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Heli-tours generate noise complaints, but business good

(Photo by Oliver Chambers)

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By Mike Koshmrl

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via- Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — Melody Ranch resident Mike May was readying for dinner on a Saturday in late July when a red helicopter came in hot overhead.

It was about 7:30 p.m., he recalled. Any tranquility in the moment was temporarily lost.

“We were just sitting down and this helicopter buzzes us,” May told the News&Guide. “That’s what got my Irish all up.”

Days later, May wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration and Jackson Hole Airport, lodging a formal complaint about the low-flying aircraft. His presumption was that the uninvited chopper clatter was the doing of Tony Chambers, whose scenic flight business, Wind River Air, began operations this summer after a months-long community debate dominated by opposition — including opposition from Grand Teton National Park and the airport itself.

“To Tony’s credit, he got my letter, he called and said that it wasn’t him,” May recalled. “That seemed to be an interesting tale, but I’ll take the guy at his word for a little bit.”

Flight logs provided by Jackson Hole Airport show that Wind River Air’s Robinson R-44 helicopter was in the air on July 25, the same evening of May’s disrupted dinner. Voluntarily, Chambers equipped his airship with an ADS-B transponder that records flight tracks when he has line of sight to the airport control tower. The device recorded a flight between 7:35 and 8:43 p.m. that day.

May’s complaint was not the first fielded by Jackson Hole Airport this summer.

“It is interesting, the number of calls we’ve gotten,” Airport Director Jim Elwood told his board of directors during an Aug. 19 meeting. “Almost any helicopter in the sky is being identified as being Wind River Air.

“We’ve been able to track down most every one of those inquiries,” he said, “and been able to show it wasn’t Wind River Air that’s making that flight.”

Elwood clarified his statements in an interview and explained that out of eight helicopter-related complaints that had filtered in to the airport, six had nothing to do with Wind River Air. Most were related to cheatgrass spraying, he said, and a couple were found to be search-and-rescue operations.

Elwood told his board the extent of Wind River Air’s overall aerial activities was not a “great deal.” The fledgling business, which started amid a pandemic, was recorded launching eight commercial flights in the month of June and 15 in July, he said.

But from Chambers’ seat, business has been “great.”

“It started off slow because of COVID and was slowly gaining speed throughout the summer,” the Hoback resident said. “It’s been busy.”

Before talking with the News&Guide Tuesday, he had been in the air for much of the day on commercial tours.

Much of the consumer interest stems from simple internet searches, he said.

“Google,” Chambers said. “Google rules the world.”

Type “Jackson Hole scenic helicopter” into the world’s most popular search engine and the first entry to come up is Wind River Air’s website. Next on the list is its fixed-wing scenic tour competitor, Fly Jackson Hole.

Once at the website, tourists and other customers see that a seat in Chambers’ red Robinson R-44 chopper costs $6 a person for each minute, with 30-minute ($180 per person), 45-minute ($270) and hourlong ($360) tour options.

The consumer interest in Chambers’ business is a departure from past efforts to operate helicopter aerial tours over Jackson Hole.

In the early 2000s San Diego-based Vortex Aviation began taking sightseers aloft, based at the airport, which is leased from Grand Teton National Park. Vortex’s owner, Gary Kauffman, prevailed after a protracted community fight, but when he started operating sign-wielding protesters greeted his clients. The business fizzled and flew back to San Diego after half a season or so.

In an opinion piece published in the News&Guide last winter, longtime Jackson Hole Airport board member Jerry Blann suggested that continued community opposition could be similarly effective at deterring Wind River Air.

“Scenic tours will not be flown in Jackson Hole if the public doesn’t support them,” Blann wrote, “and they are therefore not economically viable.”

Chambers was awarded an operating agreement with Jackson Hole Airport in April, following a board meeting that featured airport staff reading 366 public comments into the record for over six hours. Some 96% of letter writers opposed the business.

Chambers made some voluntary commitments at the time, including signing onto an air tour management plan that would be vetted by federal and state land and wildlife management agencies. That process is still in the works, but it has already resulted in some changes — Chambers avoids the Sleeping Indian, for example, because it’s a popular hiking route.

Another voluntary commitment Chambers signed was equipping his helicopter with the ADS-B transponder, so that the airport could track where he’s flying. Through three months of doing business, flight paths logged by that device have mostly been incomplete. The helicopter’s northernmost locations have not been recorded, partly because the technology requires line of sight to the airport tower, Elwood said.

“The second piece to that is it’s a small aircraft, so its image is not as strong,” the airport director said. “We’re trying to fine-tune some of the sensitivity.”

What the flight paths do show is that in July Chambers’ R-44 typically flew south into the National Elk Refuge or it headed straight to the east side of Grand Teton National Park while overflying places like Blacktail Butte and the Gros Ventre River. About at the point the R-44 hits Ditch Creek the flight paths stop recording.

But Chambers said his usual route is typically north to Buffalo Valley and then follows a big loop there or over the Gros Ventre River area.

“We’re always staying east of the Snake River,” he said, “and are nowhere over near the Tetons.”

The flight maps show that Chambers has also steered clear of some populated parts of the valley, like Jackson and Kelly. Based on his flight paths, however, he is frequently overflying subdivisions in South Park and near the airport while ferrying in from where the helicopter is stored in either Pinedale or Alpine.

When Chambers has learned of complaints, he’s reached out.

“I’ve called everyone who’s complained,” he said. “I want to say there’s been five or six total.”

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