FAA clears helicopter tours of Jackson Hole

JACKSON — Wind River Air LLC — the company aiming to offer scenic helicopter tours from Jackson Hole Airport — has been cleared for takeoff by federal aviation officials.

In a letter dated Feb. 11, the Federal Aviation Administration clarified to the Jackson Hole Airport Board that the company “does hold a valid [letter of authorization] to conduct Air Tour operations” and found “no statutory reason to amend or modify” the company’s authorization or operations specifications. In short, “we consider the matter closed,” the letter stated.

“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,” Jackson Hole Airport Board President Jerry Blann said in a statement released Friday evening.

The Jackson Hole Airport has not yet authorized Wind River Air to base out of the airport. The board must sign off on a permit that would allow Hoback resident Tony Chambers, its owner, to run his business out of the Teton County airstrip, and there is no such agenda item on the board meeting this coming Monday.

The airport board’s former president, Rick Braun, solicited a review of Wind River Air’s permit in December in a letter that contended public safety might be in jeopardy. The letter asserted that the company’s Robinson R44 helicopter could lose horsepower flying over the mountainous routes versus at sea level, and that the craft’s “hover ceilings” fall below the altitude it would be operating at on the proposed tours.

“This would appear to give this aircraft very little, if any, margin of safety for commercial scenic tour operations based at the airport and over the proposed routes,” Braun wrote.

The FAA responded that “discussions with Wind River Air LLC Manager and Chief Pilot, Anthony Chambers, reveal careful preflight planning, aircraft performance planning and detailed attention to fuel, weight and altitude considerations.”

Chambers has acknowledged that there are legitimate safety concerns related to flying an R44 at high elevation, but he said that he knows its limits and never veers from maintaining a “large safety margin” in the air.

The FAA review found the company and its staff has met necessary requirements “without generating any complaints, occurrences or any other evidence of unsafe operation.” As long as it continues to do so, the company “has a continued right to commerce.”