Fixing the Helicopter Noise Problem in the LA Basin

LAPD HelicopterSunshine…,
palm trees…,
swimming pools…,
and
…HELICOPTER NOISE!

In the densely populated LA Basin, literally thousands of residents are impacted when just one helicopter passes through, or when a gaggle hovers at low altitudes. This is acceptable when the helicopter is conducting emergency services or valuable police support, but many of the residents below believe that they should not be needlessly impacted by noise and privacy invasions for air tourism, excessive media coverage, ‘plane spotting’, or just to fly around.

Elected officials have been trying to get help from FAA for years. In the latest round, in May 2012, a letter was sent to DoT Secretary Ray LaHood, respectfully requesting action. The 5/23/12 letter was signed by seven California elected officials: Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Representatives Howard Berman, Janice Hahn, Adam Schiff, Brad Sherman and Henry Waxman. FAA replied two months later when FAA’s Acting Administrator, Michael Huerta, sent copies of a 7/31/12 letter to Senator Feinstein. The letter advised of the plan to solicit public comments, then produce a report to Congress in May 2013.

That report, Report on the Los Angeles Helicopter Noise Initiative, measures 56-pages. The first 48-pages are the actual report, which includes some full-color maps/diagrams. Appendix A is a copy of the 5/23/12 letter requesting FAA action. Appendix B is a copy of FAA’s 7/31/12 interim response letter. Appendix C is a 5-page summary of the leading helicopter issues/locations, which are listed as:

  • Hollywood Sign
  • Hollywood Bowl
  • Griffith Park
  • Carmageddon I and II
  • Van Nuys Airport (VNY)
  • Zamperini Field (formerly Torrance Municipal Airport – TOA)
  • The Getty Center
  • Santa Monica Airport (SMO)
  • Hollywood Hills
  • Freeways
  • Plane Spotting Activities at LAX

Samples of FAA Obfuscation

FAA’s new Report on the Los Angeles Helicopter Noise Initiative feels short on solutions, but it does effectively illustrate just how far FAA will go to impede resolving the problems created by aviation. Of course, these are the very problems FAA exists to resolve, but when solutions impact the aviation community, they just do not happen. Not with this FAA.

The main tactic found in this report is obfuscation: page after page shows FAA presenting the problem in ways that make it seem exceedingly complex and insurmountable. Here are three examples.

For starters, take a look at pages 9-12 of the report. This is a classic. Instead of presenting graphics that show how ATC gets the job done, why not present graphics that suggest absolute chaos? In this case, the first graphic shows a compilation of all flight tracks for an entire ‘typical’ day. The graphic covers the whole LA Basin and ends up looking like a plate of spaghetti dropped onto the floor. This is entirely improper because, in reality, this graphic is 99% irrelevant noise. I.e., the helicopter impacts are mostly unrelated to these thousands of airport arrivals and departures. The other two graphics are improvements, but still tend to distract from the real goal of solving the helicopter problem. FAA could have instead provided a pair of examples, showing tracks in a much smaller area, and perhaps breaking those tracks down with separate graphics to show a few low altitude slices (e.g., tracks around the Hollywood Sign below 1,000′ on one graphic, from 1,000′ to 2,000′ on another graphic, and from 2,000′ to 3,000′ on a third graphic).

As a second example, see page 32 of the report. This diagram shows FAA’s plan for handling transitioning helicopters when LAX is in a west flow. Note the diagram indicates the commercial LAX arrivals will be at roughly 3,600′ when crossing I-710, and 1,800′ when crossing I-110. The diagram also indicates that the solution for helicopters is to squeeze them under the LAX arrivals, at approximately 900′ altitude over I-110. This is the only ‘solution’ presented in the diagram, and it disingenuously implies that FAA has no choice but to compress helicopters down along I-110. What the diagram fails to present, though, is the existence of many other (and much better) options. In truth, the best solution may be to completely deny I-110 helicopter flights (or force them higher, say 3,000′ or above). Other plausible solutions should have been presented, such as overflying I-710, I-405, or LAX itself.

Lastly, and as a third example, see the first paragraph at the top of page 9, where FAA states: “…it is important to note that many helicopters operate below or outside of radar coverage, which is limited to line-of-sight….” While it is true that radar coverage may not exist at low altitudes, in reality it does exist at very low altitudes throughout most of the LA Basin. Which makes this FAA comment simply irrelevant. Then again, where radar coverage is spotty, the obvious solution is simply to require the helicopters fly at higher altitudes. A minimum altitude for helicopters of 2,000′ above ground level (AGL) is a clear no-brainer. This requirement would enable ATC to do its job, and it would also bring substantial noise relief for the impacted residents.

The Problem: FAA chooses to not regulate helicopters

FAA is in charge of all uses of U.S. airspace. FAA created the set of rules that all pilots must comply with, and FAA is responsible for amending those rules when they fail to serve the whole Public. Congress has repeatedly heard the many, ongoing and intensifying citizen concerns about helicopters, and Congress has repeatedly articulated the need for FAA to correct the problem. FAA has repeatedly delayed. Frankly, FAA has done essentially nothing and likely will continue to do nothing. It is as if FAA exists to create the appearance of federal regulation, but in truth serves to enable (and sustain) the impactful practices of the ‘regulated’ activities.

FAA’s rules for pilots are called the ‘Federal Aviation Regulations’, also known as the “FAR’s.” Take a quick look at FAR 91.119. This is the key rule that defines minimum flight altitudes for all flights — not just helicopters, but fixed-wing aircraft, too. It is filled with loopholes, that render it virtually unusable by FAA, should they ever seek an enforcement action. For all aircraft, a pilot can simply declare that the low altitude was  ‘…necessary for takeoff and landing…’, to excuse off nearly all low-altitude complaints. FAA has tended to ignore whether the early turn or other unusual maneuver was really ‘necessary’. FAA has refrained from defining the limits of ‘…necessary for takeoff and landing…’, thus has carefully ensured there are no legal precedents to enforce against non-compliant pilots. The result is a meaningless ‘minimum safe altitude’ rule.

Helicopters are an extreme case. FAA’s rules for use of helicopters are written with complete disregard to the impact helicopters have on people under the flight paths. As declared by FAR 91.119(d), helicopter pilots are essentially free to fly at any altitude, so long as ATC does not direct them to fly at a different altitude. The loophole on this is that ATC cannot and will not prescribe an altitude if the pilot chooses to not talk to ATC. In most airspace, the helicopter pilot is not required to talk to ATC; so, most helicopter pilots avoid the hassle (and reserve the ‘freedom’ to fly at any altitude) by simply not contacting ATC. In more crowded airspace, FAA has established rules requiring all pilots to be in communications with ATC. In these cases, ATC will routinely reject helicopter requests that create conflict with arrival/departure flows.

Sometimes, FAA will also produce set procedures, with defined altitudes, that will ensure the helicopters remain separated from the primary airport traffic flows. In the case of LAX in a west flow, where arrivals cross Interstate I-110 at approximately 1,800′, FAA has designed a helicopter route at just 900′ mean sea level (MSL, which in most of the LA Basin is essentially the same as above ground level, AGL). Now, what would this design look like if FAA aimed to reduce noise impact? Well, the appropriate (and far less impactful) design would be to completely disallow helicopter overflights below 2,000′. In such a case, helicopter pilots wanting to follow I-110 would expect to do so at 2,500′ OR HIGHER, and they would only be allowed the minimum altitude of 2,000′ if ATC could provide that safely reference LAX arrivals. If the helicopter pilot did not want to comply with these possibilities, they would have to pick a different route, such as I-405 (closer to the airport) or I-710 (further from the airport).

The Solution: FAA should upgrade FAR 91.119 to regulate helicopter altitudes

The simple reality is this: as presently written, FAR 91.119 makes it virtually impossible for FAA to enforce, even if a helicopter pilot chooses to routinely follow a flight track level at any altitude above or very near your house. FAA sees no difference between 2,000′ AGL, 500′ AGL or even 100′ AGL, so long as the pilot knows to say ‘I was prepared to land at this field or road in the event of an emergency’. The helicopter pilot has all the rights; the impacted resident has no rights.

There is a glimmer of hope. These are rules, and rules can be changed. Here is a set of simple suggestions that FAA could implement almost immediately, if they had the will to serve everyone, not just aviators:

  1. Amend FAR 91.119, to minimize helicopter activity below 2,000′ AGL. The rewritten rule needs to require that helicopters conduct overflights (i.e., flying from departure point to destination) at an altitude at least 2,000′ above the highest point within a mile of the route of flight. The rewritten rule needs to require helicopter pilots to transition to/from that overflight altitude with a reasonable rate of climb/descent. A huge advantage of this rewritten rule is it will guarantee solid radar coverage of the helicopter flight.
  2. Create a functional FAA Helicopter Noise Abatement Office. The role of this office will be to support public concerns with real data. The office will enable rapid identification of each helicopter flight that is the cause of each citizen complaint. The complainant has a right to know the tail number and the flight profile of the helicopter, just as much as the helicopter pilot currently has the right to impact thousands of citizens with his/her flight noise. When an impacted citizen files a simple complaint (date, time, location, short description), FAA’s Helicopter Noise Abatement Office will promptly (within a week?) tap FAA’s flight-tracking database and produce an event analysis. This analysis will typically fit on one piece or paper (or a short email) and will ensure the complainant has all necessary data to define the noise event. This will include identifying the helicopter and defining the entire relevant route of flight (typically, needs to show point of departure, destination, and route/altitude data for a minute either side of the event lat/long). The complainant should receive this copy within two weeks of the event.
  3. Mandate use of transponders so as to ensure each helicopter flight will produce a full digital profile, for use by FAA’s Helicopter Noise Abatement Office. This profile will include the entire route of flight (point-by-point, showing time, lat/long, altitude, and groundspeed), and be definitively associated with the flight (aircraft ID by tail number, callsign, etc.).
  4. Enforce the rewritten helicopter flight rules. When a citizen complaint produces a record showing a non-compliance by a helicopter pilot, FAA needs to pursue an enforcement action. Reasonably, the first enforcement action in most cases can be simply to send a certified letter to the helicopter’s registered owner, with a copy of the event profile showing the non-compliant flight. This would be accompanied with a stern letter of warning, that the practice must cease, and that subsequent non-compliant helicopter flights will result in action by the FAA Administrator to suspend or revoke pilot and/or aircraft certifications. The second offense would produce an action seeking a suspension of at least 90-days. The third offense would produce an action seeking a permanent revocation.

This problem is solvable. And, this problem is found in many parts of the U.S. airspace system (e.g., see this 8/23/12 article and this 3/22/13 article on the situation in Long Island, NY). These are just four proposed actions. If readers have other constructive ideas, please forward them to aiREFORM.com, and they will be added to this Post to share with others.