In the not-so-distant future, a small town south of the Strip’s glittery hubbub could lay claim to the world’s largest heliport.
That’s a big could.
Three of the main companies offering helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon would have to fly their birds out of the heliport that would be built on 229 acres near Sloan.
If that scenario plays out, the heliport’s $115 million first phase alone would boast 80 to 110 helipads as early as 2010, dwarfing most other heliports on the planet.
A Federal Aviation Administration representative looked into the seemingly grandiose claim and confirmed it was true.
"I can, in fact, tell you that the heliport Clark County wants to build would be the largest public-use heliport in the country and most likely in the world," FAA regional spokesman Ian Gregor said.
McCarran International Airport officials waved off the hype, saying that earning top honor for size would be beside the point.
"If, when built, this facility south of Sloan is considered the nation’s largest commercial heliport, that size and status would be coincidental and the sole result of strong consumer interest in Las Vegas-based helicopter tours," airport spokesman Chris Jones said in a written statement. "The Department of Aviation is not setting out to build anything larger or more-elaborate than demand would warrant. That is never this organization’s goal."
Also, it’s too early to predict whether 80 helipads would be built at the site, Jones said, because none of the tour operators have formally agreed to lease space there.
If demand for space wanes, the heliport’s plans could be scaled back, Jones said.
One reason for creating the heliport was to shift helicopters away from the Tropicana Avenue and Charleston Boulevard flight paths, where residents complained of overhead noise, Jones said. Another reason was to clear airspace for jetliners bringing tourists to the valley to spend money at local restaurants, hotels and casinos, Jones said.
The first phase is undergoing a final environmental assessment, he said. A report on the findings should be given to the FAA by the fall, and the agency should sign off on the report by the end of the year.
When the FAA approves the report, the Bureau of Land Management can transfer the 229 acres to the county, Jones said. Congress already approved the transfer on condition that the project meets federal environmental standards.
The next steps would be to get final approval of the site plan and begin building the heliport, with the goal of finishing the first phase in 2010, Jones said.
The Bureau of Land Management initially balked at the proposed heliport because the aircraft would fly over the heart of two environmentally sensitive areas en route to the Grand Canyon. Agency officials worried that the aircraft would disrupt the serene outdoor experience that many visitors seek.
The flight corridor was adjusted so the helicopters would loop through the southern portion of the North McCullough Wilderness Area, putting them a mile south of historic petroglyphs and the most popular visitors’ section.
"The amount of impact will be minimal because of the (helicopters’) altitude," said Robert Taylor, an assistant BLM field manager in Las Vegas.
Although the proposed heliport is being billed as the biggest in the land, it is designed to serve local tour operators and not so much to lure new ones to the area, Jones said. These businesses now lease sites scattered around the airport and have limited space.
A Maverick Helicopters representative agreed that his company needs more room.
Maverick’s owner ordered 22 helicopters — expanding the fleet to 50 — in anticipation of the heliport being built this year, and now he eagerly awaits the project being completed, said John Buch, the company’s marketing vice president.
"We can’t get the heliport up and running fast enough," Buch said.
Although the company would prefer to stay near McCarran, the drive to Sloan isn’t too bad, Buch said, estimating that it will add 10 to 15 minutes of shuttling time for clients.
To avoid having the new helicopters sit idle, Maverick has begun storing some helicopters at sites near the Grand Canyon and bought two prop planes to carry people there for tours, Buch said. However, they are still waiting for the FAA to issue a permit to fly the planes.
The company’s owners would like to put most of its aircraft at the new heliport’s hangars, Buch said. "We want to show we’re fully committed to going out there."
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at email@example.com or 702-455-4519.