WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration and lawmakers moved Wednesday to restrict air traffic over the Grand Canyon, where 25 sightseers died June 18 when a helicopter and a small plane collided.
On a voice vote, the House Interior Committee approved legislation that would ban virtually all civilian helicopters and aircraft from flying below the canyon rim. The measure also would restrict noisy low-altitude tourist flights over Yosemite National Park and Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, Donald D. Engen, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said he is considering a plan of his own to order a below-rim flight ban, as well as rules that would require many aircraft to fly at least 2,000 feet above the rim.
Seeking Safe Flights
Such rules would be "specifically directed toward the maintenance of safe and efficient flight operations and mitigation of noise impacts in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon," Engen wrote in a letter to Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Interior panel.
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), author of the flight restriction bill, called the FAA announcement long overdue. "We have been hearing about their plans for three years now and it took 28 deaths for them to act," Coelho said, referring to the Grand Canyon fatalities and another recent crash over the Hawaiian park that killed three sightseers.
Coelho said the deaths underscore a growing safety and environmental threat posed by canyon overflights, which now number an estimated 50,000 a year.
The legislation would direct the Interior Department to conduct a three-year study of the safety and noise threats posed by tourist and other air traffic over several popular national parks.
During the study period, civilian airplanes and helicopters would be forbidden to descend lower than 2,000 feet above any part of Yosemite and 9,500 feet above the Hawaiian park, home of a series of scenically spectacular volcanoes. The Grand Canyon restriction would be permanent.
Introduced last spring, the measure was designed initially to address complaints from individuals who said that noise from overflights destroyed the atmosphere at several parks. Supporters, including Udall and fellow Arizona Rep. John McCain, a Republican, urged the addition of the below-rim flight ban because they said it would lessen the chance of future aerial accidents at the Grand Canyon.
42 Have Died
In the last five years alone, McCain said, 42 people have died in 11 aircraft crashes.
But Rep. Barbara F. Vucanovich, a Nevada Republican, said that several tour operators had complained to her that the restriction would reduce safety margins by forcing more aircraft to fly at the same altitude.
"If all flights are now restricted to fly at the rim, we are increasing air traffic and therefore the risk of crashes," she told the committee. Many Grand Canyon sightseeing flights originate from the Las Vegas area.