Town Posts New Helicopter Routes Before Chopper Group Agrees to Fly Them

Graphic from East Hampton Town’s website shows all three newly revised voluntary noise abatement routes. E is for both arrivals and departures on the Echo Route, with outbound traffic climbing to 4,500 and inbound traffic at 3,500; S is for Sierra route arrivals and departures, both via Georgica Pond; and N is the November arrival-only route with a new leg calling for transitions to be made to and from the south shore via Shinnecock Inlet.

Facing continuing intense political pressure over airport noise, the Town of East Hampton has published new voluntary noise abatement routes for helicopters using the town airport even though the Eastern Region Helicopter Council has not yet agreed to follow them.

The new Echo Route, what the town now calls its primary route for arrivals and departures, includes a significant change, one that some local officials and airport critics have been seeking for years. It will send helicopters around Orient Point instead of crossing the North Fork on their way to or from Long Island Sound, something the council’s membership has long resisted as time-consuming and costly.

Another route change would direct all outbound traffic following the south shore to fly over Georgica Pond instead of Bridgehampton and Sagaponack to approach or depart the airport. Inbounds would be encouraged to arrive via November route along the spine of the South Fork, transitioning from the south shore to Robins Island via Shinnecock Inlet.

[In a later development, it was announced at the Wainscot Citizens Advisory Committee meeting on March 7 that the helicopter council membership had agreed to follow the newly revised routes.]

Ever since the town’s Echo, Sierra and November helicopter noise abatement routes were first introduced at least a decade ago, the council has worked with the town to develop and revise them annually. They are voluntary because there is no legal mechanism for local authorities to mandate air traffic routes.

They evolved from the first voluntary route — dating back at least two decades — that called for all helicopter traffic to follow the South Fork’s power lines to and from the airport because there was limited residential development nearby. The two other routes evolved to disperse the exploding level of traffic as a safety measure and to spread out the noise as new construction and the soaring number of flights prompted more noise complaints.

Since the advent of a non-FAA seasonal airport control tower in 2012, the council has formally signed onto the routes in letters of agreement with the chief controller. Despite compliance with the routes, noise complaints have soared in all years but one.

So far, the council is not on board for 2020. Jeff Smith, vice president of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, declined to comment on what one source called the town’s “possibly premature” publication of the new routes. Airport manager James Brundige also declined to comment. [On March 7, he attended the Wainscott CAC meeting and announced that the membership was on board with the revised routes.]

If they are followed, the new routes would keep most of the notoriously loud helicopter over water except for their final legs, potentially reducing noise at complaint hotspots on the North Fork; along the South Fork’s spine through North Sea and Noyac; and in Bridgehampton, Sagaponack and East Hampton Village.

With the Echo route now an arrival as well as departure route, its use should reduce but would not eliminate arrivals on the November route along the power lines through North Sea and Noyac; nor would it affect seaplanes, whose operators have never agreed to fly noise abatement routes.

Also, the new Sierra route establishes a path via Shinnecock Inlet for arrivals from the south shore to join the November route inbound at 5,500 feet. The revised November procedure calls for helicopters to stay at 5,500 feet as long as possible before descending to the airport, 2,000 feet higher than the previous requested altitude.

Southold Councilman Bob Ghosio said the Echo route’s new path around Orient Point, both inbound and outbound, is “basically the route we’ve been fighting for, for a long time,” the Suffolk Times reported. But airport critics otherwise have responded coolly to the route revisions.

“Nothing that has been considered will make much difference,” Patricia Currie of Sag Harbor, a co-founder of Say No to KHTO (KHTO is the official code for the airport), said at a recent public discussion of the airport’s future sponsored by the Express News Group. A proponent of closing the airport as the only way to stop the noise, she added, “There is no way to manage the airport.”

On the North Fork, airport critic Teresa McCaskie of Mattituck — where a stream of helicopters cross to and from Long Island Sound — told the Southold Town Board recently that “these routes are not a solution,” according to the Suffolk Times. She said they will bring more noise to people in Orient and require no minimum distance from shore for overwater legs.

Sound Aircraft Services, the fixed base operator that sells fuel and support services for the jets, helicopters and turboprops that jam East Hampton’s ramp on many days in the summer, is backing the new routes.

It has distributed flyers and kneeboard charts for pilots that show the routes and a message on its website citing the “effort to reduce noise pollution and thus protect future operations,” and that it’s “vital that pilots and passengers understand the importance” of using new routes.

The East Hampton Town Board’s liaison, Councilman Jeff Bragman, among other board members, has said that closing the airport is an option that must be weighed when FAA grant assurances expire at the end of 2021. The assurances require the town to keep the airport open and available to all users.

At the recent Express discussion of the airport’s future, he said the more likely possibility was keeping the airport open but only for limited use, such as private flying. The town’s current airport noise consultant has told the board that, legally, the airport probably has to remain fully accessible as long as it is publicly owned by the town. He has said the only way to restrict operations — banning helicopters, for example — would be to hand over the facility to a private entity.

Kent Feuerring, the president of the East Hampton Pilots Association and a member of the Town Board’s Airport Management Advisory Committee, endorsed the new routes. “I’m optimistic these routes will make a significant difference to a large proportion of the affected homeowners and I’m hopeful they won’t affect too many new homes,” he said in an interview. “The goal is always moving the ball forward in preserving the sanctity of our communities. It’s about noise relief always, not to save the airport — because I don’t think it’s going to close.”

Of the lack of an agreement from the Helicopter Council so far, he said, “Give it some time.”

Before this year, the Echo route has always been for departures only, sending helicopters close to Sag Harbor on their way out to Barcelona Point, with a westbound turn through the South Ferry channel close to North Haven and Shelter Island.

In recent years, the council did agree to an amendment to that route that called for twin-engine helicopters to continue northbound east of Shelter Island and fly around Orient Point. Many of them have been observed using the shorter route around North Haven and through South Ferry, however. North Haven and southwest Shelter Island have been noise complaint hotspots.

The newly published Echo route continues to direct traffic over the Northwest Woods area but it has been shifted slightly east, so its overland portion is a bit farther away from Sag Harbor — another hotspot for noise complaints —via a track to Cedar Point then northeast to Plum Gut, the waterway between Orient Point and Plum Island.

Another change calls for helicopters that continue to arrive on the November route to maintain 5,500 feet until as close to the airport as possible to soften noise, 2,000 feet higher than previously requested.