Many hikers have had their treks through National Parks interrupted by the sounds of helicopters flying overhead. These helicopters are typically flown by the aviation branch of the National Park Service. So, what are these helicopters doing and where are they going?
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TLDR – Helicopters are primarily used in National Parks for resource and wildlife management. They may also assist with wild land firefighting, search and rescue, and law enforcement operations.
Why Do They Use Helicopters in National Parks?
The National Park Service (NPS) has an aviation branch that is used for a diverse range of activities. About 40% of helicopter activities involve resource and wildlife management. The NPS uses helicopters to survey the land, monitor wildlife, and transport resources.
The NPS also often uses helicopters to assist law enforcement with search and rescue (SAR) operations. The agency responds to about 4,500 SAR incidents each year.
There are four primary functions for NPS helicopters during a SAR operation. The helicopter may be used for aerial reconnaissance. The pilot may fly over the park to assist with aerial searches for missing or injured hikers.
The NPS also helps deploy search personnel. The pilot transports personnel from local agencies, such as the police department. For example, the NPS may ferry searchers directly to the search site.
After locating a victim, the NPS may use a helicopter for insertion, which involves inserting a rescuer on the ground. The rescuer is typically trained and certified for rappelling and hoisting. The helicopter may also attempt to reach a point as close as possible to the victim, touching a single skid to the ground.
Helicopters are also frequently used to extract and transport victims. For example, after insertion, the rescuer brings the victim onboard and the helicopter transports them to the nearest healthcare facility.
The NPS uses helicopters to fight wildfires. This includes both responding to fires and carrying out prescribed fires. Prescribed fires are used as a fire management technique to clear wildland, reducing the risk of a nearby wildfire spreading.
The NPS may also deploy helicopters to provide logistical support during a wildland fire. This may include delivering supplies and water to personnel on the ground or transporting personnel to various sites.
Some national parks have large air tankers in their aviation fleets. The air tankers are large helicopters that contain water or fire retardant, which is used to slow the spread of wildland fires.
Can You Fly a Plane Over a National Park?
Recreational and commercial flights are permitted over national parks. The airspace over national parks is still managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA requests that helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft maintain an altitude of at least 2,000 feet when flying over national parks and charted wilderness areas.
The standard minimum altitude for aircraft is 500 feet, when flying over uncongested areas, such as rural regions. When flying over a congested area, such as a city, airplanes are required to maintain an altitude of 1,000 feet.
The FAA recommends a higher altitude when flying over national parks to avoid creating a disruption. Many national parks also feature varying geographical features, such as mountain peaks, hills, valleys, and rock formations. Maintaining a higher altitude provides greater safety when maneuvering around varied landscapes.
Maintaining a higher altitude also minimizes any impact on wildlife in the area, as the excessive noise of an aircraft may frighten animals. The noise can also inconvenience visitors that come to the park to enjoy the outdoors. However, the FAA’s recommendations for flying over national parks are not laws.
While recreational flight does not require special clearance, commercial agencies need approval before offering air tours over national parks. The NPS works with the FAA and tour operators to plan and coordinate all air tours.
Can You Fly a Drone Over a National Park?
Contrary to flying over private property, flying a drone over a national park is prohibited. In 2014, the NPS passed a restriction banning unmanned aircraft and model airplanes from all land managed by the agency. This includes all national parks and monuments.
Violating the restriction may result in fines up to $5,000 and up to six months of jail time. However, the NPS does grant authorization for drone flights when completing scientific research. Law enforcement may also fly drones in National Parks.