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A Flagstaff mother of seven almost became collateral damage during an aerial attack on Sedona helicopter tour operators Wednesday, Feb. 15, at a Yavapai College Lunch and Learn.

Amanda Shankland, who also happens to be general manager of the Sedona Airport, took flak for the noise and nuisance of tour helicopters.

Shankland was the featured speaker at the college’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the college’s Sedona campus.

Complaints about low-flying helicopters have been a staple in Sedona for more than 20 years, primarily from homeowners living below the flight paths and hikers on trails above which the aircraft hover for visitors to take photos of the most beautiful place on Earth.

Defending herself and the airport against repeated sorties on the subject, Shankland said neither she nor the Sedona-Oak Creek Airport Authority, the nonprofit that owns the facility, has any jurisdiction on how low or where the helicopters fly.

“Once they take off, they are in FAA space. I can’t mandate it,” she said.

Among those in the audience was Mike Yarbrough,  who headed a Sedona citizens work group on the issue. He talked about an FAA Advisory Circular calling for flights to maintain an altitude of 2,000 feet over noise-sensitive areas.

Shankland characterized it as a recommendation.

“It’s not a law,” she said. “It’s not enforceable.”

FAA regulations require at least a 500-foot altitude.

The airport authority and Shankland personally have asked tour operators to comply with the FAA advisory, but to no avail, she said, adding that part of the problem is competition — if one tour company agrees to fly higher for the good of the community, customers would almost certainly choose a competitor that flies lower, offering better views and photo opportunities.

Last May, Sedona City Council gave direction for staff to pursue a cooperative approach with the airport authority, officials of Yavapai County, which leases the land to the airport authority, tour operators or other stakeholders to identify and pursue strategies to mitigate helicopter noise.

In the meantime residents can register complaints with the FAA, Shankland suggested, adding that if the agency sees a significant number of complaints, it may seek ways to deal with the issue.

In response to another member of the audience, she said she cannot reduce the number of flights or dictate when the helicopters fly.

Shankland also answered questions about the recently imposed $3 fee for parking in the lot near the scenic overlook at the airport entrance. She said all proceeds from the fees are required to be used for improvements to the beauty and safety of the airport.

Asked whether the fee would be eliminated when the improvements are completed, she said she would be open to considering the idea although it would be at least five years until everything is done.

Before the anti-aircraft fire had commenced, Shankland introduced herself to the two dozen or so members of the audience as a mother of seven whose husband, Paul Shankland, a long-time naval aviator and director of the U.S. Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station. She also mentioned that her 17-year-old daughter, who is about to solo, has been accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy.

Shankland, who is a pilot, said she has worked several “weird” jobs, including being owner of a radio station. She took over airport operations last year on Feb. 23.

“I still commute down the canyon ... and if one more tourist stops on the switchbacks to take a picture, I’ll lose my mind,” she said with a laugh, but added that as a pilot she’ll sometimes hop in a plane and make the six-minute flight to work: “How cool is that?”

Shankland told the audience that during her tenure, she and her staff “have rebranded the airport to make it a more friendly place,” especially for the pilots.

Throughout her talk, she encouraged people to call, email or visit her if they have questions about what is happening there. She said that each person who comes in through the airport adds an average of $842 to the local economy.

Given the opportunity at the end of her presentation to talk about positive attributes of the airport — which she said has been nominated for airport of the year in Arizona — Shankland mentioned the Angel Flights program, which provides free flights for children with serious medical conditions, and the Young Eagles, which offers children interested in aviation their first flight for free.


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