 million in pending FAA grants, plus another $100 million or so that would be subject to claim, Director Jim Elwood said. Because Teton County and the town of Jackson administer the airport via a joint powers board and co-sign on grants, the local governments would also be on the hook. The denial would effectively halt the airport’s planned runway reconstruction, and because it’s required and being funded by the FAA, that would threaten to end commercial air service into the valley.

Chambers addressed the board, arguing that he believed he was following federal aviation regulations. The flight paths he submitted in his application were “proposed” and for “illustrative purposes only,” he said. Deviations from the routes Chambers agreed to with Teton park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest and National Elk Refuge were because he didn’t have sightseeing clients aboard, or was instructed to take another path by the air traffic controller, he added.

“I still believe that Wind River Air and myself are following the [federal aviation regulations],” Chambers said. “But I welcome discussions with Grand Teton park starting next week to clarify perceptions of what we’re doing versus what we said we were going to do, and also welcome feedback and suggestions.”

Wind River Air’s permit renewal came a day after the Teton County Board of County Commissioners unanimously signed off on a resolution declaring that commercial scenic helicopter tours are “incompatible” with the park and nearby public lands. The resolution cited noise pollution, wildlife disturbances, scenic disturbances to the viewshed, and the erosion of the national park experience.

Ultimately, commissioners called for a permanent ban of commercial helicopter tours over Grand Teton National Park and throughout Teton County, and they explicitly called for congressional action to compel the FAA to impose such a prohibition.