Adventures from Back of Beyond

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Helicoptering in the Grand Canyon

Flying in helicopters is great fun, and flying them into the Grand Canyon is an unforgettable experience.

While working as a Park Ranger, I've had numerous opportunities to fly into the Grand Canyon. These trips have included search and rescue operations and cross canyon shuttles; all were special. But perhaps my single most memorable helicopter trip came a few years after I left the Park Service.

While working in destination management, I was once hired by McDonnell Douglas Helicopters to help plan and conduct a tour for the German Defense Minister. The M-D salesmen who hired me wanted to show off the capabilities of their craft, and thought what better way to impress the prospective German buyer than to fly into and through the Grand Canyon?

Problem is, the Grand Canyon Protection Act makes it illegal to fly down below the rim. But there is a reasonable workaround, and that's what I showed my clients that day.

The day began with a helicopter pickup at the Sedona airport. I sat in the front, which because of the clear plexiglass floor and surrounding bubble windows, is always a gas. We put on military-style helmets with built in headphones and microphones. We then flew to the Grand Canyon airport, landed there, and planned out a dry run.

We would approach the Grand Canyon from the east over the Marble Canyon Platform, which is unrestricted air space. There, the largest tributary to the Grand Canyon, the gorge of the Little Colorado River (LCR), enters the main stem of the Canyon.

We flew low over the Platform, which is actually Navajo Reservation land. Because we were so low, I could see details of the scrubby pinion and juniper trees as we whizzed past. Then, approaching the LCR, we dropped into its spectacular gorge.

My stomach floated up as we dropped into the narrow canyon, the rough brown starkly eroded walls rising as we flew down and in. Our pilot banked, zigging and zagging through the contours of the canyon. Below, the ribbon of the incredibly bright baby blue water water of the LCR flowed, an amazing visual offset to the arid canyon itself. Every bank through the gorge gave us a new perspective; there is probably no better way to experience the three-dimensionality of the Grand Canyon on this scale.

The trip into the gorge ended as we reached the restricted air space at the main stem of the Colorado River. At that point, the colorful and striated cliffs of the North Rim, some 10 miles distant, comprise the far side of the Canyon. Major rock formations within the Canyon's walls, some rising a mile from their base, create the spectacular interior Temples.

We flew up and out at that point, returned to the Grand Canyon airport, and waited for our client. Soon, a white Gulfstream G-4, almost as large as commercial jetliner, landed. The Iron Cross emblazoned on it's tail seemed surreal, but there it was. After the perfunctory greetings, the German Defense Minister transferred to the helicopter and was on his way.

Afterwards, when all had departed, we returned to the Sedona airport to drop me off. Enroute, the pilot decided to have a little fun. He spotted a herd of antelope far below, in a forest clearing not far from the San Francisco Peaks. Dropping precipitously in a downward spiral, he gave chase to the herd. The fastest land animals in the Western Hemisphere took off, running and leaping in great bounds. I almost lost my lunch.

Still, it was one day I will never forget.