A Federal Aviation Administration review of flight restrictions has pit helicopter tour companies and environmentalists against one another.

(not so)

Helicopter operators are fighting
a move to make permanent rules forcing
them to 1,500 feet, but hikers and
environmentalists want tougher laws

Flying closer to the ground is safer than flying high, say Hawaii's tour helicopter operators, who are threatened with a permanent rule forcing them to fly at a minimum of 1,500 feet, with some exceptions that could bring them down as low as 500 feet.

Breezing along hillsides at 300 feet, hovering alongside waterfalls or above lava flows, actually presents less danger than staying five times that high, pilots say.

Maybe so, say environmentalists, but low-flying helicopters present an unacceptable noise nuisance and they would prefer the ear-shattering machines be kept out of the scenic areas altogether.

A long-fought battle of words between helicopter operators and hikers and other nature lovers has heated up again with a flood of testimony pouring in to the FAA with plenty of rhetoric on both sides.

Seeking to make a temporary 1,500-foot minimum permanent, the Federal Aviation Administration asked for public testimony and set a Sept. 8 deadline for submissions.

There are almost as many environmentalist letters in the FAA files in support of the 1,500-foot limit as there are pilots' objections.

"Our real concern is creating places that are real refuges from human pollution," whether it is noise pollution or any other kind, said Jeff Mikulina, director of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club.

"People escape from the cities, leave the more-urbanized environment, to seek this environment and then get inundated with helicopter after helicopter," Mikulina said.

The Sierra Club cites studies that show that not only is human health affected by noise, nesting birds have their lives disrupted by passing helicopters and that could be disastrous to the state's ecology.

But none of that matters, because officially the altitude minimum is not about noise at all, it's about safety, said Preston Myers, owner of Maui-based Safari Helicopters.

"That's what they said to the operators. They said it to the public and they said it in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, that it was not a noise issue. Those comments (of the environmentalists) are not germane," Myers said.

If he had his choice, it would be the hikers who would be banned.

"I think they should ban the hikers and only allow the helicopters, because they don't leave trash and junk behind like the hikers do," Myers said.

He said the 1,500-foot limit creates dangers of mid-air collisions with fixed-wing aircraft flying in the same space and is therefore more dangerous than flying lower. "Helicopters get down low and slow where fixed-wing aircraft don't go," he said.

Myers and other helicopter pilots said the higher minimum forces them to find new routes when the cloud ceiling is at 1,500 feet, which often happens. That means more flying over houses.

And pilots say that being allowed to come down to 300 feet would let them fly along the sides of valleys, not in the middle, and the noise actually spreads farther under the higher minimum.

Lower altitudes also mean pilots can follow their traditional scenic routes below the clouds, going along the same path over and over again, getting familiar with it and watching for emergency landing spots, Myers said.

"Pilots are trained at 500 feet. We're trained to recognize terrain at 500 feet, not 1,500 feet," he said.

And pilots say the nine-year-old minimum-altitude rule has cost them business. The FAA said there are now 24 tour-helicopter operators in the islands. in 1994, when the temporary regulation when into effect because of what the FAA said was a string of accidents, there were 25 operators. At a peak in 1997 there were 33.

Acknowledging that the emergency rule drew criticism in 1994, even from the National Transportation Safety Board, because of the alleged risk of forcing helicopters into situations where they might risk mid-air collisions, the FAA maintains that the rule has increased helicopter safety.

The rule "has been successful in reducing the air tour accident rate in Hawaii and does not compromise safety," the FAA said in its most recent filing in the current rule-making case. The FAA said there have been fewer fatalities since the rule went into effect. And there have been no midair collisions between helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

In any case, the rule was really put in place because of pressure from noise-hating environmentalists and not for safety reasons at all, the pilots argue. And it's not working, they say.

"Admittedly the noise issue is an issue, but the helicopter operators were working on it and were very successful with a voluntary noise abatement program," said Steve Egger, owner of Air Maui Helicopter Tours.

"Essentially we had to throw it out the window the day (Special Federal Aviation Regulation 71) went into effect. We now fly over hundreds of more homes than we used to; we're forced to," he said.

That occurs when pilots leave Kahului to head for the upslope rain forests but cannot go there when the cloud cover is below 1,500 feet. That means running out of the cloud along the coast, annoying residents.

"When we're forced out of areas that have, say, waterfalls or scenic value, we basically have to fly around," Egger said. That means new territory all the time and more likelihood of flying over habitation.

"We don't pay a pilot to fly around and listen to music and then crash the helicopter because of engine failure," Egger said. "Basically we are just flying all over the place and we don't fly the same route ever. When the engine actually fails you're in a place where you've never been before," he said.

But environmentalists have jumped into the argument, seeking stronger anti-helicopter rules, not easier ones.

A conditional provision for flights at 500 feet is still too low, said the Sierra Club's Mikulina. Under the existing rule, the FAA can allow specific helicopters to fly as low as 500 feet on specific routes after test runs show the FAA that it will work.

"That's one of the things that we find so frustrating," Mikulina said. "There are so many exemptions to go to 500 feet and it really does destroy the tranquility," he said.

"We would like to see some compromises, some off-limits places that are free from helicopter noise or any kind of aircraft noise. (Hikers) want to hear the birds singing," Mikulina said.

Dave Chevalier, head of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters and a seasoned tour-helicopter pilot, said noise is an important issue.

In fact, his company is betting big money on it, ordering 10 new helicopters at $8 million each just because they produce about half the ground-heard noise of other helicopters.

"I'm betting the company on being able to get a little more money for these flights because people are conscious of the environment" and will pay more if they know their ride is not creating a nuisance, he said.

The pilots, in a petition signed by about 20 of them and submitted to the FAA in October, protested that the Hawaii tour-helicopter law is specific to the islands and reflects no national safety standards.

Gary Hall II, a pilot at Inter-Island Helicopters, said in his formal statement to the FAA: "The pilots flying day-in and day-out see the conditions far more than the people making the rules. We know what is safe and what is not" and the current 1,500-foot minimum needs revising.

All of the operators in Hawaii said what is really needed is dialog with the hikers and environmentalists, as well as residents, to work out what can be done to ease the noise problem.

The FAA is expected to decide next month whether the rule for a 1,500-foot minimum with some exemptions as low as 500 feet should become permanent.


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