Sightseeing Helicopter Tours Bounce Back To Disturb New Yorkers' Fragile Peace

Sep 23, 2020
In The News

Visitors to Central Park in recent weeks have had their peace repeatedly disturbed by extremely loud sightseeing helicopters hovering low over the park.

Among those aggravated by the chopper activity is Adrian Benepe, the former New York City Parks Commissioner under former Mayor (and helicopter pilot) Michael Bloomberg. On Sunday, Benepe said he noticed a number of helicopters hovering over Central Park's North Meadow by 100th Street where he was attempting to get some peace and quiet.

"It kind of destroys the whole ambiance of the park," said Benepe. "You're sitting in the park, there's helicopters hovering over you the whole time. I'm sensitive to the fact that you want your park to be a retreat from the noise, not a magnet for noise."

Benepe believes there's an uptick of helicopter activity over the park and parts of Manhattan, based on an app called Flight Radar 24, which tracks the number of flights taking off and heading for the city. 311 complaint data supports Benepe's assertion; the number of 311 complaints jumped 245% so far this year, with 5,194 complaints, compared to 1,504 reported from the same time a year ago. (A portion of the complaints, 726, were directed at the NYPD, which relied heavily on helicopters during the citywide protests against police brutality that began in late spring.)

"You can tell that there's a lot of flights now that are leaving from Newark Airport, and they're tourist flights, because they fly across New Jersey up the Hudson River, and then they cut across Manhattan, roughly 96th Street and they hover right over the middle of Central Park so people could take pictures," said Benepe. "And then they kind of circle out over Midtown and then go down, over like SoHo in the village. And then they fly back to Newark. Sometimes it's Elizabeth [Airport]."

Benepe noticed that in some cases, helicopters are flying just around 1,000 feet, according to the radar tracker he's using.

Sightseeing helicopter companies didn’t always originate their flights out of New Jersey. After the city imposed major restrictions on tourist helicopter companies in 2016, sightseeing helicopter companies shifted their points of departure from helipads in NYC to New Jersey, enabling them to exploit a loophole and flout NYC restrictions, which sought to cut the number of daily tourist flights in half and prohibit companies from flying over Governors Island.

The FAA has ignored the city's requests to limit the number of tourist helicopter flights over New York City.

After five people died in a sightseeing helicopter crash in the East River in 2018, Representatives Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney proposed legislation that would ban non-essential flights around New York City. Since 1983, there have been 30 helicopter crashes in NYC, resulting in at least 25 deaths, said Maloney, citing data from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The company involved in the East River crash, FlyNYON--which allowed guests to dangle their legs in mid-air so long as they were strapped to a harness--continues operations, though it's banned dogs from its "doors off" flights. Sightseeing helicopter companies are now required to follow new pandemic guidelines, ensuring guests wear masks and the helicopters are properly sanitized.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a Manhattan writer who’s pushed for even greater regulations of sightseeing helicopter tours, noticed the uptick during Labor Day weekend, writing an Op-Ed for Gotham Gazette declaring the company's aged equipment is too dangerous.

"To many New Yorkers below, however, FlyNYON helicopters sound worryingly dangerous. They’re all old—they average 30 years—and loud. They rattle ominously as pilots maintain them at slow speeds hovering over residential neighborhoods and Central Park, then flying down the East River before heading back over Manhattan, especially Chelsea and Ground Zero, right before they hit the tourist trifecta of the Brooklyn waterfront, Brooklyn Heights, and Governors Island," wrote Vitullo-Martin. "Helis head back to New Jersey by crossing the Hudson to Newark (some to Teterboro) or flying down to Staten Island and over to Kearny. The point is to keep tourists as close to the ground as possible, regardless of noise and pollution."

The company did not return emails seeking comment.