Local helicopter companies want end to altitude restriction

In response to a federal plan to make permanent a temporary rule which requires all touring aircraft to fly at a minimum altitude of 1,500 feet in Hawai‘i, representatives of many local companies raised concerns regarding the regulation.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Special Federation Aviation Regulation (SFAR 71) could become permanent next month.

“The SFAR is a regulation that is supposed to pertain to flight safety, not environmental issues,” said Gordy Cox, pilot at Island Helicopters.

“It is the opinion of the pilots (most if not all Kaua‘i pilots) that this regulation actually hinders safety and increases the frequency of residential overflights,” he said.

SFAR 71 was adopted in 1994 as a temporary measure, with renewal dates every three years. Since its adoption, the FAA has renewed the measure on two occasions. On Oct. 26, the regulation is scheduled to expire.

However, the FAA is proposing to eliminate the expiration date for SFAR 71 and make the regulation permanent. According to FAA officials, the existing safety requirements would continue to be in effect.

Several tour operators on Kaua‘i as well as on the other islands have filed petitions with the FAA in hopes of adjusting the regulation.

“Allowing helicopter flight as low as 300 feet in tour areas makes SFAR 71 safer because pilot decision-making would no longer be compromised by pressure to maintain unreasonable altitudes under certain circumstances,” said a representative with Jack Harter Helicopters.

A majority of the operators feel that the current rules are too strict and may cause more damage than good.

According to a spokesperson for ‘Ohana Helicopter Tours, “The rules are unnecessarily restrictive and compromise safety by taking away pilot options.

“Pilot judgment should indicate altitude and standoff distance in accordance with well-established FAA regulatory practice and helicopter industry experience,” the ‘Ohana representative said.

The SFAR 71 regulation pertains to all aircraft conducting tours in the state, including tour helicopters.

SFAR 71 requires all aircraft to be flown at or above an altitude of 1,500 feet, and have at least 300 feet separation from clouds, and three miles visibility.

Cox stated, “Oftentimes on Kaua‘i, the cloud base sits at about 2,500 feet. The common routes we fly keep us away from residential areas and have us stay in the interior of the island, which is over higher ground.

“With the current rules, in order for the helicopters to maintain our cloud separation, we are being forced to fly over the lower elevations of the island, i.e. people’s homes,” Cox said.

While the helicopter operators believe that flying at a lower altitude in touring areas is safer, several environmental organizations feel that there are negative consequences to that action.

According to a representative of the Sierra Club Hawai‘i chapter, “The altitude minimum in SFAR 71 does not adequately protect human health, the environment, and the special wilderness qualities of our state and national parks.

“Hikers, campers, and residents in or near areas that are popular for air-tour operations have to deal with ongoing noise from helicopter rotors and engines (on craft) that legally fly as low as 500 feet.”

According to Cox, “All pilots are aware of environmental and noise issues, and fly in a manner to reduce these impacts. To that end, the pilots on Kaua‘i have for many years now adopted a fly-neighborly program, in which we voluntarily avoid built-up areas, homes and ecologically fragile areas.”

Business Editor Barry Graham may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or mailto:bgraham@pulitzer.net.

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