New FAA-Backed Regulations Threaten Air Tour Operators In National Parks


In conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Park Service (NPS) has introduced strict new rules for air tour operators conducting sightseeing within national parks.

The new restrictions stem from the National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000—legislation signed into law requiring operators conducting commercial air tours over national parks, or over tribal lands, to get permission from the FAA to do so. The act was intended to protect the parks’ natural resources and enhance visitors’ experience.

While plans have rolled out at nearly two dozen national parks and monuments nationwide, the most restrictive measures are found at Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park—essentially requiring air tour operators to avoid flying within a half-mile of the sites and at least 5,000 feet above ground level when over the park.

The plans have drawn backlash from local operators and members of the Helicopter Association International (HAI) who pressed Congress to reevaluate the rules in Dec. 5 testimony.

“The ATMP for Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Badlands National Park eliminates any aerial tour flights of these areas. This action affects more than 9,000 flights that were previously approved by the FAA. It has effectively put an end to our operations there,” said Mark A. Schlaefli, president of Rushmore Helicopters, Black Hills Aerial Adventures and Badger Helicopters, and vice chair of the HAI Board of Directors.

The new rules are set to take effect in April 2024.

Amelia Walsh
Amelia Walsh is a private pilot who enjoys flying her family’s Columbia 350. She is based in Colorado and loves all things outdoors including skiing, hiking, and camping.


  1. While I feel the goal of this is laudible, the “5000 feet above ground level” seems a bit excessive, especially when wildlife refugees only require 3000 feet AGL. That seems like an obvious mismatch that they missed. I haven’t read the rules, but it seems like decibel levels (as measured from the ground over specific points) and frequency of flights should play a factor as well when deciding if an operation is permitted.

    • Wilderness area is 2,000′ and requested, not required. Enforcement comes from the park services, not the FAA.

      • Typo. And yes, it’s “requested”, but the park services can and has violated pilots for busting the 2000′ AGL rule. It’s just that there are so many of them, the chances of getting violated is fairly small on average.

        • I’m curious how someone gets “violated” for not abiding by a request from another agency. What can/does the Park Service do? Issue a traffic ticket for excessive noise? They don’t do that for Harleys with punched pipes.

          • I guess they see your N number and that’s considered good enough nowadays with an iPhone picture. Then maybe cross reference with time stamp and ADSB government surveillance.

            Either way from accounts I have read/heard they are ruthless and the fines are enormous.

  2. Considering db levels and flight frequency is a major consideration over Grand Canyon National Park. I believe the tours are at 5k agl in most areas, as helicopters are flying non-stop. I’ll have to read the new rules if it is affected. The Canyon, imo, is seen best if from the air somewhat higher up, to get the vastness inherent in its geography.

    But over something like Mt. Rushmore 5K does seem too high and half a mile seems too far. Ya want to see at least some detail on the magnificent monument. Even if one is spotting for wildlife refugees. 🙂

  3. To clarify: the half-mile lateral distance is from the park boundary, not the Rushmore carvings themselves. Speaking as a chopper pilot, I can appreciate that the incessant sound of them circling just outside the park at, say 2,000 feet, would detract from the experience of those on the ground. The history with the Canyon tours shows that it’s better to set the boundaries wide, and reduce them if don’t become a nuisance, than the other way around.

  4. The nuisance doesn’t come from the aircraft. It comes from the tourists themselves. Loud vehicles and motorcycles, loud music, unruly children, and people just in general acting like lout.

    • If they’re truly interested in improving the experience, prohibit any vehicle with non-factory exhaust systems and EV’s enter for free. I, for one, am really tired of being forced to listen to loud pipes (that don’t save lives), loud “music” that isn’t.

      I DO, however, enjoy hearing sonic booms. Bring them back please

      • The Parks are owned by the U.S. government. Notwithstanding what your schoolteacher may have told you, neither taxpayers nor “we the people” own the parks, either in law or in practice.

        • The government (supposedly) only exists to serve the people. Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats don’t see it that way.

    • As long as we’re addressing annoying noise in national parks, can we start with over-sucrosed/over-tired/under-parented children?

  5. Back in the 80’s I did the Mt Rushmore arrival into the nearby USAF base and followed the min altitude rules. Looking forward to seeing these rocks as we flew by was such a let down as we weren’t anywhere close enough to see much.
    The pictures of the Jet teams, Blues and T-birds on a flyby of Mt. Rushmore has them significantly lower than the rules allowed to capture that “Kodak moment”, even back then.