Helicopter Rerouting Proposals Draw Fire
When Mayor James Beam of Orange watches television, often the noise of slapping helicopter blades above his home is so loud that it drowns out the sound of his program for about 30 seconds until it passes.
A planning commissioner in Orange complained of being awakened recently at 5 a.m. by the intrusive sounds, Beam said, adding that others have been bothered by overflights as late as 11 p.m.
So frequent were the complaints from city residents, the mayor said, that he opened a special hot line several months ago that generated more than 200 separate callers over a two-week period, singling out military helicopters flying to and from training missions in the Santa Ana mountains over the heavily populated Katella Avenue corridor in central Orange County.
Now, responding to complaints from the cities of Orange, Anaheim and Villa Park, Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) has proposed rerouting training flights from the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center away from the central county corridor or relocating the Army Reserve program altogether.
Dannemeyer, with the support of Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), proposed rerouting the missions to sea to train at San Clemente Island--already a training area for the Navy and Marines--or along the coast past busy John Wayne Airport then inland near Corona del Mar and over Irvine. A third solution, he suggested, would be to move the Army National Guard helicopter operations to the Tustin Marine Corps Helicopter Air Station.
But all three proposals have been rejected by Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), into whose district Dannemeyer and Dornan would export the problem, and by military officials overseeing the Los Alamitos and Tustin bases, authorities said.
“Mr. Badham has already tried to assist Congressman Dannemeyer with his problem, and his response is to almost unilaterally plop it down in our district,” said Badham aide William Schreiber. “All it does is increase problems in another heavily populated area. . . .
Schreiber described all three of Dannemeyer’s alternatives as “totally unacceptable,” adding that Badham had sent a detailed list of objections to Orange County congressmen, to the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Paul X. Kelley, and Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr.
Beyond that, although U.S. Army National Guard reserve training helicopters from Los Alamitos have been singled out as the offenders, base officials deny they are causing the noise problem and dispute Dannemeyer’s suggestions that the public is at risk from accident-prone aircraft.
“We’re the football in this, and everyone is bouncing us around,” said Lt. Col. Robert J. Brandt, airfield commander at Los Alamitos.
“We don’t have any data that indicates that we are, in fact, the major problem in the city of Orange or elsewhere over the Katella corridor,” Brandt said, noting that it also is a corridor for commercial, private and police aircraft.
“We’re really trying to be good neighbors here and do our job,” he said, adding that it was his goal to both “accommodate the local communities and accomplish our mission.”
“But Los Alamitos is the primary disaster support airfield for Southern California, and these helicopters are the primary lifesaving vehicles,” he said. “If we had a major earthquake here like there was in Mexico City, if we weren’t able to evacuate people or get equipment to collapsed buildings, you’d hear a heck of a lot more people complaining.”
The Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center (LAAFRC), with about 100 so-called “Huey” UH-1 helicopters, is one of three military aviation facilities in Orange County. Like many such World War II-era bases around the country, all three have seen postwar suburban communities mushroom around them.
A Fact of Life
“Military aviation and urban development are basically, fundamentally, incompatible,” Badham aide Schreiber observed. “They’re like oil and water.”
Nonetheless, they are a fact of life. And Schreiber says Badham’s district office receives 30 to 40 complaints a month about noise generated by aircraft from the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro and the Marines’ helicopter station in Tustin.
Mayor Beam of Orange said he began hearing complaints about noise from low-flying helicopters at least six months ago. He said most originated from neighborhoods between the 55 Freeway and the city’s eastern border in the foothills.
“Sometimes it’s a lone copter, then you won’t hear another one for an hour or so,” Beam said. “They go down the Katella corridor, then when they get to the 55 Freeway, they go off on free flight. They tend to veer off to the south a little bit, go down Collins Avenue and easterly over Orange to their training grounds past Irvine Lake. . . .
“It’s annoying enough because of their loud noise during the day. But they also do it at 11 o’clock at night and five o’clock in the morning,” he said.
After conducting a survey of callers to the mayor’s “hot line” at City Hall over a two-week period several months ago, Beam said his staff concluded that the offending helicopters were military craft flying along an east-west route over the city.
Beam said a meeting was set up with officials from the Tustin Marine facility on the assumption that it was the source of the problem. A Los Alamitos base official attended the session.
“Lo and behold, they told us it wasn’t the Marine helicopters at all; it was the Army reserve helicopters,” Beam said. “And they told us how they couldn’t do anything. . . . We got no satisfaction, so I went to the congressman.”
“Once I raised the issue, I believe Dannemeyer’s office contacted other cities. He learned they (Anaheim and Villa Park) had a similar problem.”
Risk of Crashes
Dannemeyer also raised concerns about the risk to residents of having heavy air traffic over so populated an area, citing a rash of military helicopter crashes in 1984 and 1985, particularly involving the Marines’ CH-53 Sea Stallion cargo aircraft
There are no CH-53s based at Los Alamitos, however, and Los Alamitos operations commander Lt. Col. Brandt said there is no evidence to indicate a cause for concern about the safety of their UH-1 helicopters.
Brandt reiterated that there is no “specific data” linking the Los Alamitos “Hueys” to the noise complaints along Katella, and said: “The complaints haven’t been presented to us either by the City of Orange or Congressman Dannemeyer’s office.”
One reason Brandt said he believes Los Alamitos helicopters are not the culprits is that relatively few of the daily average of a dozen or so flights made from the base travel over the central county corridor.
Moreover, he said, except in inclement weather Los Alamitos helicopters fly at an altitude of 1,500 feet to minimize noise impact on residential neighborhoods below.
“There is data to show that civilian and police helicopters routinely fly over homes at 300 to 500 feet,” Brandt said.
Mayor Beam disagreed. “We’ve done our survey. We know whose they are, and we know about the noise because we suffer from it,” he said, adding: “They sure look like they’re flying lower than 1,500 feet.”
Brandt also challenged reports of several hundred complaints. “I’ll bet we don’t have more than 60 complaints this whole year since January,” he said, suggesting that the majority were repeat calls from a handful of people in one small area of Orange.
Even His Wife Called
Beam replied that the problem was “very widespread.” He said the more than 200 calls counted on the mayor’s hot line were from separate individuals. “One of them (was) my wife, as an example. It is a for-real problem,” he said.
But even if the Los Alamitos helicopters are proven to be the problem, military officials say Dannemeyer’s proposals are not the answer.
The plan to move training missions that now take place in the Cleveland National Forest out to San Clemente Island 60 miles to sea is “not feasible,” Brandt said.
For one thing, Brandt said, Army combat training does not include marine operations, nor are the “Hueys” equipped for flights over large bodies of water. Also, the terrain of San Clemente Island is “not adequate” for the kind of mountain training the reservists require. Moreover, he said, about half of San Clemente Island is littered with unexploded munitions.
The second alternative--rerouting helicopters south over the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, then along the coast for several miles and cutting in over the San Joaquin Hills to the Cleveland National Forest--is equally troublesome, Brandt argued.
Not only would that route take twice the time, use twice the fuel and cut down actual training time, Brandt said, it also would “conflict with operations at Tustin, El Toro and John Wayne,” in airspace already among the most densely packed in Southern California.
“Aside from being dangerous, cost- and time-prohibitive, it will just displace the noise impact elsewhere,” Brandt said.
The third alternative--relocating Los Alamitos’ 100 helicopters to the Tustin Marine facility--cannot be done because there is no more room.
‘We Were Saturated’
“We’re saturated,” said Capt. Joanne Schilling, spokeswoman for the Tustin Marine base, which houses about 130 helicopters. “There’s no more room. In fact, we brought one of our (helicopter) units out of Tustin over to El Toro because we were saturated. . . .
“We’re not just talking about a parking space for helicopters,” Schilling said. “You need hangar space, storage space, office space and inventory space.”
Besides, Brandt said, the Irvine-Tustin area has aircraft-noise problems of its own. “Even if we could move to Tustin, it would just really aggravate those noise problems.”
Schreiber said Badham has reached the same conclusions. While Badham remains willing to try to work with Dannemeyer on the problem, Schreiber said, “It remains to be seen whether there is any reasonable alternative to be found.”
Told of the obstacles cited by the military and by Badham’s office, Beam responded: “Well, of course, that’s pretty arbitrary. I’m sure there are things that can be done, including relocating themselves to a less urbanized area.”
But Schreiber said costs for relocation, which was looked at as a solution to the noise and pollution problems created by the El Toro and Tustin bases, are “prohibitive.”
“It was estimated to cost in excess of $1 billion just to duplicate facilities at El Toro elsewhere,” Schreiber said. “The Tustin Marine base would cost another $50 million to $70 million to relocate.
Beam predicted the problem would eventually have to be solved by “Congress or a committee to Congress. . . . The local military is obviously not reactive to locally elected officials.”
Just what Orange city officials prefer as the solution is uncertain. On one hand, Beam said, “We want the noise abated, but we aren’t about to dictate how it’s done.”