More helicopters fly in and out of Van Nuys Airport than any other airport in the county, but attempts to reduce noise complaints are bogged down in a dispute between airport officials and some residents, who oppose a plan to conduct secret test flights over the area.
A consultant hired by the airport to find ways of curbing helicopter noise says secret tests are needed to try out new helicopter flight patterns. Airport officials say no new routes will be adopted without a public hearing, but that has so far failed to quiet the protests.
Although helicopter noise is common around all airports, the helicopter activity at Van Nuys Airport has become an issue because federal regulations require helicopters at Van Nuys Airport to fly low routes to stay out of the way of big jets landing at nearby Burbank Airport. Helicopters can fly no higher than 500 feet in the area immediately around the Van Nuys Airport.
Neighbors say they are particularly aggravated by flights in the early morning and evening that wake their children and rattle dishes.
"What it feels like and what it sounds like is like the roof is going up and down," said Carl Davison, a longtime critic of the airport who lives about half a mile south of the airport runway. "How often? I can't say how often but once they wake you up at four in the morning, you're so damn angry you can't sleep again."
Last year there was a daily average of 144 helicopter landings and takeoffs, more than Long Beach Airport with 109, and far more than Burbank Airport with 50 and Los Angeles International Airport with 25 per day.
That average increased by about 20% during the past three months, when helicopters flown by police, fire and television news crews took to the air during the February floods and again during the Los Angeles riots.
But even before the civil emergencies, a select group of residents and pilots--handpicked by a consultant hired by the airport--had been meeting to find a way to reduce the noise. Now, the process of solving the noise problem has, itself, become the focus of a noisy controversy.
The consultant, CommuniQuest Marketing, a Manhattan Beach company specializing in airport noise issues, has suggested that two new helicopter routes in and out of the airport be tested over a 30-day period without notifying residents. Christine Eberhard, president of the firm, argues that if complaints decrease during the test period, it would prove that the new routes are quieter than those now being used.
Some residents, most notably Gerald A. Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino, were outraged at the suggestion. He said residents living under the new routes should be notified of such a test. "It's dishonest," he said. "How can they do that?"
Eberhard and others in the group argued that if the public is notified about the tests, the results would not be valid. Airport administrators are mulling over Eberhard's recommendation--and Silver's complaint--and will decide by the end of May what action to take, said airport spokeswoman Stacy Geere.
The focus on helicopters at Van Nuys Airport reflects a growing effort nationwide to reduce helicopter noise. Last year, the FAA approved certification for the first single-rotor helicopter to operate without a stabilizing rotor in the tail--a design advantage that the manufacturer said makes it the quietest helicopter flying. The first delivery of the new helicopter was to the Phoenix, Ariz., police department in October, 1991.
But until all aircraft become virtually noise-free, pilots and airport neighbors agree that there will always be some bad blood between them.
At Van Nuys Airport, complaints about helicopter noise accounted for 15% of all the complaints lodged at the airport last month, even though helicopter operations account for only 10% of the total number of operations, according to airport officials.
Although the number of helicopter operations has remained steady during the past four years, helicopter complaints have gradually declined, primarily because a few pilots who had been buzzing over sensitive neighborhoods changed their flight patterns, an airport official said.
Pilots and airport officials say helicopters continue to generate a disproportionately high number of complaints because they are forced by the Burbank Airport flight patterns to fly low.
"Everybody's problem would be greatly reduced if we could move the helicopters up a couple of hundred feet," said Eberhard.
Eberhard said Federal Aviation Adminstration officials have rejected suggestions that the Burbank Airport flight pattern be altered, saying commercial jets flying into and out of Burbank Airport must have top priority in the airspace over Van Nuys.
Commercial jets flying into and out of Burbank Airport fly at an altitude of about 2,000 feet over Van Nuys. For safety reasons, airplanes landing and departing from Van Nuys Airport are required to fly no higher than 1,000 feet above the ground in the area immediately around the airport. Helicopters, therefore, must fly at a maximum of 500 feet.
"In other words, the helicopters have been sandwiched down to the lower altitudes and they are catching all the noise complaints," said Police Sgt. Jim Olmore, who oversees helicopter training for the Los Angeles Police Department, which operates a helicopter maintenance facility at the airport.
Helicopter pilots say the low-altitude requirement makes it difficult to do business without generating some complaints. It is especially difficult for those who regularly fly at night or on emergency flights for the police and fire departments.
"I think that most of the helicopter pilots are extremely sensitive to noise," said Phil Berg, a pilot and president of the Van Nuys Airport Tenants Assn. "But sometimes they find they cannot be neighborly."
The first attempt to reduce helicopter noise was made in 1986, when residents, helicopter pilots and airport officials established eight takeoff and landing routes--similar in concept to on- and off-ramps used on freeways. Routes were established over industrial areas and a flood basin to minimize the impact on residential areas. Other routes were designated over major roads and freeways to mask helicopter noise with traffic on the ground. The routes were based on recommendations made by a panel of area residents during several public hearings. No tests were taken to gauge public opinion.
Although most pilots based at the airport have agreed to use the eight designated routes, there are no penalties for pilots who stray from the patterns.
But residents say pilots seeking shortcuts to their destinations sometimes stray from the routes and buzz over homes, prompting complaints.
"Part of the problem was that they were not following the routes," said Don Schultz, president of Ban Airport Noise, a group dedicated to reducing aircraft noise throughout the San Fernando Valley.
A second problem is that some of the routes adopted in 1986 are now generating complaints and need adjustments.
For example, Schultz said residents who live along Bull Creek, a flood control channel that runs parallel to the airport runways, complain about a helicopter route that runs directly over the creek.
One of Eberhard's recommendations was to eliminate the Bull Creek route and replace it with a parallel route that runs to the west over Balboa Boulevard, thus burying the helicopter noise in the traffic noise below. She also recommended that helicopter pilots who depart east over Stagg Street continue to Van Nuys Boulevard before turning south toward Los Angeles to minimize noise complaints from residents southeast of the airport.
The Balboa Boulevard recommendation drew a protest from Silver, who said residents south of the airport--particularly Encino residents--already suffer from jet noise and should not have to endure more air traffic. He suggests doing away with all southerly routes. Silver also opposed the suggestion that the route be tested secretly.
Schultz, who has been at loggerheads with Silver on several airport-related issues, agrees with Eberhard. "If you tell them, you are not going to get a fair survey of that area because they are going to be listening for it," he said.
Pilots, for their part, concede that some among their ranks ignore the designated routes and simply fly the most convenient pattern. But they say a majority of pilots at Van Nuys are sensitive to the concerns of neighbors.
"The sad thing is that you have a couple of cowboys out there who spoil it for the majority," said Nigel Turner, president of Heli-LA, which operates three helicopters for tours out of Van Nuys. His company flies up to 10 tours a day, about half at night.
He said his pilots always try to use "fly-neighborly techniques," meaning they try to avoid sharp, fast turns or descents, two maneuvers that are known to generate the greatest amount of noise. In addition, he said his pilots began four months ago to restrict themselves to a departure route over the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area.
"All of us are very sensitive at night since we always fly at night," he said.
Sam Cooper, a chief pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said his pilots stick to the routes and try to fly "neighborly" even as they are responding to emergency calls. But he added that the six Fire Department helicopters at the airport would generate fewer complaints if they were allowed to fly at higher altitudes. "Given the choice, most would fly higher," he said.
But pilots also believe a high percentage of the complaints are coming from a handful of residents whom they call "chronic complainers."
"There are some people who are oversensitive and they are the primary complainers," Cooper said. "There is noise, there is no doubt about it. But the noise was here before they moved in. The airport was here before they moved in."
Helicopter Traffic At Local Airports
Airport: Van Nuys Helicopters based at airport: 46 Average takeoffs and landings daily: 144
Airport: Long Beach Helicopters based at airport: 25 Average takeoffs and landings daily: 109
Airport: Burbank Helicopters based at airport: 14 Average takeoffs and landings daily: 50
Airport: Santa Monica Helicopters based at airport: 10 Average takeoffs and landings daily: 24
Airport: Los Angeles Intl. Helicopters based at airport: 6 Average takeoffs and landings daily: 25
Airport: Ontario Helicopters based at airport: 2 Average takeoffs and landings daily: 20 Source: airport officials