Beethoven and Helos at Loggerheads in LA

 - September 2, 2012, 3:10 AM

At a public hearing August 6 in Sherman Oaks, Calif., citizens of the Los Angeles metro area took to the microphone to complain to FAA Western-Pacific regional administrator Bill Withycombe about noise caused by low-flying helicopters.

The meeting was co-hosted by representative Howard Berman (D-Valley Village), who last year submitted H.R. 2677, the Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act of 2011. The act would require the FAA to issue, one year from passage, new rules “that include requirements relating to the flight paths and altitudes associated with such operations to reduce helicopter noise pollution in residential areas.”

While the act has thus far received no support in Congress, the helicopter industry is concerned about efforts to constrain helicopter flying, because Congress has the power to tell the FAA to do something. But sometimes it isn’t even necessary for legislation to be passed. Airspace over Long Island is now subject to a new FAA regulation, the Long Island North Shore rule, that forces helicopter pilots to fly at specific altitudes and avoid flying over certain areas.

Apparently complaining loudly and frequently enough to a powerful politician generates results. “The [FAA] did note in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that the rule was being promulgated at the request of Senator Schumer of New York, who had received noise complaints from some of his constituents,” the Helicopter Association International (HAI) wrote in a statement questioning whether the FAA observed proper protocol in implementing the new rule.

Ongoing Neighbor Complaints

In the Los Angeles area, helicopter operators would rather avoid such draconian regulatory measures. But according to residents who spoke at the August 6 public hearing, helicopter noise is an ongoing problem. On August 2, LA county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s enjoyment of Beethoven’s violin concerto played by Renaud Capuçon was ruined when a “large and loud” helicopter flew over the Hollywood Bowl at low altitude. “This was an outrage,” Yaroslavsky said at the public hearing. “I’m not into regulation. [But] this should not be allowed to happen.” The helicopter that flew over the Hollywood Bowl on August 2 was a Department of Homeland Security Black Hawk, sources told AIN. The Black Hawk was reportedly on a training flight. During the performance, the Black Hawk flew from the northwest, then curved over the audience at a low altitude, as low as 500 feet or even lower, then to the southeast. (Yaroslavsky did not respond when asked by AIN whether he had complained to Homeland Security.)

At the hearing, representatives of 28 homeowners associations and 25 individuals voiced complaints to representative Berman and the FAA’s Withycombe. After the meeting, which lasted three hours, Withycombe’s office received another 400 noise complaints. One of the complaints during the meeting was from Palos Verdes Estates resident Freddie Benson, who took a photo of an MD500 flying down the coast past her house on July 31 below the level of her 130-foot-msl yard. The noise, she said, “was absolutely deafening. I have the right to peace and quiet.”

The hearing stemmed from a May 23 letter sent by seven politicians (two senators and five representatives) to secretary of transportation Ray LaHood. The letter asks the FAA to “begin the process of formally soliciting local stakeholder views on helicopter noise in Los Angeles County, California, to develop solutions to this ongoing problem more quickly.” It also asks LaHood to push for action instead of studies that just delay the problem.

Educational Efforts

The Professional Helicopter Pilots Association (PHPA), which is headquartered in Los Angeles, has been working for many years on noise issues, especially over sensitive areas such as the Hollywood Bowl, the West Hollywood area, the iconic Hollywood sign (a helicopter tourism favorite), Van Nuys and residential hot spots near Los Angeles International Airport. The PHPA publishes hot spot documents to help local helicopter pilots avoid noise-sensitive areas. And for the Hollywood Bowl and nearby John Anson Ford Amphitheater, the PHPA published a notice on July 6 to warn pilots about activities at those venues. If both venues are hosting evening performances (June 15 through October 1), pilots can see strobe lights and searchlight beams crossed in the sky. A single strobe highlights the Ford when the Bowl is closed. “We ask that pilots, if at all possible, remain farther east closer to I-5 rather than Lake Hollywood or the Cahuenga Pass since both locations are adjacent to the Ford Amphitheatre and the Hollywood Bowl.”

The floor of the Class B airspace just south of the Hollywood Bowl is 5,000 feet, and the Bowl itself is overlain by Burbank Airport’s Class C airspace, with a 3,000-foot floor and 4,800-foot top. The Cahuenga Pass along the 101 freeway is a convenient way to fly from the Los Angeles area to Burbank and the San Fernando Valley, but while Los Angeles airspace is complex, there is no reason why aircraft need to fly low over the Hollywood Bowl.

To further its educational efforts and try to forestall legislative efforts and continued pressure on the FAA, the PHPA arranged for a helicopter flyover at its monthly meeting August 13 at the Hollywood Bowl, during a rehearsal by the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. The rehearsal was in preparation for an August 14 performance, led by conductor Gustavo Dudamel and featuring singer-songwriter Juan Luis Guerra. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) did the flyover in one of its Eurocopter AStars. The first pass was at about 1,000 agl, followed by two circles directly over the Bowl at 750 feet agl (the Homeland Security Black Hawk flew below that altitude) and 1,350 feet agl. The final pass was at what might be considered a more normal transition altitude for the area, 1,800 feet msl.

The orchestra wasn’t playing a particular piece during the flyover, but at times when music could be heard, the sound of the helicopter easily overwhelmed the music (see a video of the flyover on AIN’s YouTube channel or below). This occurred during all of the passes, but was especially noticeable during the lowest pass. The problem with this noise is two-fold. While the music being rehearsed was much louder than the August 2 violin concerto, it was easy to hear how the noise would interrupt a performance. “Most of what we do is soft symphonic music,” said Paul Geller, director of production for LA Philharmonic. “It takes you into another place.” Even when helicopters aren’t orbiting or flying low over the Bowl, he added, “It’s enough to take you away from where the music takes you.”

Geller is happy to work with local pilots and wants to continue holding regular PHPA meetings at the Bowl, to help educate pilots. “We’re just requesting that you don’t fly over the concerts,” he said. “We’re looking to work together. It’s important that you know we’re not here to say, ‘Get rid of the helicopters.’ And if you want to come by and hear a concert, let us know. Hopefully you won’t be disturbed.”

The other problem with noise over performance venues such as the Bowl is that many concerts are unique, never-repeated performances that are professionally recorded. External noise can ruin these recordings. “If this happened, the performance could not be put on TV,” county supervisor Yaroslavsky pointed out.

According to the LA Philharmonic’s Leni Boorstein, who spoke at the August 6 public hearing, there are an average of five flyovers during every Hollywood Bowl performance. “Conductors have walked offstage,” she said. “It feels as though pilots are making little attempt to avoid the Bowl. If there is a helicopter interruption, [the performance] cannot be considered for broadcast. Pilots have no incentive to pay attention.”

Local pilots, especially those who are members of the PHPA, are well aware of the noise problem and are trying to help, according to PHPA president Larry Welk. “PHPA has always been about working with the community,” he said. But he is worried about any legislative or FAA regulatory efforts. “One of the problems is that legislation has unintended consequences. A good example is the TFR around Dodger Stadium or Disneyland.”

Legislative Solution Possible

The angry residents at the noise hearing pleaded with the FAA’s Withycombe to develop new regulations limiting hovering and loitering time, mandating minimum altitudes of 2,000 agl and requiring helicopters to have easily visible N-numbers. But creating constraints would be dangerous for pilots, Welk explained. “If you compress that airspace, especially without any study, because the residents are complaining and you exempt law enforcement and military helicopters, you’re now endangering the flying public and people on the ground. To me that’s more dangerous and that’s why I’m not in favor of legislation without a good study of the cause and effect.”

Rep. Berman’s attempt to legislate a solution, he added, “is frustrating to PHPA and me. Berman wrote this legislation without consulting anybody from the helicopter community. He’s talking about legislation, rulemaking for helicopters in Los Angeles and did not reach out to any of the local organizations that represent helicopters. We want to be participants, part of the solution. I want to see what is the difference between what is an exaggerated problem and a real problem. [At the hearing], we had people saying that noise was a form of terrorism. Is it, or is it something that is annoying that we can work on?”

Keith Harter, managing partner of Hawthorne, Calif.-based Star Helicopters, is acutely aware of noise sensitivity and makes sure his company’s pilots are well trained on these issues. Star trains pilots and flies helicopter tours. For passengers who want the full Hollywood treatment, Star’s pilots avoid the Hollywood Bowl and remain at least 1,500 feet agl over the Hollywood sign and over the observatory in Griffith Park. When flying tours along the coastline, Star pilots fly at least 500 feet. “If [you are lower],” he said, “you cannot autorotate. I have seen numerous helicopters flying below the levels of the cliffs [near Palos Verdes]. I don’t know why they do that. We’ve never had any complaints. [But] if anyone sees any of our pilots doing something wrong, I sure want to know.”

Lieutenant Phil Smith, assistant commanding officer for the LAPD Air Support division, attended the August 6 noise hearing and was impressed by the public support for public-safety helicopter operators. But Smith does understand that a police helicopter flying a mission at 2 p.m. is different from 2 a.m. “At two in the morning, it is a big deal,” he said. “We understand that complaint, and we do all we can to follow the fly-neighborly guidelines issued by HAI. “We do all we can unless it’s a tactical situation.” In that case, the helicopter might have to fly lower to view a license plate or help chase a suspect. At night, LAPD pilots fly higher mainly because they can’t see obstacles near the ground. Generally during the day, the altitude profile is 400 to 500 feet agl (700 feet agl at night), and pilots avoid hovering because there isn’t much opportunity for a safe autorotation. If someone calls with a complaint, Smith can quickly check the helicopter logs to find out who was flying, when and where.

“We’re not there because we’ve chosen to be,” he said. “When we’re called it was a neighbor in distress or somebody is fleeing a crime scene. Whatever the call is, we’re there, and when we’re done we’re gone. It’s not fun to fly in a left circle for a prolonged time. We’re respectful of the homeowner and people sleeping, but when it’s your house you want us there.”

“This is not the first time I’ve heard noise complaints,” the FAA’s Withycombe concluded at the PHPA meeting at the Hollywood Bowl. “We’re facing a big problem. It involves all segments of the industry. You can’t exempt noise, and that’s the problem. The bottom line is, it’s an election year, and [issues like this] attract attention for congressional representatives. It’s good for them.”

When it comes to solving the noise problem in Los Angeles, Withycombe said, “We don’t want to regulate [the helicopter] industry in this area. We want to work with you.” The FAA plans to solicit input from operators, compile the noise complaints, then consolidate all that information and discuss solutions at a meeting in October or November.

Meanwhile, Withycombe, who is also a helicopter pilot and mechanic, said the solution isn’t just to move the noise from one house to another but rather for all pilots and operators to fly neighborly, as recommended in the HAI guidelines. “I know what you’re talking about,” he said. “Work with us.”