GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Federal Aviation Administration have completed a plan for managing air tours over the park.

A total of 946 flights per year will be allowed on 6 defined routes, according to a release from the park service. The flights must be conducted at an altitude above 2,600 feet and half a mile outside of the park’s boundary.

The number of authorized flights was determined based on the average number of air tours per year between 2017-2019, with 2020 and 2021 being excluded from the average because of the effects of COVID-19.

“We appreciate the tireless work that went into the development of the Smokies air tour management plan,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “The plan incorporates several improvements that allow continued air tour activity, while at the same time better protecting the wilderness character of the backcountry, wildlife populations, natural soundscapes, and the visitor experience in historic areas like Cades Cove.”  

Commercial air tours used to fly over the Smokies without defined operating parameters, according to GSMNP.

GSMNP is one of 24 national parks developing air tour management plans or voluntary agreements. The plans are developed to allow air tours to be managed in a way that is consistent with the NPS’s mission and the FAA’s authority to ensure flight safety.

GSMNP says that these plans meet requirements from the National Parks Air Tour Management Act to “mitigate or prevent significant adverse impacts from commercial air tours on the park and National Park Service’s obligation to protect the park’s natural and cultural resources, wildlife, and the visitor enjoyment.”

According to the Air Tour Management Plan, air tour operators that are authorized to complete the tours are Whirl’d Helicopters, Inc. (864 tours) and Great Smoky Mountain Helicopter Inc. (82 tours). Great Smoky Mountain Helicopter Inc. is made up of Smoky Mountain Helicopters, M
Helicopters of TN, Delta Helicopters, and Cherokee Helicopters according to a note in the plan.

Read the full Air Tour Management Plan below

In addition to protecting the park’s resources, such as natural and cultural resources, preservation of wilderness character, and visitor experience, it GSMNP also says the plan was made with respect to the American Indian Tribes from the area.

“An important part of the process is the inclusion of American Indian Tribes. The agencies consulted with Tribes that have tribal lands within or adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and with Tribes that attach historic and cultural significance to resources within the park. ” The release stated.

According to the map in the Air Tour Management Plan, the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation is located on the southern border of GSMNP in North Carolina. The Air Tour Management Plan says that the reservation is located outside the park, but it is within half a mile of the park’s boundary.

The plan is set to take effect 90 days from the date of signature on the Air Tour Management Plan, GSMNP says, which would be on March 2, 2023. Additional Information about the plan is available in the record of the decision for the Air Tour Management Plan.