Frank Carroll


Black Hills Aerial Adventures and owner Mike Jacob provide an important and exciting service to tourists and residents in the Black Hills. There’s nothing like a helicopter for getting up above it all and seeing the big picture. We use the service for business purposes. Our friends and visitors use them for sightseeing.

Aviation has come a long way since my grandfather learned to fly a JN-4 Jenny biplane in World War I, just 14 years after the first heavier than air, powered flight. The first operational helicopter in 1944 changed everything. We could take off almost straight up and hover. It’s hard to imagine life without rotor aircraft today.

Mike provides the right pilots for the right conditions and the right ship. He uses military pilots for the Jet Ranger, and very good young pilots for the adventure ships.

To make a helicopter adventures work, Mike needs high visibility from traffic, a good base for his operations, and room to maneuver.

Unfortunately, his location on the highway north of Custer is marginal at best. It’s never optimal or even desirable to have aircraft taking off and landing over a busy highway. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

 The recent crash — euphemistically called a hard landing — was pure luck. I’m sure the pilot was skillful, and it’s great nobody got badly hurt. But it could have been a harder landing in a bunch of motorcyclists, or an SUV filled with a family on vacation. The helipads are located just off the verge of the highway in a grassy meadow, narrow and with trees along the east side. The only realistic flight path to take off and land is directly over the highway.

I think about the risks of the current situation every time I drive the road. What if is a real possibility with aircraft, and especially with helicopters. As helicopter manager at Olympic National Park long ago, I had few options for take-off and landing among the 200-foot high trees and deep water everywhere.

There’s simply no room for error. If something goes wrong on take-off or approach, the only option is to ditch in the tall trees or on the highway. Most pilots would choose the highway. Motorists don’t know anything is wrong until a helicopter lands on the car.

The solution to the problem probably lies in a combination of more thoughtful local government regulation from county planning and zoning and the commissioners, and some business decisions to improve the business environment, flight paths, and other contributing factors.

The alternative is to continue to grow the current business where it is, complete with all the risk and hazards he now faces. And it’s not just a private decision of one businessman or even local government.

Flight paths and flight risks are governed by state and federal authorities. I don’t know what may come of the FAA investigation of the accident last week, but one possibility is revising allowable flight patterns for take-off and landing along the highway.

The public using the highway has a stake in decisions going forward. I don’t like having my family driving under helicopters. I know some things about helicopters. What goes up inevitably comes down, usually safe and sound. When they crash on the highway, as the helicopter did last week during a training flight, the result can be fatal.

Government and local business can ask the public to take some risk in normal day-to-day operations, but some risks are higher than others, and some hazards are too obvious to ignore.

It’s time to make some changes on Highway 16.

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Frank Carroll is a freelance writer and columnist. He can be reached by emailing frankcarrollpfm@gmail.com or visiting blackhillsforestpros.com.

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