By Stephen J. Kotz
A voluntary agreement to regulate helicopter traffic at East Hampton Airport that is hoped will reduce noise complaints was unveiled before the East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday.
“Do we have to talk about helicopters? Do we have to do this?” quipped Supervisor Larry Cantwell, referring to the controversy increased helicopter traffic has caused in recent years, before Peter Boody, the recently appointed assistant to airport manager Jim Brundige, began his presentation.
Mr. Boody was accompanied by Jeff Smith, chairman of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, an industry group that, he said, counts among its members all of the pilots who typically use the airport.
The agreement, which largely focuses on asking helicopter pilots to maintain minimum altitudes and set routes into and out of the airport, was struck between the council, the airport manager’s office, the control tower, and a pair of town airport subcommittees—one that is made up of airport users and another that is made up of anti-noise activists.
“Most of these routes were in effect last year” when noise complaints declined from about 11,000 to approximately 6,700, Mr. Boody said.
The difference, he said, is that the airport will now monitor flight data from its air traffic control tower. When a complaint is received or a monitor notices that a pilot has not followed the recommended flight path, the information will be forwarded to Mr. Smith of the helicopter council, who will address the concerns with the offending pilot.
“I’ve already had this conversation with every one of my members,” Mr. Smith said. “They have all agreed this is doable.”
“That’s what Jeff and I will be doing all summer long, talking about these problems,” said Mr. Boody after reviewing a few examples on a PowerPoint presentation that showed the paths of helicopters that did not follow the designated routes.
“It’s remarkable how much eagerness there is to comply,” said Mr. Boody. He added, though, that in the summer, as traffic picks up, pilots tend to not follow the routes as precisely as they can. There is also some confusion, he said, among those who don’t understand the new routes.
Mr. Boody said a key element to the new approach is convincing pilots of the need to maintain reasonable altitudes as they approach or leave the airport.
“There have been ups and downs,” Mr. Boody said of efforts to control helicopter traffic. “Generally that the trend is up in terms of altitude is true.”
He conceded, though, that while getting pilots to fly at higher altitudes “affects the intensity of the noise, it doesn’t make it go away.”
Helicopters using a northeasterly route are asked to attain an altitude of at least 2,000 feet before leaving the airport boundary and climb to 3,000 feet by the time they pass over Barcelona Neck and fly over the bay, over the South Ferry channel and on toward the North Fork.
About 30 percent of helicopters use a southerly route that passes over Georgica Pond. They too are asked to climb to 2,000 feet before leaving the airport boundary and over the center of Georgica Pond before turning at the cut at a preferred height of 3,000 feet.
Mr. Smith said that fewer helicopters use the southern route because airplane and jet traffic is already concentrated at that end of the airport, often making the skies too crowded.
Councilwoman Sylvia Overby asked whether air traffic controllers could direct helicopter pilots to follow a set route, but Mr. Boody said since the routes are voluntary, the air traffic controllers would have no authority to direct them.
Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc expressed reservations about the whole idea of sending most flights northward over land that the town, county, and state had spent millions of dollars to protect as open space.
“We have now created a helicopter superhighway to the Hamptons over an area we preserved,” he said. “I find that a troubling contradiction.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc was also perturbed Mr. Smith told him that larger, larger twin-engine helicopters will be sent north over Northwest Harbor and Cedar Point along the eastern edge of Shelter Island before heading out over Orient Point.
“So, the heavies which are 50 percent of the traffic will now be going the length of Northwest Harbor,” he said, adding quietly, “terrific.”