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Thursday, August 1, 2013

As the Rotors Turn: Public Nuisance or White Noise?

By Andrew Parker

Helicopters are noisy, and people complain about noise. There aren’t many areas of the world where these two factors reach a boiling point like in the western U.S. cities of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where celebrities, casinos, tourism and people with deep pockets and powerful connections rule the land.

One of the hotbeds of the helicopter noise issue is Los Angeles, where the FAA released a report May 31 outlining recommendations to improve the situation, but refused to implement any federal rules, insisting that the issue is better handled on the local level.

The FAA report – Los Angeles Helicopter Noise Initiative – came about following a May 2012 request from members of the U.S. Congress to have the agency study the issue in response to complaints from residents of heavily populated Los Angeles County, including Hollywood Hills, Palos Verdes, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica and Torrance, Calif. FAA collected more than 500 responses during two public workshops and offered a series of six recommendations, but ultimately concluded: “There is no single remedy that can be implemented on a large-scale basis throughout the Los Angeles basin.”

The report continues that FAA “does not regard these broad-based constraints as precluding actions to respond to the community helicopter noise concerns, particularly since many of the comment received on helicopter noise issued are tied to landmarks or specific locations that may be addressed with situation-specific measures.”

A federal regulatory process “is not well suited to the helicopter noise situation in Los Angeles and could reduce community and other stakeholder involvement, as well as delay other remedies for an indefinite period of time,” the report continues, adding that a comprehensive regulation governing LA “would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to develop.” Instead, FAA recommends a “robust local process,” including six recommendations to reduce noise while protecting quality of life, economic interests and safety.

FAA’s assertion that noise issues are best handled on a local level is correct. Otherwise, it would be like the federal government knocking on my door to tell me that my dog’s barking is too loud. Noise is best handled by neighbors, and if that’s not effective, then the local authorities should work it out. It doesn’t make sense for “big brother” to get involved in local squabbles.

Flying Quietly

During a Helicopter Noise Panel at the AHS International Forum 69 in May, Jeff Jacquart with the Director’s Office, Planning Section of the Clark County Department of Aviation, laid out the ways in which Las Vegas is dealing with helicopter noise, including a “flying quietly” program, more direct and constrained flight paths, and campaigns to increase pilot and operator awareness about sensitive areas.

“We had 199 complaints from 11 people in a very affluent, wealthy community. We had 36 complaints from six people when they returned back on flights, and only had about 12 complaints from nine people when they are initially departing out of McCarran airport,” he explained.

According the Jacquart, after Nevada state legislation required the county to “identify a standalone facility where the helicopters, if they wanted to move, could relocate away from the urban valley,” officials proposed establishing a heliport south of the city. The county invested more than $7 million in designing the Clark County Heliport, with 35 percent of the design work completed through February 2009 – only to have funding for the project nixed by FAA in December 2009 based on opposition from airlines at McCarran. “It was going pretty well, things were moving along, the operators kind of didn’t want to move,” but then saw the potential benefits and got on board, he noted.

However, the $76-million proposal in December 2009 to complete the heliport “has been put on hold,” he said. “So our heliport, which we thought was going to be a solution for our long-term residents, has kind of been shelled because of a funding issue right now.”

During the same Noise Panel at AHS, Eurocopter’s Yves Favennec, vice president of research, detailed OEM efforts toward reducing the noise footprint of rotorcraft, including designing and fielding quieter helicopters, operating them in a neighbor-friendly manner, driving costs down and getting the word out that advances are being made.

Eurocopter is among the leaders in developing quiet helicopter technology, with its Fenestron tail rotor, Blue Edge rotor blades and Blue Pulse active noise and vibration control. On July 15, the OEM reported completion of tests for new landing procedures that use satellite guidance to comply with local procedures. The flights, which used an EC155, were part of the Green Rotorcraft technology demonstrator, which falls under Europe’s Clean Sky.

The trials displayed “significant reductions” in the noise footprint and the ability to tailor approaches away from residential areas, underscoring “how advanced flight guidance systems can be brought together with the latest navigation technologies to reduce perceived sound,” Favennec noted in a statement.

Helicopter operators and OEMs, in many areas of the world, are doing their part to keep the noise levels down, even if the loud voices of a connected few tend to shape public perception and dominate most of the headlines.

Where do you stand on the issue of helicopter noise? Send an e-mail to aparker@accessintel.com or post your opinion on the Rotor & Wing Facebook page.

 
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