Associated Press (AP) – A helicopter pilot faces a fine of up to $10,000 and a year in prison for making an illegal landing on a lake in Grand Teton National Park. But whether he was justified by a storm or simply went on a picnic is up for debate.
Peter Smith, owner of air travel company West Elk Air, landed on the western shore of Jackson Lake on June 24, the National Park Service said in a statement Monday.
It is against Grand Teton rules to protect the wildlife and serenity of the park anywhere for no good reason.
Smith landed in an area accessible only by boat or by a round trip of at least 10 miles (16 kilometers). Park rangers learning of the landing reached the site at the base of the steep 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 the landing.
Smith was reached by phone and said bad weather forced him to land, and that he had the right to do so under Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
“We tried to cross the Tetons and couldn’t, so we landed. We weren’t picnicking. We were landing,” he told The Associated Press.
The Teton Range is “notorious for bad weather,” and his passenger was sick, he added. He declined to say where they came and went from and whether it was a chartered or personal flight.
Smith declined to discuss his business in Gunnison, Colorado, and West Elk Air’s website was down Monday. FAA records online show the company owns two single-engine Cessna aircraft and a Eurocopter AS 350 B3, which can carry up to six passengers.
In February, Smith flew below a safe altitude near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in western Colorado and paid a $530 fine, according to the National Park Service statement.
He is now charged with potentially more serious offenses: flying outside designated by regulation and violating FAA rules, each of which is a misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000 fine and six months in jail. His first appearance before a federal judge in Jackson is scheduled for August 15.
Grand Teton is home to Wyoming’s busiest commercial airport — Jackson Hole Airport, which brought nearly 500,000 passengers to the ski and national park tourism destination in 2021 — but helicopter tours aren’t as common in northwest Wyoming compared to other scenic areas. destinations. The Teton Range is a hot spot for heli-skiing, or flying a helicopter to reach remote ski areas, but only outside of Grand Teton and designated wilderness areas in the winter.
Rescuers often fly injured climbers and hikers by helicopter from remote areas of the park.
Surprising weather can indeed make flying tricky at times in Jackson Hole, where more than a dozen people were injured in 2020 when three tour balloons crashed in a downdraft. Smith would not describe the circumstances when he landed, but suggested that this was the fate he hoped to avoid.
“If that’s the safe course of action, then that’s what needs to be done,” he said.