Tour helicopter noise complaints put issue on county’s radar
The helicopter tourism industry on the Big Island is suffering some growing pains.
Tourists take helicopters to Hawaii Island’s most awe-inspiring views — creating business for East Hawaii restaurants, hotels and nightclubs along the way. The $200- to $300-per-person tours offer bird’s-eye views of wonders such as the highly popular Kamokuna lava ocean entry.
But for some residents, more tourism means more helicopter noise — and they’re not happy about it.
They complain that tour helicopters are too loud and fly too low.
An advocacy organization, tour operators, Hawaii County Council members and Mayor Harry Kim are trying various ways to address the problem.
Council members have written to the state’s congressional delegation asking to put pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration to stop
helicopter flights over residential areas.
But helicopter operators say flying over the ocean would be dangerous because pilots need to be within “visual contact” of land at all times. Shoreline squalls make that tough.
Tour helicopters generally are supposed to stay higher than 1,500 feet above homes, except during takeoffs and landings, according to the state Department of Transportation.
FAA-Honolulu Front Line Manager Darett Kanayama said tour helicopters operate safely over land, at proper altitudes and with decibel levels of a passing car or truck.
“When you see something flying through the air, people get nervous because they think it’s going to fall and crash onto their property,” he said.
The group Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, or HICoP, has been collecting complaints about flyovers and noise and is lobbying to get helicopter tours to stop flying over residential areas.
Supporters waved signs Tuesday afternoon near the Hilo International Airport, decrying helicopter noise. That followed a separate Tuesday morning meeting Mayor Harry Kim had with tour helicopter operators.
Kim said he wants to minimize conflict.
“Put your swords away” and HICoP also will have to “put their swords away” so that, as a community, the Big Island can work together to solve the problem, he told the group.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to prevent a war between this side and that side,” Kim said.
He asked what operators can do to keep tourism strong but still address noise complaints.
“You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” Kim said, acknowledging the importance of today’s tourism industry on the Big Island in the context of economic devastation after the sugar industry’s collapse.
Paul Morris, Sunshine Helicopters director of operations, said Kauai has an effective system that shows where helicopter-related complaints originate. Flight paths avoid noise-sensitive areas once they’re identified. Tour operators hope to create a similar system on the Big Island.
Morris said helicopters could previously fly without bothering anyone over areas such as Mountain View. But new housing construction islandwide means more homeowners experience flyovers.
Hank Bruckner, state general aviation officer at HDOT, handles complaints from the state’s aircraft noise hotline, which can be reached by calling 888-697-7813. Most of the complaints are about helicopters (rather than jets or planes, which he also reviews).
Sometimes a tour helicopter flies low when chartered by law enforcement to help with searches or mapping, he said. Other times, helicopters are on approach to an airport.
Laura Williams-May said her Hilo house gets lots of flyovers. She was one of about seven people protesting with HICoP on Tuesday near the airport.
“There goes one,” she said as a helicopter flew above. “It went right over my house.”
Bruckner said he handled two complaints Friday from residents, like Williams-May, who are frustrated.
When there’s a cruise ship at Hilo Harbor, Bruckner said, he might review three or four complaints daily because more tours in helicopters are heading to the lava ocean entry. But several days sometimes go by with no complaints.
Federal spokesman Ian Gregor said the FAA is already “having conversations” with the state DOT about a community helicopter noise roundtable. HICoP is trying to gather support from all Big Island county and state elected officials to spur such meetings and increase public attention.
“We’re looking for 100 percent support from the elected offices from Hawaii Island — and we’re almost there,” said Bob Ernst, HICoP president and board member.
HICoP already touts County Council members’ support.
Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles, for example, wrote to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz saying that in 2016, “15,489 overflights were reported for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the most of any individual national park in the nation.”
Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter said she’s taken many calls from District 1 constituents “impacted by the overhead noise of tour helicopters flying inland and over their homes.”
Helicopter operators say they’re forming a “fly neighborly” nonprofit called the Hawaii Island Helicopter Association that will work with community members.
Kim said he’ll schedule a meeting and invite the public, HICoP and tour companies once the helicopter operators’ nonprofit gets going.
In the meantime, said Troy Scott, a facilities division chief and pilot for Paradise Helicopters, the startup nonprofit will offer education about tour helicopters, seek to vary flight paths, continue heavily investing in noise-reducing technology and create an online forum for complaints.
HICoP, for its part, is fighting on multiple fronts.
For example, it’s appealing denial of a contested case hearing related to helicopter parking and it filed legal papers against the FAA for not limiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park overflights.
The group is hosting a “rally” from 6-8 p.m. Sept. 9 at Keaau Elementary School.
Bob Ernst of Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, center, and other members of HICoP wave signs Tuesday on the side of the entrance road to Hilo International Airport in protest against tour helicopter noise.