New panel to be charged with finding solutions to helicopter noise

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo Passengers disembark from a Blue Hawaiian helicopter at the Hilo International Airport.
  • STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald Sharon Lee of Ainaloa, right, wears a sign that says “Copter noise makes us sick!” during a public meeting Tuesday to discuss noise from commercial helicopter flights.

A new roundtable committee will seek solutions to noise caused by commercial helicopters.

The announcement was made Tuesday during a public information meeting at Nani Mau Gardens. The meeting was hosted by the state Department of Transportation Airports Division to discuss commercial helicopter flights over residential areas.

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Facilitator Dawn Chang told the crowd the purpose of the meeting was to form a roundtable committee with two representatives each from the DOT, Federal Aviation Administration, Hawaii Helicopters Association and the community, who will consider comments made not only Tuesday, but also those submitted before and after the meeting to “find a path forward.”

The intention is to “facilitate some solution” or identify issues that can move toward solutions, she said.

Local leaders, pilots and community members filled the tables and lined the walls of the meeting space. More than 40 people signed up to comment and much of the two-hour meeting was devoted to hearing their concerns.

Many spoke about incessant noise brought by commercial helicopter flights over their homes and the impacts that noise has on their lives. Some even spoke about the impact to wildlife. They urged changes in flight patterns, for operators to fly over the ocean. Some comments were met with raucous applause and shouts of agreement from the audience.

Sharon Lee of Ainaloa used part of her time to play a recording of helicopter noise.

“Sound familiar?” she asked the crowd, which responded with applause.

“All day, every day, 365 days a year. Year after year after year, you call,” she said. “You call people. You go to meetings, you complain, you beg, you cry, you threaten suicide, you threaten to shoot a gun at them … You’re done in. You go to the doctor, you go try to get some medication or you try to self-medicate. You can no longer garden. You can no longer have a conversation. Your windows rattle all the time and they don’t care.”

Many people had to leave their homes because of noise, said Lee, who wore a yellow sign around her neck that read “Copter noise makes us sick!”

She told the Tribune-Herald previously that flights over her home only ended with the start of the Kilauea volcano eruption in Leilani Estates at the beginning of May.

“I’m glad there are kindred spirits because I think we need to pressure the Helicopter Association, the FAA, the Department of Transportation to really do the right thing and do it soon because people suffer. It’s really a health concern,” she said after the meeting.

As for the proposed committee, Lee said similar efforts were tried before but “no mitigation has been forthcoming.” But she’s hopeful.

“I have low expectations, but if something good comes out of it, I’ll be really pleasantly surprised,” Lee said.

Leilani Estates resident Andy Andrews said helicopter noise has only been a “horrific issue” since eruption activity began in the subdivision. From his perspective, “it was tolerable prior to that.”

“For weeks, my wife and I would lie in bed at night, terrified. We didn’t know if we were going to lose our home,” he told the crowd. “We knew that hundreds of our friends and neighbors had lost their homes. We knew that Fissure 8 was roaring so loudly and the sky was red. We knew our life was changed, maybe forever, and then the sun would come up and we would be so happy. Then the helicopters would start. All day. Four and five and six at a time.”

Their life has been rattled by Fissure 8, changed by lava and threatened by sulfur dioxide levels, but it has been “changed irrevocably” by the helicopter noise, he said.

“I don’t know what the solution is, but I know what is going on right now is absolutely untenable, unfair, unkind and borderline immoral,” Andrews said.

For Andrews, the idea of the roundtable committee is “like asking the fox to guard the hen house. It’s the fact that there will be six representatives with a vested interest in (the) status quo,” he said after the meeting.

Mayor Harry Kim also addressed the group and urged action.

“The anger is real, their lifestyle has been infringed upon, they know it’s getting worse and we ask of you, please help them out,” he said.

Dennis Roberts, regional administrator for the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region, said after the meeting that the community has 30 days to provide additional feedback and come together with regard to representation on the committee.

Roberts said it’s “a whole team that really needs to bring it all together, but we certainly take every one of these comments very seriously … We certainly heard the entire group today and I understand their concerns. … That’s why we’ve asked the state to participate on this. We can’t promote aviation. We can’t promote tourism. We can’t be involved in any of those types of financial aspects of this, but it’s really the state’s responsibility to work and balance those needs between the community needs and issues and tourism.”

But it’s more than just establishing a process or committee, he said.

“There have to be results and it’s something we will monitor very closely,” Roberts said. “We want to make it results-driven. It has to result in something positive that the community can agree upon, the operators can agree upon, the state can agree upon and we find — that whatever the recommendations are — that they meet the safety standards. That’s our role.”

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Ross Higashi, deputy director of the DOT Airports Division, said it was the department’s responsibility to facilitate the meeting. Higashi was not surprised by comments made during the meeting, but turnout was “a little bit more than we expected, but it’s great. It’s a good turnout and we tried to hear as many community members as possible.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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