Fort Lauderdale opens public-use helistop

 - April 18, 2008, 10:58 AM

The opening of a public-use heliport isn’t as rare as, say, the passage of a really visible comet, or a Mets victory in a World Series. But only just. That’s why the recent opening of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.’s new downtown heliport was so remarkable. Before the June 5 opening of the new facility, there were 265 authorized private helipads in the state of Florida and just two public-use heliports, only one of which was in a downtown area.

Now there are two.

Set atop a seven-story parking garage in the city’s commercial center, the Fort Lauderdale heliport (Unicom 123.05; telephone [954] 523-HELI; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays) is directly adjacent to the Broward County Main Library. The heliport was first proposed in the late 1980s, but a seemingly endless series of lawsuits and assorted legal actions against the facility delayed the start of construction for nearly a decade and added an estimated $1 million to the construction cost. By the time the facility was officially opened for business last month, parts of the $3.6 million structure were already rusting. The construction company hired to do the work had defaulted on the deal and the city was forced to finish the project on its own. Funding came from the FAA, the Florida department of transportation and Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, the arrival/ departure hub for much of the new heliport’s rotorcraft traffic.

Another downtown public-use helistop, located on ground level by Fort Lauderdale’s city hall and open since 1992, closed more than a year ago. Still, the sound of rotorcraft resounded in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Broward County General Medical Center also has a downtown helipad (albeit, not one open to the public). And multimillionaire videotape rental king, Miami Dolphins owner and Eurocopter EC 155 owner Wayne Huizenga built a personal helistop atop his Las Olas Boulevard office, just a few blocks from the city’s new site.

Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport manager Bill Crouch is enthusiastic about his city’s new heliport  (Executive will manage the site, which will not charge landing fees). “We’ve worked a long time to make this facility something special,” he said. “It’s illuminated for night ops, and while it’s currently limited to VFR operations only, we will eventually add IFR capability. There’s a hot spot and a parking spot, each rated to take as much as 11,900 lb, which means a Bell 412 or Sikorsky S-76-size helicopter. We’ve got a single parking spot, and our general policy is going to be ‘take it as it comes.’ If someone wants to go to a meeting downtown and leave their helicopter parked at the site for a few hours, that’s fine. We just hope they’ll use common sense.

“We’ve already had some helicopters come by in the first few days we’ve been open. I can’t recall how many, but we’re not really worried about volume. We want businesspeople to use the site. We’re aiming more for quality than quantity.”