Helicopter Pilots are Working to Be Better Neighbors in Southern California's Crowded Skies
January 3, 2014
  • Share
  • I must say that I was disappointed when I read the editorial titled “New helicopter noise fight needs Southern Californians’ support” was way too simplistic in its perspective on a very complicated issue. I expected better from the newspaper which has the space to thoughtfully illuminate such an important matter.

    The facts for consideration are numerous but I would like to highlight a few.

    The Robinson Helicopter Company is based at the Torrance Airport. Over the years some local residents have expressed concern about the noise generated by their helicopters. Robinson delivers six to 10 helicopters per week for its customers. Each aircraft requires an average of 3 to 4 test flights prior to delivery. Each test flight is utilized to put the aircraft through its paces which involves testing the helicopter’s systems and fine tuning the track and balance of the rotor system. I know for a fact that the pilots who conduct each test flight conscientiously vary their flight paths and once leaving the airport area climb to an altitude above 1,000 feet over surrounding neighborhoods. Often times, the helicopters operate at an altitude between 1,200 and 1,400 feet out of consideration for the neighborhoods surrounding Torrance Airport. These flight procedures are adhered to consistently assuming that the weather and cloud bases are such that this is possible. Fortunately, this is possible most days because of the frequent sunny weather here in Southern California.

    Robinson also hosts monthly safety courses at its factory. The program features a few days in the classroom and one day of hands on flight training. This flight training is balanced between Torrance and other area airports. Robinson advanced flight instructors are ever mindful of the necessity of flying quietly with consideration for the surrounding neighborhoods.

    By the way, the Robinson Helicopter Company is indeed a very potent economic engine for the region. The factory employs about 1,300 people. Those workers purchase gasoline at local gas stations, eat at local restaurants, shop at local retail stores, and purchase automobiles at the dealerships situated along Pacific Coast Highway. Their purchases support jobs at all of these retail businesses. And each of those entities collects sales taxes which ultimately fund road and infrastructure maintenance and other services provided by each municipality in the South Bay. I would like to think that the majority of South Bay residents appreciate the economic benefits provided by Robinson. And it has been expressed to me many times by the management at Robinson that they appreciate being based in Torrance because of the quality of the workers available and its close proximity to the Port of Los Angeles. Obviously, there are some trade-offs when a city hosts such a thriving job creator.

    A couple of helicopter flight schools are based at the Torrance Airport. The operators of each have implemented training practices which stress the absolute necessity of flying quietly and with minimum noise impact on the area neighborhoods. The owners of these private flight schools know that their company’s future depends in part on the acceptance of the local community. They are prudent business people and want to survive and thrive!

    I would estimate that at least 75 percent of the helicopter noise being generated in the L.A. basin is the result of legitimate law enforcement activity. A few law enforcement pilots have admitted this to me. But they believe that their flight activities are necessary in an urban environment such as Los Angeles. The utilization of helicopters by police and sheriff enables them to respond much more quickly to crime scenes and provide an important aerial perspective for resolution of the incident. Police air support has proved to be a very effective tool in reducing crime statistics in the Southern California area. Would-be criminals often think twice before committing crimes when a police helicopter is hovering in the vicinity. In light of the current helicopter noise concerns, law enforcement air support pilots have committed themselves to flying higher when possible especially when returning to their respective bases after an airborne patrol.

    It’s no surprise to anyone that helicopters usually fly at lower altitudes than airplanes in the Los Angeles basin. This is mostly out of necessity. Generally, helicopters fly at much slower speeds because of inherent design characteristics that are common to all rotorcraft. Airplanes are capable of much faster flight. Usually, private airplane pilots fly their aircraft at altitudes of at least 1,500 feet above ground level but not high enough to conflict with much faster moving jet aircraft. Because helicopters generally fly at much slower airspeeds, they usually fly below 1,500 feet above ground level to avoid operating in the flight paths of much faster airplanes. It’s about safety!

    It is widely known that the airspace above the greater Los Angeles area is extremely busy and congested. In fact, the airspace above L.A. ranks with some of the busiest in the world! The FAA manages the airspace in layers. Helicopters operate in the lower layer. Slower piston-powered airplanes fly in the next highest layer. And much faster turbo-prop airplanes and jets operate in the higher altitudes. Some anti-helicopter noise advocates have suggested moving all of the layers “up.” It’s not that simple! It’s not feasible for airliners on final approach to LAX, Long Beach, John Wayne, Burbank, or Ontario to fly higher and then “dive” down abruptly at the last possible minute. This is unsafe at the very least  and would be uncomfortable for the passengers. Moving the layers higher is simply not workable. So slower moving airplanes and helicopters operating over the greater Los Angeles area must fly at lower altitudes to avoid the faster moving jets. But this does not mean that steps cannot be taken to reduce helicopter noise in the Southland.

    During the last year, local helicopter pilots and operators have been working together to adjust flying practices to reduce the noise impact of their aircraft on L.A. area neighborhoods. Through the efforts of the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Operators Association and the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association local rotorcraft pilots are being educated about the absolute necessity of “flying neighborly” with as little noise impact as possible. The argument for doing this is simple: It’s the considerate thing to do. And the future financial prosperity of the local helicopter industry depends on it.

    Helicopter flight altitudes have been increased wherever it is safe to do so. Rotorcraft pilots who follow the shoreline routes are raising their cruising altitudes too but not so high as to be in conflict with airplane traffic. Awareness campaigns have been introduced so that helicopter pilots are made aware of noise sensitive venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and other open air events. And copter pilots are encouraged to follow the freeways whenever possible so that the noise being generated by their aircraft will be buried in the ambient cacophony of sounds emanating from the highways.

    At Congressman Adam Schiff’s town hall meeting last June, FAA representatives presented a very comprehensive and thoughtful report regarding the helicopter noise issue as it is understood here in Los Angeles. They pointed out correctly that the issue is complex because of the extremely busy airspace here in the L.A. basin. FAA representatives indicated that they would continue to seek solutions regarding the issue. But they also said something else. Based on previous experience with this issue nationwide, relief from the problem was accomplished more quickly in other regions by getting the stakeholders together, establishing a dialogue, and working out voluntary best practices for helicopter pilots and operators. That’s exactly what has been happening during the last several months here in Los Angeles.

    We in the helicopter community have met numerous times with representatives from the area home owners associations and other stakeholders. The dialogue has been mostly respectful and cordial. And I think that progress is being made. During recent meetings with homeowners groups several representatives have indicated that things are improving. This is encouraging news for all concerned. We in the local helicopter industry are listening and trying. It’s gratifying to hear that homeowners groups are acknowledging our diligent efforts.

    Back in the mid to late 1980s there was a similar outcry regarding obtrusive helicopter noise here in the Los Angeles area. The Professional Helicopter Pilots Association and Helicopter Association International introduced a “Fly Neighborly” campaign and eventually the problem subsided. Through thoughtful dialogue and the cooperation of helicopter pilots and operators I am confident that this issue of helicopter noise can be rectified to the satisfaction of most. It will take a little more time and diligent effort on the part of the stakeholders. Just watch and listen.