Heli Go: Scenic flights out of JH Airport approved for heli-tour operator

JACKSON, Wyo. — The Jackson Hole Airport Board Friday approved a permit for Wind River Air to operate a scenic helicopter tour business out of its airport.

It was a marathon meeting lasting more than seven hours as Wind River Air applicant and Hoback resident Tony Chambers was made to sit and listen to nearly 400 emailed and WebEx’d comments opposing his plan to fly out of Jackson.

When it was over, board president Jerry Blann asked the applicant if he was still game to fly out of Jackson.

“Based on what you have heard today, would you like to withdraw or postpone your application at this time?” Blann offered.

“I am not interested in withdrawing my application,” Chambers answered, indicating he would like to move forward.

Blann himself had taken to media to urge the public to not support Wind River Air with business as his board’s hands were tied.

Opposition has come in many forms against Chambers. Noise and carbon emissions pollution were cited by many, as were concerns over the safety record of the Robinson R-44 he proposes to fly.

The board has continually reminded the public that scenic air tours via helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft are already allowed in Teton County, including into airspace over private land, Grand Teton National Park, Bridger-Teton National Forest, and the National Elk Refuge provided an altitude of 2,000 feet above ground is maintained.

“I know over the last two years we have heard from many people regarding this issue. While most of us on the board feel personally conflicted, there was no doubt that upholding our contractual obligations and abiding by the law—to be fair and equal to all aviation users—was the only reasonable path forward,” Blann said.

The board did amend the application to cover just one year where similar agreements are usually good for three. It also stipulated Chambers must participate in a process within 30 days of the agreement and enter into discussions with the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, FAA, the National Elk Refuge, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department toward the “adoption of voluntary air tour management plan designed to identify and mitigate the impacts of scenic air tours.”

Chambers agreed and the board unanimously adopted the amendment into the approved agreement.

“I’m happy the permit was issued and to be finally done with this process,” Chambers told Buckrail.

He did note, however, he felt opposition to his proposal was unduly characterized and misrepresented.

“I realize what was received was overwhelmingly opposed, but is the community, in general, opposed? Three hundred-something emails is, like, 1.5% of the county’s population,” Chambers said. “And the Alliance had a petition signed by some 1,500 people but by my count, 30-40% of those are from out-of-state. They should not have a vote in this, in my opinion.”

Still, what correspondence the board did receive was decidedly against Wind River Air.

Several members spoke about struggling with the decision.

“Many friends and family have asked me to vote no, and it would be very easy for me to vote against this today. However, I do not think based on my responsibility as a board member I can today,” Bob McLaurin said. “I will commit to continue to work to get legislation passed in the future regarding scenic tours flying over public lands.”

Chambers said he realizes his proposal rubs many the wrong way but maintains he is listening and moving forward with sensitivity, and hopes the community does the same.

“One thing that didn’t really come up was I removed a route on the west side of the Tetons from my application,” Chambers said. “That seemed to be the one receiving the most controversy from people in Wilson and those hiking in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness.”

Chambers said he has no immediate plans to run commercial trips due to current concerns over the coronavirus, but hopes to be operating this summer season.

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