Tower Contractor Says Ocean Helicopter Route Still In Effect

A small private plane taxis on the runway as a helicopter takes off overhead at the East Hampton Airport.

Even though Noyac and Northwest area residents say they are hearing far more helicopter noise than usual recently, “There have been no official cancellations of any routes — including the Sierra route,” a noise-abatement path for helicopters that keeps them over the ocean for most of the way as they approach and depart East Hampton Airport, according to a press release issued by East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc’s office.

The August 3 release quotes Keren Williams McLendon, the CEO of the town’s airport tower contractor, Robinson Aviation, saying, “The Sierra route continues to be utilized upon request if there is not a traffic conflict … This is a voluntary noise abatement route and must be requested by the pilot in order to be utilized.”

According to the supervisor’s release, the “Sierra route remains a viable option under the noise abatement program.”

The press release makes no mention of Tower Chief Bruce Miller’s surprise announcement at an Airport Management and Advisory Committee (AMAC) meeting on July 20 that he would not allow any more arrivals and departures via the Sierra route because of safety concerns.

Tower controllers are now giving clearances to use the Sierra route only when there is no “crossing traffic” that could create a potential for conflict, according to controller transmissions heard on the tower frequency. Before July 20, Sierra arrivals and departures were authorized as a matter of course whenever a pilot announced his or her intention to use them.

Mr. Van Scoyoc said last month that Mr. Miller had not “properly represented the town or aviator policy” when he spoke at the July 20 AMAC meeting.

The airport’s voluntary noise abatement routes for helicopters are established each year by the tower operator, the airport management and the Eastern Region Helicopter Council. They are codified in a letter of agreement (LOA) among those parties and released to airport users over the signature of East Hampton Airport Director James Brundige.

Mr. Miller told the AMAC on July 20 that tower controllers could not see all traffic to the south and that crossing fixed-wing traffic in the area created a potential for conflict with helicopters on the Sierra route, according to Pat Trunzo, a member of the AMAC and the Quiet Skies Coalition. Mr. Trunzo alerted coalition members of the decision in an email on July 24 and encouraged them to file noise complaints.

Soon after Mr. Miller’s announcement, Jeff Smith, executive director of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, advised his membership by email on July 20 not to use the Sierra route “effective immediately” because of the tower’s safety concerns. He told his membership to use the November route over Noyac for all arrivals and the Echo route over Northwest for all departures.

At a Town Board meeting on Tuesday, Supervisor Van Scoyoc called Mr. Smith’s July 20 directive an “unfortunate communication.” He said his office did not find out about it until after the fact and acknowledged the reason there was reduced traffic on the Sierra route was “a result of those members of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council not knowing, maybe, that’s it’s available to them.”

The following day, Wednesday, August 8, Mr. Smith alerted his membership by email that “all of the noise abatement routes … are now back in effect” but added that the Sierra route could be used only “if it does not interfere with the flow of fixed wing traffic. The HTO control tower will either allow the traffic in on the Sierra route or ask you to circumnavigate to the November route.”

He added that, because of that caveat, the ERHC was abandoning its goal of splitting arrivals and departures evenly between the north and south routes for the rest of the season “and will pushing for enhancement of the air traffic control tower for following seasons to come.”

As it was presented in the August 3 press release from Mr. Van Scoyoc’s office, “The Town of East Hampton has not authorized or directed a change in the preferred aircraft routes into and out of East Hampton Airport, established for noise mitigation. These routes were agreed upon in discussions with the airport manager and involved parties such as the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, and are to be implemented by the town’s air traffic controllers.”

Until July 20, the Sierra route had been keeping about half of the airport’s heavy helicopter traffic off the south shore instead of over Noyac, Sag Harbor and Northwest Woods. It is not publicly known what percentage of the helicopter traffic has used the route since then.

At Tuesday’s East Hampton Town Board work session, three Noyac residents complained that aircraft noise over their homes had worsened since the tower chief’s announcement.

“Mine is a tale of woe,” said Patricia Currie, adding the residents of Noyac had been “abused by East Hampton Airport operations for over two decades. I’ve stood here before you many times asking for relief from aircraft noise and carbon pollution and the only change has been in the level and frequency” of the noise.

She likened the decision to employ the “present route” — switching traffic from the Sierra to the November and Echo routes — “to one in 2012 redirecting a majority of traffic over communities north and west of the airport.” She said the 2012 change was “a decision made behind closes doors” by the airport manager and his “cronies” with the knowledge of the Town Board. She suggested the latest situation was the result of similar discussions and called the “decision unconscionable … It is inhumane to allow it to continue.”

Supervisor Van Scoyoc denied that any decision was made in Town Hall. “We did have the tower chief attend the AMAC meeting where he made certain comments unbeknownst to the supervisor and I will say that any change of voluntary flight paths and directions at the airport were not done by [the] Council.”

After a councilman did direct route changes in 2012, he added, the Town Board discussed it and “came to an agreement that Town Board members, political figures, shouldn’t be directing airport traffic in and out of the airport for a number of reasons, not the least of which other concerns about safety and noise abatement measures may not be followed as a result of that.”

“The town has not changed any of the official noise abatement routes,” he added. “We haven’t authorized any such change at all.”

He said the tower chief’s July 20 “comments were unauthorized” and “did not represent Robinson Aviation,” which “undertook a full review of their procedures at the tower, made an assessment and as a result has stated there will be no changes to the noise abatement routes.”

As for the tower chief’s concerns about helicopters on the Sierra route mixing with fixed-wing traffic to the south, which often can’t be seen by controllers from East Hampton’s stubby tower, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “So much as fixed-wing aircraft particularly cause situations of concern when interacting in certain areas with helicopter traffic that … we need to separate those two for safety reasons. However, our goal has always been to spread the traffic within these routes equitably and evenly and we’ve done pretty well up until the weekend of the 20th of July.”