Written by Linda Portney Goldstein Friday, 22 July 2011 00:00
Port Washington, along with many other North Shore communities, lies in the flight path of helicopters transporting city residents to the Hamptons. Depending upon where you live in the town of North Hempstead, you may find the noise generated by these low flying helicopters to be a serious noise pollutant.
Len Schaier, head of Citizens for Quiet Skies Over North Hempstead and a resident of the Salem area of Port Washington, says that residents of densely populated or higher elevations such as Salem and Manorhaven are particularly bothered by the noise. Since the lot sizes in these communities tend to be smaller and the homes closer together than in some other areas of the town, the sound is amplified as it reverberates off buildings. Mr. Schaier says that the low flying helicopters “sound like hell on earth. Apocalypse Now without the soundtrack. And this every time a helicopter passes which is very often, particularly April through October, when local residents are trying to enjoy the outdoors.”
The problem became severe about three years ago when people on the east end of Long Island complained about the noise they were experiencing from helicopters and small planes. Their protests were successful in that they effected a change in the approach patterns of aircraft to the east end. Helicopters began to fly what is referred to as the northern route, which routes the aircraft over the northern towns of Nassau county and then south over western Suffolk. Traffic over the Town of North Hempstead increased, as did the noise.
When the routing change occurred, members of many local North Shore communities met with representatives from the FAA, metropolitan area helicopter operators, airport managers and local governments to try and find a solution to the noise generated as a result of the increased helicopter traffic. As a proposed solution helicopter operators agreed to fly higher than 2,500 feet and at least one mile offshore.
The catch is that regulations require an aircraft flying one mile off shore to have a twin engine. The helicopters flying the city to Hamptons route generally have one engine. Add to this contradiction the fact that it is less expensive to fly lower and to not move far offshore and most helicopters are still flying below the suggested 2,500 feet and over land rather than water. Therefore, the noise levels peak along north shore communities.
Further complicating resolution of the problem is the lack of clear authority over these low flying aircraft. Apparently the FAA does not have jurisdiction over what is referred to as “site only aircraft”. The helicopters take off from heliports that are supposedly under the jurisdiction of the Port Authority and /or the State Economic Development Fund, which, according to a local resident, keep ducking the issue. “Right now helicopters take off and land at will, functioning like taxis,” said Mr. Schaier. “I can’t believe this is not a national security issue as well as a quality of life issue.”
Senator Charles Schumer announced on February 11, 2011 that he had added an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization act giving the FAA clear authority over helicopter flights. Although the measure passed the Senate on February 10, 2011 it has been stuck in joint committee since then. It should be noted that the FAA has been working without a permanent reauthorization bill since 2007 and the latest version does not look anywhere near passage so residents’ hope for a quieter future would seem to rest with the state. State Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel and State Senator Jack Martins are trying to get heliports to monitor helicopter traffic through state legislation.
For the past two years, members of the Citizens for Quiet Skies Over North Hempstead have been collecting data through a program called Passur-LGA and equipment that Mr. Schaier, an engineer, has designed, which enables them to document each aircraft, the altitude at which it is flying and its make and model. They are hoping the data will show an increase in the frequency of flights over the TONH, providing legislators with the documentation they need to affect a change in state law. Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman has recently assigned an intern to assist the group with the tracking and analyses of data.
In the interim, Mr. Schaier said that a compromise could go a long way toward abating the situation TONH residents are living with. “The northern route is not the only route. At one point, the FAA suggested a route over the Bronx but it is more mileage, therefore more expensive. The other option is a southern route where the helicopters would be flying over beaches instead of residential areas. Some combination of all three is probably the most realistic resolution. Varying the route would better the quality of life in the affected communities.”