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Archive for Sunday, August 12, 2001

Crash rekindles concerns about flights over canyon

August 12, 2001

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— About 800,000 people board planes and helicopters each year for air tours of the Grand Canyon's dramatic rock formations, but a helicopter crash that killed six people has renewed concerns about the safety of the flights.

The American Eurocopter AS350 was ferrying tourists from Las Vegas on an aerial tour when it crashed 70 miles east of Las Vegas, just outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. The sole survivor, a 23-year-old New York woman, was in critical condition with burns to 80 percent of her body.

"Sadly, this incident indicates there are still safety concerns," said Geoff Barnard, president of the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group that supports limiting flights.

The cause of the crash was under investigation Saturday. A spokesman for the tour company, Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, declined to comment on safety issues.

Other air tour operators said they aren't taking the crash lightly, but believe the chances of safety problems remain small.

"Any time you get into a moving vehicles doesn't matter where you are something could happen," said Jerry Mead, president of Grand Canyon Discount Flight Reservations Inc. in Las Vegas.

About 90,000 helicopter and airplane tours fly over the canyon each year, said Grand Canyon National Park spokeswoman Mallory Smith. She said there is less than one crash death a year inside the park.

Mike Polay, a professor teaching aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., said the canyon's air is so thin and hot that it can decrease the performance of some helicopter engines.

He said the chances of a mid-air collision are higher over the canyon than in many other places because a high number of planes and helicopters are packed into a fairly small area.

Environmental groups say there are so many flights over the canyon's South Rim during the peak summer tourism season that visitors can expect just 17 seconds of quiet between passing helicopters and airplanes.

The crash was the deadliest canyon tour accident since Feb. 13, 1995, when a plane went down while trying to return to Grand Canyon Airport, killing eight of 10 sightseers aboard.

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