Good Approaches Makes Good Neighbors

By Robert W. Moorman | November 1, 2005

Fly Neighborly programs are intended to bridge the gap between the rotorcraft industry and anyone concerned with noise problems.


In the last 25 years, there's been a sea change in the rotorcraft industry's attitude toward noise and other complaints from the public. "Us"--the industry-- vs. "them"--municipalities, residents and advocacy groups--no longer applies. Some credit for this shift goes to the various industry-sponsored "Fly Neighborly" programs launched worldwide. But how successful these programs are is a matter of debate.


"We will never hide behind the fact that what we do is legal and safe. That is not enough," said Matt Zuccaro, the aviation consultant who runs the Heliports and Air Space Protection Program for the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which covers from Washington D.C. to Boston. "We've acknowledged the fact that our activities impacts communities. And we have to be socially responsible about it."

Zuccaro, who this month succeeds Roy Resavage as president of the Helicopter Assn. International, gave an example of how a "Fly Neighborly" program can work for industry and communities alike. A few years ago, residents of a neighborhood on Staten Island (one of New York City's five boroughs) began complaining more about helicopter noise. Zuccaro met with local officials to determine why---the neighborhood wasn't known for noise complaints. Growth was one reason, he found. Homes and businesses now covered the ground under a helicopter route that 20 years earlier overflew scarcely populated land.

The residents had a legitimate gripe. Zucarro met with various parties to come up with a plan of action. The solution: shift the helicopter route, which passed north and south over the island's middle, to the east along the New York Bay's shore. The helicopter council petitioned the FAA, which agreed to a six-month trial. Today, the noise-abatement route is a permanent fixture on navigation charts.

More recently, the council worked on a sensitive noise problem at Manhattan's Battery Park, near where the World Trade Center once stood. Overflights contributed to increased noise levels, and community leaders worried about the post-traumatic stress on individuals living and working near "Ground Zero." The council, local community boards and tour operators in the New York area came up with a plan to raise the operating altitudes of aircraft flying nearby and, if possible, avoid the area all together.

While used as a mechanism to deal with noise complaints, the Helicopter and Airspace Protection program's aim is to protect the helicopter industry's interests in the Northeast corridor. The council serves on most technical advisory boards and has liaisons at many Northeast airports. Self-interest aside, having a consistent presence at these meetings and answering residents' questions is a good first step toward forging better relations with the community, said Zucarro.

Convincing communities that the rotorcraft industry is accessible and accountable through official or unofficial Fly Neighborly programs remains an enormous challenge. Leaders of anti-noise groups remain skeptical about the effectiveness of such initiatives.

"We're not wildly enthusiastic about them," said Joy Held, president of the Helicopter Noise Coalition of New York City. "There is nothing neighborly about flying over people. It's an oxymoron."

Gerry Silver, president of the Encino, Calif.-based National Helicopter Noise Coalition was more direct.

"We have no confidence whatsoever in these Fly Neighborly

programs for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft," he said. "They are a total failure."

Silver insisted, however, that his group is not against utilizing the best procedures to minimize helicopter noise and does want to work

with industry and authorities on reducing noise.

Some See Hope
But some critics see hope. Donald J. Bowen, a board member of the Madison, N.J.-based Quieter Environment Through Sound Thinking. "The situation has improved to some degree," he said, giving some credit to Fly Neighborly programs, but added that the FAA still dismisses his group's noise complaints with an "almost imperial disdain."

The Morristown Airport Assn., which includes fixed- and rotary-wing operators, and the Eastern Region Helicopter Council have met with Bowen's group. "We addressed their concerns early on and I think we have a good system in place for dealing with noise problems," said Ed Newton, chief helicopter pilot of aviation services for Morristown-based Honeywell and vice chair of HAI. "The noise complaints have dropped dramatically."

One of the biggest generators of noise on the West Coast, said Silver, are electronic news gathering helicopters, which often cluster together to tape news events. The industry is trying to be neighborly about that. The Burbank, Calif.-based Professional Helicopter Pilots Assn. (PHPA), which supports HAI's Fly Neighborly program, has a form on its web page ( that allows individuals to describe their helicopter noise concerns. A PHPA board member is assigned to investigate any complaint and report back to the community member. The PHPA also invites new pilots to attend briefings by seasoned pilots on flying in noise-sensitive areas. The Los Angeles City Council may call upon the PHPA to attend community meetings to listen to residents' concerns. All of this is part of a Fly Neighborly philosophy.

"When the pilots and the community members communicate, then routes can be changed, or other mitigation measures can be implemented," Ricarda Bennett, PHPA legal counsel, said.

While most complaints are noise-related, residents also worry about heliports being built in their community. Having a clear understanding of land-use rules in the vicinity of the proposed heliport, as well as the area's obstructions, is only part of the challenge. The group that wants the heliport needs to commit to remaining accountable to the community.

"City planners and the environmental staff do take into consideration the pledge from heliport proponents to adhere to the Fly Neighborly philosophy," said Bennett.

HAI's Fly Neighborly Program is arguably the benchmark from which most other programs have been developed. Its voluntary noise-reduction program was developed in 1981 to head off a threatened FAA rule on helicopter noise. At the time, some critics felt the program was an effort to mollify the anti-noise "greenies," as well as the FAA and Congress. Since then, the Fly Neighborly program has been expanded, and accepted by many communities, said John Leverton, chairman of HAI's Fly Neighborly Committee.

Much of the work is done through that committee, which is composed only of HAI members and associate members and representatives of the FAA, the military and other industry associations. There are no representatives from anti-noise groups.

The European Helicopter Assn. does not have a formal Fly Neighborly program. But it has adopted some aspects of HAI's program to deal with communities and regulatory authorities throughout Europe, according to Chief Executive Jan Stuurman. Adopting fly neighborly principles in everyday business is helping to get "realistic rulemaking" for the European helicopter industry, he said, and persuade residents and local leaders that the modern helicopter is a useful and necessary transportation tool, said Stuurman.

Training Houses, Too
Training houses have also adopted Fly Neighborly practices. "I insist that students treat this issue seriously and I won't tolerate disparaging remarks about those who complain about noise," said Patrick Corr, who runs Helicopter Adventures Inc., which operates flight schools in Titusville, Fla. and Concord, Calif.

Every new student is given formal instruction on noise-abatement procedures and must sign an agreement to obey them during training. Violations are grounds for dismissal, Corr said. Unlike other airports, where houses bump up against the airport perimeter, Titusville has a good buffer zone. But with residential development on three sides, the school mandates that all rotorcraft depart to the southwest.

Corr has learned from experience. The company's flight school in the San Francisco suburb of Concord was a big and growing operation. But it was beset by chronic, intense and--apparently--insolvable noise complaints. The company decided to scale back the operation at Buchanan Field and concentrate on Titusville, Corr said. "The local community couldn't handle our activity level."

Nowhere is the Fly Neighborly approach needed more than at the Grand Canyon. Helicopter noise complaints there have dropped dramatically in recent years, said Steve Bassett, executive director of the United States Air Tour Assn. He credits a Fly Neighborly mindset. Public law brought about by a mid-air collision in the 1980s between a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft has prompted the FAA to set strict guidelines for flights over the canyon. But being proactive with the community has helped as well, said Bassett.

The issue of Grand Canyon overflights is far from resolved, he conceded. Environmental groups complain there is still too much noise for back-country visitors.

The U.S. Park Service has formed a conflict-resolution group of interested parties to deal with the ongoing complaints. The first meeting of that group was held earlier this year in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Manufacturers have gotten into the spirit, and in ways other than designing quieter rotorcraft. Sikorsky Aircraft, which is known for its noise-related research, has come up with suggested noise-abatement procedures for its S-92A, S-70 and S-76. The suggestions may eventually become part of the flight manuals of these aircraft, according to Eric Jacobs, principal engineer. For the S-76, Sikorsky suggests a number of remedies. Keep noise-sensitive areas to the right of the helicopter. Avoid right-hand crosswinds, as additional tail-rotor torque can significantly increase climb noise levels. Maintain an altitude of 4,000 ft. when cruising above noise-sensitive areas. If that cannot be maintained, reduce airspeed to below 135 kt. at 2,000-4,000 ft. or 120 kt. below 2,000 ft.

Noise Indicator
For the S-92 and S-70, Sikorsky recommends reducing indicated airspeed below 75 kt. prior to initiating descent. If possible, the OEM recommends maximizing the glide slope/rate of descent to maximize height agl. over noise-sensitive areas.

Bell Helicopter and the Center for Rotorcraft Innovation are involved in a test program, the ultimate goal of which will be the development of a flight indicator for noise minimization on the ground, said Walter Sonneborn, retired Bell vice president of engineering and renown noise expert. He's now a Bell consultant.

Bell/Agusta Aerospace may recommend that pilots fly its next-generation AB139 medium twin with the autopilot coupled to its Flight Plan Management System, which contains flight manual operating instructions. Not directly related to noise abatement, the operating instructions include noise-abatement procedures. So the end result is the same.

OEM efforts to reduce noise through operating guidelines may not be part of a formal Fly Neighborly program, but it indicates they share the public's concern about noise.

Adopting a Fly Neighborly program is not a panacea for noise complaints. Nor is the industry naﶥ enough to think that such a program would remove the concerns that communities have about expanding helicopter operations in metropolitan areas, particularly. But not having such a program can turn a workable problem into a major, sometimes never-ending, crisis.

Fort Neighborly
With perhaps the largest concentration of rotorcraft anywhere in the world, Fort Rucker knew long ago that it would need a Fly Neighborly program.

Located in rural southeast Alabama, Fort Rucker, handles all the initial training for the U.S. Army and Air Force, with a fleet of about 525 aircraft, of which 97 percent are rotorcraft. The base also provides training for military pilots from other countries.

"The Army saw early on that we needed a noise mitigation program," said Jack A. Holmes, chief, airfield/airspace section within the directorate of plans, training, mobilization and security. "Rather than have some judge tell us where we could or could not fly, we became proactive."

That proactive spirit includes keeping the public informed constantly about training exercises that may impact various communities. Often, key base personnel give formal presentations to civic groups and news media, as well as to local and state leaders about the Army's mission and what it is doing to mitigate training-related noise.

A frank question-and-answer period follows the presentations typically, said Holmes. The Fly Neighborly program, which is part of an overall environmental noise-management program for Fort Rucker, has a full-time representative on base to answer complaints from a hotline that accepts collect calls. Every complaint is investigated. And every aircraft has easy-to-read "buzz" numbers on the side of the fuselage to keep track of the noisemakers.

Everyone has to be "plugged in," Holmes said, if the Fly Neighborly program is going to work, from the post commander on down to the instructor pilots, safety officers, as well community leaders and home-owner groups.

Complaints have dropped appreciably from 100 per month when the program started more than 20 years ago to around 20 per month today, said Holmes.

Fort Rucker's Fly Neighborly program takes a common-sense approach toward controlling noise rather than designate specific noise-abatement routes, a tack that has brought complaints from some area residents. The trainers have designated flight corridors for training over the least populated areas. But sometimes the goal of reducing the noise footprint wherever possible is difficult to achieve, Holmes admitted.

Most of the training is done within a 9,000-sq.-mi. area centered on the fort. So the need for a mobile and flexible fly neighborly program is always there. Student pilots fly out of five base fields within the area. In addition, Fort Rucker operates from another 15 staging fields and leases or owns 65 remote sites. To reduce the noise impact on local communities, the staging fields are multi-lane facilities that can accommodate up to 18 aircraft simultaneously. Helicopters take the same routes in and out of a base.

If there is a new lane proposed, Holmes would fly it first to determine whether there is a major noise problem for the populace and, if so, whether the lane can be modified.

Sometimes, the noise is unavoidable and Fort Rucker officials take a "tough love" approach to being neighborly.

"We're not going to change our traffic pattern if someone chooses to build a house underneath," said Holmes. "People don't want to hear that response. But they would rather hear that than for us to tell them that we'll change the pattern, then never do."--Robert W. Moorman

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