Even before Wednesday's fatal crash involving a helicopter and a sightseeing plane over the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service viewed the question of aerial traffic over the park as one of the "principal natural resource issues" facing the agency.
This year, more than 60 years after air carriers first began ferrying sightseers to view the canyon's spectacular panoramas, pressure from environmentalists is mounting to limit the overflights or force an outright ban.
"This is a very principal natural resource issue for us," said George Berklacy, assistant to the director of the National Park Service in Washington. "The concern is over both safety and noise. These are a lot of flights."
Currently, the park service estimates that 50,000 flights pass over the Grand Canyon each year and on some summer days, there are more than 20 per hour over the canyon's popular south rim. In all, 300,000 of the park's 3 million visitors each year do their sightseeing from the air.
Until now, most of the furor has focused on noise and aesthetic issues. Unhappy hikers, rafters and other visitors have grown more and more insistent that something be done about the cacophony from the aircraft and their impact on the rare animals and flocks of birds that inhabit the canyon.
Air carriers, meanwhile, insist that the canyon should be open to everyone. The industry generates an estimated $40 million to $70 million in tourism dollars each year.
With Wednesday's disaster, the issue of safety is likely to add more fuel to the controversy.
"This kind of accident was almost waiting to happen," said Bob Hattoy, the Sierra Club's Southern California representative. "When Congress created the National Park Service, it wanted to protect the natural quiet and protect visitor safety. These airplane flights violate both of those things."
In May, the Sierra Club was joined by the Wilderness Society in a federal lawsuit aimed at forcing federal agencies to restrict the flights. That lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, is pending. Eventually, Congress may be called on to resolve the issue, environmentalists say.
"What we'd like to see now is a halt until we come up with some kind of controls," Hattoy said. "What happened out there should never have happened."
In an effort to quell the controversy, the Park Service has held a series of public meetings in the last year to draft recommendations for regulating the flights. The last of those meetings was held last Friday in Arizona, and recommendations are scheduled to go to Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel in September.
FAA Has Jurisdiction
Eventually they will be given to the Federal Aviation Administration, which has jurisdiction over the Grand Canyon airspace.
The options being considered by the Park Service range from restricting where the aircraft may fly and setting strict limits on how low they may fly to a ban on all flights.
"I don't know any issue that has gotten more attention or invited more controversy than this one," Berklacy acknowledged. "Flights have been going on for a long time. In the last five or 10 years, they've been growing in number and in frequency.
"There's no question it's a popular way to see that park, but not without its sacrifices."
Meanwhile, the FAA, in the July-August 1985 issue of General Aviation News, wrote that "about 10 accidents a year occur within Grand Canyon. Cable strikes, low-altitude stalls, getting sealed in the valley by rapidly descending clouds and trying to out-climb granite walls are typical accident-resulting scenarios."
In August, 1983, 10 people were killed when a Las Vegas-based sightseeing plane crashed in the canyon. After that, the National Transportation Safety Board asked the FAA then whether it should "develop and publish standards for operating procedures, including route selection, flight schedule and altitude selection for sightseeing flights in the canyon."
sh Efforts Increased
FAA Chief Donald D. Engen responded that the agency was increasing nonregulatory efforts to police traffic and working toward a voluntary agreement with tour operators. Grand Canyon Airlines General Manager Ronald Warren was in Washington Wednesday to discuss that agreement and other issues with FAA officials.
Art Gallenson, the general manager of Lake Mead Air Inc., a Boulder City aerial tour company, said air carriers are cooperating with the government.
But, he cautioned: "This is a free country and basically speaking, air regulations are only as good as the enforcement available."
The 41 certificated air carriers currently transporting tourists over the canyon operate under few restrictions. Although the FAA has asked pilots to maintain a 2,000-foot altitude above the canyon rim, planes swooping low for a better look are a common sight.
"Basically, they're flying under federal flight rules in uncontrolled airspace," FAA spokesman Fred Farrar explained. "They are not under the control of the air traffic control system. But people who operate there have clearly marked flight routes in and out. They all know what the rules are."
Operating under visual flight rules over the canyon, pilots must be on the lookout to avoid other aircraft. Farrar said that the beauty of the surrounding scenery should not be a distraction.
"They've seen it thousands of times," he said.
Agreed to Standards
Gallenson said pilots crossing the canyon operate under mutually agreed on safety standards.
At specific points during a flight, pilots report their position, altitude and direction on a radio frequency that other pilots can receive.
"It must have been working pretty well until now," Gallenson said. "You can do all you want, but you can't make the world safe for everybody."