Town Officials Mum as Helicopter Debate Continues

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A helicopter like this one, landing at East Hampton Airport, was seen Tuesday evening arriving and departing via the Sierra route. Peter Boody photo

Helicopter noise has ramped up over Noyac and Northwest Woods, according to some residents, ever since the tower chief at East Hampton Airport announced on July 20 he would no longer allow helicopter arrivals and departures via the Sierra noise abatement route over the Atlantic Ocean because of his controllers’ inability to see all traffic south of the tower.

As of that date, according to an email sent to the membership of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC) the same day, all helicopter arrivals had to come via the November noise abatement route, which follows the power lines northwest of the airport along the moraine from North Sea through Noyac to Sag Harbor; and all departures had to use the Echo route, which heads north over Northwest Woods to Barcelona Point.

After the suspension of the Sierra route, which diverted about half of all helicopter traffic offshore, “There wasn’t even five minutes of peace overhead in my backyard, which is just off Noyac near Long Beach,” Lisa Lebowitz Kiss wrote in an online comment on The Sag Harbor Expresswebsite under last week’s story reporting the tower chief’s decision.

“This is all brand-new noise! Lived her 11 years and never had this before. I can’t imagine them ever shutting that airport down, and don’t think they give two SH%#’s about the people who have to listen to this … Money is the only voice they hear.”

Town officials with responsibility for the airport did not respond to repeated inquiries over the past week but there are signs they are hoping the tower chief’s decision somehow can be rescinded or modified.

A tower controller advised an inquiring pilot last Friday, July 28, on the tower radio frequency that the Sierra route could be used if a pilot requested it and the tower determined there was no “crossing traffic” in the area.

The route does appear to be available when the airport is not busy. At about 5:45 on Tuesday evening, July 31, with light air traffic in the area, a helicopter was observed flying the Sierra route along the Atlantic beach in Bridgehampton toward the airport and departing about a half hour later via the Sierra route.

The inbound route calls for a descent and turn from the beach toward the airport just before downtown East Hampton village; outbound departures turn southwest after takeoff and fly over Sagaponack and Bridgehampton toward Mecox Bay to join the beach.

Sharon Einhorn, who lives north of the airport in the Northwest Creek area, said traffic had increased dramatically. “People who go to the beach to see the sunset” from the creek “literally what they see is helicopters like in a war movie.”

She said East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc had told her that “they will be undoing the cancellation of the Sierra route” and that an announcement to that effect would be forthcoming.

As reported last week, East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said efforts were underway to restore the route. As of press time this week, no announcement about the route had been received from the town.

It’s unclear how the route can be fully restored if the tower chief, who is an employee of the private tower contractor Robinson Aviation, also known as RVA, made a decision based on safety concerns.

His boss, Mike Feeley, who is based in Manassas, Virginia and is listed in the RVA directory as manager of “Area IV,” was in East Hampton this week to meet with town airport officials. He did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theories to explain the sudden shutdown of the Sierra route are on the rise. It is seen by some as a case of the “the billionaires versus the millionaires,” with the “heavy hitters” who live along the beach demanding a stop to the heavy flow of helicopter traffic offshore beyond their oceanfront pools and patios.

A steadfast critic of the airport and the noise its traffic generates, Patricia Curry of Noyac, charged in a letter to the editor of The Expressthis week that “a clear pattern has emerged involving not only helicopters, but the majority, by far, of fixed-wing traffic: seaplanes, small planes and large jets, now arriving and departing from either the north or the west. The shore is blissfully quiet, as are oceanfront estates on the southern approach/departure, and there is plenty of evidence in screenshots from tracking shots to prove it.”

The tower chief, Bruce Miller, a feisty retired FAA air traffic controller from Rhode Island, is not authorized to speak to the press. But he told the town’s Airport Management Advisory Committee (AMAC) on July 20 that helicopter traffic has surged this year and a veteran tower controller recently quit, according to Pat Trunzo, a former Town Board member who is currently a member of the committee as well as treasurer of the Quiet Skies Coalition. He alerted the coalition’s membership of the loss of the Sierra route in a July 24 email, which was obtained last week by The Express.

The added traffic and loss of the controller intensified a visibility problem for controllers that has been an issue ever since the town opened the seasonal control tower in 2013 with RVA as its contractor. The tower operates from a temporary cab that is mounted on a support structure that is about two stories high, far below the height of a standard FAA control tower. The nearby Executive Terminal on Industrial Road and the tree line block views low to the south, where helicopters on the Sierra route mix with crossing fixed-wing traffic including seaplanes.

In his July 24 email to coalition members, Mr. Trunzo wrote: “According to Jeff Smith, spokesman for the ERHC, the operators have been making a concerted effort to use the Sierra route this season and Miller and his controllers have been straining to handle both the northern and southern routes. However, given the poor visibility of the southern horizon from the tower due to the low elevation (it is an oxymoron to call it a tower as it is not very tall) and the fact that the view south is blocked by both trees and the Executive Terminal hangar; the recent loss of one of his veteran controllers and the dramatic increase in volume of helicopter traffic this year, he has decided that to permit use of the southern route any longer was just too dangerous. His decision is effective immediately.”

He added that “air traffic controllers have previously voiced concerns that rotorcraft approaching the airport via the Sierra route are not visible from the control tower. According to Miller, controllers need line of sight visibility to clear inbound traffic to land in accordance with federal Visual Flight Rules. This certainly calls into question the original siting and limited height of the control tower. “

Jeff Smith, executive director of ERHC, did not respond to requests for comment. The East Hampton Town Board’s liaisons in charge of the airport, Councilman Jeff Bragman and Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. Arthur Malman, chairman of the AMAC, did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.

In his July 20 email to helicopter operators, which was obtained by The Express from ERHC members, Mr. Smith wrote:

“Due to the increase in volume from our ‘50/50’ split and the visibility of the East Hampton control tower, it has become laborious on the air traffic controllers. As we try to mitigate these issues, the Sierra route will no longer be available to helicopter traffic effective immediately. I know that this information will be missed on some operators already flying today but the tower will instruct you to navigate from the south shore to the November route if you are expecting the Sierra.”

Traffic approaching from New York along the south shore expecting the Sierra route would have to turn northeast to intercept the November route, which begins at Robins Island in Peconic Bay. That would bring helicopter traffic over the Hampton Bays area after it passes Gabreski Airport in Westhampton along the beach.

Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said this week he had heard no complaints from the Hampton Bays area about any sudden increase in helicopter noise.

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”