concerns about proposed Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area changes

Recently I attended Flagstaff’s National Park Service (NPS) public information meeting, regarding proposed Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area changes intended for “substantial restoration of natural quiet,” that could impact general aviation (GA) aircraft transiting the area.

Among numerous “red flags” arising at that meeting were:

  1. Athough the regulatory topic is airspace, no one at the meeting was qualified to discuss, or the least bit knowledgeable about aviation airspace issues.
  2. The presenting technical noise expert said the biggest Grand Canyon noise generators are airline aircraft, which of course are unaffected by the proposed airspace changes.
  3. There was no clear documentation regarding air tour altitudes, numbers, or routes. But clearly they must generate the bulk of low-level aircraft noise – some operate as low as 7500 feet (below the North Rim) while GA overflights are restricted at or above 10,500 feet in the corridors.
  4. The noise expert said that NPS has no data on the number of GA overflights, “but there are very few – probably less than 10 per day.” Yet GA overflights are most affected (if not the only flights affected) by the proposed new restrictions.
  5. Numerous errors and omissions appear in the planning charts provided for public comment:
  • Seasonal corridors are depicted on some proposed plans, but our NPS hosts “were pretty sure they only apply to air tour operators and not GA overflights.”
  • The green outlines marked on the charts as “Restricted flights below 18,000 feet” outline the current boundaries of the entire SFRA! The NPS employees, after consulting, “think that only the current altitude restrictions apply outside the free flight zones, which would indeed go up to 18,000.”

If NPS representatives themselves are unsure of the airspace details during the public comment period, what are the real facts here? Certainly we want to consider them before they become law. Download maps of the proposed alternatives and submit your comments to the National Park Service by June 20, 2011. (Some park service materials say June 6th!)

Aviation media reports suggest that “the general aviation corridors will remain,” but at least one proposed alternative eliminates a corridor, and another incorporates a massive unbroken wall of 18000-foot airspace from Grand Canyon Airport all the way to Page, on the Utah border. Weather, fuel, and traffic considerations dictate leaving as many flight options open as possible for safe GA piloting over this remote area.

Here are my concerns:

  • Do we in the aviation community know for certain what the actual proposed airspace changes are? (I’m not sure NPS does.)
  • Why is NPS proposing raising the tops of the flight-free zones to 18000 when 1) the air tour operators that generate the bulk of the traffic operate at much lower altitudes and 2) NPS doesn’t even know how many GA overflights there are?
  • How can NPS solicit useful public input on potentially onerous airspace restrictions, when the proposal reference materials presented for public comment are erroneous and/or incomplete?
Most pilots probably agree with NPS’s admirable efforts to minimize noise in the Grand Canyon. We all benefit by quiet when visiting that noble place on the ground. I’m just concerned that 1) the proposed changes should not impact safety for GA pilots who must transit the canyon, and 2) that any such changes produce some actual noise-mitigating effect. Based on the NPS noise expert’s comments, I seriously question whether either of those objectives will be met.

Please take time to personally investigate the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules proposals, and submit your comments to the National Park Service. The last thing we need is a 150-mile long aerial roadblock across the Southwest.

©2011 Gregory N. Brown

8 Responses to “concerns about proposed Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area changes”

  1. Ruhil Says:

    Hi Greg – I am reviewing this proposal and also will pass it around in the local pilot community to get our voice heard.

    Thanks for posting this.
    Tailwinds 🙂

    • Greg Brown Says:

      Ruhil, you can’t imagine how much it relieves me to learn that pilots of your competence are having a look at this with an eye toward intelligently commenting on it!

  2. Greg

    Thanks for digging this out. I will pass to the flight school and tour operator in Grand Junction. Might be a good idea for a squawk meet.


  3. Bravo3 Says:

    The irony is so heavy it boggles the mind. The powers-that-be are talking about erecting a virtual wall around the Canyon over a minor noise issue while there is renewed talk about allowing uranium mining near the Canyon and the area just south of the Canyon has been fast-tracked for erecting dozens of wind turbines–essentially industrializing the open spaces adjoining the last natural Wonder of the World. It’s sickening.

    • Greg Brown Says:

      I agree, Bruce, it’s all about politics. What disturbed me the most was meeting some very sincere and committed river guides who genuinely believe, based on the proposal, that this program will produce quiet in the Canyon. In the end they won’t be any more satisfied than the pilots are.

  4. Bravo3 Says:

    Reminds me off my days as a runner, there was an old saying: “drivers resent bicyclists who resent the joggers who resent the walkers who resent the old man sitting on the park bench.”

  5. Bravo3 Says:

    To follow-up on my above comment, I guess the river guides never consider that hikers in the canyon watching the river expeditions float past just might see them as a noisy bunch of yahoos in oversized bath toys exploiting the Canyon for profit.

    People in glass houses, as the saying goes.

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