Scenic sells scenery by the planeload

 - May 6, 2008, 5:25 AM

Dateline September 1927: Lindbergh is just back from Paris, and being “air-minded” is the thing. Out in the Wild West, World War I Army flier, entrepreneur and promoter J. Parker Van Zandt creates a runway across a northern Arizona meadow at a place called Red Butte, begins building a hangar and prepares to launch the first commercial air tours over the Grand Canyon. His Scenic Airways is bankrolled by some of the biggest names in the nation’s largest corporations. Its first flights carried National Park Service and Fred Harvey Co. officials over the Canyon in a Stinson Detroiter.

This year the operation, now known as Grand Canyon Airlines (GCA), celebrates its 75th anniversary. It is believed to be the oldest continuously operated air-tour operator in the world, as well as the third- or fourth-oldest certified airline in the U.S.

A Flock of ‘Tin Geese’

Scenic Airways flew its first paying sightseers over the Grand Canyon in April 1928, a month later bringing online the first of more than a dozen AT-4 and AT-5 tri-motors purchased from Ford Motor Co. Later that same year Van Zandt spearheaded creation of Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix as a winter base for Scenic Airways and what he envisioned as a grandiose sightseeing and charter network throughout the Southwest. Although the Great Depression soon sent that plan down in flames, Van Zandt began an industry that now carries nearly 800,000 visitors a year over the Grand Canyon.

The onset of the Great Depression spelled the end for overextended Scenic Airways, along with many other aviation operations. By Thanksgiving of 1930, Scenic’s assets, including the new Sky Harbor Airport facilities, the Red Butte Airport and its maintenance hangar, along with 17 aircraft–including five Ford tri-motors–had been sold off. A group headed by Jack Thornburg bought the Canyon tour operation and reopened the Red Butte airport for the 1931 summer season, flying as Grand Canyon Air Lines and using a three-engine Bach and a Curtiss Robin.

From 1931 onward–except for World War II when pleasure flying was suspended–the aerial tour service has operated from the South Rim under various ownerships and several names, all containing the words “Grand Canyon.” In the mid-1930s the airline enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA’s predecessor) through the pre-war equivalent of code sharing with side trips to the Canyon from TWA stops at Winslow, Ariz., to the Red Butte field via a Ford tri-motor. The package, including ground transportation to and from Grand Canyon Village, cost $12 one way and $19 round trip, with optional lodging and excursions into the Canyon.

Since 1957, when it came under the ownership of the four Hudgin brothers of Tucson, Ariz., the service has been called Grand Canyon Airlines Inc. The Hudgins sold it in 1969 to Elling Halvorson, current chairman of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, who subsequently established a partnership with John Seibold encompassing Seibold’s Las Vegas-based Scenic Airlines and Grand Canyon Airlines.

The ‘Good Old Days’

GCA’s air conditioned (and heated in winter) de Havilland Twin Otters contrast with the fabric-covered Standard and Travel Air aircraft and the “Tin Goose” from the airline’s early years. Not only the equipment but operational conditions reflect 75 years of aviation evolution. An early Scenic Airways pilot, H.R. Raymond, recalled those adventuresome first years in a 1976 letter to then Grand Canyon Airlines general manager Jerry Terstiege:

“Along with flying passengers over Grand Canyon, we did charter work. We flew ex-Senator Clark [of Nevada] around for about three weeks. Another charter was flying firefighters across country. Also, Pathey [Pathé] News around the Painted Desert. This was something new in those days and it went over great.

“During the winter months… away from Phoenix [Scenic’s winter base] barnstorming and charters made very good [money]. We had a charter to Mexico City with the Pathe News. While there we barnstormed for two days taking in about $7,000. What we made they lost in Phoenix and more, as they were buying more airplanes and losing money.

“The second year at Grand Canyon we did OK with the two Fords, but the expenses in Phoenix and buying about three other larger single-motor planes, in addition to eight to 10 training planes, the overhead was so great they folded up that fall.”

Raymond, who went on to a 35-year career with United Air Lines, rising to chief mechanic, related one hairy charter in the days before electronic navaids or even lighted runways. “On our buffalo hunting trip to Fredonia [on the Utah-Arizona border] a week before Christmas, a storm moved in so fast we were unable to get to Fredonia; we then turn[ed] around and found everything socked in at Grand Canyon and darkness moving in very fast.

“We could barely see the ground flying just over the tree tops, unable to get back to our airport, had to make an emergency landing, which we made heading into Rain Tank [Tusayan], where your present airport is. Starting at 6 a.m. the next morning with the help of about a dozen Indians, we made a little runway and removed all but about 30 gallons of fuel. We took off touching the tops of trees. A few minutes later we were on our airport. After checking everything over and refueled, we were able to take off with our passengers about noon.

“The airport at Fredonia was on the top of a mountain ridge not over a mile long and had about 10 inches of snow. Had no trouble getting in.

“On our return trip, how we ever got off the ground I’ll never know as we were overloaded, high altitude, engines not running up to standard, but we made it back OK, two days before Christmas.

“Those were the good old days…”

Roomy, with a View

Today, GCA operates six de Havilland Twin Otter Vistaliners, each valued at nearly $1.5 million and specially modified for Grand Canyon air touring. GCA’s STC’d modifications, costing nearly $400,000 per aircraft, feature replacement of the original windows with large, flat, clear transparencies ideal for photography, and the addition of a fourth propeller blade to reduce the already quiet exterior noise by two-thirds. Both the FAA and National Park Service have called GCA’s Vistaliners the quietest aircraft flying over the Grand Canyon, according to GCA general manager John Dillon. GCA will have operated this aircraft type for 20 years by next spring.

The 19-seat Vistaliner’s Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop engines enable hot-and-
high operations from the Grand Canyon National Park Airport (GCN) on the South Rim, where summertime density altitudes routinely reach 10,000 ft. Dillon said the aircraft has proven very stable, with a much smoother ride than smaller aircraft, including helicopters, while operating about 1,500 ft agl above the South Rim’s elevation. Each airplane has TCAS and weather radar, though neither is required for VFR scenic tour operations.

Dillon said Vistaliner seats are larger and more comfortable than any competitor’s. “There is not a bad seat in the airplane,” he claimed, adding that the panoramic view windows and high-wing configuration afford spectacular views. “It is not uncommon for our passengers to argue over who sits in the middle, where they have a superb view out both sides of the airplane. And with 19 seats we are able to pass on lower seat-mile costs to passengers to offer the least expensive tour prices in the Grand Canyon.”

Each airplane features a custom-built digital narration system providing music and tour narration, which GCA provides in seven different languages through headphones at each seat, with individual language and volume controls. Upon request, GCA provides an adapter cord to link the narration system and the passenger’s individual video camera, allowing narration and music to be overlaid directly onto the video. Said Dillon, “So far, we haven’t found a camera that doesn’t work with our system.”

Minimum flight experience requirements are 1,000 hr for first officers and 3,000 hr for captains, along with ATP certificate, 500 multi-engine and 500 turbine aircraft hours. “Our current pilots far exceed these requirements,” said Dillon. “GCA is a Part 135 nonscheduled commercial carrier, but we exceed requirements for pilot training hours, ground school time and our maintenance program.”

At its own passenger terminal on GCN and at the Seibold-owned Grand Canyon Valle Airport (40G), 20 mi to the south, Grand Canyon Airlines books air tours, charters, Colorado River rafting tours and room packages. GCA’s terminal has a retail shop and private restroom facilities. It also provides the only aircraft fueling at the Grand Canyon and is the full-service FBO for all aircraft flown into the state-owned airport.

Said Dillon, “By ownership, we are also associated with the Grand Canyon Squire Inn [a Best Western resort at the Canyon], Grand Canyon Coaches [a ground tour/transportation company] and the Grand Canyon IMAX Theater.”

GCA moved to GCN when it opened in 1967, having flown exclusively since 1927 from the Red Butte Airport that Van Zandt built 13 mi to the southeast. GCA was GCN’s first tenant. All GCA Canyon tour flights originate at GCN, while affiliate Scenic Airlines offers virtually the same services out of Las Vegas.

Diminished Passenger Count

“In 1993, our best year,” Dillon told AIN, “before a series of extreme restrictions imposed by the Clinton/Gore Administration, we carried more than 95,000 passengers. Since then, caps on the number of passengers and operations, curfews on the SFAR routes and further routing restrictions have been imposed on all GCN tour operators. For the last few years we have been lucky to fly close to 40,000 passengers per year. I’m hesitant to comment on our constant battle with the National Park Service, FAA and environmental organizations, but I can tell you it has taken its toll.”

According to Dillon, “The latest round of rules and restrictions from the National Park Service and FAA have inflicted a nearly fatal blow on Canyon air-tour operators, more than 50 percent of whom have gone out of business since the early 1990s.”

Several operators have charged publicly that the FAA has abdicated to the National Park Service its statutory authority to regulate airspace use and that, in turn, the NPS is bowing to pressure from environmental special-interest groups.

“It’s a travesty,” Seibold, GCA president, CEO and co-owner, said. “Now, after 75 years of providing millions of visitors the most spectacular and least intrusive way to see the Grand Canyon, our government wants to remove our service from the list of solutions to preserve and protect it. I truly believe it wants to eliminate air tours completely.”

Seibold’s belief was substantiated three years ago at an FAA public session leading to the latest Grand Canyon SFARs, where AIN asked a Sierra Club spokesman if his group would accept a totally quiet helicopter should it ever be introduced. The member of the Utah Sierra Club hesitated, then responded, “But there would still be the visual intrusion.”

Seibold continued, “Our industry has evolved from the early, arguably much noisier and intrusive tri-motors to extremely safe and ultra-quiet Vistaliners, yet we are still punished for what I believe is a user conflict regarding the Grand Canyon.”

Preserving History

GCA is assembling much of its history into a mini-museum in the GCN terminal to inform passengers on the history of Grand Canyon air touring. In addition, said Dillon, Seibold plans a history section in the Chino, Calif.-based Planes of Fame branch museum at Valle Airport to feature his aircraft collection, which includes a 1927 Standard J-1, Stinson SM-1, Curtiss Robin and Travel Air 6000, all currently undergoing restoration. “We are in the process of acquiring every type of airplane flown by Scenic Airways and GCA since 1927. One of the most famous, currently on display at our terminal facility, is a 1929 Ford tri-motor, one of seven in the world that still flies.”