Helicopter Hella Loud, Part 3: The LAPD's Blue Steel, or 'Ghetto Birds'

This is part three of a series about helicopter noise in Los Angeles. Read parts one and two.


L.A. helicopter situation is tough: I've frequently lost sleep or been unable to work due to the noise, but obviously I would prefer safety to complete silence. I try to trust that LAPD et al aren't breaking out the helicopters to hover/circle except in significant situations. - A West L.A. resident*

Cole Burdette flies over the city in one of the Los Angeles Police Department's 19 omnipresent helicopters to assist officers on the ground.

Contrary to what you may think, police officers like Burdette respond to more than just the most serious calls - those that involve car chases, shootings and other violent crimes. "We keep a lot of things that seem routine from going beyond routine because of our presence," Burdette said. "We respond to all calls, burglaries and shootings, but also vandalism."

The LAPD boasts the largest police helicopter unit in the country. Last year, air patrols responded to 50,000 different incidents and flew 18,400 hours - meaning there was the equivalent of two choppers in the air 24 hours a day for 365 days, according to Burdette. It also means the police are one of the main culprits when it comes to helicopter noise, though the LAPD, like the Federal Aviation Administration, focuses on safety first.

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Having such a large helicopter fleet allows Los Angeles to maintain a relatively low crime rate and fewer officers, said Burdette, who has been manning a chopper for 16 years.

L.A.'s homicide rate is about the same as New York's, even though this city has only about one officer per 400 residents compared to about one for every 200 residents in the Big Apple. And crime rates here are at lows not seen since the '60s.

"This is because we use helicopters to augment our officers," Burdette said. "It makes us quicker and more efficient. Helicopters reduce crime and are a force multiplier."

Flights originate at Parker Center downtown between 8:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. and cover the city's 475 square miles. Each chopper returns to base every two and a half hours as another helicopter takes its place.

The chief tactical flight officer pilots either the smaller Astar 350 B2 or the Bell 206 Jet Ranger, which is louder and bigger.

The LAPD usually flies between 500 feet and 700 feet, a little higher than the new 54-story tower at L.A. Live downtown. To avoid conflicts with the police, the news media generally flies above 1,000 feet - about the height of the U.S. Bank Library Tower, which is the city's tallest building.

INFOGRAPHIC: Click here to launch "Helicopter Noise Reduction by Altitude" by Brian Frank

The difference in sound level of a helicopter flying at 500 feet and at 1,000 feet is nine decibels - dropping from 87 to 78. That effectively cuts the noise impact in half.

The Helicopter Association International has stated that to fall under the generally accepted criterion of 65 decibels, small helicopters should fly at altitudes no less than 1,000 feet. For medium helicopters, the recommended height is 2,000 feet, and, for large helicopters, 4,000 feet.

"We are always conscious about noise and we try to fly higher to not bother people," Burdette said.

But Burdette also points out that 300 feet is the length of a football field and adding that distance puts an incredible strain on seeing what's going on at ground level.

"This is based on human limitations," Burdette said. "Ultimately the city would be less safe if we were not there. It would be less safe for the officer and for the public."

From above, helicopter pilots can see over tall fences, can use thermal imaging in the dark to find suspects, can look through stabilized binoculars to locate criminals and use GPS mapping to route officers.

"We can identify where suspects might be; we can check a yard before an officer goes into it," Burdette said. "We can see people who might be in harm's way and are not aware of it."

To hear Burdette tell it, you get a sense these so-called "ghetto birds" are almost omniscient. He said that helicopter pilots have observed auto theft, drive-by shootings and burglaries even when they are between calls. That means they could respond to an incident that hasn't even been called in.

The unit started in 1956 with a single helicopter to help with traffic control on the freeways and a second wasn't added until 1963. But it was clear the power an eye in the sky could have.

In 1968, the city purchased its first Jet Ranger. That's the model still used today, more than four decades later, so it should not be a big surprise that the LAPD hasn't see value in modernizing its fleet just for the sake of noise reduction. Actually, the department did look into modifications to reduce noise further but found the additions were too expensive or affected performance, Burdette said.

"We do everything we can to not alienate the community," Burdette said. "We are here to help and support. It is part of a cost benefit analysis and helicopters are necessary to make a safe environment in a huge urban area with lots of crimes."

Numerous studies and even the public response seem to support the LAPD's reliance on helicopters, despite the noise.

A 1970 study, when the fleet consisted of about five helicopters, concluded "citizens of Los Angeles accept helicopter patrols as a necessary part of the city's police system and strongly favor their continuation."

The same study done today, however, may not find such blanket support.

Next Up, Part 4: We take a look at how communities and politicians have fared in their struggle to implement helicopter noise regulations. It's not exactly good news for residents.

This series on helicopter noise is brought to you by Spot.Us, with contributing support from the California Endowment and KCET. Eddie North-Hager runs a news & social network for a number of L.A. neighborhoods, including Leimert Park.


*Starred comment was taken from a survey taken in May 2011, distributed to members of LeimertParkBeat.com, EchoParkOnline.com and SanPedroNewsPilot.com. It was also sent out on Twitter specifically through @Venice311, @CoCoSouthLA and @HubCityLivin. At the time the story was written 57 surveys were completed. To see the survey, click here.
To take a survey about helicopter noise, click here.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Chris Yarzab. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

After working for daily newspapers for 15 years, I started Leimert Park Beat.com, a news & social network for my neighbohrood, known as the Soul of Los Angeles. There are more than 1,000 members who contribute to the website and t...
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