Who’s the Boss?

Low flying fire department helicopter

If you’re mentally yelling “Tony Danza!”, think again my friend. When it comes to aviation, the rules are made by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Someone might want to let the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and Congressman Howard Berman in on that fact. The good Mr. Berman has introduced legislation — supported by the Supervisors — which, according to his press release, would “give the FAA the authority to set minimum altitudes and flight paths for helicopter traffic in LA country (sic)”.

Low-flying helicopters are becoming a nuisance, and federal authorities should restrict how low they can fly in Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors said Tuesday.

Citing persistent helicopter noise from flights carrying tourists, paparazzi and news reporters, the supervisors voted 4-0 to support H.R. 2677, a bill by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys). The measure permits the Federal Aviation Administration to order that helicopters fly at a higher altitude in Los Angeles County.

As a member of the House of Representatives, you’d think Mr. Berman would know the FAA already has that authority. They’ve had it since the agency was founded in the 1950s.

Low flying fire department helicopter

What he’s either not aware of (or, more likely, just doesn’t care about) is that helicopters fly low for a reason, and it’s not just because they want to annoy the neighbors. The flight paths of helicopters are not compatible with those of airliners and general aviation traffic over the city of Los Angeles. They fly the altitudes they do because if they’re any higher up, they’ll be directly in the way of much faster, heavier, and less maneuverable jet aircraft.

When I fly for the Medfly program, we mix it up with downtown helicopter traffic every day. I also see the airliners buzzing right over our heads as we do it. The closer you get to LAX, the lower you have to be to fly underneath that traffic. Even in cases where there’s little risk of a collision, airliners still generate tremendous wake turbulence, and that can be a deadly hazard to something as light as a helicopter.

If they think 300 feet is low, someone should tell the Board that helicopters routinely fly as low as 50′ above the water as they transition along the shoreline just off the end the departure runways at LAX. Again, they do it for a reason. It’s the safest way to transition helicopters from one side of the airport to the other without disrupting operations.

I’m not suggesting helicopter pilots can’t fly more neighborly, but from my experience, the big noise is made by police, sheriff, and fire department rotary wing aircraft. If you want to do without their services, be my guest. But at least be honest about who it is that’s making all the noise. The TV news and general aviation helicopters are the ones flying the highest and therefore producing the least noise. I base that statement on more than 2,000 hours of flying at low altitude around the downtown area.

The L.A. Times article even shows a photograph of a fire department helicopter as it’s example of “low flying” traffic while proclaiming that it’s the paparazzi and tourists who are at fault.

The good news is that there is something the good Congressman can do to increase aviation safety in the L.A. area: withdraw his legislation and leave governing the skies to the experts.

3 comments

  1. Wow, I just read the congressman’s press release and am amazed at the lack of understanding. The thing that most upsets me though is his attempt to use the Disney TFRs as a precedent for what he wants to do. I did get some chuckles from the poor proofreading that was done on the press release. My favorite line is “. . . certain helicopter operators can freely and fragrantly disturb communities”

  2. I’m constantly amazed at how many politicians use the Disneyland and/or Disney World TFRs as justification when proposing legislation to restrict aviation activity.

    Yet another reason the TFR should never have been allowed in the first place.

    I’m not sure why the phraseology in that press release was so badly mangled. Blind dependence on spell checkers? Plain ol’ laziness? Either way, it reflects poorly on the congressman and his already misguided message.

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