Cover Photo by Erickson Incorporated

Southern California rotorcraft operators, pilots address community concerns over noise.

This is a good-news, everybody-wins success story in an industry that needs one. Once operating under a congressional mandate to address helicopter noise issues in the greater Los Angeles area, the LA helicopter industry has successfully staved off the looming threat of being regulated out of existence.

Led by volunteers from the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association (PHPA) and the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Operators Association (LAAHOA)—both proud HAI affiliates—LA-area pilots and operators accomplished this victory the hard way: They listened to what the other side had to say. They documented the problems. They conducted extensive outreach and education efforts with homeowner groups and legislators. They also worked to educate the LA rotorcraft community about the importance of minimizing their noise impact—and provided specific techniques for how to do that.

Hard work, yes, but with a big payoff. The once-tense relationship between homeowner groups and the helicopter community has improved so much that in April 2019 they joined together to request that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors allocate funds to continue operation of the Automated Helicopter Noise Complaint System (ACS).

You are likely asking why on earth any self-respecting helicopter pilot would advocate for a way to make it easier for people to complain about their flights. To understand this, let’s look at how we got to where we are today.

Public-sector agencies, including law enforcement, firefighting, and search and rescue, account for the majority of helicopter operations in the LA area. Photo by Stock Photo

The Tipping Point

The helicopter noise issue in Los Angeles came to the forefront in July 2011, during the demolition of the Mulholland overpass on the 405 Freeway, one of the busiest freeways in the United States. The event was christened “Carmageddon” by Angelenos, but it also attracted a few helicopters.

News helicopters covered this event nearly 24 hours a day for several days, causing much distress to the residents residing in the construction area. They took their complaints to their elected officials, and Congress and the FAA both got involved.

In January 2014, Congress included language in an appropriations bill mandating the FAA undertake several actions:

  • Evaluate and adjust existing helicopter routes above Los Angeles if they would lessen impacts on residential areas and noise-sensitive landmarks
  • Analyze whether helicopters could safely fly at higher altitudes in certain areas above Los Angeles
  • Develop and promote best practices for helicopter hovering and electronic news-gathering
  • Conduct outreach to helicopter pilots to inform them of voluntary policies and increase awareness of ­noise-sensitive areas and events
  • Work with local stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive noise complaint system
  • Continue to participate in collaborative engagement between community representatives and helicopter operators.

The most significant directive in the bill: the FAA was to begin a regulatory process related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life and safety of the people of Los Angeles County unless the agency could demonstrate, within one year, that significant progress relating to helicopter noise had been made.

The Clock Starts Ticking

One of the congressional directives was to “work with local stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive noise complaint system.” The FAA contracted with a company to develop the ACS, which enabled residents of Los Angeles County to register helicopter noise complaints via telephone, through a website (heli-noise-la.com), and ultimately through a smartphone app. The ACS went online in 2015, tracking helicopter noise complaints, as well as identifying problem areas, or hot spots, where the most complaints occurred. The cost to build the system was about $250,000, with an annual maintenance cost of $30,000.

With the advent of the helicopter noise complaint system, a committee was formed to review the complaints. The committee, still active today, consists of select leaders from various homeowner groups, helicopter pilots and operators, and FAA representatives. We should mention that the relationship between the helicopter folks and the homeowners began as extremely tense but over the years has become one of mutual trust and respect.

The committee meets monthly. All committee members are given access to the complaint data (the identities of the complainants are redacted). The homeowners bring to the table what they consider to be the most egregious complaints from the previous month. When identification is possible, the pilots and operators on the committee, in turn, reach out to the pilots responsible for the activity that generated the complaint.

When we reach out to the pilots, we inform them that their behavior was being watched and had generated a complaint. We explain that our purpose in contacting them is educational only and that compliance is voluntary. However, we also explain that the alternative to our outreach will likely be regulatory in nature and that the homeowners assigned to our committee are well organized, extremely well connected politically and, in some cases, very passionate about what they consider to be disruptive helicopter operations.

We’re pleased to report that the overwhelming number of pilots we’ve contacted have been extremely cooperative. They understand the alternative to voluntary cooperation is likely mandatory routes and altitudes, similar to those experienced by our brothers and sisters flying in the New York/Long Island area. Once they appreciated the risks presented by their behavior, these pilots were happy to adjust their flight habits, such as flying higher, adjusting routes, or avoiding noise-sensitive areas, whenever possible.

One advantage of the committee’s methods is that when we spoke to the pilots, we could do so as fellow rotorheads. We know the Southern California airspace is among the most complex in the world. Altering helicopter routes or operating altitudes to address helicopter sound impacts has ripple effects that could compromise air safety. We could discuss solutions to the noise complaint that were operationally possible, compliant with regulations, and carried an equivalent or better level of safety.

In April 2015, soon after the ACS system went live, the FAA released a statement saying that significant progress had been made on six action items stemming from an FAA May 30, 2013, study of noise issues in Los Angeles County. The Southern California helicopter community was able to avoid regulatory remedies such as mandatory routes and altitudes because we demonstrated to the FAA, as well as to local, state, and federal elected officials, that we could and would work with anti-noise activists to mitigate the noise from our operations.

Now you’ve been briefed about how we got here. But you may still be confused as to why helicopter pilots continue to advocate for a helicopter noise complaint system.

The PHPA and LAAHOA firmly believe the information gleaned from the ACS is vital to our goal of identifying helicopter noise hot spots and mitigating helicopter noise in the region. Initially, the FAA only committed to fund the system for one year. However, because of its success and pressure from the stakeholders to keep it going, the FAA continued funding the system through June 30, 2018.

When the PHPA learned that FAA funding for the ACS would cease in June 2018, we began an effort to seek alternative funding sources. Earlier this year, on April 9, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion supporting the PHPA’s request to reinstate the system and issued letters supporting the request to the FAA and the county’s congressional delegation. This request for ongoing funding is still working its way through the Los Angeles County bureaucracy.

This poster distributed to FBOs, flight schools, and helicopter operators provides them with specific, easy-to-understand procedures to mitigate their impact on concert attendees: don’t fly over the Hollywood Bowl on these dates, at these times, when the spotlights are on. Photo by LA County Department of Parks and Recreation

What the Data Told Us

We were pretty sure the homeowner groups expected that a tremendous number of complaints would be generated by the ACS—possibly as many as 70,000 per month. The system, however, averaged only about 5,500 complaints per month. In the final year of ACS operation, the number of complaints dropped to about 4,000 per month.

This documentation of the helicopter noise problem was important. First of all, while 5,500 complaints in a month is a substantial number, some perspective is provided when you consider that the population of LA County is more than 10 million.

Secondly, the complaint system had an important unintended consequence. It exposed serial complainers, ­robo-dialers, and those who sought to game the system. For example, the data showed a single caller in the mid-city area of Los Angeles filed 1,100 complaints in a single month from his/her ZIP code. In that same month, only two other individuals from that same ZIP code filed noise complaints.

In another example, the area around the famous Hollywood sign generated 1,700 complaints in one month. The data exposed that 1,400 of those complaints came from a single person. Another 185 came from another single complainer that month. In other words, in that single month, 1,585 of the 1,700 complaints came from two people!

These examples and similar ones were shared with the staffs of two Southern California congressmen, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA 28) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA 47). This data seemed to make a tremendous impact on those staffers. It helped them understand that the helicopter noise issue in Los Angeles was a multifaceted one. The horror stories they had been hearing may not have accurately reflected what was actually going on here.

Having a complaint system in place gave us real empirical information to draw from, data that enabled both sides to get away from the “we said/they said” paradigm and focus on the facts instead. Management guru Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Getting data about what our noise impact really meant to the residents of Los Angeles County was a necessary step in mitigating that impact.

Without real data, consider the alternative: these same well-organized, politically connected, and well-funded (in many cases) anti-helicopter activists can and will go to their elected officials to complain about helicopter noise issues in their neighborhoods. Without data to back up their claims, they’re free to say whatever they want.

Elected officials will then seize the chance to prove to their constituents that they’re being responsive. How will they accomplish that? You already know the answer: enact regulations that could very well put many helicopter operators out of business.

The ACS also exposed people trying to game the complaint system. However, it’s important to note that, going in, we didn’t know that. If you commit to gathering data, then you have to be prepared to hear all the facts, including the ones that support your position and the ones that don’t.

Outreach to the Helicopter Community

We’re not suggesting helicopter pilots in the Los Angeles area are without fault. Quite the contrary. We realized that we could definitely do a better job of flying neighborly, particularly in certain areas identified as hot spots for bothersome helicopter activity. (The HAI Fly Neighborly Program is a voluntary noise reduction program that offers specific techniques for reducing the noise impact of your flights on the people below you.. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to learn more about the Fly Neighborly seminars that will be offered at HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 in Anaheim.)

Southern California is one of the world’s major entertainment capitals. Heli-tourism is very robust here. The problem is many of the famous sites people want to visit from the air sit adjacent to densely populated residential areas. The Hollywood sign, for example, is perched atop a mountain above thousands of homes. Our beaches are equally as popular, and people pay many millions of dollars for prime beachfront property.

In order to work on mitigating helicopter noise above those hot spots, the PHPA and LAAHOA began working with the FAA and homeowner groups to collaborate on measures to decrease helicopter noise while maintaining safety for flight crews and the public below.

The PHPA and LAAHOA undertook a robust educational campaign. We hosted dozens of free pilot lunch and dinner briefings across our region and even were able to give attendees FAASTeam credits for attending. We sat down with tour operators and were able to get consensus on minimum altitudes and stand-off distance from the Hollywood sign. We also collaborated with the FAA to create a voluntary off-shore helicopter route.

Another successful part of our outreach strategy was helping patrons of the Hollywood Bowl, a famous outdoor concert venue nestled in the Hollywood Hills, to enjoy the music. We started by providing helicopter pilots with a clear signal of when to avoid the area. Many years ago, the PHPA, utilizing donated medium-lift helicopters and flight crews, installed fixed searchlight structures around the Hollywood Bowl. During concert season (May through October), the Hollywood Bowl turns on the searchlights, creating an X over the venue that alerts pilots that concerts are in progress.

We also were able to get one of the local airports near the Hollywood Bowl (KBUR) to add a comment on its ATIS during concert season reminding pilots not to overfly the area. Each year, the Hollywood Bowl staff provides posters (see poster image above) for PHPA board members to distribute to all local FBOs, flight schools, and helicopter operators. The posters remind pilots to watch for the searchlights and avoid overflying the concerts. Complaints of concert overflights have dropped dramatically since we began this education campaign.

We also conducted considerable outreach to the Southern California pilot community in a campaign called “Get Educated, Not Regulated!” We focused on providing pilots with specific, actionable techniques they could utilize to fly neighborly and reduce their noise impact. A typical sample of this guidance, shown below, describes the appropriate arrival and departure routes for Van Nuys Airport (KVNY), lists recommended altitudes, and provides additional recommendations when flying these routes.

The PHPA published this information on kneeboard-sized pamphlets that are distributed at pilot briefings. It is also available to download from the PHPA website.

We should mention that efforts to curtail helicopter activity took another turn in October 2015. Anti-helicopter activists petitioned the FAA for four Special Federal Aviation Regulations (SFARs) pertaining to helicopter operations in the Los Angeles area. Those SFARs sought to:

  • Establish minimum helicopter altitudes
  • Limit hovering of electronic news-gathering (ENG) helicopters
  • Mandate ENG helicopter camera pooling so that only one news helicopter could cover an incident at a time; that operation would be required to share its images with other news stations
  • Establish a mandatory shoreline route (sound familiar, New York?).

In May of 2016, the FAA denied the request for all four SFARs. The agency cited the outreach and education conducted by the PHPA and LAAHOA as one of the major contributing factors for its decision.

As part of the PHPA’s “Get Educated, Not Regulated!” campaign, the association prepared detailed procedures to help Southern California pilots reduce their noise signatures. Photo by PHPA

Flying Neighborly to Ensure Our Future

We will continue to advocate for helicopter pilots in Southern California. The rights of helicopter pilots must be protected. The safety of pilots, crews, and passengers should never be compromised.

However, we acknowledge that the success of our industry going forward requires us to be good stewards of our profession. Helicopters are noisy and can be offensive to the residents we fly over. We must balance what we need to do to safely and responsibly accomplish our missions while recognizing the impact of our flights on the public below. Yes, we have the right to fly through an airspace, but can we do it at 1,300 ft agl instead of 800 ft?

Helicopters play a significant role in public safety, and not just the obvious law enforcement, firefighting, military, and air ambulance helicopters. ENG helicopters keep the public aware of newsworthy events and inform them of unsafe areas in their communities. Power-line patrol helicopters are critical to maintaining the electrical grid. Heli-tourism contributes a great deal to the economy, and flight schools ensure future pilots are trained.

Our ongoing collaboration with anti-helicopter groups in Los Angeles has, thus far, been successful in keeping us from being subjected to additional regulation. The process has been and continues to be challenging, requiring constant attention. Our model is far from perfect, but we hope that sharing what has worked here may possibly help our colleagues in other parts of the country.

If we fly safely, fly smart, and fly neighborly, we can ensure the future of our industry for years to come.

Learn to Fly Neighborly

The HAI Fly Neighborly Program provides helicopter pilots and operators with specific techniques that have been proven to reduce the noise signatures of helicopters. Knowing these best practices for noise reduction is increasingly important as our industry faces community opposition to our operations.

Three Fly Neighborly seminars will be presented at HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 in Anaheim, California, as part of the Rotor Safety Challenge and HAI Connect. Free to all Expo attendees and exhibitors, these seminars will present operational and safety strategies for applying noise abatement techniques specific to six different helicopter types in critical phases of flight. The seminars will be held Tue., Jan. 28, 3:45 pm – 4:45 pm; Wed., Jan. 29, 8:00 am – 9:00 am; and Thurs., Jan. 30, 10:00 am – 11:00 am. Check the program guide or show app for locations.

Visit rotor.org/fn to find more resources about Fly Neighborly best practices. Learning to fly neighborly isn’t just a nice thing to do. As New York and LA pilots and operators will tell you, it’s necessary for the sustainability of our industry.

Authors

  • Morrie Zager holds both commercial/instrument rotorcraft and private single-engine land ratings. He is a 33-year veteran of the LA County Sheriff's Department, where he is a patrol pilot and supervisor. Morrie is a proud member of both HAI and the Airborne Public Safety Association, and an active board member of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association.

  • Chuck Street is the executive director of the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Operators Association. He is also the vice chair of the HAI Fly Neighborly Working Group. Chuck was previously the helicopter pilot / traffic reporter for 107.7 KIIS-FM in Los Angeles for 28 years.

Morrie Zager

Morrie Zager

Morrie Zager holds both commercial/instrument rotorcraft and private single-engine land ratings. He is a 33-year veteran of the LA County Sheriff's Department, where he is a patrol pilot and supervisor. Morrie is a proud member of both HAI and the Airborne Public Safety Association, and an active board member of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association.