Even with helicopter traffic to and from East Hampton Airport at a fraction of what it would normally be this time of year, new flight paths adopted this year by chopper pilots have drawn outrage from residents of North Sea, Noyac and Sag Harbor who accuse the helicopter industry of “redlining” their neighborhoods because they do not hold political sway in the town.
A new flight path and a newly urgent missive from the region’s main helicopter pilot advocacy group were given to pilots early in the year, pleading with them to avoid flying over neighborhoods on the North Fork that have spawned tens of thousands of complaints and an organized community of residents who have bombarded political leaders with their outrage.
But the solution, residents of Southampton Town say, has just dialed up the noise over portions of the South Fork, even as the number of flights on busy days remains at barely half what it was last year.
“I want to be straight up with you guys, your solution is not working,” Noyac resident John Kirrane told some of the people who drafted the new flight paths last week, during a Zoom meeting of the town’s Airport Management Advisory Committee. “I’m just telling you, the reason more and more people are saying the answer is closing the airport is because of this situation. You are destroying my quality of life, my real estate value and possibly my health.”
In January, helicopter pilots and members of East Hampton Airport’s management and control tower staff created a new recommended approach path to the airport which instructs helicopters to fly over the Atlantic Ocean from New York City eastward until reaching Shinnecock Inlet, then transit across Shinnecock Bay and over the Shinnecock Canal, then eastward again over Great Peconic Bay and Little Peconic Bay before crossing inland over Noyac and following the LIPA transmission line path to the airport in Wainscott.
The path takes choppers over neighborhoods of Hampton Bays, North Sea, Noyac and Sag Harbor. Residents of Noyac and Sag Harbor are veterans of the fight over helicopters, but say that the new focus on avoiding the North Fork — where the squeaky wheel is getting the grease — is going to direct even more flights over their backyards.
“The overwater route has become the over Noyac route,” said Patricia Currie, a Noyac resident and co-founder of the group SayNoToKHTO, which lobbies for the airport to be closed. “When I look at this document … it shows redlining of the area over Noyac, in a very narrow corridor. If I look at East Hampton, it is largely protected, except for the Echo route.”
Mr. Kirrane echoed the sentiment that the new routes seem to consciously avoid certain areas that spurred the most focused stream of complaints, as well as wealthy neighborhoods.
Airport officials said that such impressions were entirely inaccurate and that the routes represent their best efforts to come up with flight patterns that minimize the impacts on residents of any neighborhood or town.
The tenor of the debate about how to ease helicopter noise has taken on an anxious pitch with East Hampton Town due to be released in 15 months from the strings that came attached to millions of dollars of federal grants two decades ago — at which point East Hampton Town officials have said they would have the power to close the airport entirely, and may do so if helicopter traffic is not reined in.
Hoping to head off a pitched showdown over closure next year, pilots, airport managers and others in the aviation world have labored to ease the impacts of their industry on those who live under the approaches to the airport and will certainly bring the weight of the political voices to the attention of elected officials.
The Eastern Region Helicopter Council, the main advocacy and community outreach group for the chopper pilot industry, has issued increasingly demanding missives to its pilots in recent years and this year has essentially ordered them to avoid flying over the North Fork at all.
“It is critical we achieve a 50/50 split of traffic volume and avoid overflight of the North Fork and other transitions,” an instruction in a presentation sent by the council to its members says, referring to the common practice of using one flight path on approach and a different on departure so as not to focus all traffic over the same neighborhoods.
“Overwater routes are the goal. Please try to stay over water as much as possible when weather permits. Avoidance of the North Fork and other build up areas is critical to our success.”
The presentation offers a link to a navigation program that already has waypoints along all the approved flight paths programmed into it and says that airport staff will be closely tracking all inbound and outbound flights and recording compliance with the over-water instructions and that non-compliance could void some privileges.
The third official route to the airport, which follows the Atlantic Ocean all the way east to Wainscott then brings helicopters in over Georgica Pond, passes over the fewest houses of all the approaches. But last summer, the head of the airport’s control tower caused a stir among North Fork residents by saying the route was “closed” because the control tower cannot see helicopters approaching from the south. The guidelines sent out by the helicopter council say that route, Sierra, is for departures only and that its use during high traffic times will not be granted by the tower controllers.
Airport managers had proposed two years ago that the tower be raised to give controllers a better view over the tree tops to the south, but the proposal was shot down by Town Board members.
Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said that he has expressed concern to the Eastern Region Helicopter Council about the new flight route that follows Shinnecock and Peconic bays. He worries that as helicopter traffic creeps upward again as coronavirus fears ease, the noise impacts on areas of Hampton Bays and North Sea, which have not seen helicopter traffic in the past, will cause new waves of complaints. In a letter to the council, Mr. Schiavioni asked that the routes be tailored to ensure more over-water flying.
“I suspect that the folks in some parts of town may not even know about this and won’t know what to do,” he said on Monday, noting that residents in other areas are seasoned at lodging complaints in online portals that are fed to airport staff and elected officials.
The best solution may not be in finding the one best route, Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said, but in exploding the schematic: encouraging more varied flight paths in and out of the airport.
“It’s the constant noise that drives people crazy,” he said. “If it’s a few times a day, I think people will live with it. These specific routes concentrate noise over a small number of people. If you solve one problem, you just put it on another.”