heli tours

Wind River Air LLC’s helicopter flies in western Wyoming.

Despite concerns from the Jackson Hole Airport and conservation groups, a Hoback, Wyoming, pilot has the blessing of the Federal Aviation Administration and is one step closer to offering scenic helicopter tours in the Jackson Hole area.

The FAA recently sent a letter to the Jackson Hole Airport board responding to the board’s concerns over the safety of proposed scenic helicopter operations planned by Wind River Air LLC. The board worried about high-altitude conditions for the type of helicopter Wind River Air would use in a letter it sent on Dec. 27.

“The R-44 aircraft has completed initial and ongoing engineering and airworthiness evaluation to ensure the safety and operational reliability of the aircraft,” the FAA said in its letter dated Feb. 11. “Wind River Air and its staff have met all of the requirements necessary to continue to exercise the privileges afforded by the (Letter of Authorization).”

Tony Chambers, owner/operator of Wind River Air said he expects the airport will issue him a permit to fly in and out of Jackson within the next two months.

“This letter from FAA makes it clear that, legally, we have no choice but to permit this type of aviation activity in order to comply with federal regulations,” stated airport board president Jerry Blann on Friday.

Chambers said his operation will not make flights over the national parks, except to take off and land because the airport resides inside Grand Teton National Park.

“My proposed flights would stay a minimum of a half-mile outside the park,” Chambers said. “That’s always been the case. Mostly I would be flying over the east side of the park in the Gros Ventre (Range). Most of that is non-wilderness. The Bridger-Teton (National Forest) actually.” According to his original operation proposal, he would also make some flights on the west side of the Tetons and over Teton Pass.

He said his helicopter is currently hangared in Pinedale, Wyoming, more than an hour away from Hoback by car.

“It’s a giant pain in the neck,” he said.

If all goes well, Chambers plans to be operational by this spring. “We’ll see how it all pans out with these permits,” he said.

Wind River Air has received plenty of pushback from several groups opposing scenic helicopter flights. A letter dated Wednesday by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and signed by several groups urged the FAA to revoke Wind River Air’s operation over “environmental and safety” issues.

About 100 people showed up to a special meeting in December by the airport board to hear about the planned helicopter tours. Almost all in attendance opposed the operation.

“It’s not a majority of the people who live here, it’s a minority. But they are a very vocal group,” Chambers said. “... I think the majority of the people here (in Jackson) are actually indifferent, they’re busy leading their lives doing their thing, and they don’t feel strongly one way or another. There’s a small community yet that is totally in favor of it.”

Conservation groups see the operation as an erosion of the wilderness character of the Jackson Hole area.

“A lot of the argument (against) is a safety argument,” said Gary Kofinas of the Teton Backcountry Alliance. His was one of the groups who signed the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance in letter to the FAA. “I’m more inclined to think about our wilderness areas. How do we maintain wilderness? If you have to fly over and save somebody’s life, fine. In his proposal he wants to make three flights a day which would be out and back, that’s six flights.”

To learn more about Wind River Air, go to windriverair.com.