Helicopter operators face tough battle from neighbors

 - March 8, 2007, 5:32 AM

The classic clash between operators and their neighbors is a relative constant in helicopter circles. As cities such as Las Vegas experience surges in population growth and tourism activity, the comfort zone between people on the ground and aircraft in the sky gets squeezed to uncomfortable margins.

“We have had tremendous growth in helicopter air tours originating out of McCarran Airport to the Grand Canyon,” said Jeffrey Jacquart, airport project administrator for the Clark County (Nevada) Department of Aviation, which operates McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Most of the helicopter tour flights pass directly over one of the oldest and most densely populated residential neighborhoods in the city, he said, and residents have become increasingly intolerant of the resultant noise levels in recent years.

According to the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, more than 40 million people are expected to visit Las Vegas this year, and that number is expected to grow by 2 percent per year. The population of Clark County exceeded 1.9 million last year and is forecast to grow some 4 percent per year over the next few years.

“We have found that about 100,000 residents live within one-third of a mile of these main helicopter corridors just within the Las Vegas valley, so it’s a pretty significant impact,” Jacquart said.

To handle the city’s growing traffic volume, the county is planning to build a second airline airport about 30 miles south of McCarran, off Interstate 15 in the Ivanpah Valley. That facility is scheduled to open in 10 years. The county is also building a heliport about halfway between McCarran and Ivanpah, also off I-15 just south of
the town of Sloan. The new $100 million heliport is expected to open by 2010 with 80 helipads and an underground fuel dispensing system.

The goal is to move most of the helicopter tour traffic away from the city. A preliminary site plan has been developed and environmental studies are under way.
“We’ve gotten support from the majority of the operators,” Jacquart said. Three operators–Maverick Helicopters, Papillon and Sundance Helicopters–that run air tours out of McCarran were involved in the site-selection process, Jacquart said, but none has committed to the move just yet.

Jacquart estimates it will take about 18 minutes to drive to the Sloan heliport from the center of the Las Vegas strip, compared to the eight- to 12-minute drive to McCarran Airport. “It’s not as much of an increase in travel time as you would think,” he said, adding that operators will benefit from the new facility because it will be located outside the Las Vegas Class B airspace, eliminating much of the air traffic coordination with Las Vegas tower controllers.

Medevac Operator Plans Move
On the other side of the country, residents of the city of Pottsville, Penn., are complaining about the possible relocation of Lehigh Valley Hospital’s medevac helicopter to a private heliport within the city limits. The hospital’s Eurocopter EC 135 is currently based at Schuylkill County Airport (ZER), about 10 miles west of Pottsville.

A hospital spokesman told AIN that since the helicopter first began operating out of ZER last June, it has made about 190 flights and he expects that same service level to continue at the new location. The hospital contends that basing the helicopter closer to the city will allow Lehigh Valley’s trauma center to provide faster response times for patients.

The hospital wants to relocate the service to the Mazzuca Heliport, one of four privately owned heliports in Pottsville. Pottsville mayor John Reiley told AIN, “Some of the neighbors are upset with the helicopter landing on a fairly regular basis.”
The Pottsville city council is deferring taking a stand on the issue until the city planning commission reviews the proposal.

The city’s medical transport helicopters currently land on a high-school athletic field near the hospital. Reiley said it is difficult to detect an approaching helicopter at that site. “If I hadn’t had the windows open I wouldn’t have heard it come down.”