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Helicopter Hella Loud, Part 2: Can the FAA Regulate the Noise Pollution?

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Photo by Bernardo Alps
Photo by Bernardo Alps

This is part two of a series on helicopter noise in Los Angeles. Read part one here.

People think that Burbank is all fine, and that the airport is the cause. BS. Noise pollution is serious here. How about seven times a day? About 5 or 6 times a day, those are police. - A Burbank resident

Los Angeles residents and elected leaders have been attempting to regulate helicopter noise since at least the 1984 Olympic Games. At the time, using helicopters to help monitor and manage traffic was still an innovative strategy, one that was credited at least in part for making the Olympics here such a success. With thousands of international tourists and sports fans descending on the city, the freeways and transit system remained remarkably well ordered.

The use of helicopters subsequently skyrocketed, with the police department expanding its fleet, the news media taking to the skies with to-the-minute traffic reports, and recreational fliers filling up the space between. With the increase, there quickly evolved a new and pervasive layer to the Los Angeles soundscape.

That signature sound, familiar to anyone who has ever heard a helicopter, is often called blade slap. Blade-vortex interaction, a more technical term, is the pulsating deep bass and high pitch frequency "created when a rotor blade hits the wake left behind from the blade in front of it."

Eight different studies in the 1970s found that the annoyance created by a helicopter does not equate with the decibels it registers. The chopper's unique sound causes people to rate it as much as 10 decibels higher than it actually registers, doubling the noise impact. It's enough to make some residents into amateur inspectors, watching the skies above their neighborhoods and notifying pilots when they fail to adhere to recommended flight paths.

But for the Federal Aviation Administration, the focus is on safety, not noise.

"The FAA does not regulate aircraft noise," said Ian Gregor, the public affairs manager for the Pacific region of the FAA. "If a noise complaint involved an allegation that an aircraft was flying improperly low or unsafely, we would investigate the safety component of that complaint."

Safety in this case means that the helicopter "needs to be operated so it doesn't pose a hazard to people or property on the ground," Gregor said.

In other words, it can't kick up rocks and must be able to land successfully even with a total loss of engine power.

But the short of it is this: helicopters have no noise regulations and can do nearly anything but crash. There are no limits to how many helicopters can be in an area, and there are no flight paths they must follow, unless they are in controlled air space such as the area near an airport.

"If you are operating safely, and not in a controlled airspace, you can go anywhere you want," Gregor said.

Though the FAA is hesitant to regulate noise, it has also made it very clear that local authorities have no jurisdiction in the matter, effectively barring debate.

Gregor points out that because of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, locals have no jurisdiction over airport sound. The law was introduced in 1990 because local governments were imposing different standards and restrictions, impeding interstate commerce and making it difficult to run an airport or an airline.

The report states that: "The Congress finds that (1) aviation noise management is crucial to the continued increase in airport capacity; (2) community noise concerns have led to uncoordinated and inconsistent restrictions on aviation which could impede the national air transportation systems; (3) a noise policy must be implemented at the national level.

There has been no policy as of yet and the report doesn't mention helicopters.

That has not prevented the federal government from investigating either the impact of helicopter noise or ways to reduce it, however. In December 2004 Congress commissioned a study by the FAA called the "Nonmilitary Helicopter Urban Noise Study."

The FAA found that noise reduction benefits can be achieved with higher altitude flight. It also reported the FAA neither tracks the number of helicopter operations nor actively monitors noise in metropolitan areas.

The report stated that helicopter noise boils down quite simply to an annoyance. At the noise levels indicated, a sound would not pose a serious health risk unless it was continuous.

The report did recommend the FAA should establish a methodology to deal with helicopter noise. Gregor didn't want to comment on the report because he didn't know what follow-up was done and could not locate its author.

"The FAA encourages communities and aircraft operators to reach voluntary noise mitigation agreements and, when possible, we sometimes implement air traffic procedures to aid noise abatement," Gregor said.

But he added, "These procedures would, of course, only apply to aircraft flying in controlled airspace. Examples are LAX nighttime over-the-water operations and our attempt to evenly split Phoenix departures to the east and west."

Still, Gregor reiterates that other jurisdictions, such as cities, do not have the authority to regulate aircraft -- only the FAA can do that. And the FAA is primarily concerned with safety, not noise. So the argument goes round and round, a bit like the rotor blades that started this whole fuss.

So who's the biggest culprit in town, and what do they have to say about reducing noise? In the next part, we'll speak with the Los Angeles Police Department about that notorious avian species now considered native to the land, the "ghetto bird."

Next up: Blue Steel: LAPD and the "Ghetto Birds"


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.

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