TUSAYAN — The fatal crash of a Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters air tour at Grand Wash Cliffs on Aug. 10 drew a series of headlines in newspapers across the country during those following days. There were also pieces done by the national television networks.
The media attention to the crash could be seen as understandable when looking at interest in the subject by readers and TV viewers. After all, six people lost their lives in the accident and millions of Americans have visited the Grand Canyon over the years.
As a result, the debate involving the safety of air-tour traffic over the Grand Canyon became an issue all over again. And operators who fly out of Grand Canyon airport, while saddened by the pilot and passengers who lost their lives, find themselves in a defensive position.
A couple of local operators, as well as the U.S. Air Tour Association, said they were appalled at story angles taken by the media along with responses from other groups.
"Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, along with other Grand Canyon air-tour operators, have an enviable safety record and I am appalled at the unprofessional, unethical and biased manner by which the press, other journalistic interests, special-interest groups and non-investigative governmental employees have prematurely and presumptively attacked, not only Papillon, but the entire air-tour industry," said Martin Adams, director of operations at Kenai Helicopters Grand Canyon.
Adams said their thoughts and prayers have been with friends and families of the victims from the outset of the tragedy and added "I refuse to speculate with regard to the accident or the circumstances surrounding the accident, as that is the function of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)."
Although a few news reports have cited safety concerns, the Aug. 10 accident was actually the first involving tourists on a commercial air tour since 1995. Other accidents since had involved private planes or pilots in training.
Before the 1995 accident, there had been accidents on a more frequent basis. But safety has seemingly improved in the past six years.
"I think the biggest thing is the weaker operators have gone out of business," said Ron Williams, director of operations at AirStar Helicopters.
Four of six fatal air-tour accidents in the early 1990s involved companies no longer in business — Las Vegas Airlines, Adventure Airlines and Air Nevada.
Air-tour operators feel the latest crash brought unfair news reports along with negative comments about the industry from politicians.
"You can count on it like clockwork," Williams said about the sequence of events.
Williams said the Grand Wash Cliffs crash has no bearing on air tours from the local airport, citing the several other ways people have died in the past few weeks from falling off the rim to getting caught in a flash flood.
"There’s risk in everything we do in society," Williams said, adding that there will always be mishaps until "we quit driving cars, aircraft and buses."
Papillon’s Brenda Halvorson was out of town last week and not available for comment. But fellow operators have come to her company’s aid when it comes to reports showing Papillon in a bad light.
"Papillon’s record has been stellar," Williams said. "I would have no qualms at all about taking my 19-month-old baby on any of Papillon’s aircraft."
Kenai’s Adams had the same type of comments.
"Ms. Halvorson and her staff operate an extremely safe and attractive flight operation and I would not, for one second, hesitate in allowing any member of my family to fly with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters," Adams said.
"At this juncture, for anyone to make allusions that commercial air tours over the Grand Canyon, or any current route structure being flown are unsafe, is a prevarication designed solely to create an unwarranted fear and bias toward aerial sightseeing in efforts to further their self-serving interests," he added.
USATA president Steve Bassett also said the picture being painted in news reports have not been accurate.
"Our objective is to be honest and up front with the public," Bassett said. "We have seen far too many news reports in the aftermath of the Papillon accident which paint an inaccurate picture of the industry and it is time to set the record straight."
According to the USATA, its seven Grand Canyon members have flown more than 604,361 air-tour flights over the park since 1991, safely providing tours for nearly 4.6 million tourists. That data and USATA’s membership in the Grand Canyon represents approximately 85 percent of all Canyon air tours conducted by the entire Grand Canyon air-tour industry.
The USATA reports that in the past decade, approximately 712,000 flights carrying 5.3 million passengers have been flown over Grand Canyon. In that time, there have been seven fatal air-tour accidents involving tourists. As already indicated, Four of those accidents involved three companies out of business.
"The Grand Canyon air-tour community is eager to show its excellent safety record," Bassett said. "We have every confidence in the public’s ability to analyze the facts, weed out unsubstantiated or biased information, ignore the rhetoric of those who may have an anti-air tour agenda and make a rational and informed decision about air touring."
The USATA said there has never been an air-tour accident in the special federally-regulated air space known as Special Federal Air Regulation 50-2 imposed over the Grand Canyon in 1988.
"Any aviation accident is tragic," Bassett said. "But the statistics clearly indicated that overall air-touring in the Grand Canyon is extremely safe and tourists from around the world should simply review the facts when considering booking an air tour."
The Aug. 10 Papillon accident represented the first fatalities of air-tour passengers by a Grand Canyon company in more than six years. It also was the first helicopter fatality involving air-tour passengers in the Grand Canyon since a 1986 mid-air collision that led to the federally-regulated air space.
As far as Papillon goes, it was the first time ever that air-tour passengers had lost their lives in the 36-year history of the company. During that time, more than 4 million passengers have flown Papillon.
A 1999 accident involving Papillon involved the death of a pilot in training.
"Rather than jump to false and unsupported conclusions, it is time for everyone to sit back and let the NTSB and FAA do their jobs and determine what went terribly wrong with this flight," Bassett said. "Only then will we know how best to address the cause."