Grand Canyon’s helicopter program is one of the busiest in the National Park Service (NPS) but there are some things an airplane can do that don’t require a helicopter, like 15 minute passenger transports over the Canyon or law enforcement patrol flights – just to name a few.
In May, Galen Howell, the only fixed wing pilot for Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP), flew to St. Paul, Minnesota to pick up a new Cessna 206 for the park. With more than 30 years flying experience, Howell recommended to the Office of Aviation Services, the agency within the Department of Interior (DOI) managing the aviation programs, the purchase of a new plane.
The Office of Aviation Services agreed with Howell’s recommendations and coordinated the purchase of a 1982 turbo charged Cessna 206. This particular model of the 206 is harder to find, according to Howell, and the park spent several months searching for a plane before finding something suitable. After it was purchased, it was in the shop for six months for installations and upgrades.
The plane replaced a 1984 Cessna 206 with a normally aspirated engine.
Even though the new plane is two years older, the new Cessna doesn’t have as much flight time. Additionally, its avionics panel was rebuilt and necessary upgrades for a DOI plane were upgraded and installed. The aircraft is equipped with weather reporting equipment, an automated flight following system and a traffic alert system. The plane is also equipped and certified for wildlife radio telemetry, wildland fire reconnaissance, air attack, passenger transport and law enforcement and search and rescue. A tracking unit, which reports the plane’s position every few minutes to the control tower, was also installed.
Howell said the state of the art equipment makes it much safer but one of the main differences between the planes is the engines.
“The old one is a normally aspirated Cessna 206 and the new one is a turbo charged Cessna 206,” he said. “Which means the new plane performs much better at high elevations and hot weather.”
During the summer, when Howell is consistently flying missions in and out of the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff airports the turbo charge makes the Cessna safer and more powerful when flying into both hot and high environments.
Another benefit is the amount of weight the Cessna can carry. There are six seats in a Cessna 206, including the pilot seat. Because of the turbo charged engine, it can carry a payload of around 1,200 pounds and has a maximum take-off weight of 3,600 pounds.
The new plane cost $300,000, which Howell said is a reasonable price for the amount of use it will see during its tenure at the Canyon.
“It has 2,000 hours on the airframe, the old one had 10,000 hours,” he said. “It really hasn’t been flown that much.”
The NPS has two aviation operations at the Canyon, the helicopter (rotor-wing operation) and the airplane fixed wing operation.
According to Justin Jager, the Interagency Aviation Officer for GCNP, Kaibab and Coconino National Forests and Flagstaff and Verde Valley Area National Monuments, the airplane is a logistic necessity for the park.
“The Grand Canyon is miles long and wide from one side to the other and there are very few ways to get into the Canyon. If you need to get across or to any point, whether it’s for administrative or some sort of law enforcement or fire mission, the only practical way to do that is with aviation assets. The fixed wing is a low cost tool for doing that. Boundary flights, patrol flights – there’s no other way to do that in this park. So it’s imperative to have Galen and the fixed wing aircraft,” he said.
According to Jager, Grand Canyon is an aviation challenge because of the many FAA designated special flight rules surrounding the Canyon’s airspace.
“There’s a lot going – the tour operators have certain flight routes and you have a couple general aviation corridors and there are a lot of no fly zones – congressionally mandated no fly zones, so that’s always a challenge, because everyone wants to fly here,” he said. “So educating people on the proper way to fly through the Canyon to avoid a mishap in the Canyon is very challenging.”
The fixed wing operation at the Canyon has five primary functions – wildland fire, law enforcement, resource management, passenger transport and search and rescue (SAR).
In 2015, Howell flew 303 hours, transported 178 passengers and carried 3,020 pounds of cargo.
Howell also conducted two aviation safety courses, an aviation management training for supervisor’s courses and a water ditching and survival course.
Howell flies plant ecologists, archeologists, law enforcement personnel, fire managers, NPS administration and other government officials to locations throughout northern Arizona. He also helps Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Meade with SAR and passenger transports.
“One great thing about my job is that the airplane is under the Department of Interior but it’s really an interagency program. I support the U.S. Forest Service, NPS, Bureau of Land Management and sometimes Arizona State Division of Forestry. I do as much flying for the Forest Service as I do for the Department of Interior,” Howell said.
There are only seven NPS pilots in the lower 48 (Alaska has a larger number of pilots because of the amount of acres to cover). Because many parks are smaller, they do not use aircraft and cannot justify having aircraft based at their parks. If a plane is required, the work is contracted out.
As in many permanent park service jobs, Howell’s job is very competitive.
“There are people waiting in line for me to move out of this job,” he said.
However, because the NPS requires law enforcement and pilot certifications for the position, finding someone who meets both requirements is rare.
Howell has 15 years of experience in law enforcement but said when he accepted the position at Grand Canyon he was no longer commissioned in law enforcement. Grand Canyon wanted its pilot to be entirely dedicated to the fixed wing program.
Howell has over 30 years of flying experience under his belt. His interest in flying started when he was 6 years old when he saw wooden airplanes hanging from a neighbor’s workshop.
“I thought those things were so fascinating,” Howell said. “Then there was a mining company nearby in the community where I grew up and they had a helicopter they kept in a hangar outside so it was pretty accessible. I used to go peek in the crack in the door – it was just big enough that I could peek in and look at it.”
After he graduated high school, Howell spent two years in an artillery unit in the Marine Corps before attending college. After seeing a newspaper advertisement for a private pilot ground school, Howell decided to pursue a flying career. His father saw his interest and helped him pay for flying lessons. After three years he had received his pilot license, commercial license and qualifications for instrument rating, flight instructor and instructor rating. His first job was at a small airport in western North Carolina as a flight instructor. Spending most nights in hotel rooms and flying non-stop, Howell was not happy with the position.
“I wanted to get into natural resource flying, which is what we do at the park service, forest service and fish and wildlife service. I didn’t know how to get my foot in the door,” he said.
Howell had worked at a ski slope and was a certified EMT as well as an avid climber and outdoorsman. A friend told Howell about the park service and suggested he apply and get paid to do the things he did for fun.
Howell’s first position with the park service was as a seasonal law enforcement ranger at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. He has also worked at Canyonlands National Park, where he received a permanent position with the NPS, worked a short detail in Yellowstone National Park and transferred to Alaska, where he worked as a ranger pilot in Western Arctic National Park Lands and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Bristol Bay, where he flew for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In northwest Alaska, Howell flew an area of 16 million acres, which helped prepare him for the position at Grand Canyon.
In 2008, GCNP decided to bring back its fixed wing operation, which had been discontinued for five or six years. An airplane was acquired and Howell was chosen out of 100 applicants for the position.
He moved his family from Alaska to Arizona, where he has flown as a pilot for inter-agency operations at the Canyon.
“It’s exciting – a little bit intimidating because of the lack of suitable emergency landing spots,” he said. “It’s something that every pilot thinks about because we’re trained to think about it, but other than that little intimidation factor, it’s beautiful and never gets old. The Southwest in general is so amazing. It’s amazing country to fly over.”