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Grand Canyon copter crashed on tribal land with fewer rules

By: FELICIA FONSECA, Associated Press
February 12, 2018 Updated: February 12, 2018 at 8:42 pm
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photo - In this Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, photo, emergency personnel arrive at the scene of a deadly tour helicopter crash along the jagged rocks of the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. (Teddy Fujimoto via AP)
In this Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, photo, emergency personnel arrive at the scene of a deadly tour helicopter crash along the jagged rocks of the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. (Teddy Fujimoto via AP) 

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A helicopter crash that killed three British tourists and left four others critically injured happened on tribal land in the Grand Canyon where air tours are not as highly regulated as those inside the national park.

The group of friends was in Las Vegas to celebrate a birthday and took a helicopter sightseeing tour of the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai reservation, family and friends said. Killed were veterinary receptionist Becky Dobson, 27; her boyfriend Stuart Hill, a 30-year-old car salesman; and his brother, Jason Hill, a 32-year-old lawyer.

Unlike the national park, air tours on the Hualapai reservation are not subject to federal regulations that restrict routes, impose curfews and cap the amount of flights over the Grand Canyon each year. The Federal Aviation Administration granted the Hualapai Tribe an exemption nearly two decades ago after finding that the regulations would harm the tribe's economy where tourism is a major driver.

Most of the flights over the reservation originate from Las Vegas, and air tour operators aggressively market them. The pilots can fly between canyon walls and land at the bottom next to the Colorado River on the reservation, which isn't allowed at the park other than for emergency operations.

Landing pads sit upstream and downstream from where the copter owned by Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters crashed Saturday, constantly ferrying people on and off aircraft.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what led to the crash in a remote area where rescuers had to fly in, hike to the site and use night-vision goggles to find their way around, Hualapai Nation police Chief Francis Bradley said. Windy conditions and the rugged terrain made it difficult to reach the wreckage.

The flight left Boulder City, Nevada, destined for Quartermaster Canyon near the west rim of the Grand Canyon, NTSB lead investigator Stephen Stein said Monday. The air tour pilots there operate off a common frequency, talking to each other and explaining their direction, though it's not mandatory, he said.

The agency won't say with any certainty what caused the crash until its investigative report is released in a year and a half to two years. The NTSB generally releases preliminary information about a week after investigators wrap up work at the site.

Papillon said it is cooperating with the investigation and abides by flight safety rules that exceed those required by the FAA. A company spokeswoman did not respond to requests for more information Monday.

Hualapai tribal leaders said Monday that they're halting helicopter tours at the canyon for now and are working with federal investigators to "find out exactly what happened here, in what marks the first such incident to claim the life of a passenger at the West Rim in 15 years."

Aviation attorney Gary C. Robb said potential factors were winds of 10 mph (16 kph) with gusts of 20 mph (32 kph), pilot error, mechanical failure or pressure within the company to meet the demand for tours.

"You can replace a helicopter. You can't replace those three lives that were lost," he said. "The irony here is it was to be a joyful, fun experience and it ended in the worst possible fashion — in death and serious injury."

Robb said the EC-130 helicopter flown Saturday generally lacks a system to keep it from exploding, denying passengers a few extra minutes to try to escape.

Stein said the NTSB would be looking closely into the aircraft components.

Flights into the canyon outside the national park were restricted Monday, and Stein said they were expected to resume in the next few days under the direction of the FAA.

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Investigators hope to speak to the four survivors as they begin to recover from critical injuries, Stein said.

The pilot, 42-year-old Scott Booth, suffered a limb injury, tribal police said. The other survivors from the United Kingdom are: Ellie Milward, 29; Jonathan Udall, 32; and Jennifer Barham, 39.

Dobson's father, Peter, told Britain's Press Association news agency that his daughter and Stuart Hill "were really happy together" and they were celebrating his 30th birthday with friends.

"They were always going out and doing things, just enjoyed being with each other," he said. "The whole thing is just terrible."

The brothers' father, the Rev. David Hill, said his sons were "incredibly close."

"The two brothers loved each other and were very close, and so our misfortune is their support — because they went together, and I will thank God every day for them," he said.

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Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London and Regina Garcia Cano in Boulder City, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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