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I'm curious as a complete layperson who's looking at scenic flights with Scenic or Papillon. I'm not afraid of flying on commercial airplanes, but this is a private, single-engine flight around the Grand Canyon. I think the company has had a bit of a history of crashes with its helicopter program over the past 15 years as well.

The tour is two 45 minute flights, I haven't booked it yet. Should I be worried?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site! There's some general information in this question but any operator that carries passengers has to follow a lot of extra regulations; it's not at all the same thing as a private pilot in his own aircraft. And even if an operator had some crashes in the past, if they've changed their aircraft, processes etc. since then, it's tough to make any meaningful comparisons. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Aug 9 '16 at 15:53
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It used to be worse. (Comforting, I know)

Back in the day (1956), commercial airliners traveling coast to coast would often give their passengers a little tour of the Grand Canyon on the way to their destination (air travel was still a novelty). When a mid-air collision between two passenger planes occurred, the government invested in a $250 million upgrade (1960 dollars!) of the air traffic control (ATC) system. One could say that the crash resulted in the 1958 creation of the Federal Aviation Agency (now Administration) to oversee air safety.

One of the things the FAA did was create a Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) around the Grand Canyon and make a specific chart just for the area. Additionally, they created approved commercial tour routes (see the orange routes below)

Commercial Approved Tour Routes

In addition to commercial sight-seeing tours being more regulated, there is a lot more training, documentation and procedures available for pilots with the main interest being safety. For example, the following notice is printed on the chart (References 14 CFR Part 93 Subpart U which gives minimum altitude restrictions, both for safety and noise abatement!)

Chart Notice https://skyvector.com/?ll=35.7929449938479,-112.79126822365794&chart=231&zoom=2

And of course, as mentioned in another answer, commercial operators, even if they are operating what looks like a "small private plane" are subject to increased mechanical inspections and regulations. One thing to look for when you arrive is the level of professionalism exhibited by the crew (it might just be a single pilot), but also the people checking you in and working with you to get you on your flight. There is something called a "culture of safety" in aviation that, while the unforeseen can always happen, if there is a culture of safety, preventable incidents can be minimized or eliminated.

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Like many other fun things, there is going to be a risk associated with it. However, I would rank this risk as being pretty low.

I would like to split my analysis into two sections. (1) General Health Risks in the Grand Canyon and (2) Aviation risks in the grand canyon.

General Health Risks In The Grand Canyon

You are far more likely to die of heat exhaustion or falling in the Grand Canyon than you are from a plane crash. Admittedly, this might have to do with the quantity of people exposing themselves to the elements, rather than the number who take an airplane, but the point is that all manners of seeing the Grand Canyon will have a certain level of risk associated with them.

Aviation Risks in the Grand Canyon

As you noted, there have been several Helicopter incidents in the past. However, there have been substantially fewer Fixed Wing incidents.

From what I can tell, there have been two incidents in the past 10 years with regards to aviation tours in the Grand Canyon area. In one incident there were no injuries. In the other, there was one fatality and several other minor injuries.

Try comparing that to general automotive statistics!

My Advice

An air tour of the Grand Canyon sounds like a great time and the risk of injury is negligible. In fact, it might even be the safest method to see the Grand Canyon, in comparison to helicopters (higher incidence rate), Mule's (substantial number of deaths per year), and hiking (risking exposure to the elements).

In the past 10 years only one individual has died on one of these Grand Canyon air tours. I would personally take those odds and enjoy the view!

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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, your "statistique" sounds wrong. Far less people died of airplane accident on the grand canyon because far far far less people take the plane than go on foot. That said, I agree with your conclusion $\endgroup$ – Antzi Aug 9 '16 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point @Antzi. At a tertiary glance I couldn't find any comparisons in usage. I'll make some edits regardless. $\endgroup$ – Chance Heath Aug 9 '16 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the advice. I guess you're right that most of the accidents were helicopters. I'm not planning on extensive hiking of the canyon either (maybe a brief ATV tour). $\endgroup$ – user45867 Aug 9 '16 at 17:00
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Flying over the canyon is relatively dangerous. Over the years there have been 65 fatal crashes of various aircraft in and around the canyon causing a total of 379 deaths. All the deaths are either known or believed to have been flights involving sight seeing.

If we subtract out the 128 deaths from the 1956 crash, that leaves 251 deaths in 60 years, or approximately 4+ deaths per year. If we estimate that approximately 500,000 people take an air tour every year, then the chance of dying on an air tour is about 1 in 100,000 visitors. The overall death rate for all visitors, air and foot is 1 in 400,000 (National Park Service statistics).

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    $\begingroup$ Sources for your figures would make an excellent addition. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Aug 9 '16 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ Hey Tyler, just wondering -- are you talking fix winged aircraft, or helicopter, or both? I'm just wondering because it seems like most crashes are helicopter related, but I'm not sure $\endgroup$ – user45867 Aug 9 '16 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ The fatality count is for all aircraft. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Aug 9 '16 at 18:50

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