Are Sightseeing Helicopters Safe?

What you need to know to weigh wanderlust dreams against reality-based risks.

Over the weekend, a helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon killed three people and severely injured four others, including the pilot. All of the passengers were British tourists — three couples and two brothers — and included a couple on their honeymoon and one person celebrating a 30th birthday. 

It remains unclear what caused the crash of the helicopter, which was operated by Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, but rescue efforts were hampered by severe winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour and a terrain that the chief of the local Hualapai Police, Francis Bradley, described as "extremely rugged," the BBC reported.

For many visitors, a helicopter tour across the Grand Canyon is the dreamiest way to see the jaw-dropping landscape of the iconic destination — at its website, Papillon describes a helicopter tour as "the only way to tour the Grand Canyon." The company also claims to be "the world's oldest and largest sightseeing company, flying an estimated 600,000 passengers each year on daily tours to the Grand Canyon and beyond." 

According to another page on its website, Papillon is certified by the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS), "an organization whose main goal is to ensure safety and reliability throughout the air tour industry." The company outlines safety training undergone by all of its employees and operating standards "that far exceed those set forth by the FAA."

Papillon notes that TOPS was established partly in response to "media sensationalism that poorly depicted the helicopter tour industry (or) incorrectly portrayed the tour industry as unconcerned with public safety." Yet, given that this weekend's tragedy was "neither the first air disaster to happen at the Grand Canyon nor the most deadly," according to AZ Central, which provided details of the 13 fatal Grand Canyon helicopter crashes since 1956, including three involving Pavillon  — not to mention incidents over New York City and Hawaii — skepticism at the safety of such tours is understandable.

Some have speculated that the competitive nature of the tourism industry has put pressure on the safety of helicopter tours. Noting that thousands of helicopters fly over the Grand Canyon every year, competing for space, Gary C. Robb, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in helicopter-crash litigation told WUSA9, “everybody wants to see the same thing. It is a recipe for disaster.” In spite of FAA-imposed restrictions, the WUSA9 story continues, critics of helicopter tours "argue that packed flight schedules often leave little time for routine maintenance and inspections, and tour-flight companies don’t pay enough to attract top-tier pilots."

Similar complaints were heard following a 2011 crash over Manhattan when U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney called for tighter FAA regulation, telling the New York Daily News: "Helicopters are subject to much less scrutiny than other types of aircraft, and they are not subject to air traffic control. The FAA can't kick the can down the road any longer — they must take a serious look at the potential dangers posed by having so many helicopters hovering over the most densely-populated city in the nation." In 2013 aviation lawyer Justin Green struck a similar tone when he told PIX11: “It certainly is possible to have a reasonably safe helicopter tourism business in New York, but not when you have companies competing with each other to keep the prices down which means you’re paying the pilots less, you’re spending as little as possible on maintenance and that’s kind of the situation we have.”

Now, thousands of people take incident-free sightseeing helicopter tours every year, but, as the culture of travel is trending increasingly toward having over-the-top, brag-worthy experiences, demand for these types of experiences are only going to increase. The pressure is on the operators to run competitively priced (but profitable) services in a crowded market (and airspace) while demonstrating that safety is their number one priority.

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