Tour Operators Program of Safety

Grand Canyon Helicopter Safety

At Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, safety is our top priority. Papillon Airways, Inc. and its subsidiaries are fully certified by the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS). TOPS ( is an organization whose main goal is to ensure safety and reliability throughout the air tour industry. Operators who carry a TOPS certification have agreed to operate their airlines to standards that far exceed those set forth by the FAA. These standards are upheld and enforced by regular internal audits and annual external audits by independent industrial safety auditors.

In addition to stringent operating standards, TOPS members provide a wealth of safety training to all employees involved in any portion of a visitor's flight. This includes additional safety training for management, flight crew, and ground support staff. The aircraft are also required to carry additional emergency communications equipment beyond what is required by the FAA. For example, all Papillon aircraft are equipped with an advanced radio stack that connects the pilot to a dedicated company radio network. With this network, the aircraft is in contact with our highly trained flight following staff for the entire duration of the flight. Information about weather, additional aircraft, winds and more are relayed by the flight following center to other company aircraft flying in that area.

When flying with a TOPS-certified carrier guests can be assured that they are touring with some of the safest and most highly trained professionals in the industry.

TOPS Missions & History

TOPS’s mission is to provide the public with access to scenic areas while in the care of good, safe and professional air tour operators.

TOPS history: In 1993, the need for safety programs specifically geared for the air tour industry became evident. Although helicopter tour operations had a good safety record, the flight-seeing industry was then experiencing growing pains. Accidents that may have been avoided, and media sensationalism that poorly depicted the helicopter tour industry, incorrectly portrayed the tour industry as unconcerned with public safety. Several leading providers of helicopter tours met informally during this time to exchange views on how to improve the situation.

Following discussions within the forum of the Helicopter Association International (HAI), a Helicopter Tour Operators Committee (HTOC) was formed. After several meetings of the HTOC, it was agreed that a program should be developed to serve the special needs of the helicopter tour operators, and to address the public’s concern about helicopter tour safety.

The tour operators, in coordination with several of the standing committees of the HAI, drafted a detailed safety program that was to become the principal guideline for TOPS. This program incorporated the expertise and experience of those who know the industry best: the air tour operators and the manufacturers of the air tour equipment.

In 1995, a draft of the prospective TOPS Program of Safety was presented to and well received by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Board (NTSB).

TOPS was incorporated in January 1996 as an independent, non-profit organization, and the Program of Safety was implemented at that time. For the first time, there was an organization, TOPS, that was dedicated solely to further enhancing the safety of all aspects of helicopter tours.

The effectiveness of the TOPS Program of Safety is well proven by the statistics gathered since 1996. In a typical year, professional helicopter tour operators in the US fly some 100,000 tour hours, of which about 85,000 hours are flown by TOPS members. TOPS members have a cumulative safety record much better than that of general aviation at large. For example, during 2003, TOPS members experienced 1.13 accidents per 100,000 air tour hours, compared with 9.98 accidents per 100,000 flying hours for the civil helicopter fleet at large.

TOPS Qualifications

TOPS members put safety as their number one priority with the mission of making helicopter sightseeing tours among the safest type of flying today. Operators who are approved by TOPS have committed to a higher standard of safety, sharing safety knowledge and to self-policing those standards.

Qualifications to become a member are strict and held at a higher level then what the FAA requires. They are put at such a pinnacle level simply because TOPS looks for dedication to safety from all members of the organization. Each member understands that the purpose of the program is to promote safety through higher disciplines and that the responsibility rests upon the shoulders of each individual operator.

In order to become a member of TOPS the company must have a sightseeing base as a whole or significant part of their operations. Any potential member must pass an initial safety audit and then also pass an annual safety audit. All current members are required to pass a yearly safety audit as well.

Once accepted members are then given all privileges as all other members (certificates, endorsements, use of TOPS logo, and plaques). Being a member of TOPS puts each operator into a higher bracket where safety is concerned and for that TOPS members are viewed in a brighter light by the FAA and NTSB. Higher safety standards and yearly audits have had a significant impact on the helicopter tour industry. Statistics show a reduction in accidents and safety concerns industry wide. Always insist upon flying with a TOPS-certified company.

For more information on TOPS visit