Was no picnic? Pilot charged for illegal Grand Teton National Park landing blames bad weather

Jul 10, 2023, 2:06 PM

Associated Press (AP) — A helicopter pilot faces up to $10,000 in fines and a year in jail for making an illegal lakeside landing in Grand Teton National Park. But whether he was justified by a weather emergency or set down just to have a picnic is in dispute.

Peter Smith, owner of air tour company West Elk Air, landed June 24 on the western shore of Jackson Lake, the National Park Service said in a statement Monday.

Landing a helicopter just anywhere, without good reason, is against Grand Teton rules to protect the park’s wildlife and serenity.

Smith landed at an area inaccessible except by boat or by hiking at least 10 miles (16 kilometers) round trip. Park rangers who heard about the landing reached the site at the foot of the craggy Teton Range by boat.

They arrived to find Smith and a female companion having a picnic, according to the Park Service. Park officials declined to comment on any other reason Smith might have given for landing.

Reached by phone, Smith said bad weather forced him to land, and he was within his rights to do so under Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

“We were trying to cross over the Tetons and we couldn’t, so we landed. We were not having a picnic. We were landing,” he told The Associated Press.

The Teton Range is “notorious for bad weather,” and his passenger was ill, he added. He declined to say where they were coming from and going and if it was a hired or personal flight.

Smith declined to discuss his Gunnison, Colorado-based business, and the West Elk Air website wasn’t working Monday. FAA records online show the company owns two single-engine Cessna planes and a Eurocopter AS 350 B3, which can carry up to six passengers.

In February, Smith flew below safe altitude near western Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison and paid a $530 fine, according to the National Park Service statement.

He is now charged with potentially more serious violations: flying outside designated by regulations and violating FAA regulations, each of which is a misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000 fine and six months in jail. His initial appearance before a federal judge in Jackson is set for Aug. 15.

Grand Teton is home to Wyoming’s busiest commercial airport — Jackson Hole Airport, which brought almost 500,000 passengers to the ski and national park tourism destination in 2021 — but helicopter tours aren’t as common in northwestern Wyoming compared with other scenic destinations. The Teton Range is a hotspot for heli skiing, or flying a helicopter to reach remote skiing terrain, but only outside Grand Teton and designated wilderness areas in winter.

Rescuers often fly injured climbers and hikers from remote reaches of the park by helicopter.

Surprise weather can indeed make flying tricky at times in Jackson Hole, where in 2020 more than a dozen people were hurt when three sightseeing balloons crashed in a downdraft. Smith wouldn’t describe conditions when he landed but suggested that’s the fate he hoped to avoid.

“If that’s the safe course of action, that’s what needs to happen,” he said.

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Was no picnic? Pilot charged for illegal Grand Teton National Park landing blames bad weather