Recently, members of Stop the Chop NY/NJ – Andrew Rosenthal (President) and Melissa Elstein (Secretary) – connected with members of Community Board 7’s ‘Parks & Environment’ and ‘Transportation’ committees over a Zoom conference to discuss the banning of non-essential helicopter flights over the NY metropolitan area.
“This has been a multi-decade battle between the citizens of New York and a few special interests,” Rosenthal noted towards the top of his ‘Helicopter 101’ deep dive, which quickly cited NYC’s first major helicopter accident that took place atop the Pan Am Building in Midtown Manhattan, killing five in 1977. The disaster led to the closing of that helipad.
Fast forward to June 10, 2019 when pilot Tim McCormack radioed that he “did not know where he was” while lost in the rain and fog heading towards the helicopter’s home base in Linden, New Jersey. After reversing course multiple times, NBC News reported that the chopper “zoom[ed] past the Empire State Building and other landmarks before slamming into the roof of the 750-foot (229 meter) AXA Equitable building in tightly controlled airspace near Trump Tower.”
In October 2019, New York Congressional member Carolyn B. Maloney (NY-12) introduced legislation H.R.4880, also known as the Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019. The bill, if approved, would prohibit nonessential helicopter flights over cities with populations exceeding 8 million and population densities exceeding 25,000 people per square mile.
[ This prohibition would not include flights made for purposes of public health and safety, law enforcement and emergency response flights, or heavy-lift operations in support of construction and infrastructure maintenance. Flights carried out for research or for official purposes by a new organization would also be permitted. ]
Congressional members Jerrold Nadler (NY-10) and Nydia M. Velázquez (NY-7) co-sponsored H.R.4880. “Since 1980, there have been at least 30 helicopter crashes in New York City, many of which have been fatal,” said Congressman Nadler in a 2019 press release. “Despite my colleagues and I having called on the FAA numerous times to take simple and prudent action to protect our city, the FAA has refused to sufficiently act. That is why I joined Representatives Maloney and Velázquez in authoring legislation to protect our skies by banning non-essential flights over New York City. There is simply no justification for allowing tourists to joy-ride over our city, endangering lives and creating unnecessary noise pollution.”
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Congressional members Maloney, Nadler and Velázquez are all members of the Stop The Chop NY/NJ Coalition, which has sizable support from NYC organizations including multiple community boards and block associations, and more recently the Central Park Conservancy.
Thank you Central Park Conservancy 4 supporting the ban of nonessential choppers over our city, including our beautiful parks like Central Park! Please share our petition w/ all your members.Thanks! @StoptheChopNYNJ @GaleBrewerNYC @JuliaManhattan @Adrian_Benepe @BirdCentralPark https://t.co/RyUegkrNBm
— StoptheChop (@StoptheChopNYNJ) January 23, 2021
The Coalition also touts a lengthy list of NY and NJ elected officials. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, also a Coalition member, touched on the ‘helicopter issue’ during CB7’s latest full board meeting which took place on Tuesday, February 2. “We have met so many people from New Jersey; we are talking to elected officials in Hoboken, Jersey City, as well as the Congressmen [and] we want to work together; they want to work with us,” noted Brewer. She further described the issue stemming from “people leaving New York City, going on a helicopter in New Jersey and taking an Instagram photo and going back to Manhattan. That’s the extent of it and it’s very noisy and disturbing.”
Helicopters which take off from New Jersey are not currently required to abide by a 2016 agreement restricting tourist helicopter flights over New York, which reduced 60,000 allowable annual flights to 30,000. The helicopter companies that use the downtown heliport also agreed to avoid flying over land, avoid scheduling Sunday flights, ban flights over Governors Island, and turn around before reaching the George Washington Bridge when flying up the Hudson.
Melissa Elstein tells us Upper West Siders have been reporting the most helicopter noise complaints from the West 80s, but that a considerable number of disturbances have been reported from the West 70s and 90s as well.
The path of these non-essential helicopter flights begins at the helipads in Linden and Kearny, New Jersey. These ‘choppers’ typically come up from New Jersey and into New York City, proceeding north along the Hudson River. They continue by cutting east, usually over the West 80s and to the reservoir in Central Park, where they hover and circle before continuing east to the East River and south towards the Empire State Building. Tours frequently end around the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty.
We spoke with Hoboken Councilman Phil Cohen, another member of ‘the Coalition.’ He told us that next steps in tackling the issue include “Galvanizing New Jersey Congressional Delegates” and getting sponsors in the Senate. Cohen further stated that “this is really an FAA issue” and doesn’t think they’ll need to get federal legislation to help their cause.
Councilman Cohen’s sentiment with the FAA echoed what Melissa Elstein noted in her Stop the Chop introduction to CB7. “This has to be a grassroots effort because we’re going up against the industry. We’re going up against the FAA to a certain extent. We have to push them to make these regulatory changes. That is kind of like a David and Goliath fight.” The group’s online petition, as of writing, has just under 4,000 signatures.
Geez. I was fighting this fight 40 years ago!! I can’t believe it is still going on! When I was a writer and assistant editor of West Side Beat (a free local paper, like West Side Spirit), I wrote extensively on this. And in the ensuing years, SOME laws were passed limiting flights and air lanes. But clearly not enough.
What absolutely shocked me was that, even after 9/11, the FAA refused to more heavily regulate the airspace over NYC. And as the article notes, there were at least a dozen significant helicopter accidents in the following decade or so. So it seems that little to nothing has been done in all that time.
The tourist helicopter industry provides a truly meager addition to the City’s coffers, so its elimination would basically have ZERO effect on revenue. And as I pointed out in one of my West Side Beat columns, I don’t go to other States and hire a helicopter to fly over people’s fields, houses and local tourist attractions, spewing diesel fuel and risking accidents; so why do tourists have the right to do so here, where the dangers are even more significant? For Pete’s sake, they had to shut down the helicopter landing pad on the old PanAm Building in 1977 after a helicopter accident killed 5 people. Have we learned NOTHING in the ensuing 45 years?
I understand the need for some exemptions: NYPD, news/traffic, and maybe commuter helicopters, though even the latter need to be much better regulated.
But it is WAY past time to end this practice re tourism and non-essential air traffic, both for health (pollution) and safety reasons. In a post-9/11 world, why are the skies over NYC not heavily-regulated enough to make non-essential air traffic a non-starter?
There needs to be a federal, State and local inter-agency task force to end this practice. Now!