Whether you’re hiking the rim, venturing down into the gorge, rafting the Colorado’s infamous rapids, or enjoying a bird’s-eye view from above, the Grand Canyon is pretty spectacular from all angles. That said, for those who love to take to the skies, there’s just something about an aerial view that can’t be beat.
Choosing a company
The two main competitors that offer regular sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon are Maverick Helicopters and Papillon Helicopter Tours. Both have been in business for decades, have good safety records, and comply with FAA regulations. Papillon has been in business for 57 years and touts themselves as the longest-running family-owned helicopter company in the world. Maverick boasts an equally impressive resume, having provided thousands of safe flights over its 27-year history.
Both companies offer similar flights and are comparably priced. When we checked out prices, Maverick offered a 45-minute South Rim flight for $309 while Papillon’s was $339. One potential advantage to Papillon is that you can request a front seat for an extra $50. However, because all seats are assigned based on passenger weight distribution (for both companies), you’re not guaranteed a front seat. If you end up being selected, and have specifically requested a front seat, only then will you be charged the extra $50. Maverick doesn’t have the option to request a front seat.
We ultimately chose Papillon for their customer service. We were booking a flight as a surprise birthday gift for my lifelong friend, and weren’t sure of her weight. Maverick insisted we provide an accurate weight in advance of arrival, or risk forfeiting the flight – even though you are re-weighed on site prior to takeoff. Their terms and conditions state that ‘guests with inaccurately stated weights may be canceled with no refunds.’ When we called and explained we could probably guess reasonably close to her weight, they insisted we provide the exact number. We then reached out to Papillon, who said the in-person, pre-flight weigh-in would suffice, and they don’t expect all customers to know their exact weight.
Regardless of the company you choose, all 45-minute South Rim flights follow the same flight path. All begin at Grand Canyon National Park Airport in Tusayan, about a 15-minute drive from the park’s South Entrance. From Tusayan, the helicopters fly north toward the canyon over the Kaibab National Forest. After cresting the rim of the canyon, the chopper makes a loop over the Dragon Corridor, the widest and deepest part of the canyon. Following this route, you’ll have views of the east and north rims of the canyon – including the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, the pointed summit of Mt. Hayden, and Point Imperial, the North Rim’s highest point at 8,803 feet.
Both Maverick and Papillon fly EcoStar helicopters, eco-friendly choppers with more interior space and larger windows than older models. When I took a helicopter tour on family vacation in the early 90s, our aircraft had four seats – two front-facing and two rear-facing. The EcoStars have a total of six passenger seats – two front (plus the pilot) and four rear. While all seats are forward-facing, the two inner rear seats don’t have their own window (and seats are assigned to properly weight the helicopter). If you’re interested in photography and can swing it, you may want to book a private tour. We ended up doing this to ensure the three of us all had our own window seat.
We ultimately chose a 9 a.m. flight over the South Rim during the last week of March. We figured there would be less wind and decent morning light for photography. Additionally, having visited the canyon for several other day trips, we noticed that a late afternoon haze seemed to settle over the canyon like clockwork.
One Saturday while we were staying in Williams, my friend of thirty years called me out of the blue and said she was flying out to see us in a week to do some adventuring. Beyond pumped, I immediately began drawing up an itinerary of hiking, red rock scrambling, and sightseeing. Given her job as an emergency room nurse practitioner, she certainly doesn’t get a lot of free time for vacation. Moreover, after the last two years of dealing with the insufferable hell and burn-out associated with being a practitioner in a global pandemic, we really wanted to show her a good time. Given that she, Stephan and I had all gone skydiving together eighteen years ago (holy shit, I can’t believe I just typed eighteen), I thought for sure she’d be okay in a helicopter.
Unfortunately, that proved to not be the case. We loaded into a sleek, black chopper belonging to the owner, reversed over the helipad, and took off toward the canyon. For the first third of the flight, she seemed fine… taking videos and gawking out the left rear window behind the pilot. Then all of a sudden, as the canyon rim dropped away suddenly, ‘fine’ was but a distance memory. Assuming all was okay in the back seat, I never turned around once we hit the canyon. Then, as we neared the end of the trip, I noticed my poor friend holding a white puke bag up to her face. Before we took off, the pilot had pointed out the airsick bags and advised us to look at the horizon if any of us was feeling motion sick. When we got off the helicopter, barf bag in hand, she resolutely declared that ‘that stupid horizon trick does not work.’
For as crappy as she felt by the end, I guess the silver lining was that she was at least able to enjoy the first part of the flight sans puke bag. The most impressive part of the flight is for sure watching the rim fall away as you get those first sweeping views of the canyon and Colorado River, so she at least was able to
enjoy stomach that part. And even though she was the only one not feeling well, she still managed to get the best video of the day.
For the two of us who weren’t hurling, it was a gorgeous flight. The river was an unbelievably vibrant shade of turquoise and the morning light on the colorful rock layers was stunning. Glowing red buttes within the gorge gave way to snow-covered pine forests on the North Rim. As we looped back to the south, we passed by Mt. Hayden and the Dragon Head.
Overall, it was really beautiful and fun (for two-thirds of us), and I was glad Stephan finally got to check a helicopter ride off his bucket list. As for K, I’m glad she came out the other side only mildly traumatized and, at the very least, with some sort of story-worthy memory. Always the trooper, once she got her feet planted firmly back on the ground and was able to sit motionless for a few minutes, she was able to enjoy a short hike along the Rim Trail. Most importantly, she forgave me for making her hurl and was already pondering our next adventure. What’s thirty years of friendship without a few (literal) bumpy rides along the way?
Booking & additional information
If you’re considering a Grand Canyon scenic flight, check out the websites for the two companies below. In addition to South Rim tours, the companies offer a number of other options, including other Grand Canyon and Las Vegas tours. Both companies also have comprehensive FAQ pages you should read thoroughly before booking (e.g. in-flight policies, cancellations, booking, etc.).
A note on safety
Safety information can be found online. At the time we flew, Maverick boasted no fatal crashes. Papillon has had eight accidents as of 2022, with the most recent in 2018. That said, one has to consider the overall number of flights, total hours flown, years in business, and other factors when assessing safety records and risk. Maverick claims the highest safety rating of any aviation tour company in the world, and Papillon is fully certified by TOPS, an organization that adheres to standards above those set by the FAA. Realistically, both companies are quite safe, although there’s an inherent risk with any activity you do. More about safety can be found here:
- Book early. Depending on season (e.g. spring break, summer), it can get pretty busy and flights do fill up.
- If you are worried about motion sickness, it may not hurt to pop a Dramamine or other anti-nausea med before your flight (as appropriate per your own health circumstances, of course).
- If you enjoy photography and want to guarantee yourself a window seat, it’s worth considering booking a private tour… especially if you’ve got 3 or 4 others in your party. For us, the price difference was worth it. We enjoyed the windows as well as the extra space.