FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A helicopter crash that killed three Britons and left four others critically injured happened on tribal land in northwestern Arizona where air tours are not as highly regulated as those inside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park.
The victims of Saturday’s crash were identified Monday as veterinary receptionist Becky Dobson, 27; her boyfriend Stuart Hill, a 30-year-old car salesman who lived in Worthing in Southern England; and his brother, Jason Hill, a 32-year-old lawyer in Milton Keynes, north of London. They were in Las Vegas to celebrate Stuart Hill’s birthday and took a helicopter for a sightseeing tour of the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai (WAHL’-uh-peye) reservation, family and friends said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what led to the crash at Quartermaster Canyon 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 victims, survivors and the helicopter’s wreckage.
Unlike the national park, air tours on the reservation aren’t 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. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the exception in 2003.
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 — something that isn’t allowed at the national park other than for search and rescue 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 the aircraft.
The NTSB won’t say with any certainty what caused the crash until its investigative report is released 18 to 24 months from now. The agency generally releases preliminary information about a week after investigators wrap up work at the site.
Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters said it is cooperating with the investigation and that it abides by flight safety rules and regulations that exceed those required by the Federal Aviation Administration.
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 Grand Canyon air tours. He 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.
“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.”
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 a group of 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, 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.
The survivors, including the pilot, were listed in critical condition at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas.