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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

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8/26/2014 9:02:00 AM
Hazards of helicopter rotor wash raise concerns at Montezuma Castle
Photo courtesy Montezuma Castle National MonumentA ranger photographed a tour helicopter that appeared to fly inside the 500-foot barrier at Montezuma Castle National Monument on Aug. 20.
Photo courtesy Montezuma Castle National Monument

A ranger photographed a tour helicopter that appeared to fly inside the 500-foot barrier at Montezuma Castle National Monument on Aug. 20.

NASA photoThis photo of a UH-60 Blackhawk performing test landing in brownout at Yuma Proving Grounds was used by NASA in a field study of rotorcraft downwash flow.
NASA photo

This photo of a UH-60 Blackhawk performing test landing in brownout at Yuma Proving Grounds was used by NASA in a field study of rotorcraft downwash flow.


Raquel Hendrickson
Bugle Managing Editor


CAMP VERDE - A view of the ruins at Montezuma Castle from the air sounds like a great tour - but only if the flight keeps its distance.

Whether that has happened at The Castle was a matter of dispute last week, but it is a reminder of the flight rules in place around parks and monuments within the National Park Service.

Park Superintendent Dorothy FireCloud had concerns when she first saw advertisements for helicopter flights to take tourists over the national park she oversees. Those worries seemed to play out subsequently as rangers reported flights coming close to the ancient cliff dwellings.

"They have to be 500 feet from the highest point," FireCloud said Thursday. "This has been kind of the issue we were concerned about."

The proximity of a hovering helicopter brings up issues of rotor wash and rotor vortices, neither of which are welcome around fragile ruins. Rotor wash (or downwash) is high-velocity air under the helicopter that is more intense closer to the ground. The turbulence can then spread out to the sides of the helicopter.

The vibration from the rotor blades can loosen rocks at the structure and also disturb wildlife, FireCloud said.

Helicopter tours are popular around the red rock country of Sedona as well as public lands across the country. The Federal Aviation Administration put rules in place regarding tourism flyovers, mostly to mitigate noise. Downwash is not address as much in studies, but the motives of protection are the same.

According to the FAA's Aeronautical Information Manual, "Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of the following: National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, Lakeshores, Recreation Areas and Scenic Riverways administered by the National Park Service, National Wildlife Refuges, Big Game Refuges, Game Ranges and Wildlife Ranges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Wilderness and Primitive areas administered by the U.S. Forest Service."

The new tours that offer a unique perspective of Montezuma Castle are part of new packages offered at Cliff Castle Casino Hotel in partnership with Red Rock Helicopters, according to casino Director of Marking Gene Sitkowski. Sticking to the flight rules, he said, is in their best interest.

Still, worries about encroaching flights came to a head last week.

Wednesday evening, Aug. 20, it was not only rangers but also a resident who spotted a tourism helicopter that they described as far too close to the monument.

Three rangers were monitoring bats after hours when a chopper flew down and hovered over trees in front of the castle, according to the report the rangers made to FireCloud. They told her it circled around and came back before leaving. They were standing on the sidewalk in front of the castle and could read the tail number on the helicopter. That, too, they reported to FireCloud and submitted a photograph.

With that information, the superintendent can report the incident to the FAA.

Out for a run along Montezuma Castle Highway at the same time on Wednesday, Matt Malloy also saw the helicopter hovering near the national monument. As a former Park Service ranger, he was familiar with general flight rules around the parks and perceived that the chopper was too close.

"He looked like he was about 80 feet away," he said.

Malloy is also an award-winning science teacher at Camp Verde High School. He said he has experienced the "pressure waves" or rotor wash from helicopter blades at Tonto Basin, where it was part of his job to identify and turn in helicopters violating the flight restrictions.

"It feels like a repeated push that will resonate to destabilize the structure," Malloy stated.

He ran after the helicopter as it landed in the casino parking lot. He watched two happy tourists leave the vehicle and then he spoke to the pilot about the park flight rules. He also took down the tail number of the helicopter. He contacted the National Park Service to report the incident.

After complaints about the incident came to light, casino officials spoke with the helicopter company, reaffirming that they were following flight rules and the helicopter did not come as close to The Castle as deemed by the rangers and the teacher.

Owners of Red Rock Helicopters could not be reached by press time.

Taylor Waste

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2014
Article comment by: Sara Hill

Can anyone tell me the rules for required distance above the ground for tour operators over residential areas?

Following purchase by a Sedona tour operator of a hangar at the Cottonwood airport, the Cottonwood neighborhood I live in has been subjected to multiple daily overflights of helicopters and bi-planes. It is noisy and annoying and often they appear to be quite low.

I'm not against any one making a live, and thank goodness my form of making a living does not cause a daily irritation to anyone, but I do want to be sure tour operators are following the rules.


Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Article comment by: This is a ridiculous situation

Helicopters taking off from the casino Parking Lot which buzz over our Nation Monument! I am outraged. There is no control at all over these public nuisances. Will it take a crash between a car and a helicopter, or a tourist being killed by a helicopter to stop the madness. Just because they can does mean they SHOULD. Let's get some control over the airways! The only helicopter that should be landing anywhere other than at a controlled airport is a medical emergency helicopter. FAA help us out here...

Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Article comment by: Michael Johnson

The increasing incidences of helicopter tour traffic in both National Parks and over National Forest lands, as in the Sedona Red Rock District, has become increasingly annoying. Not only is there an impact on historic and archaeological structures, as noted in the article, but also an impact on "quiet tourism." Many tourists I've spoken to dislike the tour helicopters and sightseeing planes, as they disrupt a quiet and peaceful environment. Hiking at Crescent Moon, for example, isn't anywhere near as nice as it used to be, thanks to the tours to Cathedral Rock that overfly the area.

Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Article comment by: Sightseeing helicopters are a nuisance

These sightseeing helicopters are a problem also in the Sedona area, especially the wilderness areas that are supposed to be kept in an undisturbed natural state, and natural quiet is an important part of that.

If they weren't so damn noisy and intrusive it wouldn't be a problem. But they are and create a nuisance.

On a busy weekend there can be a constant drone of choppers overhead, and they fly low, probably too low.

They should be regulated here like they are at the Grand Canyon. Hours of operation should be limited, and they should also have to adhere to certain flight routes to minimize the nuisance factor.


Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Article comment by: You are not ALONE

Send your picture to the FAA In PHX. They want them for documentation.
They are working with Sedona Airport and Red Rock Ranger District because the helicopters are doing the same thing here near Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte.

The FAA has a suggestion in writing that they stay 1000 feet above the highest point in the Wilderness area but it is only a suggestion. They ignore suggestions.
Thanks to the greed of the businesses that continue to ignore the ruination of the ruins here, there will soon be rules to prohibit that.
I will be the first one taking tail number pictures.

Call the FAA. Go to the top and work your way down to alert politicos. You can make a difference.




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