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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: And the Helicopter that Built it.

I am 7000' over Palm Springs, looking almost straight down on one of the original desert playgrounds for Southern California's rich and famous. But instead of the sound or rotors whirring overhead, I hear only the sound of light chatter, and the whistle of mountain breezes blowing through the pine trees. It is one of the most relaxing places I have found to enjoy an ice cold beverage, while taking in what is without question a world class view of the desert cities below.

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Looking out over Palm Springs from about 7000' above.All this is possible due to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, considered to be one of the World’s major attractions. The Tramway itself would not have been possible if it weren’t for that lovable flying machine we call the helicopter. Yet the helicopter would not have flown if it not for a group of helicopter pilots willing to take on the eastern face of Mt. San Jacinto, one of the sheerest mountain faces in America.

If you live in Southern California or have spent any amount of time here, you have probably already experienced the exhilaration of riding the tramway, followed almost immediately by the serenity of pure alpine forests which surrounds the Mountain Station. And for anyone who has not already made the visit, it should be on top of your list of things to do when you visit the region, or when you plan your next day trip.

The Palm Springs Tramway was first conceived in the early 1930s by the young manager and engineer of the California Electric Power Company, Francis Crocker, while on a road trip to Palm Springs. However, actual construction of the tramway would not begin until a full 30 years later in August of 1962. At the time the tramway was first conceived, the helicopter did not even exist. But 30 years later, the helicopter would play a absolute critical role in it’s construction. In fact it is hard to believe that the project would have ever been completed without the versatility and delivery capabilities of vertical lift flying machines.

Your trip to the Palm Springs Tramway will likely begin with a relatively short drive (reachable within 2 hours from most cities in So Cal.) into the desert. Palm Springs is actually located 100 miles east of Los Angeles, off the I-10, and is situated at the northwestern end of the Coachella Valley. In addition to being home to over 20 golf courses and hundreds of world class resorts, the Coachella Valley is a rich agricultural area know for being the primary date growing region in the U.S.

If arriving from the northwest off of Hwy 111 (N. Palm Canyon Dr.) Tramway Rd will be the first major intersection you come to on the west side of Palm Springs. Your ascent to the mountain top actually begins the moment you turn off of Hwy 111 as the road climbs 2000’ between the highway and the lower tramway station known as the Valley Station. The Valley Station sets at an elevation of 2643’ MSL. The temperature in the Valley will range from mid 80s in the winter time to 112 in the summer time. Either way the temperature at the Mountain Station is normally a good 30 degrees cooler than the temperature in Palm Springs. A cool mountain getaway in the summer time, or a cold winter wonderland complete with cross country skiing in the winter time. And this change comes 10 minutes after stepping onto the tram car at the Valley Station.

Here is where we start to learn about the difficulty in constructing the Tramway, and just how impossible it would have been without helicopters. The Palm Springs Tramway is one of the longest Tramway’s in the world and climbs one of the highest vertical distances, just under 6000’, (over 1 mile high.) But it also covers a horizontal distance of just under 2 ½ miles. And all of this over some of the most rugged mountain terrain in the country.

Looking down toward the valley floor.

Looking down toward the valley floor.

The rugged terrain is evident in this photo, looking down at the Valley Station.To complicate the project further, the top end of the Tramway, known as the Mountain Station, would be built on the edge of the 13,000 acre Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area. The existence of the wilderness area meant that there were no roads with which to truck in supplies to the Mountain Station, and none could be built. Every nut & bolt and every bucket of concrete would either be flown in by helicopter or sent in by pack mule from the town of Idylwild, which is a small community located on the opposite side of the mountain. But even the pack mules could only help with the construction of the Mountain Station. Between the Mountain Station and the Valley Station were 5 steel towers, set in concrete, that needed to be built. And the towers had to be capable of supporting 80 passenger tram cars and miles of heavy steel cable. Only tower #1 could be reached by road.

It was calculated at the time that if work crews had to hike in to tower #2, they would spend 5 hours a day hiking, and would only be able to work on the tower for 3 hours a day. Helicopters were the only viable solution for getting these workers, and their building materials into position each day.

The current Tramway car with rotating floor.

The current Tramway car with rotating floor.

As your Tramway car leaves the Valley Station you’re environment begins an almost immediate transformation. In fact your ascent will take you through 5 separate “life zone” beginning with Sonoran Desert and ending with Arctic Alpine. At times your car will be hundreds of feet above ground level, and other times it will pass within a few feet of cliffs and vertical rock faces. Another engineering feature you will notice is the rotating floor of the Tramway car, providing a 360 degree view for each person on board. The two rotating cars on the Palm Springs Tramway are not only the largest, but are the first rotating tram cars in the western hemisphere, (the rotating tram cars were part of an extensive remodel in 2000.) As you reach the half way mark you will pass the only other tram car on it’s return trip to the Valley Station.Passing the "other" tram car on it's way up.

As your car passes each of the 5 towers you will experience a slight shutter and then a very mild swing in the car, just enough to either make it fun, or scary, depending on where you are on the adventure scale. You may also notice the yellow helicopter landing pads on top of each tower. And if you are a fan of Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs”, you will recognize these towers and their helicopter pads as the location of one of his recent episodes. Upon arrival at the Mountain Station you can enjoy food, adult beverages, shopping in the gift shops, and every level of hiking from a 10 minute stroll through the alpine forest or a 2 day hike to the summit of Mount San Jacinto. And of course views that will take your breath away!

The Yellow square is a helicopter landing pad that can still be used if needed.

The Yellow square is a helicopter landing pad that can still be used if needed.

Land Here anyone?

Helicopters and the Tramway:

The tramway was probably the largest construction job ever taken on at that time utilizing the helicopter as the primary mode to move people and materials. United Helicopters of Santa Barbara Ca. was contracted to provide the helicopters and pilots. The Bell 47 G-3B helicopter with a 280 HP Lycoming Supercharged engine was chosen as the best helicopter at that time to complete the mission.

A Bell 47 G helicopter, similar to the G-3B Supercharged helicopter used to build the tramway. Photo-Wikimedia.com

A Bell 47 G helicopter, similar to the G-3B Supercharged helicopter used to build the tramway. Photo-Wikimedia.com


The helicopter would have to climb into density altitudes at times equal to 11500’ while carrying an average load of 700 lbs. Often these loads were slung underneath the helicopter by cable. The helicopter would normally spend a full 20 minutes climbing, in order the gain the altitude it needed to deliver it’s cargo to the top of the mountain. The return flight however could be made in about 4 minutes, “yeehaw!” On a normal work day five helicopters would run all day long, flown by two shifts of pilots, each making about 16 round trips in 6 hours. When the first pilot was done, he would hop out, and the second shift pilot would jump in and begin his 16 round trips to the top of the mountain.

In order to complete construction, it is estimate that over 23000 trips were made by helicopter to various points on the mountain, with over 5,500 tons of material being delivered. This constituted about 6,800 hours of flight time, and all without a single crash or serious injury! (See Foot Note Regarding This Statement).

Each time I gaze upon Mount San Jacinto’s unforgiving eastern face, I am in awe that so many helicopter flights could be made into such harsh terrain, without a single mishap or serious injury. Any helicopter pilot who has been tormented with LTE (loss of tail rotor effectiveness) or found themselves in a tight spot while at the very top of the power curve, knows what I am talking about. Even with a superbly engineered helicopter such as the Bell 47, and pilots with skill and nerves of steel, it is still nothing short of a miracle.

So the next time you are in Palm Springs, take a ride on the Tramway to the top of the world, and know that it was all made possible by the most interesting flying machine known to man, and a whole lot of left pedal!

P.S.  Mount San Jacinto and all of it's rugged wilderness falls within the jurisdiction of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, and it's Aviation Unit.  Assisted by local Mountain Rescue experts, Riverside S.O. performs numerous search and rescue operations in the area every year.

Note- I recently received an email from Richard Hart with National Helicopter in Encino Ca.  with the following comments.  I felt that it was important to include them here. 

"While much of what is said is true, there were however 3 deaths and several accidents that occurred during construction. One accident involved one helicopter landing on top of another on one of the helipads, killing 2. The founder of United Helicopters, Ralph Banks contracted with many of us to supply additional aircraft when needed in order to meet deadlines.

Don Landell was Ralph's first chief pilot and was known as quite an aggressive foreman on the job. The way the job was bid and awarded, unfortunately created a situation in which a huge amount of money was lost, as the more hours that were flown, the less per flight hour was earned. We all know how this does not work with helicopters. This job was bid on by many of us at the time, it was awarded to Ralph with him thinking he could complete the job in a particular amount of flight time and the awarding agency realizing that they would actually pay less if it took longer. United Helicopters went out of business.

Needless to say, the construction of the Tramway represents a spectacular achievement with what are considered today to be under-powered aircraft. We did a lot of mountain construction in those days with Bell 47's that still stands today, a testament to the flying ability of the pilots of that age."

Thanks Richard for setting the record straight.  My source for the no accidents comes from information posted inside the Tramway stations.  Makes you wonder who re-wrote history?