Asserting that voluntary guidelines won't work, elected officials on Monday night urged the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt regulations to reduce the noise and safety risks of helicopter flights over neighborhoods across Los Angeles County.
At a public hearing in Griffith Park, the officials targeted a recent FAA report, which concluded that controlling helicopter operations would be better with a voluntary approach instead of hard and fast rules that carry penalties.
The report, released May 31, is part of an effort to deal with choppers that fly low over neighborhoods, celebrities' homes and famous landmarks, such as the Hollywood sign or the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Residents have complained about such flights for years.
"Flying at 300 to 400 feet for no good reason is inexplicable to me," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "The IRS doesn't ask me to police myself. The FAA needs regulations that have some teeth."
The hearing at the Autry National Center was hosted by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who is co-sponsoring legislation that would require the FAA to regulate flight paths and altitudes for helicopters operating in Los Angeles County. Public safety, military and medical flights would be exempted.
Joining Schiff were Yaroslavsky, Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-San Fernando Valley) and representatives for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who called voluntary approaches "absurd."
About 150 to 200 people, including helicopter pilots and leaders of neighborhood associations, attended.
"For years the community has tried to work with the helicopter industry," Schiff said. "But voluntary measures in the past have produced few results."
At the hearing, FAA officials defended their position, saying that regulating helicopter flights would be extremely difficult given the complexity of the region's airspace and the enormous volume of aircraft.
Improvements could be made sooner with a voluntary approach, they said, rather than developing regulations, a process that would take considerable time.
Instead of blanket regulations, the FAA officials said they wanted to work with community groups, pilots and elected officials to come up with guidelines to deal with specific problems.
Among other things, the FAA is willing to consider modifications to flight paths, altitude restrictions, limiting hovering times, more outreach to pilots and a comprehensive complaint system for the public.
"A collaborative approach will most likely have the best chance of success and give us a good understanding of the issues," said David Suomi, acting director of the FAA's Western-Pacific Region. "it should be given a chance."
Helicopter pilots said some of the voluntary measures are already in place with good results, but more time is needed to determine the extent of the problem and who is responsible. They contend that many of the problem flights could involve law enforcement aircraft.
"This is not an unregulated industry," said Larry Welk, president of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Assn. "To say we have no concern for people on the ground is just not true."
But homeowners and county residents remained unconvinced. They reiterated many of the complaints made at a public hearing last August.
Some of them said their neighborhoods experience dozens of over-flights a day that are loud enough to drown out conversation, disturb sleep and even set off car alarms.
"What about the 1,000-foot minimum altitude rule for airplanes? Why don't helicopter pilots follow that?" said Eion Bailey, an actor who lives in the Hollywood Hills. "Listening to all this, I feel this is just not reality. We've got helicopters flying 100 to 300 feet over our heads."
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