NYC helo operators fight for their future

 - May 27, 2008, 7:04 AM

The cancellation on October 12 of the three-mile temporary flight restriction (TFR 9841) encircling the World Trade Center, which had closed New York City’s three Manhattan heliports to civil operations for more than four weeks after September 11, buoyed the spirits of the helicopter community represented by the Eastern Region Helicopter Council. But keeping those heliports open remains one of the council’s chief concerns, and in some ways the task has become even more difficult.

“September 11 happened, but the world kept going and we still have to deal with a lot of issues,” said Matt Zuccaro, special advisor to the ERHC board of directors, at the council’s annual meeting. After a month of virtually no civil helicopter operations over Manhattan and anticipated reduced operations after that, he expected renewed activity from anti-helicopter groups. “Flying neighborly is going to be even more of a concern after the airspace opens up again,” he said. “The bad news is that people [in New York City] have not heard a civil helicopter for a month–and the citizens are afraid.”

Of Manhattan’s three (open) heliports–Wall Street, East 34th Street and West 30th Street–Wall Street has the most secure future, at least until 2005, when the Port Authority lease expires. “AIP funding will run out then and New York City will take over the heliport,” Zuccaro explained. However, he does not see this as a major problem.

East 34th Street, north of Wall Street on the East River, is in the process of having its special-use permit renewed. The local community board does not object to the renewal as long as current operating restrictions are maintained, including operating hours and the prohibition of helicopter air-tour operations. Helicopter operations in the city have been a political football over the years and the ERHC stays politically neutral, but according to Zuccaro, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration “was sensitive to the needs of the business community and the importance of helicopter operations to that community.”

After the November 6 elections, Zuccaro told AIN that he expects the administration of mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg to continue this same attitude. Bloomberg, a wealthy Republican, has said his prime focus will be the rebuilding of the city’s infrastructure and economic base.

A factor influencing the future of the heliport at West 30th Street is the proposed expansion of the Jacob Javits Convention Center that sits catty-cornered from the heliport across the West Side Highway. The heliport needs upgrading or replacement and the FAA has already allocated money to the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to conduct a study examining the options.

“The problem is that the city, state and FAA will not put 10 cents into constructing the heliport,” Zuccaro said. A logical spot could be Pier 72, which is no more than old pilings right now, but the location could depend on which way the convention center expansion takes place. If it is expanded to the south, the Pier 72 location would be ideal, placing the heliport directly across the highway from the new sections of the facility. If Jacob Javits is expanded to the north, however, the area across from Pier 72 is slated to become a park–not a particularly tolerant neighbor for a heliport. The EDC is in the process of formulating requests for proposals for the study, which Zuccaro said could be awarded in the next few months.

Air Pegasus has been operating the West 30th Street heliport for 21 years. Owner Al Trenk told the gathered ERHC members, “The message we got was that the city will not finance a new heliport and that the industry will have to do it, the industry being anyone who is interested in doing it. Well, we’re interested. We believe we can arrange financing and have been trying to get this message across for a year. Air Pegasus has an economic model we believe will work. All we need is for the city to do its study.” Zuccaro and Trenk met after the ERHC gathering and agreed to work together to pursue this goal.

Enhanced Security Procedures

Security, in its many forms, dominated the committee reports and discussions at the meeting, held October 12 to 14 at the Desmond Great Valley Hotel in Malvern, Pa., the dates corresponding with the American Helicopter Museum’s annual Rotorfest Weekend at nearby Brandywine Airport. Pat Wagner, chairman of the heliports committee and manager of the 34th Street Heliport, said, “Our heliport is self policed. A person doesn’t get five steps into the terminal building before he or she is approached by a staff member.” She added that improvements begun before September 11 include a closed-circuit television on the ramp and, in the terminal building, new signs and new rules.

“I’m not hiding behind the security issue” said Bill Wallace of the FAA’s rotorcraft office, “but constantly changing notams, TFRs and other restrictions are now simply a fact of life. The National Security Council and Department of Defense have a war on their hands and everything went out the window. I’m not making excuses, but as long as the decisions are in the hands of the Defense Department and FBI, all bets are off. I’m here to tell you I can’t tell you anything.”

Obviously frustrated, Wallace admitted, “There was no logic to some of the notams issued. For example, flight training was allowed in Enhanced Class B airspace, but not Part 91 corporate operations. An instructor could sign off a student to depart on a solo cross-country flight from an airport inside Enhanced Class B, but that student was not allowed to return to the same airport. There were and are a lot of loose ends, which we’re addressing as best we can.”

According to one ERHC attendee, the attitude of the security officials making the airspace decisions was based on the simple concept: “It’s not going to happen on my watch.” Logic–like why were Part 135 charter operations allowed into Enhanced Class B airspace while corporate operators flying known passengers were not–did not enter into their decision making.

Said Zuccaro, “The ultimate goal is to try to get back to as normal operations as we can with the full knowledge that things are not going to be exactly as they were before. There are no more motivated operators, in terms of guaranteeing security to the best of our ability, than the corporate operators because our personnel are in those helicopters. Our pilots are in there and our customers are in there, so who is better motivated to protect them than us? We have everything to gain by protecting ourselves. By protecting our own assets, we protect the public.”

ERHC chairman Diane Dowd added, “Many of us are with companies that have already initiated new security measures. In-house security departments have been very proactive since September 11.” One company uses secure passwords and codes. If the passengers show up to board the helicopter along with someone the pilots don’t know, the real passengers have a code word they can use so that the pilots know they are under duress. The pilots can then make an excuse for not starting the helicopter and call security.

Flight and security information is also being guarded. “Nothing is being done by e-mail anymore,” said one pilot. “Flight times and code words are passed on one-on-one.”

“Our company security department is now screening every flight,” said another. “There’s an additional set of eyes looking at every schedule.” For obvious security reasons, the ERHC members preferred not to get more specific when discussing what Dowd called “our enhanced security procedures.”

Part of the effort to open up the airspace for helicopters has been to try to separate corporate helicopter operations from other general aviation activities in the minds of those making the decisions, although precisely how this could be done was not clear. “I can’t believe the security agencies were linking corporate helicopter operators to Cessna 172s,” said Roy Resavage, HAI president, at the ERHC meeting. “Most CEOs use their helicopters for business and they need them even more now than they did before September 11.” Some operators considered obtaining Part 135 certificates, since such operations were being allowed into Enhanced Class B airspace. But Resavage said, “I don’t think getting a Part 135 certificate is the answer. For one thing, it takes a long time to get it and for another, the FAA is watching for 91 operators who are trying to sign onto another operator’s 135 certificate. We’re working with ERHC, NBAA and FAA to get back operations, and we are getting them back piecemeal. But if there is another catastrophe, I don’t know what the reaction will be.”

Separating corporate helicopter operations from other Part 91 operations “has nothing to do with any idea that we think there is anything detrimental with the other Part 91 operations,” Zuccaro stressed at the meeting. “We’re basing the logic on the fact that helicopters are different from fixed-wing aircraft. For example, take the Enhanced Class B airspace. The average general aviation airplane has less of a need to enter that airspace because there are few general aviation airports inside. The core of our whole system [in the Northeast] is located dead center of the Boston, New York and Washington airports. We need access to Manhattan. No one else needs it like we do. I estimate that 95 percent of the helicopters flown into the Manhattan heliports are staffed by full-time professional pilots operating for companies and corporations, most of them major Fortune 100s. We are the only subsegment of Part 91 that cannot reach its primary facilities.”

Since the ERHC meeting, Enhanced Class B airspace was lifted from 27 of the 30 cities over which it had been imposed shortly after September 11, leaving only New York, Boston and Washington still restricted at press time. Part 135 and Part 91 IFR operations are allowed in the 18-nm-diameter Enhanced Class B airspace, but not Part 91 VFR operations. So despite the cancellation of the TFR around the World Trade Center on October 12, Part 91 VFR helicopter operations to Manhattan’s heliports, which lie within New York’s Enhanced Class B airspace, were at press time, still prohibited. However, since the ERHC meeting, several Part 91 corporate helicopter operators in the Northeast had obtained exemptions from the FAA to operate to New York’s heliports.

Although on a lesser scale than NBAA and HAI, ERHC has increased its use of its Web site to disseminate information on airspace restrictions and other current issues. Most of the site ( is open to all, with only the forums restricted to ERHC members.