FAA Denies L.A. Anti-helicopter Petitions

 - May 26, 2016, 2:27 PM
The FAA recently rejected an anti-helicopter group's petitions to limit air tour and electronic newsgathering helicopter operations over the Los Angeles basin. (Photo: OrbicAir)

In late May the FAA denied a quartet of petitions that sought to impose helicopter minimum altitudes; mandatory routings; and hover, orbit and pooling restrictions on tour and electronic news gathering (ENG) operators for all helicopters flying within the Los Angeles Basin. The petitions were filed by various groups of anti-helicopter activists under the umbrella group known as the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Noise Coalition (LAAHNC). The Coalition had petitioned that non-emergency helicopters be required to fly at a minimum of 2,000 feet; that limits be imposed on hover and/or orbit times for tour and ENG helicopters; that the latter be forced to operate in pools; and that all helicopters flying along the coast do so at least half a mile offshore.

In denying the petitions, the FAA said they did not “meet the criteria to pursue rulemaking at this time” and that “three were not feasible for safety reasons” and one “was not within the agency’s regulatory authority.” The agency also noted that basin-area helicopter operators had developed a series of voluntary noise-mitigation initiatives such as flying higher over local noise hot spots and that the FAA had developed a voluntary offshore helicopter route that it expected to publish last month.

The Professional Helicopter Pilots Association (PHPA), a Los Angeles-area organization that represents the local interests of the helicopter industry, heralded the FAA’s decisions but “cautions helicopter pilots and operators not to become complacent. This is not the time to abandon the hard work we have already done over the past year to demonstrate our ability to collaborate with the stakeholders in the area to mitigate noise,” said PHPA president Morrie Zager. “On the contrary, this is the time to remain extra vigilant and build upon our efforts to continue to be good stewards of the community and remember helicopters are noisy to the communities below. We must not alienate ourselves from the LAAHNC. They are a well organized group of like-minded individuals who will certainly continue their crusade to regulate us.”

The LAAHNC abandoned voluntary cooperation with the Los Angeles helicopter community last year before filing its petitions with the FAA, claiming that the strategy was not producing results, a claim disputed by the PHPA and the FAA. In denying the LAAHNC’s petitions, the FAA noted that it “has taken important steps that further voluntary action on the part of operators, residents and other stakeholders” and that “the FAA is committed to working with stakeholders as they further mature and formulate additional voluntary measures” and had committed significant resources to studying the problem of helicopter noise in the L.A. Basin.

As an example, the agency pointed out that it has “developed specific beacon codes for use in Los Angeles County to enhance safety by distinguishing helicopters from fixed-wing aircraft and raising situational awareness of pilots and air traffic controllers; has completed extensive analyzing adherence to existing helicopter routes and potential for route adjustments for the Hollywood, Torrance, Palos Verdes and Long Beach areas; has provided stakeholder briefings to review and explain the results of the analysis; and has identified a new voluntary offshore route based on an analysis of coastal air traffic and stakeholder input.” The FAA also pointed to the new automated helicopter noise complaint system it recently implemented in the Los Angeles area and its potential to form the basis of a permanent helicopter noise program. While the LAAHNC has walked away from voluntary helicopter route and altitude measures for the Basin, the FAA noted that it continues to meet with the PHPA to discuss the results from the automated complaint system. “Monthly complaint review committee meetings are taking place between industry and your organization,” the FAA noted, “to discuss complaint system results and help make informed decisions about modifications to helicopter routes and operations.”

Geography Makes Plan Unworkable

However, safety was the paramount reason the FAA denied the LAAHNC’s petitions. When it came to the Coalition’s request to establish a minimum helicopter altitude of 2,000 feet agl, the FAA noted the peculiarities of the Basin’s microclimates, topography and airspace congestion and complexity that combined to make the idea unworkable and unsafe. The FAA noted that the Basin’s convergence of mountains, desert and ocean coastline create wide variations of climate within short distances, with locally unique weather patterns such as the foggy “June Gloom” which often conflict with a pilot’s decision to fly at lower VFR altitudes.

The FAA noted, “Southern California’s airspace is extremely complex and has high-volume air traffic driven by multiple international, domestic and general aviation airports in close proximity to one another, military operations and flight training activity. There are 27 airports (15 public use, 11 private use and one private seaplane base) in Los Angeles County with 21 different airport sponsors. Additionally, there are 138 heliports registered with the FAA.” The FAA goes on to note that “many” of the helicopter operations in L.A. County are in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace. The FAA reminded the LAAHNC, “The FAA established a collaborative process which included your organization and local helicopter operators beginning in 2012 until the spring of 2015 that evaluated whether helicopters could safely fly at higher altitudes within Los Angeles County given its unique geographic, topographic and climate limitations. The volume and complexity of fixed-wing aircraft transitioning in various stages of flight (approach, departure, en route) prohibits the establishment of a county-wide minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above ground level.” The FAA went on to state, “Requiring helicopters to fly at higher altitudes would negatively impact the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS) by placing helicopters in conflict with other aircraft and would increase the chance of a midair collision.”

The FAA similarly voiced safety concerns in denying the LAAHNC’s petition to create a mandatory VFR offshore coastal helicopter route. “The FAA found the majority of the shoreline operations are conducted by single-engine helicopters, which are not equipped with float devices. Pilots [stay close] to the shoreline to conduct an autorotation in the event of emergency. The lateral distance a helicopter is capable of maneuvering during an autorotation is different for each aircraft type. Placing a mandatory distance offshore for helicopter operations would require [flying higher so the pilot can] safely conduct an autorotation. The volume and complexity of fixed-wing aircraft in Los Angeles County transitioning in various stages of flight (approach, departure, en route) prohibits helicopters from flying at higher altitudes.” 

In dismissing the LAAHNC’s petition to impose a hover limit of five minutes per hour over any given location, the FAA noted that these operations tend to occur in uncontrolled airspace and the success of voluntary measures, such as issuing Advisory Notams for planned events where helicopter activity is likely to occur, and advocating best practices, such as voluntary hover limits and hover turning in the direction of the main rotor rotation and keeping the turn rate low to minimize tail-rotor noise. The LAAHNC also petitioned the FAA to mandate the pooling of media helicopters. While the FAA supports pooling as a best practice, it advised the Coalition that it lacks the authority to impose it. “Although the FAA cannot at this time conduct rulemaking for the specific petition requested, it has taken important steps that further voluntary action on the part of operators, residents and other stakeholders,” the agency said.