Manhattan from a helicopter (photo: Julia Vitullo-Martin, the author)
“I care passionately about our waterfront,” says Hoboken City Council Member Phil Cohen. “It’s the jewel of Hoboken, directly across from the Empire State Building. We fought so long and hard to get our world-class waterfront, endured epic battles, and now we have helicopters constantly buzzing us in our own park. Somehow the helicopters are always there.”
That’s because the most intrusive helicopters take off from Kearny or Linden in Cohen’s own state, fly up the Hudson, cross Manhattan in the 80s to hover over Central Park, fly down the East River, and then often joyride around the Empire State Building, Chelsea, and Lower Manhattan before heading out to hover over Governors Island and the Brooklyn waterfront, before returning to New Jersey, where they often circle the waterfronts of Jersey City and Hoboken.
And, of course, the helicopters routinely loiter around the Statue of Liberty to give maximum exposure for their clients’ Instagram accounts.
Sam Pesin, an activist designated the “Superhero of Liberty State Park” by InsiderNJ, has fought to the death one harmful invasion after another into Liberty State Park -- an amusement theme park in 1977, a commercial amphitheater in 1980, 8,000 luxury condo units in 1982, converting the historic rail road terminal into a doll museum in 1982, turning the park into a golf course in 1991, and again in1995, followed by another amphitheater proposal, a water park, a new marina, or even installing solar panels on the park’s recreation fields, plus a Formula One racetrack with viewing stands, writes Al Sullivan, and a high-end golf course. Pesin helped save Liberty State Park from all of this, only to see it inundated with low-flying helicopters, especially on weekend days and evenings. When the Sierra Club was filming “Wildlife of Liberty State Park,” for example, it had to stop repeatedly because the helicopter noise was too intrusive. Pesin is hopeful that the same coalition of community activists and environmentalists that halted other aggressions in the park can be mobilized against helicopters. He has a point. The coalition put together by Stop the Chop NY NJ includes both United States senators from New Jersey, U.S. Congressional Rep. Abio Sires, and mayors of Bayonne, Edgewater, Guttenberg, Hoboken, Jersey City, Weehawken, and several more.
Cohen and Pesin are voicing a parallel grievance to that published by former New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Governors Island Alliance executive director Merritt Birnbaum in the New York Times in 2016: “In recent years, New York City has invested over $2 billion in spectacular new waterfront parks. But that investment, and New Yorkers’ enjoyment of their parks and neighborhoods, is being ruined by an invasion of noisy, polluting tourist helicopters.”
Yet somehow, four years later, our waterfront parks are still being invaded, as is virtually every treasured landmark in our city.
Manhattan Borough President’s Data Analysis
For years constituent complaints about helicopter noise and pollution have made up the largest and often angriest set of complaints received by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office. (“My biggest constituent issue on nice days,” Brewer said in 2012, when she represented the West Side in the City Council.) But this summer—in the midst of the covid lockdown—complaints unexpectedly shot up, coinciding with the unprecedented onslaught of tourist helicopters from New Jersey.
In response Brewer established a task force composed of officials, academics, and activists from both New York and New Jersey. Working from 311 data Zhi Keng He of BetaNYC showed the task force the dramatic pattern in Manhattan heli complaints, contrasting 2019’s relatively low numbers with this year’s record levels.
Yet while 2019’s complaints are low relative to this year, the increase began in September 2019, which saw 404 complaints, up to 729 in December. In 2020, complaints spiked in June—three months into the covid crisis—at 1,061, and hit 1,541 in November.
Citywide complaints follow a similar pattern, with the spike in June partly reflecting helicopter activity over protests, after which “Other” complaints took off.
The categorization into NYPD, News Gathering, and Other is by definition rough since 311 relies on the caller to report precisely. Those who use Flight Radar24 or Flight Aware are able to file their complaints accurately, but those without the apps will be guessing. In normal times, the NYPD is not the culprit. All of its seven helicopters are radar-tracked by air traffic control, and only two are assigned to routine patrol (as opposed to rescue), with the result that it is rare for the NYPD to deploy more than one helicopter at a time. Police pilots try to fly at high altitude “to avoid unnecessary disturbance to the public,” says the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information. And the NYPD does not block its signal.
One reason New Yorkers think that low-flying helicopters must be NYPD is that so many use search lights. “Of course that helicopter is NYPD,” said one of my neighbors, pointing straight up. “Who else would be allowed to direct a search light straight into our building for 15 minutes?”
Other culprits often mistaken for NYPD are news-gathering stations like PIX-11 News and ABC-7’s EyeWitness News, whose helis hover persistently—over New Year’s weekend they buzzed Manhattan for hours at a time. News helis fly in from New Jersey, circle the entire city repeatedly, often below 1,000 feet, and hang over neighborhoods and landmarks. How much of their activity is genuine news gathering?
What is to be done? Brewer has taken the first step, which is to set up a joint New York-New Jersey task force and begin the analysis. Those living on both sides of the Hudson might ask where this helicopter traffic is coming from and what can be done.
Kearny’s River Terminal Development
The Kearny Heliport (HHI Heliport) in New Jersey launches all of the doors-off FlyNYON tourism flights over New York and New Jersey, although some regular tours also fly from other heliports. (FlyNYON is the notorious sightseeing company whose doors-off tour crashed into the East River in March 2018, killing five passengers.) River Terminal Development is a subsidiary of the Hugo Neu Corporation, a family business for three generations of Neus based in New York. Hugo Neu Corporation describes itself as “a privately held company with deep experience in investing, building and managing businesses in recycling, real estate and related industries.” It prides itself on its Kearny Point development, which redeveloped a historic shipyard into “a diverse community of pioneering businesses,” somewhat similar to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Subsidiary RTC Properties, Inc. itself has 125 total employees across all of its locations and generates $20.76 million in sales. Requests for an interview have gone unanswered but clearly the owners of Kearny Heliport need to be involved in the public discussion of helicopters. Without their facility, the most egregious flights would not be made.
Helicopter Industry Reluctant to Help
Across the country the helicopter industry is organized into regional lobbying groups fighting hard against any further regulation or restriction on their activities. The Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which includes the New York metropolitan region, pledges its good citizenship: “For decades ERHC has worked with the elected officials and community leaders to reduce and eliminate impacts to the local communities.” Yet ERHC has done nothing to temper the behavior of its member, FlyNYON. This is in contrast to its active involvement in the helicopter hostilities of the Hamptons, where ERHC helped broker a modification in routes that temporarily moderated acrimony, ameliorating problems on the South Shore of Long Island while generating new ones on the North Shore.
While industry leaders privately express concern about the aggressive, low-flying flights harassing New York and New Jersey waterfronts and landmarks, virtually no industry spokesperson or executive seems willing to speak publicly—or even combat these companies privately.
The one exception is Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of BLADE Urban Air Mobility, who says tersely of the doors-off tours, “They follow no rules and are dangerous, in my opinion.” Wiesenthal has been working with the LaGuardia tower and BLADE operators to eliminate, wherever possible, all overflight of Manhattan. The problem is that Central Park is an official route on helicopter charts and is the LGA tower’s preferred route across Manhattan. Wiesenthal says that except when mandated to follow the Central Park route, a BLADE flight will never fly over Manhattan.
The Federal Aviation Administration
Like all American airspace, New York’s skies are controlled by the FAA, which basically adheres to its “freedom to fly” principle treating the skies of America — including skies over densely populated cities — as highways. Robert Gottheim, District Director for Congressional Rep. Jerry Nadler, who has long been active on helicopter issues, says, “The FAA could change New York’s airspace entirely on its own if it chose. It could designate all the airspace to be controlled by LaGuardia, followed by no clearance. Or it could change the ceiling, essentially eliminating helicopters. Or just ban them all together. All of this is totally within their regulatory authority. They could do it all on their own without any input from Congress. People have a right to a high quality of life in their own residences. It’s not as if they bought a house by an airport and then started to complain. Manhattan isn’t supposed to be an airport."
The bad news is that FAA chief Steve Dickson, who has done nothing to ameliorate helicopter problems over New York’s crowded airspace, has announced that “he intends to stay on under the Biden administration, to fill out the remainder of his 5-year term ending in 2024,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
But the good news is that although the FAA is a classic clientele agency that views its mission as the promotion of the welfare of the industry it’s supposed to be regulating, it is nonetheless housed within the federal Department of Transportation, soon to be headed by Biden appointee Pete Buttigieg. Said Biden about the appointment: “This position stands at the nexus of so many of the interlocking challenges and opportunities ahead of us. Jobs, infrastructure, equity, and climate all come together at the DOT.” Gottheim is hopeful that the New York Congressional Delegation will be able to work successfully with Buttigieg, whose own presidential campaign had emphasized “high-quality, zero-emissions” mass transit for every city of over 100,000 residents.
Nadler and his congressional colleagues will be advocating hard for their HR 4880 bill prohibiting nonessential helicopters over New York. Gottheim says, “We hope that with a new administration headed by a Democratic president we can move this legislation.”
An Old Technique from NJ
In a previous incarnation of the great helicopter wars two elected New Jersey officials, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and Congressional Rep. Albio Sires, worked with the FAA Eastern Regional Administrator in 2013 to reach an agreement reducing both the flight hours and the number of helicopters operating out of Paulus Hook Heliport. In other words, it can be done, even if it’s not done very often. Elected officials could work with, for example, Kearny and Linden to reduce flight hours and number of helicopters.
Similarly, despite their assurances that they can do nothing, New York City officials could regulate some of the most egregious helicopter behavior if they wished. Rob Wiesenthal points out that tour helicopters must sometimes land in Manhattan, that they often want to refuel here because it’s cheaper and faster, and some tour companies offer charters from New York City heliports. These activities open the door to local regulation. While the FAA says heliports can’t be selective about who is allowed to land, they can ban dangerous or objectionable behavior, such as failure to adhere to the 2016 agreement. Any New Yorkers regularly using the FlightRadar24 app knows that every week several helicopters joyride around New York after taking off from one of the three heliports.
Trump Temporary Flight Restrictions
Because of the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency the FAA drew a huge circle around Midtown’s Trump Tower, from 35th Street to roughly 80th Street and the Hudson to the East River, as a TFR zone or “National Defense Airspace.” This forced pilots north—thus the angry complaints to Brewer from her constituents above 80th Street and below 35th—and reinforced the use of Central Park as a highway. In theory the TFR should be modified with Trump’s exit, although there has been some chatter that restrictions may be retained if Trump asserts New York residency, even partial residency.
The 2021 Mayoral Race
While Mayor de Blasio has done nothing to ameliorate the helicopter onslaught, Stop the Chop and other activists intend to make the industry an important issue in the crowded 2021 mayoral race to succeed the term-limited de Blasio. Several candidates have been quick to designate climate change as a key issue, and of course a safe one, but none has yet said a word about helicopters. Why do we tolerate hundreds of aging, rattling, tour helicopters—flying for the most trivial of reasons—to burn fuel and produce substantial CO2 emissions while hovering noisily over our waterfront, parks, and landmarks?
The country will have a new president soon and New York will elect a new mayor in November. This is the moment for pushing hard politically. We already have a next president who has vowed to work collegially. Let’s get a mayor who knows how to reach across the Hudson, as Gale Brewer has done, and engage our neighbors in this fight to regain our waterfronts.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a long-time editor and writer on cities. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.