Rubik's Cube

Tourists experience the wonder of flight

August 1, 2007

A Day in the Life of America's Airports

Like a brand-new Rubik's Cube, Grand Canyon National Park Airport starts the day as a symbol of coordinated perfection and tempting challenges.

Roughly a dozen air-tour companies open their own slice of the airport with one mission: provide an eagle's view of one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. The aircraft — lime-green turbocharged Cessna 207s, rainbow-striped Bell 206s, chunky de Havilland Twin Otters, and state-of-the-art Eco Star helicopters — are lined up on their respective plots of the airport, waiting.

Then the tourists come.

This gateway field in the heart of the wilderness turns into a jumble of colors as people from around the world — Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, and Ireland — bring their cultures and languages to one location. It fills with aircraft running up, taking off, and landing with rapid-fire precision. Tall ponderosa pines that parallel the runway stand in stark contrast to tour buses lined up alongside the air-tour facilities. Satisfied tourists (some carrying white paper Sic Sacs to the nearest disposal) who've basked in the majesty of the canyon intermingle in the cabinlike terminals with those who are eager to see its beauties from the air.

Birds compete with whirring jet engines, rotors, and periodic feathered props. Jet fuel and dense tour-bus exhaust permeate the once-unpolluted air, leaving no question about the acting airport manager's statement that this is the third-busiest airport in Arizona.

As quickly as the waves of "controlled chaos" crash into the airport, they dissipate. Not even the hint of an aircraft engine can be heard. At these moments, it seems as lifeless as a nearby abandoned airport where a Ford Tri-motor once offered aerial tours.

The airport's dedicated staff and air-tour operators go out of their way to make sure vacationers are matched with their proper flying tour machines or rides into town (there are no rental cars at the airport).

But those at the core of the dynamic facility — 13 airport employees — not only work at the field but also call Grand Canyon National Park Airport home. They live on the property and wear many hats, including firefighter, emergency medical technician, runway inspector, janitor, plumber, carpenter, window washer, and grounds-keeper, to make their home welcoming to nearly half a million guests each year.

At the end of the day, they all breathe a sigh of relief. Each aircraft is back in its designated resting point, and the airport puzzle is returned to its original state, if only for the night.

E-mail the author at alyssa.miller@aopa.org.

Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Miller | AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.