Each weekend, writer Sam Leff hears the buzzing of helicopters flying over his house and areas of the park where he walks and bikes. One afternoon, he saw two within five minutes in the West 70s.
“Particularly in the last number of months, there seems to be an extreme increase in the number of helicopters,” he said. “They fly very low, with a high noise level. If I’m in the middle of writing a sentence it totally destroys my concentration.”
While neighborhood residents, inured to the kinds of sounds that are part of city life, might assume that the helicopters belong to TV crews or cops, many of the aircraft are taking visitors on tours to get bird’s-eye views of Manhattan’s charms.
For fees ranging well upwards of $100, tourists can swoop Uptown and enjoy the American Museum of Natural History and, of course, the park. Several companies operate out of the West 30th Street Heliport, on the Hudson River, and New Jersey, offering regular flights over Central Park.
Residents like Leff have been complaining about the noise for years, but reports have intensified in number and frequency in recent months.
“This is a problem that has been going on for a while now. We’ve been working on it. It’s an issue of non-emergency, non-police helicopters hovering over the Upper West Side to get a view of the park and the river and things like that,” said Jesse Bodine, director of constituent services for Council Member Gale Brewer, whose office has been working with residents on the issue.
One of the biggest obstacles to solving the problem is a lack of clarity over who controls the aircrafts: they take off from city property, but city agencies do not regulate flight paths, while the Federal Aviation Administration also does not restrict their paths so long as they stay above a required altitude and are in compliance with FAA safety, passenger and pilot regulations.
“There are no mandated flight routes for the sightseeing helicopters in Manhattan. They fly as they choose, though they do have to land and take off over the water,” said Jim Peters, FAA spokesperson.
The aircraft are in contact with flight towers at the three major airports. Peters added that height restrictions, usually 1,000 feet, are lower over Central Park when there are no major public gatherings taking place.
Complaints tend to come from the 70s and 80s, near Central Park attractions like Bethesda Fountain and the Great Lawn.
“West 79th and West 83rd Street are the two places we’ve heard about this a lot. I don’t understand how they get away with it,” Brewer said. “There’s not a lot of oversight.”
Along with the FAA, another target of West Side residents’ efforts has been the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the businesses managing and operating the city’s heliports.
“New York City Economic Development Corporation is aware and sensitive to the problem of helicopter noise. We monitor all the calls that come into the city via 311.
We are also in contact with operators on the subject. Early next year, we will be setting up roundtable discussions with appropriate stakeholders to discuss the situation,” said corporation spokesperson Janel Patterson in a statement.
The anti-helicopter activists will most certainly be there.
“The only thing the community can do is to continue to protest, complain and organize,” said Joy Held of Heli-Free NYC, a veteran campaigner against helicopter noise. “There’s a lot that can be done if there’s the will.”
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