Plotting course for quieter helicopters

06/10/2010 12:00 AM |

A solidarity movement is afoot on eastern Long Island to demand a change in new helicopter regulations recently proposed by the federal government.

Officials from the East End found a unified voice when they met at East Hampton Town Hall last week, only days after the Federal Aviation Administration had filed notice that it would regulate helicopters flying from New York City to the Hamptons. The new rules, they complained, would do nothing to solve noise problems on the North Fork and Shelter Island.

The regulations would make the New York-North Shore Route, an established air traffic corridor, a mandatory offshore pathway for helicopters, requiring them to fly one mile seaward of the shoreline at an altitude of 2,500 feet.

Although the proposed rules were touted as a victory in the battle against helicopter noise over Long Island when Senator Charles Schumer announced them May 24, they would not alter current air traffic patterns over the East End. They have spawned complaint hotlines in nearly every community since they were established as part of a voluntary program in 2008.

The new rules would allow pilots to veer off the pathway over the Sound in order to reach their destinations. That means helicopters could continue to cross the region on their way to East Hampton Airport, Gabreski Airport in Westhampton and the Dune Road helipad in Southampton.

The East Hampton meeting, which was not open to the press, included officials from Southold, Riverhead, Southampton and East Hampton, two Shelter Island residents and representatives of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Tim Bishop.

“What was really great was that we all pretty much agreed about the core issues,” said John La Sala of Shelter Island.

Those points of agreement will be the basis of a joint petition to change the proposed rules, to be filed within the federal government’s 30-day comment period, which expires June 25. The petition would point out that the proposed rules would not restrict the paths helicopters take now to their Hamptons destinations. Approximately 70 percent of eastbound helicopter traffic from Manhattan heads to East Hampton Airport, officials told participants at Tuesday’s meeting. Those flights cross the North Fork at some point.

The officials listed the following areas of agreement:

* Traffic should be divided equally between North Shore and South Shore routes. The South Shore route is similar to the north corridor; traffic there could also be restricted to one mile seaward of the shoreline and then transit to Hamptons airports from the Atlantic Ocean.

* East Hampton-bound traffic on the North Shore route must stay on that route past Orient Point and Plum Island. Unanimous agreement was not reached on the exact path south to East Hampton, but it would be primarily over water. Traffic to Gabreski would fly over the pine barrens.

* Airspace issues at JFK should be explored for access from Manhattan to the South Shore route. Pilots working out of JFK have stated that helicopters can pass through JFK airspace without conflict at altitudes below commercial traffic.

* The minimum cruising altitude for helicopters should be increased from 2,500 feet to 3,000 feet.

Joseph Fischetti, a pilot who represented Southold Town, called the outcome “a good first step,” but added that no change is likely for this summer season.

The problem won’t be solved unless the FAA requires pilots to avoid flying over land as much as possible, he said. At present, helicopters can leave that airspace and turn inland at any point.

“What are they giving up? They’re giving us nothing,” Mr. Fischetti said of the FAA. “It’s not elimination, it’s mitigation. Three or four helicopters an hour is not a problem. But 20 helicopters an hour is a problem.”

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter agreed the solution lies in prohibiting helicopters from flying over land except when they’re on final approach.

“We can’t allow three or four commercial carriers to put an undue burden on East End residents,” the supervisor said. “Riverhead doesn’t want to be burdened by East Hampton’s helicopter traffic. All the FAA has to do is set the flight path, that’s it.”

Mr. Walter strenuously objected to diverting air traffic over the pine barrens. There is no way for the helicopters to take that path without crossing populated areas, he said

Participants also discussed giving East Hampton Airport, which has no control tower, more power to direct air traffic in order to mitigate noise.

Last year, airport manager Jim Brundige said he preferred to divide incoming helicopters so that half would approach from the south and half from the north to spread out the noise burden. Currently 85 percent take the northern approach over South Ferry. The southern approach directs choppers flying along the Atlantic Ocean to turn inland and limit their overland portion to just two miles. That path takes them over upscale homes on Georgica Pond.

“No one had any patience with the helicopters,” Mr. La Sala said. “There was a lot of good humor in this meeting at the other side’s expense.”

The issue was to be on the agenda for the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association meeting in Southampton yesterday (Wednesday).

Tim Kelly contributed to this story.