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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Police Aviation vs. NIMBY

Ernie Stephens

Here’s the scenario: Your police department has either decided to start a helicopter unit or wants to move an existing one to a new location. Let’s say you find an airport or tract of land that fits the bill, both in terms of location and price. (If you’re extra lucky, there’s even a Starbucks and a deli across the street.)

So, you pass the word up to headquarters and start stockpiling boxes and bubble wrap for the big move. Then it all gets derailed: You get a phone call from one of your superiors saying you’ll have to find another place to put the helicopters. Why? Because certain civic leaders stormed last night’s council meeting with clubs and torches demanding that the police helicopters be based elsewhere.

That’s right. Your hangar move was unceremoniously sucker-punched by NIMBY.

NIMBY stands for "not in my backyard," the umbrella term for anything citizens don’t want near their home. It often includes prisons, landfills, and yes, aircraft.

It should come as no surprise that noise is the NIMBY issue with the anti-helicopter crowd. Allegedly, it wakes the baby, drives the family dog nuts, and, according to one citizen, even caused his foundation to crack.

So what can you do if civic or political opposition squares off against your airbase? How can you educate the public enough to welcome your agency’s most expensive asset, or at least tolerate it? I was faced with this dilemma several years ago.

The landlord where our base was located was having trouble keeping the airport’s utilities on. Hearing this, another general aviation airport bent over backwards trying to convince us to move over there. It was a great deal, too: a bigger hangar, spacious crew quarters with shower and full kitchen, and more office space for the same price as what we had been paying. It would even put us closer to the county’s hot spots.

The problem? The community was already unhappy with air traffic around the small airport we were looking at, and found the noise from helicopters especially annoying. In fact, it was community pressure that led to such heavy restrictions that no helicopters were based there, and transient rotorcraft takeoffs and landings required case-by-case pre-approval from the airport office.

As we and the airport manager, who really wanted us as tenants, began making our intentions known to the mayor of the small town the airport was in, several vocal and well-connected citizens began a campaign to keep us out, citing "peace and tranquility" issues.

What did we do to calm the public and help dispel some of the myths about helicopter noise?

First, before we actually moved in, the airport manager had us do touch-and-goes at all hours of the day and night, logging the date and time we did each one. We did that for about a month.

Next, the airport hired a firm to take noise-level readings in the adjacent neighborhoods before, during, and after some of our touch-and-goes.

Finally, I collected government data on the decibel levels of the more popular fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in the area, including our MD Helicopters MD-520Ns.

When the town council convened a public hearing on whether or not the county police helicopters should be based at the airport, the airport manager was there holding three sets of data as if they were hand grenades. And his fingers were ready to pull each pin, one by one, as needed.

A particularly vocal opponent argued that the additional noise of police helicopters would severely change the relative quiet everyone enjoyed.

The airport manager lobbed the first grenade.

He presented the logs of our takeoffs and landings, explaining that we had been going in and out of the airport at all times of the day and night for weeks. Apparently, the noise must not have been bad at all, considering neighbors didn’t even realize we had been doing that.

Another citizen said helicopters are far noisier than anything else already in and around the neighborhood.

The airport manager rolled his second grenade.

He submitted the results of the decibel survey, which showed that our aircraft in the pattern made about the same noise as a passing pickup truck, and far less commotion than the freight trains that pass through the town, at least where that citizen’s home was located. The manager said: Where was the problem?

Another resident cited the amount of window rattling helicopters caused before the ban.

The manager tossed the final grenade.

He explained that the more offensive helicopter noises that led to the original restriction at the airport were caused by Bell Helicopter UH-1s from an Army airfield that happened to close around the time the ban began. He then passed around the data that showed our MD-520Ns were substantially quieter than most other aircraft.

When the smoke cleared, the only thing left to do was explain our noise-abatement plan, based on HAI’s Fly Neighborly guidelines, and give out my phone number for residents to call if they had complaints.

We moved into our new base a few weeks later. (And yes, there’s a Starbucks and sandwich shop nearby.)

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