BY WINNIE McCROY | During last year’s lockdown, the buzz of helicopters overhead was one of the only sounds in a largely silent city, a constant reminder of the pandemic. Now, as the city reopens and we again notice the sounds of children in playgrounds and cyclists zipping through bike lanes, the whir of helicopter blades remains a constant.
As commuter and tourist helicopter traffic continues to increase, CNN reported that New Yorkers filed more than 7,7000 noise complaints about helicopters in 2020, double that of 2019. From the Upper West Side to Brooklyn Heights, residents are complaining about the noise of choppers above them day and night.
And shockingly, this air traffic is completely unregulated below 1,200 feet. Despite best efforts, elected officials have failed to get the Federal Aviation Administration to actively monitor these low-level flights. Mayor Bill de Blasio ruled in 2016 that New York City sightseeing choppers could only fly above the Hudson River. But New Jersey tourist companies still consider the City fair game, and don’t always make safety concerns paramount, as witnessed in the gory FlyNYON chopper crash that fell into the East River in 2018, killing all five passengers.
Locally, as we reported in a June article, the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) manages the West 30th Street V.I.P. Heliport, with the company Air Pegasus LLC running and operating it. The company Blade, a sort of AirUber, is one of the users of this Heliport, running private charter flights to the Hamptons, Westchester, and to connecting flights at JFK or LaGuardia Airports.
Christine Berthet, co-founder of CHEKPEDS (Clinton Hell’s Kitchen Chelsea Coalition for Pedestrian Safety; Chekpeds), told Chelsea Community News (CCNews) she believes the Heliport should be shut down immediately and the land reclaimed for Park usage. Berthet noted that while “some bigwigs” may now be in favor of keeping the Heliport, they might have second thoughts when the residential tower on the Western Rail Yard is built right next to it, and the noisy operation is situated in front of their building. (Berthet, co-chair of the Community Board 4 (CB4) Transportation Planning Committee, spoke to us only in her Chekpeds capacity).
“My understanding is that [Blade] is on a lease from the Trust, and if the trust wanted to terminate the lease they could. The Heliport has a monthly lease and it can be cancelled at any time,” said Berthet. “But the Park derives a fair amount of revenue from them which they want to retain, so there’s a conflict between generating revenue and keeping within uses consistent with the Park.”
Berthet believes that the State needs to put aside money for maintenance of HRP, as they do for other parks.
Last month, Chekpeds posted an item on their site (Stunning Pier 76 is unusable due to helicopter noise) documenting the high level of July 4 holiday weekend commuter traffic. The landing or taking off of helicopters every three minutes made an outing to Pier 76 “unbearable,” the post noted, adding, “This Heliport was ordered to be vacated by a judge years ago and no one is enforcing it.”
Chelsea resident Allen Oster (a member of CB4’s Waterfront, Parks & Environment Committee and a HRP volunteer whose viewpoints here are his own) was one of the first to comment on the Chekpeds item, saying, “The loss of rent from the heliport would certainly impact the Park’s operating expenses. However, there’s more to why the heliport is still operating at this location then the money.” West Chelsea resident Andrew Rai noted that the “constant buzzing of the helicopters” has “gotten so bad we’ve stopped going to Chelsea Piers altogether.”
Tim Tanner replied on the same comment thread that he’d cycled up the HRP bike path several weeks ago and “literally could not breathe for 200 yards or so as I approached the helipad because a helicopter was idling.” He said he stopped to ask why and was told they were waiting for a VIP guest in a State Police helicopter under orders to remain running and ready.
“Thirty seconds later three black cars roared into the parking lot, and out popped Governor Cuomo with several aides, who then boarded and took off up the river towards Albany,” wrote Tanner. “All this to say, perhaps Cuomo isn’t the right person to petition on this.”
When Chelsea Community News contacted Oster, he echoed this sentiment, noting, “This has become ever more a nuisance as Blade has expanded their operations at the Heliport… Why hasn’t it moved?”
Oster said that CB4 Chair Lowell Kern had worked very hard on a plan to renovate that area, only to discover a lack of support from the governor. He compared it to the situations with Pier 76 languishing for decades only for Cuomo to step in at the last minute, and the plan to fix the L train, which Cuomo swooped in at the last minute to take control over. (At this point in time, as the governor must choose between resignation and impeachment, the fate of things like Manhattan helicopter traffic and the Empire Station Complex seem like concerns to be visited anew by his inevitable successor.)
“He’s the only one who can say, ‘Listen, you gotta move outta here,’ ” said Oster, of the governor. “Blade is expanding with major investors and they’re not looking to give up this major spot. If they lose this, where are they gonna go? No one’s gonna want a heliport in their vicinity.”
When asked about the detritus and subsequent fallout from the 1977 Pan Am helicopter crash, Berthet said, “It was one crash in how many years? Would you close JFK over one crash? There’s a bunch of knee-jerk reactions here.” On the topic of emergency flights, Berthet suggested police and hospitals install helipads on their roofs, saying, “If there’s a real emergency then helipads should be on the top of One Police Plaza, or in places where there are emergencies, like hospitals—not in the park.”
Closing Shop on the West Side Heliport? | On June 10, after much discussion, CB4’s Waterfront, Parks & Environment committee voted to draft letters in support of closing the commercial heliport located in HRP. Kern said then he believed CB4 would approve the letters when they met in late July. (Click here for the archived recording of the Zoom-held meeting.)
And on July 28, when the full board of CB4 met, the letters were indeed approved (bundled as Agenda Items 35, 36). One letter (Item 35, “Elected Letter”) was addressed to Congressperson Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried. It reminded the elected officials that CB4 had approached them in November 2019 with a unanimous vote to close the facility, with the possible exception of emergency flights.
“The Heliport is a significant source of pollution, noise, and safety issues,” read the letter. “The situation has been exacerbated to an intolerable and dangerous level since the establishment of a Park where people ride their bikes, picnic, stroll and enjoy alongside a boom in helicopter flights. Toxic fumes fill the air and linger, people cannot talk over the noise, and some cyclists have reportedly been blown off their bicycles by the force of the winds created on takeoffs and landings.”
The letter requested immediate attention to: air and noise pollution from landings, takeoffs, and the idling of helicopters and vehicles; the safety of bike riders and pedestrians from vehicles crossing the bike lane to enter the heliport parking lot; observable security procedures for vehicles; an immediate safety and security survey by NYPD/Terrorism Task Force; and the assessment of legality of the unguarded and exposed 8,000-gallon fuel tank located “mere feet from spinning helicopter blades.” They made sure to cc the State Department of Environmental Protection and Homeland Security.
A second letter (Item 36, “Letter to HRPT”) was directed to HRPT President Noreen Doyle regarding their tenant at the Heliport. It recounted the long history of difficulty with the Heliport, and asked HRPT to eliminate vehicular parking and relocate it across the West Side Highway; eliminate helicopters idling more than five minutes; and to address the unguarded, exposed 8,000-gallon fuel tank.
Chelsea Community News reached out to Doyle via HRPT’s PR representatives, to ask about closing the Heliport, beefing up security measures, and considering a different commercial enterprise for this area. Our request for an interview with Doyle was declined, but we were sent this statement:
“We will be closely reviewing the letters sent by Community Board 4 once they are transmitted,” said a spokesperson for HPRT. “In the meantime, we remain committed to working with the community, our elected officials and the heliport operator on operational issues while also working with the State and City with respect to long term planning considerations.” (NOTE: Both CB4 letters, available to view in full at the tail end of this article, were sent to their intendeds on Aug. 5.)
CB4 seems determined to close the Heliport. During the Wednesday, July 28th CB4 full board meeting, WPE co-chair Jeffrey LeFrancois said, “Long story short: We want it closed, and in the meantime we need some serious issues addressed as it relates to pollution, noise, safety in the area.” When CB4 member Thuy Pham asked LeFrancois about the Heliport’s month-to-month operating permit being perpetually approved by its holder, HRPT, he added, “We’ve been advocating for years to close the Heliport. There’s a long history of a State Supreme Court decision, lots of back and forth on this, so this is a couple new ways of approach, to potentially get at least a reduction in flight, for the short term as well.”
CB4 Chair Kern, who was also a member of the HRPT’s Board of Directors—marked himself “present, not eligible” during the abovementioned voting.
Many CB4 members echoed community concerns over the noise at the W. 30th St. Heliport, as well as the dangers from high winds from takeoffs and landings, and the glut of for-hire limousines and SUVs idling in the Heliport parking lot.
Committee members were especially alarmed by the 8,000-gallon tank of jet fuel inside the confines of the Heliport, protected only by a chain link fence and an almost comically burnt-up “No Smoking” sign.
Since that time, community member Jim Boyd (who appeared before CB4’s WPE in June with a damning presentation against the W. 30th St. facility) said he was riding by the Heliport and stopped to talk with three HRPT employees, who “were checking out the burnt ‘No Smoking’ sign next to the fuel tank. They had clipboards, so I guess that made it official. About a week after that, the sign was gone.”
Said Oster, “The people who run the Trust are very good at managing the property, and have done a marvelous job with limited resources, and the people who work on the park do a great job maintaining it… To me, the immediate problems are the security and safety issues.”
Oster said he has been tracking the helicopter traffic for the past year and a half and has seen some choppers idling for up to 20 minutes, creating a lot of pollution and noise. He has stopped seeing the traffic manager the Trust asked them to install, but believed that if traffic ramped back up, they would reinstall someone.
“I’m concerned as someone who is out there a lot that as things start to get busier with flights, the safety and security in and out of the parking lot area need to increase,” said Oster. “They also need to do something about their approach, because they come in on an angle and the people sitting on the park benches as far up as 29th Street are all of a sudden sprayed by water.”
Can Legislation Do the Job? | The scourge of choppers over the city has prompted New York legislators to introduce legislation to attempt to quell the noise. In New York City, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer eschewed the “wild, wild West” helicopter rides for tourists as well as the cushy commuter flights for the tony, jet-set class.
“We’ve heard about cameras falling, oil dripping from poorly regulated, often doorless helicopters out of New Jersey,” Brewer told ABC. “Non-essential flights have showed us time and time again exactly why their practices must be reined in at every level.” On Capitol Hill, Congressional lawmakers Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler, and Nydia Velázquez re-introduced the Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2021, originally introduced in 2019, to cut down on helicopter traffic and noise pollution. The bill, HR 1643, would amend title 49 of the United States Code to “prohibit certain helicopter flights over major cities with high population densities, and for other purposes.” There are exceptions written in for law enforcement, emergency response, disaster response, provision of medical services and infrastructure maintenance.
“You don’t have to look any further than the 30 helicopter crashes since 1982 that have caused at least 25 fatalities for proof,” Nadler told NY1News. “This bill is about priorities. Do we prioritize tourists joyriding over our city and endangering our lives? Or do we prioritize the health of New Yorkers who live here year-round?”
And in February, California lawmakers Congressman Brad Sherman and Senator Dianne Feinstein worked with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to reintroduce the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, requiring the FAA to strengthen federal safety standards for equipping helicopters, after the tragic helicopter crash that killed the Bryants.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York supported this legislation, saying in a press statement, “Despite tragic helicopter crashes across the country and here in New York—from FlyNYON to the crash last year on a Manhattan tower—the installation of chopper warning systems and crash-resistant flight data and voice recorders has remained an elusive, basic safety standard the federal government has failed to mandate. The bill we are introducing today would heed safety recommendations the NTSB has all but begged for and ones New Yorkers know are badly needed.”
While elected officials try to curb New Jersey tourist flights or enact federal legislation, here on the West Side Highway, Blade Helicopter CEO Rob Wiesenthal intensely lobbies the HRPT and Governor Cuomo to keep it open, by hook or crook.
In June, the Daily Mail reported that Wiesenthal had “invented” their company spokesperson, Simon McLaren, out of whole cloth, including his backstory, his Twitter account, his company blog, right down to his profile photo (in actuality, British racecar driver Graham Hill). Wiesenthal admitted that he often posed as “McLaren” on media calls. He even fabricated a false falling out with McLaren to dispose of the persona.
Business Insider, which broke the story, reported that Wiesenthal had released a statement saying, “We are living in a uniquely polarizing time” and announced they had decided to part ways with McLaren. The split appeared to coincide with the firm going public via a sale to a blank-check company for $825M; in December it reached a deal to go public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). It was backed by KSL Capital and investors including Barry Diller, Robert Pittman, David Geffen, David Zaskar, and HG Vora Capital.
Boyd complained about the environmental impact of “their pillage,” saying that instead of investing in public transportation, housing, drought, fire, and famine, “instead we have clowns like Bezos flying into space and Blade bullshitting about electric vehicles, when all Wiesenthal’s really interested in is the quick SPAC bucks, which he’ll collect, win or lose.”
Melissa Elstein, coalition organizer and board secretary of Stop the Chop NY/NJ, said the top goals of her bistate organization (which is currently seeking a NJ board member) was to get H.R. 1643 passed, and to close the City’s three remaining heliports. She’d also like to see the passage of H.R. 389 (the Safe and Quiet Skies Act), legislation co-sponsored by Nadler that would “direct the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to adopt National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations that will increase safety and reduce the community disruption of commercial air tours,” noted a Jan. 22, 2021 press release from Nadler’s office, which also noted the bill mandates “strict regulation of commercial air tour operations to address defense risks and community disruption, including no overflights of defense, park, cemetery, and other sensitive installations and minimum altitude maximum noise limits on all flights.”
Stop the Chop NY/NJ is even lending support to the so-called Kobe Bryant bill and a federal bill introduced by Colorado Congressman Negus (H.R. 5423) to empower municipalities to have more control over their airports. A similar municipality hearing was recently held in in Easthampton, where much of the Blade commuters end up. Elstein said that despite what people might think, it’s not organ deliveries or even NYPD choppers hovering over Black Lives Matter demonstrations that are causing the bulk of the chopper traffic and noise.
“From what I understand, it’s the helicopters from out of the city–sightseeing over New You City–and the commuters, who are responsible for the noise and the traffic,” said Elstein, to CCNews’ editor after this article’s publication, as we began work on the next installment in this series.
Stop the Chop NY/NJ is a participant in Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s Helicopter Task Force, an informal but regular meeting of stakeholders from the city of New York to adjacent New Jersey. Its membership includes councilmembers, assemblymembers, the media, and other stakeholders. Task Force goals include addressing the issue of density, both in the air and on the ground—via, respectively, possible pooling of resources to reduce the number of news helicopters covering the same story, and asking the Federal Aviation Administration to protect highly populated areas from private commercial flights.
Limiting the reach of the tourism and charter industry is particularly relevant, given that Blade recently went public. Said Berthet, the current amount of traffic at the West 30th St. Heliport is already beyond reasonable capacity–and the problem is not just limited to the immediate area. “For 10 blocks before and after the Heliport, the noise is unbearable,” she noted, invoking a July 2021 posting on the Chekpeds website that addressed the frequency of landings and takeoffs. “You can’t have a park and an airport in the same place,” said Berthet. “It doesn’t make any sense. . . and its use should be terminated.”
NOTE: Following the below paragraph, find letters generated from CB4’s June 10 WPE meeting, approved by the full board on July 28, and sent on Aug. 5. Also Note: This article’s final two paragraphs were updated at 10:31pm, Aug. 9, 2021 to provide further details about the membership and goals of Brewer’s interstate Helicopter Task Force.
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