Federal bill introduced to regulate helicopter noise

No, it’s not Armageddon, it’s not an earthquake—it’s another helicopter flying 10 feet above the roof of the house at full throttle. That’s been the experience of a number of Malibu residents over the years. But things might be about to change. 

Under new federal legislation introduced to Congress on Feb. 4, the Federal Aviation Administration would be required to set guidelines on flight paths and minimum altitudes for helicopter operators in residential areas in Los Angeles County within 12 months of being signed into law. Exemptions would be provided for law enforcement and emergency responders. The FAA has no jurisdiction over military helicopters. 

Residents and community groups throughout Los Angeles County have been complaining to authorities for years about helicopter noise over their residential neighborhoods, to no avail. Chopper traffic is not currently regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration or any other agency in the county, despite gripes from residents. 

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“I hear complaints about helicopter noise from every part of the 33rd District—from Malibu to Brentwood to Benedict Canyon,” said Congressman Henry Waxman in a recent press release. “FAA regulation of the thunderous helicopter traffic over LA is long overdue. And if the FAA won’t act, Congress must.” 

The “Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act of 2013” was introduced into the U.S. House and Senate on Feb. 4 in an attempt to control helicopter noise in Southland neighborhoods. 

The legislation was co-sponsored by a group of California politicians, including senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and congressmen Waxman and Adam Schiff. 

While helicopters have been a lifeline for the residents of Malibu, revolutionizing the ability of firefighters, law enforcement and medical personnel to respond to situations in the city, they can also be a major annoyance when used for paparazzi-type news coverage, sightseeing and corporate transport. 

At least eight companies advertise helicopter tours that include Malibu, using titles like “Malibu Mountains and Coastline Tour,” the “Malibu Wines Helicopter Tour Experience” and “Malibu Surf Tour.” Most take off from small airports like Van Nuys or Burbank. 

Local resident Hans Laetz recalled a 2006 incident when a helicopter hovered so low near his house that the downdraft shattered windows and blew open kitchen cabinets. After reporting the incident, the pilot was banned from future helicopter rentals. 

Point Dume resident John Mazza adds that, “It’s mostly a paparazzi deal. 

“We get a lot of complaints in the summer,” Mazza said. “Celebrities rent houses along the bluff. Madonna will rent it and then they’ll buzz her house. Or someone gets married, and there’s four or five [paparazzi helicopters] that will do it. And when [Barbra] Streisand got married there were four or five that were [hovering] continuously day and night for a week.” 

When introducing the bill, Sen. Feinstein praised the bill as necessary to close a loophole. 

“As one expert recently explained to the Los Angeles Times, a helicopter pilot is free to hover over a person’s home for as many hours as he would like. The only limitation on helicopter hovering, in fact, appears to be fuel supply.” 

Last year, the regional FAA was directed by the Dept. of Transportation to form a working group on the issue and host public meetings with citizens, homeowners’ associations and helicopter operators. 

Based on that input, the FAA will release a report in May that evaluates a full set of voluntary and regulatory options to address helicopter noise and safety issues in Los Angeles County. Ian Gregor, spokesperson for the FAA’s Western Pacific Region, said in a telephone interview that establishing a minimum altitude for helicopters would be a tricky business. Making it too high could put them “up into the same air traffic patterns” with fixed wing aircraft (mostly airplanes), increasing the risk of midair collisions. 

“Air space changes are a Rubik’s cube with all kinds of unintended consequences,” Gregor said. 

Feinstein said in opening remarks that introducing the bill now would “ensure that the FAA will follow through on the regulatory options it plans to evaluate in its May 2013 report.” 

Larry Welk, president of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association (PHPA) and owner of Angel City Air, Inc., told NBC News that “this legislation exempts 70 percent of the helicopters that generate the noise,” meaning government authorities, and therefore won’t meet its objectives. He feels it would be more effective for citizens to work directly with helicopter operators to solve problems, citing a recent agreement with the Hollywood Bowl. 

Since being introduced into Congress, the bill has been referred to the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in the Senate and the Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Committee in the House. 

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