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Helicopter Operators Get Their Say on Noise Problems

The summer of 2011 is shaping up to be a tough one for helicopter operators in the San Fernando Valley. Residents are losing patience with the noise these aircraft create and seek a solution to bring a sense of quiet to their neighborhoods. Coverage in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and CBS Evening News has put the issue in the spotlight, helped by a proposed bill by Valley Congressman Howard Berman to force the Federal Aviation Administration to place minimum altitude requirements on the whirly birds. “It is a touchy subject,” admitted Claudia Herrera-Lowry, vice president of Group 3 Aviation, based at Van Nuys Airport. There is no disagreement that some helicopter operations are for legitimate purposes, such as flights by the Los Angeles police and fire departments and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Much of the criticism gets aimed at the tour operators, news media, and commuter flights originating from Van Nuys, Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, and Whiteman Airport in Pacoima, owned by Los Angeles County. Missing from the news coverage has been the perspective of the operators themselves, except for one pilot interviewed for the New York Times story. Both Herrera-Lowry and George Marciniw, owner and operator of Pacific Rotor Ways, which offers helicopter tours, said they have not received complaints about their aircraft. All the attention, however, hasn’t done their industry any favors. Marciniw, a pilot for more than 20 years, bristled at the description of helicopter operations as being like the “wild west,” as residents have told the media. “In the San Fernando Valley we are in somebody’s airspace, whether it’s Burbank or Van Nuys,” Marciniw said. “We are mandated by rules and regulations and we have been sensitive about not making noise for people.” Larry Welk, a pilot reporter for 14 years who now owns Angel City Air at Whiteman Airport, said he was bothered by the media coverage of noise issues because of wrong information that gets reported. “It bothers me because I employ pilots,” Welk said. “If they do not meet my standards they get let go. I don’t let go too many pilots. I think I have done it once in my career.” Complaints Many in the air and on the ground know that the noise issue is not a new one. The latest catalyst for complaints seems to have been the helicopters for TV news stations hovering over the Santa Monica (405) Freeway on the weekend of July 16 during demolition of the Mulholland bridge. Helicopter flight paths are a near constant agenda item of the Van Nuys Airport Citizens Advisory Council. Chairman Rick Flam said at the Aug. 2 meeting there hasn’t been a single issue that has been raised more frequently or one that the council has spent more time on than helicopter noise. Over the past few months, representatives of homeowner and neighborhood groups in the Beachwood and Bronson canyon areas of Hollywood have appeared before the council expressing their frustration with low-flying helicopters, particularly the tour operators giving paying passengers a close look at the famed Hollywood sign. They were there again on Aug. 2. Group 3 has worked with the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Association, an effort that has resulted in no complaints being made against them, Herrera-Lowry said. “We have been keeping the lines of communication open with them and reassure them that we are not imposing on their privacy or creating any problems,” Herrera-Lowry said. With tourism a big industry in the city and visitors wanting to see the Hollywood sign, that opens up the Beachwood Canyon neighborhood to more helicopter activity, Marciniw said. “We keep (our helicopters) high and try to keep the noise down,” Marciniw said. “We bring (passengers) in for a picture and I ask them if they got it and then we leave.” The FAA has the final say on how low helicopters can fly. The agency’s current regulations are that helicopters must be operated so they do not pose a hazard to people or structures on the ground. But there is no specific minimum altitude to that helicopter operators must adhere to. Whatever the mission the helicopter is on, whether for a TV station, an air ambulance or firefighting, the majority of the time the aircraft is between 700 feet and 1,500 feet at all times, Welk said. So when reading news articles about helicopters hovering 200 feet above the ground, Welk said he scratches his head. “The only time I see a helicopter at that altitude is when they are taking off or landing,” Welk said. There are flight paths in and out of Van Nuys Airport recommended for helicopter pilots to reduce noise over homes, but those are strictly voluntary. If pilots follow another route there is no enforcement provision against them. The Van Nuys Airport council, however, is advisory in nature only and has no jurisdiction over helicopters. Neither does Los Angeles World Airports, owner and operator of Van Nuys Airport. The best council members had to say is for the residents to keep up the pressure on officials at all levels – city, county and federal. “One person can speak out and it falls on deaf ears,” said council member Wayne Williams, a Sherman Oaks resident. “One plus 100 speaks out and politicians start to listen.” Solutions to the noise There are efforts on several fronts to address the noise issues. Complaints at Bob Hope centered around helicopter flight training in which the student pilot make repeated approaches on the same path, said Victor Gill, airport spokesman. The airport started a dialogue with the flight schools and got them to agree to fly higher over homes and use the runway rather than the taxiway to practice the repeated approaches, Gill said. “That has mitigated the situation to a large extent,” Gill said. Group 3 follows the guidelines set out by the Helicopter Association International in its Fly Neighborly Program, Herrera-Lowry said. The association recommends that helicopters fly at as high of an altitude as possible; identify noise sensitive areas and adjust routes to avoid them; fly over industrial areas and major roadways to mask the noise; and avoid early morning and late night flights. As the president of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association, Welk is working on community outreach to identify noise sensitive areas. The group also wants to get involved as Berman’s Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act moves its way through Congress, Welk said. The bill, if enacted, requires the FAA to set guidelines on flight paths and minimum altitudes for helicopter operators in residential areas of Los Angeles County. Exemptions would be made for police, fire and military operations. The association was “blindsided” by Berman’s proposal announced on July 28, particularly because the group was not contacted by the congressman’s office before it was announced, Welk said, adding that he has since had contact with the lawmaker’s staff. What Welk wants is a bill that would solve the problem of helicopter noise. As proposed, he said it is tough call whether that goal will be reached, particularly because of the police and fire exemptions. “With the life saving missions they carry out and that would be exempt, will the citizens get the satisfaction of this legislation if they continue to have helicopters flying over their community?” Welk asked. Staff Reporter Mark Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or by e-mail at mmadler@sfvbj.com

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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