Helicopter pilot Tony Chambers wants to launch a scenic ride business from the Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park, but faces a headwind from the preserve and other conservationists.
Chambers, a Hoback Junction resident who hangars his Robinson 44 four-seat helicopter in Pinedale, told WyoFile he has been working on securing an agreement with the Jackson Hole Airport Board to operate commercially from its airstrip. The Jackson Hole Airport is the only such facility located completely in a national park, and operates under a lease with the federal government. Various noise-related laws, stipulations and rules govern flights in and near park airspace.
Chambers’ business plan reflects Wyoming priorities, he said. “I feel like I’m following the state’s initiative to create other sectors of the economy,” specifically in tourism and hospitality, he said. “I’m not applying for any kind of flights or tours in Grand Teton National Park.”
The tours would fly over the park on departure and again before landing at the airport, however. Chambers said a standard tour, as currently proposed, would take place mostly over the Bridger-Teton National Forest east of the park.
“I’m trying to create something that’s an asset to the community and not a thorn,” Chambers said.
But some, including the park itself, already find the idea of scenic helicopter rides launching from and returning to the airport prickly.
Park Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail outlined numerous problems his agency sees with the helicopter proposal in a letter (see below). “[W]e oppose your project,” he wrote to Chambers in correspondence dated July 11.
A park helicopter got him started
It was a helicopter rescue in the Tetons that spurred Chambers’ interest in flying, according to his story posted on his company’s website Wind River Air, LLC. He was camped above 11,000 feet at the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton when a Park Service rescue ship flew above him and “landed on the Upper Saddle,” the account reads. “And, at that moment, Tony knew that someday he too would be a capable helicopter pilot.”
A Salt Lake City native who has lived in both Jackson and Sublette County, Chambers worked in construction and volunteered for years with Sublette’s Tip Top Search and Rescue. He earned his commercial pilot’s license in 2017.
Since then, he’s worked toward getting a non-tenant special use agreement to operate commercially from the Jackson Hole airport, he said. A standard helicopter tour proposed under his plan would pick people up at the airport and fly them east over park land and over part of the National Elk Refuge before carrying them above the national forest on the east side of Jackson Hole.
The airship would turn north and fly toward Moran at the north end of the valley. It would then return to the airport within about a half hour.
“The routes would be similar to the existing [fixed-wing] operator Fly Jackson Hole,” he said. “You could make variations of that.”
The Robinson 44, while in the valley, could be used for other operations, he said, such as helping with wildlife surveys or habitat photography. He has worked on aerial pipeline and power-line inspections with Sublette County Weed and Pest District, and envisions the chopper being useful for monitoring conservation easements, he said.
“I’m trying to figure out a way [to] make this a community asset,” Chambers said.
Chambers said Airport Executive Director Jim Elwood told him to engage community members about his plan. Since then he’s talked to two Jackson Town Council members, the owners of a remote guest ranch, Bridger-Teton officials, National Elk Refuge personnel and national park representatives, Chambers said.
Chambers’ engagements didn’t produce a bushel of full-throated endorsements, according to his accounts of the meetings. Bridger-Teton officials said Chambers didn’t need permission unless he was going to land on the forest — which he is not — he said. Over Forest Service wilderness areas, where Chambers said he does not intend to fly, aircraft are supposed to stay at least 2,000 feet above the ground.
Asked if he was disappointed in Grand Teton National Park’s response, Chambers said “very much so,” But, he said, “they have a resource to protect. That’s their job.”
The National Park Service mandate is to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects and wildlife and to provide for public enjoyment while leaving resources unimpaired for future generations.The agency considers sound intrusion as it seeks to fulfill that mission. In Grand Teton, a 1983 agreement allowing the Jackson Hole Airport to operate inside park boundaries has led to significant impacts from noise and airplane traffic, Noojibail’s letter states.
“[M]ore than 28,000 operations (takeoff or landing) occur annually at the airport and result in well documented impacts on the park’s natural soundscape and other resources and values,” the letter reads.
Because the airport receives FAA funding, laws prevent it from imposing many restrictions. Noojibail referenced the difficult position that puts the park and airport in.
“Under current federal law, there is very little, if any, opportunity to impose additional noise or access restrictions on the use of the airport,” he wrote. What authority Grand Teton does have to limit noise is restricted to flights inside the park and within a half mile of its borders, he wrote.
Flying over the park before landing or after taking off from Jackson Hole Airport are activities that are generally exempt from protective laws like the National Park Air Traffic Management Act of 2000. Because Chambers’ plan is to fly over the park only while leaving or arriving at the airport, the air traffic act likely wouldn’t apply to him.
Finally, the acting superintendent pointed to safety worries and “potential conflicts” with fire or search-and-rescue operations.
“Missions occur almost every day during the summer operating season on both an emergency and nonemergency basis, including highly complex mountain rescue and short haul operations in the Teton Range and surrounding areas,” the letter reads. “The addition of commercial air tours into the airspace could compromise airspace safety.”
Officials can’t stop him from using the airport, Chambers said.
“They can’t keep aircraft out of there,” he told WyoFile. “They do have a duty to allow commercial operations out of there. I think there is a duty there they have to perform.”
He said he believes he could take off from another airport — say at Pinedale — pick up passengers in Jackson and take them on a scenic ride. “I can do that all day long at the Jackson Hole Airport,” he said.
Jackson Hole Airport Executive Director Jim Elwood confirmed Chambers’ assessment. “He is correct,” Elwood told WyoFile. “He could fly from another location to the Jackson Hole Airport.”
Also, the airport can’t discriminate against any type of aircraft or circumstance of use, Elwood said. While a Town of Jackson ordinance requires a permit for operations based at the airport, the airport board cannot deny one “as long as he meets requirements in the permit.”
Those would likely include rules to avoid noise-sensitive areas of the park and specifications that restrict flights over park land to landing and take-of routes, Elwood said. A permit, however, “doesn’t assure a place to operate,” at the heavily used strip and apron, he said.
The airport has not received an official request for a permit from Chambers.
Meantime the pilot said he wants to work with community members as recommended by Elwood and Noojibail. “I’m not trying to cram it down anybody’s throat,” Chambers said of his plan. “I’d like to proceed with Jackson Hole Airport Board for this permit.”
The non-tenant permit “would give me legitimacy,” Chambers said. “I want their blessing,” he said of the airport board.
Because of high demand and limited space, there’s not a lot of room at the airport to park a helicopter or even to land and take off. The airport aprons are usually crowded with private jets and airplanes, and many private users cannot rent hangar or apron space.
“They can’t guarantee me space out on the apron for me to operate from,” Chambers said. But things could change, he said, and some day there may be an opportunity to park or even hangar a helicopter there.
Some conservationists are disturbed by Chambers’ plan. “The National Parks Conservation Association opposes the permitting of helicopter air tours from the Jackson Hole Airport within Grand Teton National Park,” Sharon Mader, the group’s senior program manager in the Northern Rockies, wrote in an email.
“Whether or not simply taking off and landing within the park, the impact is the same – bringing disruptive noise to the tranquility of Grand Teton and surrounding public lands and residential neighborhoods,” her email stated.
Another Jackson Town Council member, Jim Stanford, called Chambers last week and said “in no uncertain terms” he opposed the scenic flight plan, Chambers said.
Stanford said he told Chambers his plan “was a lousy idea,” the town councilman told WyoFile. “It went against all of our community values and I pledged to do everything within my authority to deny his proposal.”
Chambers agreed helicopters attract enmity. “People don’t like helicopters,” he said.
“It will be an impact,” Chambers acknowledges of the flights.. “They make a different noise than airplanes. Noise sensitivity is a thing up there.”
Chambers said he’s not afraid of controversy, “but I’m certainly not looking for it.”
Jackson Hole successfully deterred a similar plan for helicopter tours 18 years ago. In response to that proposal, The Town of Jackson in 2001 ultimately passed a resolution in favor of a temporary ban on helicopter scenic tours in all of Teton County.
The proposed tours “may disturb the peace and quiet of noise sensitive areas [and] may disturb and distress wildlife,” the resolution reads.
Officials and a consortium of conservation groups sought a review of environmental, safety and economic impacts. U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and Craig Thomas supported an FAA review and Gov. Jim Geringer also was on board, according to the resolution.
“The uproar was loud and unanimous — ‘Heli-No!’” Stanford said, quoting a popular bumper sticker of the time. “The writing was on the wall. Potential operators were dissuaded.”