Third-generation family-owned aviation tour company continues to expand vast air tour operations.
By Justin Marchand
The helicopter operator that invented the aerial sightseeing industry is still going strong after 57 years. Aviation pioneer Elling Halvorson (1932–2020) founded Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters in 1965 and opened up the Grand Canyon to scenic helicopter tours with a fleet of workhorse Bell 47G-3Bs he had used on construction projects.
Papillon set up a large aerial tourism base in Grand Canyon National Park, made the Las Vegas metro area the gateway for Grand Canyon helicopter tours, and now flies nearly half a million passengers a year on a wide variety of adventures throughout the Southwest with a fleet of 48 helicopters.
The operator has also established a diverse utility division that serves state, federal, and industry partners. Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines – Papillon’s sister company – is a fixed-wing air tour operator flying Cessna Grand Caravans and de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters on sightseeing flights to destinations such as Bryce Canyon National Park and Lake Powell.
Add to the mix Grand Canyon Hummer company Buck Wild Hummer Tours, and you have a widely respected, fully integrated tourism juggernaut, with Papillon’s helicopter sightseeing operations being the crown jewel.
Grand Canyon roots
Before making his mark on the Grand Canyon, Elling Halvorson tested his mettle and made a name for himself by using helicopters as aerial workhorses to support remote construction projects.
So, when the National Park tendered its largest contract ever – the Transcanyon Water Distribution Pipeline – Halverson was tapped to complete the 13.5-mile-long pipeline that brought fresh water from the cool, high-elevation North Rim to the lower and arid South Rim.
The remote, rugged terrain required massive aerial support. From 1965 to 1970, with a fleet of Bell 47G-3Bs, Halvorson transported workers and supplies to complete a project many thought impossible. It remains the largest helicopter-supported construction project ever completed in the US.
The pipeline project created an opportunity – shuttling tourists directly to the rugged beauty of the Grand Canyon via rotary-wing aircraft. Elling set up shop in Tusayan AZ, offered aerial sightseeing tours, and a new enterprise was born. “We are the only company that can deliver such a breadth and depth of product offerings,” says Jake Tomlin, president of Papillon Helicopters and Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines.
“Even though Elling founded this business, and there are many companies in this industry, we are the only company in the world that can offer so many different experiences through helicopter aviation.” Tomlin grew up attending airshows on his father’s shoulders and watching the Blue Angels roar by.
He later followed his dream of doing just that by attending the US Naval Academy, becoming a fighter pilot, and flying F/A-18 Hornets for 11 years as a member of the Marine Corps. Tomlin’s aunt, Brenda Halvorson, joined the company in 1986 as CEO, and his passion for aviation led to his family tapping him to lead Papillon into a new era.
“Some pilots are just all equipment, but I enjoyed leading Marines just as much and seeing a team accomplish a goal,” he adds. The team he leads today consists of more than 300 employees based out of LAS (Harry Reed, Las Vegas NV) and other hubs at BVU (Municipal, Boulder City NV), GCN (Grand Canyon National Park AZ, PGA (Page AZ), and 1G4 (Grand Canyon West AZ).
“If you are all about having a unique job and flying in a remote destination with some of the most amazing scenery on Earth, Papillon is for you,” Tomlin insists. “We have really cool equipment and are not afraid to invest and reinvest as a best practice for the industry. No corners are ever cut for safety.
We go above and beyond in many categories. As a pilot, I would want to know that the company for which I work is adhering to its safety promise, and not just putting a sticker on the wall.”
Diverse fleet, diverse missions
The fleet of Bell 47s that formed the inception of Papillon evolved over time to include Airbus AS350 B3E, H130 B4, and H130 T2; Bell 206L1 and L3; MD 900; and Sikorsky S55 QT helicopters.
The current mix of 47 helicopters is divided between supporting a large aerial tourism business with 22 Airbus H130 B4s, 5 H130 T2s, and 13 Bell 206s, plus a utility division that operates 6 Airbus AS350 B3Es, and 1 MD 900 that supports Grand Canyon National Park operations. “We are not just a one-trick pony.
We are capable of much more than just tourism,” declares Assistant Director of Operations Tyler Carver, who recently celebrated his 10th anniversary with the company. He started out as a line pilot and worked his way up from a lead pilot, to training director, to chief pilot, to his current role.
He is a check airman for the AS350s and H130s, and has approximately 3000 hours between the 2 types. The bread and butter of the company remains aerial sightseeing. However, if it involves the Grand Canyon in any capacity, Papillon is involved. “Anything that has to do with the Grand Canyon, we support,” adds Carver.
“From Bar 10, to Supi, to Peach Springs. All along the river, we have a footprint.” The single-engine Airbus H130 was developed specifically for air tour operators. With a noise signature 6 dB below ICAO limits, it is the quietest in its category, beating the most restrictive limits defined by the Grand Canyon National Park.
Airbus’s antitorque fenestron tail fan, standard on the EC130, reduces noise by 50% compared to a traditional tail rotor. Its shrouded design also greatly reduces potential impact damage and enhances ground personnel safety. In addition, the H130 T2 model features a more powerful Turbomeca Arriel 2D engine and improved passenger comfort with better climate control and an active vibration control system.
Papillon’s utility division deploys 10–12 helicopters on government and state contracts throughout the United States. Currently, the company is contracted with Grand Canyon National Park to fly 2 utility machines for search and rescue, firefighting, and any mission that might come up within the National Park.
It performs short-haul operations in Sequoia–Kings Canyon National Park, and is also on contract with US Forest Service, Department of Interior, and Arizona Game and Fish, performing all the state’s animal surveys, game capture work, and other development work to keep populations healthy and safe for various species, including bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and antelope.
The single-engine Airbus AS350 B3E is the weapon of choice in the utility division. “These are amazing machines,” Carver explains. “The AS350 B3E is one of the only single-engine light helicopters that you can load up to max gross weight and still do a max performance takeoff.” Papillon invested in FastFin technology on its fleet of AS350 B3Es.
The FastFin enhancement and stability system uses advanced airflow management to increase the effectiveness of the helicopter’s antitorque system for significant useful load improvements (up to 485 lb), a 10% improvement in pedal margins, and other improved handling and pilot workload reductions.
Director of Operations & COO John Becker started as a line pilot with Papillon in 1994. The Bell 47 and Grand Canyon also played a role in his chosen career path. “On a trip to the Grand Canyon as a child, we stopped at Mount Rushmore, and there was a Bell 47 parked on the side of the road,” he recalls.
“My dad and I got in that helicopter to fly over Mount Rushmore. On that trip, between flying that helicopter and seeing the Grand Canyon, it paved my way into aviation and aerial tourism.” Some 28 years later, Becker leads operations for Papillon. “Safety is obviously our number one priority, as shown by the numerous safety awards we have won over the years,” he explains.
“Since 2018, Papillon has been a Stage 3 IS-BAO operator. There is only one other helicopter tour operator that has achieved this.” Becker continues, “Papillon stays on the leading edge of technology. Recently, we retrofitted all of our aircraft with crash-resistant fuel cells.
We’ve also put ADS-B In and Out in all our helos, and every single one of our aircraft has satellite tracking.” Director of Maintenance Luis Garcia has worked with Papillon for 29 years. He oversees 47 technicians and a Part 145 Repair Station which has won the FAA Diamond Award 3 years running.
He prides the department on redundant systems to check and ensure that all maintenance is done perfectly the first time. “Everything gets 3 types of inspections,” he explains. “One is done by the mechanic, one by the inspector, and one by the operational check pilot.” Director of Safety Burl Boyd has worked with Papillon for more than 9 years.
Prior to joining the company, he was with Sundance Helicopters for 16 years, acting as chief pilot for 13 of those years. He joined Papillon as a line pilot in 2013, and became the director of safety for the company in 2014. Boyd says Papillon prides itself on being audit-ready every day by choosing the highest level of safety.
“As a Part 135 operator, we are not required to have a safety management system (SMS), but we elect to,” he remarks. “That alone requires us to have a just culture and open reporting – and we are very active with our open reporting. I receive between 300 and 400 open reports a year, pointing out irregularities related to weather, issues with passengers, a caution light, or a door coming open.”
Establishing safety standards above and beyond the minimum requirements for Part 135 operators has long been a Papillon focus. Elling Halvorson and 3 other helicopter tour operators created a safety audit organization called the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS) to expand industry safety practices.
Incorporated in 1996, TOPS was formed to share data in an open-collaboration, fully transparent manner, and hold the helicopter sightseeing industry to a safety standard that goes above and beyond FAA requirements. Boyd explains, “With TOPS, we have pitch and roll types of limits not to exceed 10 degrees up or down on the nose, or 30 degrees left or right bank.
Those are some of our limits. As tour operators, we don’t want this to be a thrill ride. It is not designed to be a thrill ride. It is supposed to be a scenic tour, so we don’t want passengers to not feel comfortable in the aircraft.”
Specialized training for specialized missions
Grand Canyon operations require specific training. A number of Papillon’s routes are governed by the Grand Canyon National Park Special Flight Rules Area (GCNP SFRA), which requires additional ground training, route familiarization flights, and a route check. Each pilot must initially receive a minimum of 2 hours of GCNP SFRA ground training, and a minimum of 1 hour of recurrent GCNP SFRA ground training at 12-calendar-month intervals thereafter.
Pilots must complete at least 2 route familiarization flights on each GCNP SFRA route that he/she will be required to fly as part of the initial qualification process on each route. After completing the GCNP SFRA ground training and route familiarization flights successfully, each pilot must then receive a route check to be designated as pilot in command (PIC) within the GCNP SFRA airspace.
Additional annual training mandates exist for specific contract requirements, such as Office of Aviation Safety (OAS), Department of Interior, and National Park Service. “Our pilots really do a lot of training to make sure they are good at what they do,” notes Boyd.
He reports that a recent short-haul check ride that required 125 ft line work saw experienced Papillon pilots achieve a 100% pass rate.
Papillon has plenty of opportunities for new hire pilots to build time very quickly and spend time with their peers. The varied operations present a unique opportunity to learn from a large, experienced pilot staff in some of the US’s most spectacular scenery.
The company looks for new hire pilots to have 1000 hours PIC, 100 hours cross-country, and 25 night hours cross-country. And due to its operational environment, Papillon looks for mountain terrain experience, but it is not a firm requirement.
“We train our pilots on multiple airframes, and offer a lot of opportunity to work, not only in tourism, but to continue their career in the utility division doing different types of jobs around the country, such as powerline patrol, game capture, game survey, and firefighting,” says Becker.
“We offer a lot more through our company than you can get elsewhere.” The pilot ranks at the company are broken down into 2 major bases – Nevada and Arizona. Both operations currently house about 30 pilots each. Nevada pilots will be based out of BVU, LAS, or 1G4, while the Arizona operation employees are based at GCN or PGA.
“One of the unique challenges is getting pilots acquainted with the rugged, unique terrain we fly in,” says Carver. “Understanding what is a good landing zone, how to read the dynamic weather changes in the areas, and, of course, understanding the performance value the wind provides for us.
You put that together with our training program, and Papillon is a really exciting place to fly.” Initial training consists of pilots spending a week and a day in ground school, a week in flight training, and moving on to check rides in the 3rd week. Besides initial and annual training, Web-based instruction via Avstar Media is offered.
Line Pilot Wyatt Reeves joined Papillon in January 2022 after moving to Las Vegas from Portland OR, where he worked as a flight instructor for 3 years. He flies Airbus H130 B4 and H130 T2 helos out of LAS and BVU on sightseeing flights to 1G4, and has logged approximately 2000 hours.
On average, a line pilot at Papillon will acquire approximately 600 hours a year. A normal duty day for Reeves consists of 8–10 hours. ”If you are scheduled in the morning, you are coming in, getting a briefing, preflighting your aircraft and, as the day goes on, grabbing passengers, giving safety briefings, and off to the Canyon you go,” explains Reeves. Lead Pilot Chris Diamond has flown for Papillon for 3 years.
He spent 5 years flying the Grand Canyon with Sundance Helicopters prior to joining the company. He has 5000 hours, exceeding 1500 hours in the H130 and 2500 on the AS350. While many pilots move on to other missions, Diamond loves Grand Canyon flying. “Flying to the Canyon is a lot of fun. Between Sundance and Papillon, I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” he adds. “A lot of the pilots will burn out on it – or think they burn out on it – but then realize just how much they miss it.
I really enjoy bringing passengers who have never seen the canyon before, and remembering that it is a new experience for so many.” Diamond goes on to say, “The comfort and visibility for passengers in the H130 are by far the best in the business. It is the best tour helicopter I’ve ever flown.
The EC130 is also a reliable and tame airframe to fly. Once you master the fenestron and get a feel for the aircraft, it does exactly what you want it to do all the time.” Diamond is based out of BVU. On a typical day, he’ll arrive 30 minutes before other line pilots to prepare weather briefs, morning safety briefing, and aircraft on the board for the day before other staff preflight duties.
He also performs recurrent flight training for Papillon, as well as initial pilot training and pilot annual check rides. He appreciates the fixed schedule Papillon flying provides. “Being able to be home every night is something I really look for in a pilot career, especially with a wife who is also a pilot.
I’m happy to have found a place where we can both be home every night. This is virtually impossible,” Diamond says. “The tours at Papillon allow me to be home every night and have a consistent schedule.”
Quiet technology requirements
Papillon was an early pioneer in introducing quiet technology into Grand Canyon operations, and working with the native tribes and the National Park Service to preserve the asset of Grand Canyon National Park.
“Decades ago, Elling knew that we needed to get ahead of introducing quiet technology before any aircraft manufacturer would entertain it due to volume concerns, so he came up with his own Whisper Jet,” Tomlin explains. In 1993, Elling Halvorson began development of the Whisper Jet.
The Vertical Aviation Technologies/Sikorsky S-55QT Whisper Jet took a 60-plus-year-old piston-engine helicopter and updated it to be among the quietest turbine-powered medium helos on the market. Papillon was the launch customer, and it proved that quiet technology was indeed the future.
As more and more airspaces are brought into compliance with the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000, older equipment, specifically Bell 206s, will be retired from the fleet and replaced with H130s. By 2027, all equipment that does not meet further quiet rules will be fully phased out of the National Park System.
The butterfly effect
Papillon – French for butterfly – continues to go through its own metamorphosis. It survived the Covid-19 shutdowns, even as pandemic-related restrictions impacted severely the Las Vegas, international tourism, and aviation markets. In April 2020, only 2.4% of available rooms were filled in Las Vegas casinos, compared to 87% the year prior.
When the tourists did come back, Papillon had to adjust product offerings to compensate for a market that had changed completely – what was once an 80% international market flip-flopped to an 80% domestic market. Less resilient operators would have closed up shop. But passion for the industry that is at the core of Papillon’s business didn’t relent.
Quick turn night flights over the Las Vegas Strip replaced some pricier Grand Canyon tours that were once popular among Asian and European customers. New products were soon added, and, just as the butterfly goes through its transformation, Papillon kept flying and innovating, proving it is built to last, just like the complex pipeline project that got Elling Halvorson started more than 50 years ago.
If you’re interested in working with Papillon, the company is currently hiring for all pilot positions. You can call +1 (702) 638–3200 or email email@example.com.