WASHINGTON — The Interior Department urged Monday that flights be banned inside the lower, narrower portion of the Grand Canyon to increase air safety in the wake of the collision that killed 25 people there in June.
Assistant Interior Secretary William P. Horn made the recommendation to ban flights within the canyon's inner gorge--the lower one-third of the canyon--in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, calling aircraft procedures "a major unresolved issue at the park."
Horn also called on the FAA to install radar to maintain aircraft separation on canyon flights and to assign air traffic controllers to monitor it.
However, he made no recommendation on the volatile issue of aircraft noise in the canyon, suggesting instead that his department and the FAA make a two-year study before deciding how to resolve the problem. That, along with the failure to call for an outright ban on all flights below the rim of the canyon angered environmental groups, which have called for stringent measures to reduce the noise caused by the frequent sightseeing flights.
The National Park Service said that 50,000 flights pass over the canyon annually. Environmentalists said that while many of these flights go below the canyon rim, few dip into the inner gorge. Bennett H. Beach, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, called the recommendations "a sham. To settle for the inner gorge as the only area that should be off limits is a complete cave-in" to tour operators.
The crash between a sightseeing airplane and a helicopter occurred at an altitude of approximately 6,500 feet, several hundred feet below the canyon rim at that point but well above the inner gorge.
At a news conference, Horn said that he did not urge stricter measures because the FAA, not the Interior Department, is the expert on aviation.
"We want to work with the FAA because there was no way we could substitute our judgment for theirs and tell them, 'Hey, we're suddenly in the aircraft safety business,' " he said.
FAA Ban Expected
At the FAA, spokesman John G. Leyden said that Administrator Donald D. Engen already has decided to propose regulations that would ban all flights below the canyon's rim. That proposal is expected to be issued soon.
Leyden said that the radar proposal would have to be studied. Currently, pilots there operate on visual flight rules only.
Horn said that a thorough two-year study of the noise problem is appropriate because the agency, which oversees the national park, needs "additional information generated so that we can go in and tell FAA to restrict aircraft" more extensively to keep noise below a certain level.
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who has sponsored legislation calling for a ban on flights below the Grand Canyon rim and restrictions on overflights of Yosemite National Park and the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii as well, lambasted the Interior recommendation. Through spokesman Christopher L. Chiames, Coelho called it "another case of too little, too late," adding that the recommendations "do nothing to address the problems beyond the Grand Canyon."
At the news conference, Horn said the Grand Canyon crash "clearly dramatized" the need for specific rules governing canyon flights and said that the agency would continue to study other areas, such as Yosemite.
The accident occurred June 18 when a Grand Canyon Airlines De Havilland Twin Otter and a Bell JetRanger helicopter operated by Helitech Inc., collided and crashed into the canyon.