In May and June, park rangers noticed tour helicopters flying dangerously close to the Montezuma Castle cliff dwelling. In doing so, the pilots were risking serious damage to the site’s ancient architecture. Studies show that rotor vibrations from close-flying helicopters can cause serious problems. At Montezuma Castle, these vibrations could easily damage or destroy 850-year-old wooden ceilings and masonry walls.
To help protect Montezuma Castle, and other noise sensitive areas, the Federal Aviation Administration advises pilots to fly no lower than 2,000 feet above National Park units. While this is a recommendation, damage to archaeological sites caused by irresponsible flying can also result in civil and criminal penalties. Montezuma Castle is one of many cliff dwellings located throughout Arizona. Most of these dwellings are on federal land and all are protected and preserved for the American public. Recently, a coalition of local government and business organizations, including two helicopter tour companies, reached a voluntary agreement that limits noise pollution in Sedona and surrounding public lands by establishing “no-fly” and minimum altitude zones. This is encouraging, but there are many more companies that did not participate in the development of the agreement.
While this issue may seem to pale in comparison to recent national events, cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites are an important part of our local communities. They are ancestral and sacred places for Native Americans, they support the local tourist economy, and they offer opportunities to learn about the fascinating and complicated history we all share. Helicopter companies must take a more active role in protecting cliff dwellings. Many companies offer tour packages that are specifically designed to view archaeological sites from the air. It is clear these tours are lucrative. Companies must take it upon themselves to be responsible stewards of archaeological sites on public land by flying responsibly and respectfully.