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Crackdown on Copters Causes a Buzz

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal crackdown restricting the types of helicopters allowed to fly over Los Angeles and other congested areas in the county is causing economic worries among pilots and companies that operate the aircraft.

In a city renowned for its proliferation of choppers, the change is affecting some key industries as well, particularly filmmaking and construction jobs involving aerial lifts, such as hoisting air-conditioning equipment to the top of tall buildings.

The target of the campaign is former military helicopters that have been converted for civilian use.

The converted aircraft--so-called restricted category helicopters--may account for as many as 60% to 70% of all helicopters in civilian use nationally, according to several sources in the industry.

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The Federal Aviation Administration launched the campaign just as the government dumped hundreds of the surplus military machines on the market and distributed them to law enforcement and firefighting units.

Most of the machines are identical to helicopters manufactured for civilian use--or so-called standard-category aircraft--but were built to military specifications and not subject to review by the FAA. Because of that, the FAA restricts their civilian use upon conversion.

The same converted helicopters now owned by government agencies, such as law enforcement and firefighting units, fall into a “public use” category and are exempt from FAA restrictions.

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The converted military helicopters usually can be purchased for one-third or less the cost of standard-category aircraft. Therefore, operators of restricted aircraft pay less for insurance and other overhead costs and can greatly underbid prices charged by operators of standard equipment. That infuriates standard-equipment operators, who sought relief from the FAA.

Until about two months ago, operators of former military helicopters were able to routinely obtain FAA waivers to fly the converted aircraft throughout the Los Angeles area. But the FAA suddenly halted the practice, enforcing a strict interpretation of federal guidelines adopted more than two decades ago.

“They’re stopping us from doing stuff that we have always done in L.A.,” moaned one Van Nuys pilot.

The issue erupted after FAA officials in Washington notified regional offices, including those in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Van Nuys and Riverside, that waivers are not to be issued in congested areas.

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FAA officials said they learned about the widespread use of restricted helicopters in Los Angeles in March during an informal meeting with several leaders of the helicopter industry.

The converted military machines “do not meet normal air-worthiness standards, so they are restricted from flight over congested areas,” said Bob Barton, FAA operations manager of general aviation.

“We learned that pilots operating in Los Angeles were sort of circumventing the rules,” said another Washington FAA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“If there’s been any error on the part of interpretation, that’s unfortunate. I feel kind of badly about that,” he added, noting that the rules being enforced have been on the books since the early 1980s.

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Because of the confusion, FAA legal officials within the next few weeks are expected to issue clarifications, which many pilots predict will be even more stringent. They say they fear the FAA is attempting to ground all restricted-category civil aircraft for everything except agricultural or logging purposes.

Pilots are particularly concerned about the government’s definition of “a congested area.”

In the past, they have been able to fly restricted aircraft along routes over railroad tracks or the Los Angeles River, for example. That may change, perhaps eliminating all routes and job sites. Last month, a converted military helicopter was denied permission to perform filming work at Fullerton Municipal Airport.

A “congested area,” according to a local FAA inspector who asked that his name not be used, “means anywhere in the L.A. Basin. It’s happening all over the country.

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“There have been a lot of problems, a lot of complaints about waivers issued in error,” the inspector said. “The rules have been misinterpreted by inspectors as well as operators.”

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The crackdown “leaves [many operators] between a rock and a hard spot,” he added. “It’s getting a lot of operators upset, but we have to look out for the safety of the public too.”

Strict enforcement of regulations has far-reaching implications. Filmmakers, for example, would have trouble shooting a scene calling for Vietnam-era Hueys to converge in formation over City Hall. Construction jobs that require air power to lift equipment to the top of tall buildings have suddenly become a lot more expensive because of the higher cost of using standard equipment. And there soon may be a shortage of helicopters to suppress wildfires in the year of El Nino.

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An operator in Seattle has folded his business. Another in Boston is threatening legal action. Several said they are suffering business downturns ranging from 10% to 90% and predict a ripple effect across the nation.

Joe Brigham, a Boston operator just denied an exemption after a lengthy legal battle with the FAA, said, “The rules are being enforced differently around the country.” He said his revenues are down by 40%.

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But Steve Sullivan, a San Jose operator who uses only standard-category equipment and urged the FAA crackdown, said, “It bothers me that some people are circumventing the rules [with restricted equipment] and trying to do the same things that we are doing. If it’s just them and their helicopter, there is very little impact on the nonparticipating public. But if they are working on movie sets or over congested areas, they are exposing other people to the risk.”

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Despite the debate over safety, there are no statistics to indicate that the accident rate is greater among restricted aircraft, according to the FAA, the helicopter association and manufacturers. “We don’t sit down and do that because we have not had the opportunity nor the emphasis to do it,” said Doug Kirkpatrick, FAA special assistant for aircraft certification.

Many pilots claim that the safety record among ex-military aircraft is better than the civilian counterparts and cite several examples.

Despite the debate, most pilots and operators agree that businesses that hire helicopters will pay more for the service. “There is a ripple effect. How major it’s going to be is another story,” Person said. “Everyone is going to catch the fallout.”


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