Above NY

Helicopter tours of Manhattan? Priceless

September 1, 2011

Photography by Chris Rose

Above NYFor New Yorkers, the city is home; it’s where they work, shop, play, enjoy friends, raise families. For tourists—especially the 20 percent who come from outside of the United States—New York is the face of America. From the historic sites and statues, monuments and amusements, to the restaurants, theaters, and the crazy guy singing and dancing on the street corner, this is America.

Tourism is New York City's number one revenue source. In several of the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, health care provided more income to the city—but now tourism is back in its happy niche, adding $31 billion to the economy each year.

Downtown Manhattan HeliportIt's evident on the streets this hot summer day where 50 youngsters from Japan all noisily ask their solitary chaperone where they are going next; where a family from the Netherlands waits to board a double-decker bus; and where a young woman from Israel haltingly asks for directions to the World Trade Center site—Ground Zero.

At the Downtown Manhattan Heliport (JRB)—the first heliport in the United States to offer scheduled passenger service and the only place today where one can begin commercial tours of the city in a helicopter—people are happily anticipating their 15- to 20-minute rides. There are five operators here, each offering a bird's-eye view of the city that never sleeps, the home of Hearst and Trump and Giuliani—and, of course, the worst terrorist attack in the twenty-first century.

And now there is one

One World Trade CenterBefore September 11, there were four heliports in New York City, and all offered sightseeing tours. Today, only the Downtown Manhattan Heliport provides tourists with this activity, and the carefully choreographed ballet of takeoffs and landings is precise and vigilantly monitored and regulated.

The heliports have a long history in New York. The three remaining locations—West 30th Street (JRA), Atlantic Metroport East 34th Street (6N5), and Downtown Manhattan—have served the city since as early as 1956. Their history is long and storied, humorous and tragic. Celebrities, corporate giants, political figures—as well as the lowly tourist—have benefited from the heliports. And although the safety record is pretty remarkable, high-profile accidents and, now, noise complaints threaten the very presence of helicopters in residence in the city.

"Residence," however, is a misnomer. None of the helicopters is actually based here. Strict hours and regulations allow helicopters in the city during limited times. All of the operators—tour, charter, and corporate—keep maintenance and administrative hangars outside of the city, mostly in New Jersey.

East 34th Street is open Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. for corporate taxi only. Agusta, Bell, and Sikorsky rotorcraft literally dip into the small heliport (tucked anonymously under FDR Drive) and drop off passengers, rotors never stopping. The passengers—often employees of corporate giants such as Pfizer, United Technologies, and MassMutual—are coming into the city for work at headquarters and will leave for home that evening. The trip by helicopter is a short hop from their bases in Massachusetts, New York state, and New Jersey—a much more time-consuming journey by car or train.

Downtown Manhattan HeliportWest 30th Street has its own problems. It is currently operating on a renewing 30-day lease, which has been in place since the Friends of the Hudson River Park (FHRP) sued to have it closed in 2007. Ironically, the park, which then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani pushed to create after 9/11 to help bring his city back, had no problem accepting the money generated by heliport activity while the park was under construction. But now the runners, bicyclists, and others who enjoy the 550-acre park, which runs five miles along the Hudson River, don't appreciate the noise from the 500-foot-long heliport (it has 11 landing pads, seven on land and four over the water). It's still a popular landing site; on this day musician Kid Rock is waiting inside its cramped trailer office for his ride to a concert in New Jersey with a return later that night.

Downtown Manhattan also has limited hours. After FHRP sued West 30th Street, a compromise was reached and all tour helicopters fly from Downtown Manhattan only. The heliport operates from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., although it is open seven days a week. After the August 2009 fatal accident in which a Piper Saratoga collided with a Liberty tour helicopter, killing nine people, the FAA, in cooperation with AOPA and the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC), established the New York Special Flight Rules Area (NY SFRA) which further enhanced the safety of the Hudson River Corridor. One year later, in response to increasing political demand, the New York City Economic Development Corp. imposed that tour helicopters fly a precise and regulated route.

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Happy tourists

Liberty Helicopters is the oldest and largest sightseeing and charter helicopter operator in the Northeast. It was established in 1986 by Pat Day Sr. as a charter operation and started air tours in 1990. It operates 10 American Eurocopters and employs 25 pilots, most of whom are ex-military or former NYPD. It is supported by a cadre of local men and women, all of whom obviously enjoy their work.

On this beautiful blue-sky summer day, it's easy to see why the heliport is a great place to be. The newly renovated terminal is bustling with excited tourists, every language is heard, people are laughing, and the guides and pilots are sharing a camaraderie only enjoyed by workers who happily get along and enjoy what they do. Of course, the walk out to the landing pads with unruly and excited tourists on a really hot day, rotor wash whipping up the river water into your face, and the heat from the baking asphalt burning through your sneakers must make for a long day—and a cold, biting winter wind must be worse. But today is perfect.

Bell 430 corporate helicopterNew Yorkers, however, are forever haunted by memories of 9/11. Everyone knows someone who was lost or who lost a loved one. And especially for the pilots, who probably helped in some way that terrible day, the memory is never far from their minds.

Mike Mezzettone is the air tour manager for Liberty Helicopters at Downtown Manhattan Heliport. The shutdown of airspace immediately following the attacks, and the subsequent suspension of tours for three months, allowed him and his staff to reevaluate the way they do business. Today, all passengers must have photo identification, and no one can take anything with them except cameras on the flight—lockers are provided for other belongings. (Mezzettone recently realized cell phones, with their sophisticated cameras, needed to be added back onto the list of acceptable carry-on items.)

Also a familiar sight since 9/11 is the "Hercules Team," an elite New York police team armed with machine guns that periodically sweeps into the heliport, reminding everyone that things are not the way they used to be.

"The first time I saw the guns I was shocked," said Brian Tolbert, manager of the heliport. "I had only seen something like that in Rome. But they are not so much for security as they are to remind everyone of a police presence."

In addition to Liberty, New York Helicopters and Helicopter Flight Services operate at Downtown Manhattan as full Part 136 operators ("Commercial Air Tours and National Parks Air Tour Management"). Manhattan Helicopters and Zip Aviation have letters of agreement to operate under Part 136.

Flying the corridor

Nate Butler, corporate pilotCorporate pilot Nate Butler remembers his first landing at the East 34th Street heliport. Flying with co-pilot Bob Hoban, Butler was directed to landing pad number 3.

"There was a S76 on one side and an AStar on the other side. I needed to land between the two," he said. "It's putting [a helicopter] into a 44-foot by 44-foot box. You can't go forward—you'll hit the wall; you can't go right or left or you'll hit another helicopter; you can't go back or you'll land in the river." Helipads are designated with a circle and landing line inside that circle.

"Bob said to me, 'Land on the line…don't drift from the line,'" Butler says with a grin.

Flying the CorridorButler calls flying in the Hudson River corridor "organized chaos." It's not unusual, he says, to have eight to 10 helicopters in a three-quarter-square mile area, especially around the Battery, where Downtown Manhattan Heliport is located. "The pilots here are some of the best I have ever flown with," says the 5,000-hour pilot (2,000 hours fixed wing; 3,000-plus hours in helicopters). "Everyone has to be good—lives are on the line. Our unwritten rules are written in blood. Experience, skill, and confidence. There is no margin for error, and we remember that."

Butler admits that this kind of flying is "surreal" at times. "You're always on the edge of your seat. On a windy day, bucking turbulence, I think, 'This is ridiculous—I don't get paid enough to do this.' But on a beautiful day flying into the sunset I think, 'I can't believe I get paid to do this.'"

Noise complaints

No one can discount the tragic accidents that can happen when many operators occupy an airspace. In the years since helicopter traffic came to New York City, what some called the "wild west" operations are gone. Regulations from the aftermath of 9/11 and, even more so, the safety enhancements that resulted from the 2009 midair keep helicopter operations and operators on their toes. The Hudson River corridor opened to VFR flight in 1971, and in the 45 years until 2009 there had never been a midair collision. The NY SFRA became a rule in November 2009.

What vexes and deeply concerns the pilots, operators, employees, and supporters of the heliports and helicopters are the recurring complaints about noise.

Mike Tiagwad, CEO and president of Connor Strong Co."This is the city of New York. This is not Colorado," states New York Helicopter owner Mike Roth. "If you want quiet, you gotta go somewhere else." Roth—who the New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting should offer up as the quintessential New York hard-nosed, hard-working, hard-scrabble success story—isn't one to mince words.

"Trying to get rid of us is like saying 'We're not going to have double-decker buses; we're not going to have movie theaters; we're not going to have excursion tours.' Are you out of your mind?" he challenges. "The millions of dollars we contribute to the economy and the jobs…will move to New Jersey. There are currently sensible leaders in this city who realize that every job is golden."

Patricia Wagner, general manager of Atlantic Aviation Services at the 34th Street Metroport, delivers the same message a little softer (and, note, New York mayor's office, here is the quintessential Hamptons resident). "I want to see the public officials, the city of New York, the entities that use and have helicopters coming to and from their major hubs, understand how valuable helicopters are not only to the people who work here and to the jobs they create, but to the economic strength of that company or city or economy it supports," she said.

The ERHC's chairman, Jeff Smith, often accompanies Wagner when she visits or reaches out to people who call her and complain about noise. The ERHC has a toll-free number for complaints, maintains a database and audio files of all calls, and really does do site visits.

Tour helicopter"It's important to talk to people who don't understand [helicopters] that this is a privilege, but a privilege that is necessary for the economy and growth of the city," Wagner said, adding that she would like to see New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg—a helicopter owner and pilot—say, "These heliports are doing what they are supposed to do; they operate under the contract, the pilots are flying the way they are supposed to legally. Nobody here is doing anything besides conducting business."

Many see helicopters as only for the rich. And certainly when it costs hundreds of dollars in fees just to land to discharge a passenger, and when private charter rates can reach well into the thousands per hour, that's a fair statement. However, for $150, a tourist in New York can circle the Statue of Liberty, gaze down on the adjacent USS Intrepid and the Concorde, and experience the magnitude of a city that is just 13 miles long and two miles wide—yet is home to more than 1.6 million people and has captured the imagination of the world for more than a century. Priceless.

Email the author at julie.walker@aopa.org.